Thursday, January 31, 2013

King Lear Weather

It's the end of January, not the month known for going out (coming in?) like a lion. But this year it's doing just that. Wild wind, rough rain, flash flooding.

King Lear weather.

"Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drenched our steeples..."

We are not the first to see weather as sign of a disordered world.

But this time, maybe we're right.

(Not this steeple! It's in Annapolis.)


Wednesday, January 30, 2013

A Study in Brown

I saw them yesterday as I left work, a flock of sparrows taking in the air, sunning themselves in the hedge at the end of the alley.

They looked so much like a painting that I had to stop, snap a picture — and appreciate the respectful distances they kept from each other, the way they blended in with their surroundings, a study in brown.

It was the sort of day when everyone was outside who could be.

And that included sparrows, of course.


Tuesday, January 29, 2013

View from the Tramp

I used to think of trampoline bouncing as a warm weather activity, something best done barefoot in summer. But this year (maybe because it's been warm, maybe because I have a greater need to move to music), I've been doing it all fall and winter, too.

Last week I ventured out in the snow. It was a light dusting, and the stuff was powdery enough to sift right through the pad onto the ground. Yesterday I bounced after the sleet had stopped and the day had cleared.

If I bounce long enough, the backyard starts to look pretty good: the brush no longer needs chipping;  the trees no longer need trimming. They are shaggy friends now, these trees, with long, spindly arms that touch the sky.

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Monday, January 28, 2013

Winter Shadows

It's lighter longer, but the sun still slouches low in the sky these January afternoons. So before it's too late, I shoot winter shadows.

The posts, lattice work and vines make a delicate tracery on the siding. A monochrome reflection of an already color-stripped world.

Even the errant string of Christmas lights that dangles, unkempt, from the crossbeam looks elegant in reverse.

When the wind blows, the shadows wag in the fading light.


Saturday, January 26, 2013

Wild Things

Cold air and snow drive the wild things closer to civilization. A bluejay perches on the rim of a wrought iron chair, pecks at the peeling paint, fluffs his feathers — his broad back to the window, a flick of his beak then he's gone.

Minutes later, a fox trots across the yard, sleek, rangy, in no hurry as he makes his way to the woods. Searching for food, for small animals driven out of hiding.

And yesterday, on the way to the post office, I saw three vultures tearing at a dead deer beside the road. 

We may mulch our gardens, mow our lawns and prune our trees. But the animals know we are just visitors here.


Friday, January 25, 2013

Words from One World

After six months of phone conversations only I received my first real email communication from Suzanne this morning.

"I'm writing to you from the bustling metropolis of Kandi," she began. And it must seem like a bustling metropolis to her, living in a village without electricity and running water. On the other hand, she intended irony. After all, she's a child of the suburbs, grew up in the shadow of our nation's capital, can maneuver a van around the Beltway at rush hour if need be.

Now, she travels on foot, bike, moto or bush taxi.

Seeing her message makes me want to drop everything, hop a jet to Cotonou and bush-taxi myself right up north to Kandi.

I won't, of course. Not yet, anyway. This is her world now. I write about it only to remark on how the written word brings her new life to us in such a special, immediate way. Words winging their way from one world to another with the stroke of a key.

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Thursday, January 24, 2013


After several futile forecasts yielding nothing, we woke up this morning to a white world. Not quite an inch yet but it's still falling and roads are cold enough that every flake is sticking.

Maybe weather-watchers knew this snow was on the way, but I didn't, so I felt like a kid this morning when I glanced outside, saw the white coating on the deck, the flurries in the air. For just a minute I felt that leap in the heart: No school today! No school!

And then I remembered: I don't go to school anymore. I go to work. And yes, we are having work today.

(We didn't receive quite this much! This is an old photo...)


Wednesday, January 23, 2013


No masks yet; we haven't come to that. But I flinch from my Metro seatmate, who hacks his way through the long ride in from Vienna. And I touch as little as possible, pressing a glove, or a sleeve or a paper towel into duty.

At church they announced a temporary hiatus of the common cup (a bizarre tradition anyway; other faiths, with their individual thimbles of wine, are more rational about this) and asked us to respect those who choose not to shake hands during the sign of peace.

In my pew no one shook hands. Was everyone sick? Did everyone think I was sick? Or was this the excuse we've all been waiting for? A retreat into private prayer.

Cold and flu season makes one thing clear: non-communication is contagious. 

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Tuesday, January 22, 2013

At Random

We seem to live in a world based more and more on choice — what we read, hear, taste and see is preset to our likes and dislikes. News online instead of from a newspaper. Music from an iPod instead of a radio.

I thought of this on a recent long drive when I had only the radio for company. Suddenly I wasn't in charge. The airwaves were. Depending upon the angle of my antenna and the pitch of the road I could be listening to a Chopin Nocturne or a local sports call-in show. Sometimes I was listening to both at once!

But the airwaves were kind to me that day. It was morning in the mountains of Kentucky when I heard Brahms' Second Symphony and afternoon in the mountains of West Virginia when I heard Brahms' First.

There they were — and not because I had bought and stored them in an mp3 file. (I already have them, in fact.) They were gifts from thin air, music at random — and all the sweeter because of it.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Inauguration Day

Lately at lunch I've taken to walking around the Capitol. It's only a few minutes from my office and I can stroll around it in 20 minutes or so, perfect if I don't have much time.

The place has no bad angles. It's grand and imposing no matter how it is viewed. The dome (finished 150 years ago; its completion of great importance to President Lincoln, a metaphor for uniting the divided country) is at its best against a blue sky. But even on cloudy winter days the building has its charms.

In the last two months I've watched as the West Front platform has been built, the fences have gone up and the chairs been arranged. The people's place? Not exactly.

I'll be glad when the inauguration is behind us and ordinary citizens can walk around the Capitol again.


Saturday, January 19, 2013

Spring on the Wing?

It's one of the colder mornings of the year, but the birds don't seem to notice. They're rustling about in the azalea bushes, flitting from branch to branch of the denuded oaks.

They harken to some older signal, some lengthening of the day, some freshening of the wind.

They seem to think it's spring, or at least the beginning of it.

Who am I to disagree?

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Friday, January 18, 2013

No Snow

Because the real thing continues to elude us. Because we are either too far south, too far east or (this time) too far north. (Hard to wrap my head around that one.)

Because the last time we had two inches of snow was almost two years ago, here is a picture of what it was like in the old days.

We have more than virtual snow, however. We have that acrid taste in the air when snow is near. And we have the cold air behind the front. Cold air that pushed the clouds away and gave us back the sun.

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Thursday, January 17, 2013


If days were colors, Thursday would be yellow. The bright spot at the end of the week. Not yet Friday, but all the better — Friday still to come.

By Thursday, work is effortless. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday are just practice. Thursday is the real thing.

By Thursday, the week is almost over, but there is still room for improvement.

By Thursday, caution is not recommended. It's a full-stop operation. Do or die.

Is there some ancient prejudice that inclines me toward this day. Or something in my own history? A favorite class? A special route? A piano lesson? 

Or is it just that I'd rather anticipate anticipation?


Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Trees, Unmasked

In summer they are backdrop. Essential, green, the air we breathe.

In winter they drop all pretense. They are not smooth and uncomplicated. They are gnarled and uneven.

Here is what lies beneath the leaf, the flower. Here is what they really are.

Give them a gray sky, a brisk wind. They can handle it.


Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Gradual Ascent

The road from Kentucky to Virginia (or from Virginia to Kentucky, for that matter) is by no means  flat. It crosses a major mountain range, of course, so you don't choose whether to drive through mountains, only how you will do it.

For much of the route the altitude shifts are buffered by the grade restrictions of the U.S. interstate system. In other words, nothing too extreme. If your car is powerful enough and you're in a hurry, you may not realize how high you're climbing.

This got me thinking about the gradual ascent, the steady accretion of duties, the daily growth of a child that's invisible to you until she sees distant relatives who say, "How much you've grown!"

So much happens to us slowly, invisibly, without our permission. It's probably better that way.


Monday, January 14, 2013

New Normal

I noticed these green shoots more than a week ago. They may have peeked through in late December. The ground has been easy to peek through, after all. A few cold blustery days but warmer than usual for the most part.

Yesterday was mild and foggy, today more of the same. Meanwhile, in other parts of the state, temperatures rose into the 70s this weekend.

The heather is blooming, soon the witch hazel will, too. And from the looks of it, the daffodils will be early this year.

It's not so much early spring as lack of winter. It's the new normal.

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Saturday, January 12, 2013

Notes on a Napkin

It's a bad habit, I know, this tendency to scribble on whatever is at hand. Usually, it works. The scraps discovered, assembled, copied. The ideas, such as they are, saved.

But today I'm bereft. The napkin I used on the long trek through the mountains Monday, all the ideas I had while driving, gone.

There's one more place I can look, one more dark corner. I dig and search and ... success. Found it.

I unfold the napkin, examine the squiggles. Yes, there are ideas on this napkin. Two of them I've already used in posts. The others, hmmm — they're not as brilliant as they first appeared.

Next time I'll keep my eyes on the road.

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Friday, January 11, 2013

Oscar Season

It's Oscar Season! Nominees were announced yesterday, and I've seen four of the films nominated for Best Picture. That's better than usual. Most years I would have seen none by this date.

In the old days, of course, seeing four would mean I'd almost seen them all. But this year, with nine pictures up for the top spot, I have five more to go. Or maybe not. This year proxy viewing is allowed, and a trusted assistant is doing some of the "work" for me. ("I don't think you'd like 'Django,' Mom," my daughter says. "Too violent.")

So that leaves four: Two films that only start today and I'd planned to see anyway, and two "about animals" (I know there's more to them than that) that I might palm off to my trusted assistant. And this is not even including the Best Actor/Actress performances.

What can I say ... most of the time, reality is enough for me. But not during Oscar Season.


Thursday, January 10, 2013

Pink Smoke and Purple Clouds

A funny thing happened on the way to work today. Same thing yesterday and the day before. I blame it on my phone, which is also my camera.

No longer do I stride quickly from Metro to office, car to train. Now I stop, look, snap. 

What would before have been preserved only in my mind is suddenly ripe for the taking. A wisp of smoke tinged pink by the rising sun. A bank of clouds moving in from the west.

Pictures are everywhere. Now I have a chance to take them.

I may never be on time again.

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Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Chemistry of Cooking

My visit to Kentucky entailed more cooking than I usually do. It made me realize how far I've slipped in the culinary arts. Take mashed potatoes, retrograde food that they are. If you're making Swiss steak for someone who's been longing for it then you must also whip up some potatoes.

Here's what you must not do. You must not boil the potatoes until they're a watery mush. You must not let them sit in the starchy water while you finish an email, read another chapter, watch the end of a TV show. You must not mash the potatoes all cold and slimy. They should be warm and well drained.

If they're not mashed properly (until grainy) then the milk does not make them fluffy, it turns the whole mess into something resembling wallpaper paste. Lumpy, gelatinous and too white. It's all a matter of chemistry, I guess.

Funny thing about those potatoes, though. People were hungry enough that they gobbled them down. Chemistry is important, yes. But so is appetite.

(Mine did not look like this. Photo: Wikipedia)


Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Drive-Through Winter

The season has been mild for us, so I'm glad I took the mountainous route home yesterday. The road winds from Intestate 79 to Interstate 81 on two-lane roads with drop-dead views.

The drop-dead part is not entirely metaphorical. Guardrails are few, elevations are high, descents are steep. Some of the hairpin turns make your stomach drop, especially heading east, when you're on the one-foot-more-and-I'd-be-over-the-edge side.

My heart was pounding extra hard about this route yesterday, because the road was still sloppy and gritty from a nighttime dusting. I almost turned around, but am so glad I didn't.

New snow had whitened each branch of each tree, freshened the ground cover, softened all but the craggiest mountain peaks. For miles I drove through tunnels of white under a blue, blue sky. And then, I crossed some divide, descended to some height and the snow was gone.

It was winter without the work. Drive-Through Winter.

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Sunday, January 6, 2013


Today is the Feast of the Epiphany, the traditional end of the Christmas season and the point at which I begin to be faintly restless that our tree is still up.

But no matter, because today is about something bigger. Revelation, the ah-hah moment — sudden clarity.  Indecisive by nature (even my zodiac sign is Gemini, the twins), I find few moments of clarity in life. So I value them more.

Today I learned we have James Joyce to thank for this definition of "epiphany." This morning's "Writer's Almanac" tells us that Joyce "used the word to mean the 'revelation of the whatness of a thing,'  the moment when 'the soul of the commonest object [...] seems to us radiant.'"

The soul of the commonest object radiant. Something to think about today.


Saturday, January 5, 2013

Thoroughbred Park

I worry about my hometown, worry that it has lost itself. Known for horses and horse farms, it has allowed some to be enveloped or developed — one into a mega shopping center. Meanwhile, it erects shrines to the thoroughbred.

Like so many places, it may not know what it has, what if offers, just as itself. No need to market or develop. Just leave alone.

How many other places, small hometowns across the country, need the same?

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Friday, January 4, 2013

Double Vision

To walk the streets of my hometown is to see not just what is but what used to be. Vacant storefronts, open blocks, streets moved and one-wayed and changed beyond recognition. They are overlaid with the bustle of the past, with people and places no longer here.

It's double vision, a condition only open to natives. Here, and here only, I have special powers.

That street, it used to end at the field. I remember when it was cut through. That corner, it was the epicenter of downtown. A dog hung out there, Smiley Pete. He was mean but everyone loved him. When he died, the city put up a plaque to honor him.

Now, even the plaque is gone.

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Thursday, January 3, 2013


The usual ones are out for me this year (exercise! don't worry so much! get organized!). In their place a more subtle yearning: to be centered.

Is this a resolution or a mantra? Can those be one and the same?

A new year, a blank slate we can write on with our actions and our choices. Probing this new year tenderly still, getting a feel for it.  The cartilage still soft and bendable. Intentions still pliable.

Here we are in the cold, hard winter — with the new year all soft and malleable around us.


Wednesday, January 2, 2013


For the last few years it's been postponed, softened. New Year's Day has landed on a Saturday or Sunday so we've had a day or two to cushion the blow, the return to work or school.

This year, no such luck. We're out of holidays. The vast tundra that is January stretches before us — not just 30 days but 31.

If the holidays have been good, restful, this is tolerable.

Wishing all of us a tolerable January.

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Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Happy 2013!

In our neck of the woods the new year starts off with good news. A football championship, the lowest murder rate in years and a last-minute agreement to avert the fiscal cliff.

More to the point for a walker: No snow or ice on the ground and a lighter, balmier feel to the air this morning.

Before I amble out the door, a look back at the blog: 308 posts on everything from autumn to Africa to the retirement of my late, great flip phone. (Every year my family composes a funny "out" and "in" list — a shameless rip-off of a Washington Post "Style Section" tradition — and one of the 2012 items is "OUT: The flip phone Mom never answers" and "IN: The smartphone Mom never answers.")

 Which is to say that some things never change. Not exactly what one wants to be reminded of on this day of resolutions (more on those later). But worth a thought or two just the same.

Happy 2013!


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