Thursday, February 28, 2013

Squeaky Stairs

The house is usually silent when I wake, walk downstairs, fire up the computer and write my post. So it's important to be quiet.

Those squeaky stairs, for instance, how to avoid them? The girls had this down pat. Because it was to their advantage to ascend and descend without sound or detection, they memorized which steps were noisy and which were not. Even the two daughters who no longer live here, I bet they could tell you exactly which steps to avoid. And the one who's still here, well, it goes without saying.

So why is it then that every morning I put my foot —not in — but on it?  It's not from lack of knowledge or sensitivity or caring. Perhaps a stubborn fondness for transparency?

Once again, then, I vow to count the stairs, to remember which ones squeak and which ones don't, to move silently through the house.

(Not our stairs — I wish they were.)


Wednesday, February 27, 2013


The witch hazel has been poised like this for weeks. Half in autumn, half in spring. Some of the branches blooming, others not.

A true gardener might look at the tree and say, uh oh, it was nipped by frost — or it's developed [add scary tree disease here] — or the big storm last June was hard on it, and that explains this holding back, this pause.

But I look at the witch hazel and see human nature. How easy it is to embrace the new,  how difficult to forget the old.

I look at it and see indecision.

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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Little Jewels

We're getting rain today, at least an inch they say. I'll be downtown, as sheets of water pelt the alley, blur the view of First Street, dampen my lunchtime walk.

But out here in the suburbs, the rain will be seeping into dry soil, moistening gardens already growing, including the pesky wild onions, which have been sprouting earlier than usual.

If we're lucky, the drops will glisten on pine boughs, hang out there longer than seems possible or probable. Little jewels — they're hard to photograph. I'll keep trying.


Monday, February 25, 2013


Some walks stay in mind only as long as my feet pound the pavement; they vanish as soon as I walk in the door. Others are unforgettable.

It was winter and the moon was rising.  The city was spread out as it always is, midtown to the left, lower Manhattan to the right, New York Harbor at our feet, the ferries and tugs like insects skimming water. The day was ending and the great city was dressing for dinner.

In those days the Brooklyn Bridge talked back to walkers, as cars drove across the metal grid of the roadway below, and being out there in the middle was truly to be suspended — not on earth at all but flying above it with towers of stone and cables of steel and something else that can’t be named or explained.

Later that year I stood with thousands as music blared and fireworks exploded to celebrate the span’s 100th birthday. And in the years since I’ve often strolled from Manhattan to Brooklyn. But when I think of the bridge, it’s that walk I remember most — the gathering darkness, the sighing of tires on steel, the real world falling away.


Saturday, February 23, 2013

"56 Up"

Yesterday's post was a warmup. One of the best reasons to like 7x7 is the "Up" film series. It begins in 1964, a documentary about 14 seven-year-olds in Britain. "Show me a child of seven," the announcer intones, "and I'll show you the man." (Yes, "man" not "person." This was 1964, after all.) Every seven years since then, the director Michael Apted has made a film.

Forty-nine years later, all of the 14 are alive and only one chose not to participate. A man who had dropped out of the series after "28" returned this time, in part to publicize his band. The "kids" have grown up, gone to university (or not), taken jobs, married, had children and grandchildren, moved, divorced, grieved over lost parents, prospered, gone on disability, wandered and arrived.

In honor of Oscar weekend, a mini-review: This is the best of the series (apart from the first), I think, and that may have nothing to do with film making and everything to do with the age, 56. Maybe it's just a happy accident, but most of these folks have a good attitude about living and aging, about learning from their mistakes. What else can you do but go on, they say. And there's not just resignation in their voices but happy expectation. Even Neil, who is homeless and suffering from some sort of mental illness or mood disorder earlier in the series, seems to have righted himself, is on the town council of the little village where he lives and also a deacon in his church.

What's the best thing in life, he was asked. Friends, he said. Talking with them, walking with them. What this film doesn't tell you (but an earlier one does) is that other people in the series came to Neil's aid when he was homeless. Bruce took him in, gave him a home;  others helped, too. There are so many lovely stories-within-a-story in this series. And seeing the people age is not depressing. Their expressions stay the same, their smiles, too. And their attitudes improve.

I saw the film with a good friend, and as we left the theater a woman overheard us talking and joined our conversation. She was 56 too, she said, and the film affected her deeply. We talked like we'd known her forever, and then we parted. "I'm going home to change my life," she said. 

Seven times eight. "56 Up." It was that kind of film.


Friday, February 22, 2013

Seven Times Seven

It's not nice to play favorites, but I'll admit: I 've always had a favorite multiplication table. Hands down, it's seven.

Twos, fours, fives and tens — too easy. Three is melodic ("Three, six, nine, the goose drank wine...") but lacking in substance. Six and eight are uninteresting. And nine has always given me trouble.

So that leaves seven. What is it about seven times seven that soothes and satisfies, that clicks? Maybe it's the spiritual aspect, the way the number shows up in fairy tales and fables and the Bible. Seven years, seven leagues, seven sacraments.

Or maybe the symmetry, like the precise paths of a formal garden. Making order out of chaos. Seven is odd but beautiful. Prime and primal.

But all of this doesn't explain a prejudice that developed in, what, third grade? For some reason I took to sevens and they took to me. And that's the way it is.

I began this post to write about the movie "56 Up," but I'll save that for another day.


Thursday, February 21, 2013

Green Plants Shining

To read the newspapers you might think the main topic here in our nation's capital is the sequester, but for me it's the light.

The morning light that arrives ever earlier, putting me to shame (I should have gotten going earlier, I should be arriving at work in total darkness).

The morning light that sets the birds to trilling a special greeting at the Vienna Station. Their song sounds like something I remember from long ago.

The morning light that will later spill through my office window (much in need of cleaning), set the green plants to shining, and when the angle is right, make rainbows on the wall.


Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Maps of Clouds

Yesterday's walk began in drizzle, which I cursed silently. Not that I mind it, but my hair does. But I walked anyway, and as I did, the sky began to clear and the clouds piled up in the west and made maps of themselves, great illuminated maps. There was Cuba, or maybe some Micronesian island, and beyond it, some southern coast. And the yellow-pink light kept growing, even though the light rain kept falling. By then I had given up on my hair and just marveled that the sky could be so bright and still have rain in it.

It wasn't until I reached the far end of our neighborhood that the rain finally stopped, and by then the clouds were on fire, so I extended my stroll along the busy road, which offers prime sunset viewing — all the while keeping those clouds, those pink and yellow clouds, in my sight.

As the cars drove past I thought how few of those drivers (often I'm one of them) could look — or see — the beauty raging around them. The poverties we are given, how they enrich us; and the riches, how they impoverish. This is certainly not a new thought, but an intensely felt one there in the just-past-rainy gloaming of an otherwise dreary day.

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Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Commuting in the Dark

The Washington Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs the Metro, is well known for single-tracking, off-loading and other commuting horrors. It's often not given credit for the tens of thousands of folks that it safely transports to and fro every day.

True, it is difficult to understand why it takes two years to repair an escalator, but I imagine there are the usual bureaucratic hurdles to surmount. All this is to say that I hesitate to complain about an "improvement" — but now I'm going to do exactly that.

One thing WMTA does right, at least in my opinion, is it keeps the lights low. When your fleet is aging and your platforms have seen better days, that's a wise move. But if my stop is any indication, that's ending. Bright lights now illuminate the top tier of the station. That which was hidden is now revealed. And it's not a pretty sight.

All those dim platforms and stairways, which gave commuting the blurriness that made it bearable, may be going away. Sunglasses on Metro? That may be next.


Monday, February 18, 2013

Nothing Personal

This happens quite often, especially as the days lengthen and the air warms.

I'll walk outside first thing in the morning (on days when I don't leave before dawn), and I'm greeted with a great flapping and scampering. It's the robins and jays flying away as the door squeaks open, and the squirrels scampering up the tree as I head past them to the mailbox.

But the overall effect is one of breaking up a party. It's like entering the room of a teenager or joining a conversation that suddenly stops as you come near. The birds and small mammals have obviously been up to something they don't want me to share. And that's okay. I understand, really I do!

All of this is to say that wild things have their own world, their own hearts and habits. It's comforting to know that I don't belong; it's comforting to know it's nothing personal.


Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Trips of Others

Word comes this morning of a brother's travel plans. Electronic word.

This is the way the world works now. You forward itineraries, e-mail arrival and departure times. It's easy to do and helps with logistics.

Sometimes when planning my own trips, I become anxious, apprehensive. Can I make that connection? Should I stay in that hotel? Can I afford this trip? (The answers, if I'm being truthful with myself, are no, no and no.)

There are none of these problems with the trips of others. One can savor a place from afar. This is the day they land in Dublin and from there they'll drive to the Wicklow hills. Will it be raining? Will it be cold? It doesn't matter!

It's a good time to be an armchair traveler.

(This photo is from real, not virtual, travel.)


Friday, February 15, 2013

Empty Shelves

I walked into our local bookstore a few days ago to find an empty space where most of the books used to be. Shelving stacked in corners. A few sections still intact, history, business, religion. But fiction? Gone. Children's books? Decimated.

The bookstore in Union Station, my go-to place from the office, that one is closing, too.

It's enough to make a print person crazy! I know the codex is doomed. I know that three-year-olds have kindles.  I know that libraries have become "media centers."

But can't we take this a little more slowly? Aren't these transformations supposed to take generations?

I guess even change is changing.


Thursday, February 14, 2013

A Day for Love

Woke up this morning thinking about love, all types of love, romantic and filial and maternal. Of the love of friends and the respect of colleagues. Of the love we're supposed to show the stranger but (at least I) so often do not.

I thought about how hard it can be to love, and how easy.

And then I thought about having a day that celebrates love. Without expectation of belief or  patriotism. Surely unique among the holidays.

Just a day for love — and the expression of it.

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Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Forty Days

Pretend that you're on a space station, I read this morning in the little book of Lenten devotionals that I picked up, for a dollar, at church. There your existence would be limited — no walks around the neighborhood or spur-of-the-moment drives downtown; and the food, nothing to write home about.

But your vision, your perspective, would be broad. The earth from space, the blue marble.

A funny image, but the more I've pondered it the more it has grown on me. Limiting some parts of life so that others might shine through.

Especially the quiet, contemplative parts, those that thrive without distractions. Time alone to think, to put things in perspective.

Forty days of that? Bring it on!

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Tuesday, February 12, 2013

"If this is coffee..."

In honor of our 16th president and his February 12 birthday, a quotation. Not from the Gettysburg Address or the Second Inaugural. In fact, no one is sure exactly where it came from, or even completely confident that he said it. Though it has always been attributed to him, it is not an especially well sourced remark.

But still, it is funny and practical and about real life. A break from the ponderous union-preserving tasks with which he was shouldered. A witty aside the man might have tossed out into the world without expecting it to go very far.

"If this is coffee," he said, "please bring me some tea. But if this is tea, please bring me some coffee."

So much for uniting the North and the South, those who sought to preserve the Union and those who clamored to divide it.

With one sentence this man could bring together  — with humor — those who love coffee and those who love tea.

Now that's saying something...

The Lincoln Cottage in northwest D.C., the president's summer home, where he undoubtedly had a cup of coffee ... or maybe it was tea.

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Monday, February 11, 2013


This morning a choice: Turn left or right out of the park-and-ride lot on my way home to write.

Turn left and I wait twice. Turn right and I drive farther —but without stopping.

I turned right.

It's about movement. Flow.

It's about that in so many ways.

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Saturday, February 9, 2013


It looks like an interloper in the garden, a volunteer tree that decided to grow there overnight. But it's actually a branch impaled by the wind — just about the only evidence we have of the storm that's ravaging our neighbors to the north.

Apparently, folks in Boston are getting as much snow per hour as we've gotten all winter. That would be two inches.

This makes it official. No complaints about winter this year. They're not allowed.

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Friday, February 8, 2013

Black and White

My walks around the city are a study in black in white. The white is from the buildings, their facades of marble, limestone and granite.

The black is from the coats. Long, short, open, closed. But black, almost always black. The puffy parkas of the seriously cold. The long topcoats of the multitasking and self-important (a lot of those around here). The dark suit jackets of those impervious to the chill.

Put them all together — the Hill types striding across the Capitol plaza; the office-worker at lunch — and you have a ballet, a choreography, a study in contrasts.

D.C. gets color from its tourists. But it gets its subtlety and its heft and its monochromatic harmony from its denizens.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Three Years and Thankful

I began this blog three years ago, not sure how often I would post or for how long. It would be an exercise, I told myself, "a slow, patient accumulation of words," a daily discipline. Maybe people would read it, maybe they wouldn't. But if I kept at it long enough, I told myself, I would have a body of work.

Don't know if there's quite a body yet. Maybe the beginnings of one.

What I do know is that somehow, every day but Sunday (or Saturday!), the blank screen is filled. Even on the hardest days, the words come. Some days they rush in as quickly as I can get them down. Other days I spend way more time than I'd like with fingers poised above the keys.

But eventually the muse speaks — and I listen.

Today I pause to thank that muse — and to thank all of you who visit, read and cheer me on. Your encouragement means more than you know.


Wednesday, February 6, 2013


The lunchtime walk is timed, by necessity. No more than an hour, often less. Bracketed by desk work, it is more of a bolt than a saunter.

Down First to New Jersey, over and around the Capitol.

Or maybe down the Mall, to the Washington Monument and back.

Errands might take me up Massachusetts or along E Street to Penn Quarter, the bustle of Chinatown.

Sometimes just to the Botanical Gardens to smell the roses.

In the end, it doesn't matter. Each route stitches me more securely to this place.

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Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Grand Central Centennial

Saturday marked not only the 127th Groundhog Day celebration in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, but also the 100th birthday of Grand Central Station. It was the second train station on that site, and it opened on Sunday, February 2, 1913. More than 150,000 people visited the first day.

For me, for years, Grand Central was the place I passed through on the way to work. My office was in the Helmsley Building, an ornate wedding cake of a structure that straddles Park Avenue north of the station.

Grand Central was where we grabbed a newspaper and a bagel before starting our day at the oh-so-civilized hour of 9:30 a.m. It was where we went out to lunch for a splurge on our assistant editor salaries. It was where we met people for drinks or dinner. It was even sometimes where we caught the train.

Most of all it was — and still is — a grand public space. One of the grandest. And its currency is not stone or steel but motion. Of trains, of people. 

To stand at the clock in the middle of Grand Central is to be caught up in a great whirl of activity — but somehow to feel the stillness within the movement.

(Not Grand Central, but something of its scale...)

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Monday, February 4, 2013


We've had more than our usual share of flurries this winter. Snow without purpose, not driven, not sticking much, just dancing in the air.

One minute the day lightens, the next it grays, and then ... it's white out (though not whiteout).

This is snow-globe snow, decorative, ornamental, does not mean business. It could be lint from an errant dryer. Or ash from a meddlesome volcano. Or bits of fluff from a cottonwood tree.

But no, it is snow. It melts on the tongue. It coats my hair when I walk through it, which I did yesterday.

Flurries are difficult to photograph. They are ephemeral. It is part of their charm.


Saturday, February 2, 2013

Is Poetry Dead?

This morning's Washington Post tipped me off to a literary kerfuffle that has recently been playing out in its pages and online. An op-ed by Alexandra Petri, "Is Poetry Dead?," has 375 comments and counting. I didn't read all of them — only enough to convince me that no, it is not!

Petri's piece seems to have been inspired by Richard Blanco's inaugural poem and the fact that Blanco "has overcome numerous obstacles, struggled against opposition both internal and external — in order to excel in poetry, a field that may very well be obsolete."

Petri raises valid points, criticizing not just poetry and poets, but a culture that has turned poetry from a romantic, individual act to a heavily workshopped, grant-driven endeavor.

But she certainly touched a nerve.

With rants and reasoning, 375 people took the time to defend the art form, many of them in posts that used the art form itself.

"Poetry turns darkness into light," wrote one.

Another quoted William Carlos Williams, from "Asphodel":

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.


Friday, February 1, 2013

Violets, Again

Violets are part of my emotional-horticultural heritage. My mother has always loved them and her mother, my namesake, always loved them, too. I have very few of my grandmother’s possessions, but I do have her violet-patterned cup and saucer set, and I treasure it.

In a way, the violet is a strange flower to claim. Many consider it a weed. It's mowed down as often as it's cultivated.

But even without the family tradition, I would like this flower. Maybe it’s the color combination, the vividness of the purple, the way it’s grounded by the green. Or maybe it’s the way it clusters with its own, as if waiting to be gathered into a bouquet. In the general boisterousness that is spring, the violet is shy and unassuming; it doesn't ask for much.

 For that reason, it's an easy flower to love.

(Happy Birthday, Mom!)


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