Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Still Day

The clouds have pulled a big curtain between us and the sun. For once I don't mind. It's cool and still for this time of year. Insects muted.

A distant truck downshifts as it maneuvers over the speed hump. I hear the clatter of plastic wheels across pavement as the little boys across the street play a summer game.

In the backyard birds dart and warble. They like these kind of days, too, everyone taking it easy.

I stop for a moment, catch my breath, see the big picture in the page proofs I'm reading, glimpse the forest beyond the trees.

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Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Sidewalks Gleaming

Wet pavement, steam rising — an urban phenomenon I'd forgotten until I started disembarking two stops early and walking a mile through the city some mornings. It's the ritual hosing of the sidewalk to start the day.

There is some pride of place here. The rest of the city can get by with grit and grime, but not our patch of pavement. It will be clean, rinsed by the waters of dawn, sun barely glinting above the horizon.

Some custodians, the polite ones, pause briefly to let pedestrians tiptoe through the puddles. Others dare you to cross.

Though a temporary annoyance, it's all for the best. It's a salutation, a baptism, a way to start the day.

(Pretend you can see the sidewalks in this picture.)


Monday, July 29, 2013

Place, Continued

I love it here. If this place was a boy or a girl, I would marry it. Maybe it'll be legal to marry places one day. And if so, then I will marry this one.
-- Meg Wolitzer, The Interestings

The Interestings begins at a summer camp, where a group of artistic kids meet, give themselves the (ironic) name "the interestings" and forge friendships that will last all their lives. It's a book that explores what it means to be talented and what it takes to build a happy life.

The line that grabbed me was spoken by a 15-year-old dancer about to be sent home from camp because of an eating disorder. She's a minor character, the second generation the reader gets to see at the camp, but her experience mirrors that of "the interestings."

The feeling she describes, an ecstatic connection with place, is probably as much about people as anything else. But haven't we all felt that way once or twice, coming upon a town or a vista or an old house in the country to which we feel an immediate attraction?

It's not always rational or easy to maintain, but it is real.


Saturday, July 27, 2013

Vacations Past

It's summer vacation season, and I'm remembering trips from the past. This photo is from the last big trip we all took together, four years ago now.

The scenery was magnificent. We drove down long valleys and past snow-topped mountains. We sampled once again from the riches of this continent, reminded ourselves how big the world is, how impossibly grand.

One of the times a family is most intensely a family is when all its members are crammed into a single vehicle. Sometimes too intensely a family. Which is why we haven't taken another family vacation since then.

But the scenery, and the memories, remain.


Friday, July 26, 2013

Air Test

Last night I slept with the windows open, so I woke up this morning thinking about the difference between air-conditioned coolness and bona fide coolness.

I prefer the bona fide, but why? Would I know the difference if I was blindfolded and led into two random, air-differentiated rooms.

I think yes! The former reminds me of walking into a deep freeze, artificial chill, wearing sweaters in the summer. The latter has more moisture in it and therefore more texture. Because it comes in from the outside, it is fragrant and humming with low-level insect buzz. I could tell the difference in a minute ... I think.

But this morning I don't have to. The windows are open, the air is cool and the blue skies shimmer with promise.


Thursday, July 25, 2013

Blue Ridge

We live an hour from the Blue Ridge, but there are places near here, places so near I can walk to them, that give me a tantalizing glimpse.

A smudged line in the distance. A bank of green in the foreground.

So pleasing to the eye, this mixture of green and blue, of meadow and mountain, of the up-close and the faraway.


Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Bouncing in the Dark

Given the amount of daylight hours we enjoy, it seems ridiculous that I would run out of time and have to bounce on the trampoline after dark. But that's exactly what's happening. Long days and late dinners mean I'm jumping at 9:30 p.m.

Truth be told, I'm growing to like this hour. The night is alive with katydids and crickets and frog sounds. Bats swoop from tree to tree. The to-do list that formulates itself automatically when I can see what needs to be done is mercifully out of mind in the darkness.

Instead, my eyes are drawn to the house, to the lamp light glowing gold, to the kitchen window that winks and blinks as the refrigerator door is open and closed, to the people moving in and out of view.

No longer in it, I now can see it whole and entire — my sanctuary and my nemesis.

I know it's late. I know I should go in. But I thumb through my playlists, find one more song — and keep bouncing.

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Tuesday, July 23, 2013


Yesterday I worked outside, editing articles in the heat and humidity, sitting still enough that birds and butterflies flitted by me, raising small eddies of air as they passed.

This little guy has been visiting us often. Lured by three feeders that were started early enough to get us on his (her?) gravy train. Or maybe "he" is actually "they," a pair.

In the last two weeks I've sat close enough to hummingbirds to hear their wings whir and their brave little cheeps, to see them dodge bees as they angle toward the feeder. I've watched them fly off, sated (at least for 10 minutes), to perch briefly on the dead limb of an otherwise living red oak.

They are so tiny I can barely see them there, a bump on a branch. But I squint my eyes to observe their rare pause. Otherwise, I've seen them only in motion, their improbably tiny bodies vibrating with the effort of staying aloft.  Like many members of the animal kingdom, they set a good example. They never stop.

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Monday, July 22, 2013


Sometimes when the wireless network is acting up and a website takes a long time to load, I remind myself how miraculous it all is. Here's a technology that lets me read words someone is typing thousands of miles away. Here's a technology that lets me do my work at home. Here's a technology that lets me see pictures snapped minutes earlier on another continent.

Usually this little pep talk doesn't work too well because I'm already miffed at the slow speed or the unreliability or whatever it is. I don't understand the technology but have come to rely on it. And I realize, with dismay, that a moment of aggravation is not the best time to recapture the awe. Better to wait until things are smoother, till the website is up and running again.

But guess what? When the website is up and running I'm back to being oblivious, to taking at face value that which may as well be angels dancing on the head of a pin. It's hard to appreciate things when they're going well. Much better (but supremely difficult) to appreciate them when they don't work at all.


Saturday, July 20, 2013

Mosquito Bait

The mosquitoes are hungry. Like the lightening bugs and cicadas, thrown off their normal cycles by a rainy June, they are making up for lost time. In the case of the lightening bugs and cicadas, we have mid-July evenings full of light and sound. But in the case of the mosquitoes we could have (if we let them) — no evenings out at all.

Two nights ago I emerged from dinner on the deck with at least half a dozen bites. Last night half as many more. Most sane people would grab their plate and place mat and head into the house. But how many evenings allow for al fresco dining at 8 p.m.? How many sultry skies with darting bats and a half moon rising between the trees?

So I spray repellant, light candles and give myself — and the mosquitoes — a chance to stay up late.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Happy Anniversary!

A year ago today I opened the Washington Post and saw in the pet adoption column not the usual picture of a cuddly kitten or perky puppy but the head shot of a parakeet. It was a close-up, since it fit  the same space that a larger critter would take.

What it revealed was a green parakeet (unlike our dear departed Hermes, who was eye-popping turquoise blue) with a noble profile and a look of intelligence about him. A parakeet who knew his good side. His name was Sid.

I called the Fairfax County Humane Society. "Is Sid still available?" I couldn't believe the "yes."  I thought people would be beating down the doors to adopt this little bird.

But they weren't.  And we did. And just for good measure we got Sid a lady friend — Dominique (our name, not theirs).

When Hermes was here the house was bird-centric to a fault. Sid and Dominique must roll with the punches. We do not read them a bedtime story. We do not talk to them night and day. But we love them and care for them and hang their cage from a hook in the kitchen where their feathers fall perilously close to the kitchen table. They're part of the family now.

I write these words to the sound of parakeets chirping. It's good to have birds again!

Photo: Claire Capehart


Thursday, July 18, 2013

Heat Wave

The monsoon season has led directly to the heat wave season. We did not pass "Go." We did not collect $200. It was a harsh transition.

But I don't mind. The heat warnings and Code Oranges roll right past me. It's the middle of July. It's supposed to be hot!

So I keep walking, keep eating dinner on the deck, keep bouncing on the trampoline (those last two in the evening, when it's "only" 90). I'm lucky. I work in an air-conditioned office, sleep in an air-conditioned house. I'm dabbling in summer.

Still, it's nice to have it here.  


Wednesday, July 17, 2013


A hard day yesterday, one of several. There was too much work and not enough time. There were the typical absurdities. But there were also revelations, shared laughter, plans for drinks after work. There was gallows humor.  In short, there was collegiality.

Every group of people creates its own force field. As we interview candidates for openings in the department I think a lot about the ineffable qualities that make for a trusted colleague. It's a similar approach, a complementary attitude, a sense of humor. Sometimes you get it right; sometimes you don't.

People who write have a tendency to get caught in webs of their own thinking. It was in part to avoid this trap that I entered the office world again. I can't say I haven't second-guessed my decision hundreds of times. But I didn't yesterday.

Collegiality is often a haphazard affair, a byproduct, the luck of the draw. But once you've known the joy and purpose of working together toward a common goal it's difficult to go back.

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Tuesday, July 16, 2013


Walking through a field of clover the other day, I caught a whiff of childhood. The sweetness of the  purple flower mixed with the aroma of cut grass, loamy earth and hot sun. The scents were radiating from below, up past my knees and into my nose.

But there was a time when those smells didn't have as far to travel. A time when I was closer to the ground. We all were.

No wonder, then, that the world was full of fragrance. That we were storing up a lifetime of olfactory memories and triggers, a scentscape.

It was the world, and we were just coming alive to it. And it can be there for us again. Just take a deep breath.

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Monday, July 15, 2013

Journey Without Maps

I just started reading a book by this title. It's written by Graham Greene, whose work I usually enjoy, although not sure about this one. Still, you can't beat the title.

In fact, the title itself has me thinking. "Journey without maps" sounds so exotic, so adventurous — traveling to a place beyond civilization, where rivers have not been charted, roads not cleared. How many places can we go now that are unexplored, mysterious, limitless in possibility? How many of those places would we want to visit?

Like many titles, this one doesn't work anymore. Now we would call it "Journey Without A Phone."

As the map — like the land line, the address book (heck, the book itself) — joins the slide rule and the 8-track player on the road to oblivion, we who remember and cherish these items are embarking on our own journey. And it, too, is a journey without maps.

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Saturday, July 13, 2013

Moon Garden

A colleague asked if I'd heard of moon gardens — and now I can't stop thinking about them.

I imagine a balmy night, slight breeze, whiff of honeysuckle. A full moon rising. White plants overlooked in the daytime shine out in the darkness: dusty miller, sweet alyssum, night phlox.

And then there are flowers that only bloom at night: moon flower,  four o'clocks, evening primrose.

Some plants are more fragrant in the evening:  flowering tobacco, pinks, night gladiolus.

Or maybe it is that we, the tired gardeners, are more open to their scent.

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Friday, July 12, 2013

A Walker in Galoshes

The rain gauge says we received more than two inches last night. And it's still raining. There are more flash flood warnings, which we take seriously around here, honeycombed as we are with the rivulets and tributaries of Little Difficult Run.

I read today that unlike hurricanes and tornadoes, flash floods are as deadly now as they were years ago. The main reason: People drive into deep water.

What about walking into deep water? Less of a problem, obviously, since most of us aren't strolling through a thunderstorm. But still, it's time for caution. For changing the route. For umbrellas and ponchos and galoshes.

One of these days we'll have summer. Until then, I'll keep checking the rain gauge.

(Speaking of rain gauges, the bamboo makes a pretty good one.)


Thursday, July 11, 2013

Small Favors

I read in today's Writer's Almanac that July 11 is the birthday of E. B. White, essayist, journalist and the author of the beloved children's books Stuart Little and Charlotte's Web. Here's what White said about the genesis of Stuart Little:
"I took a train to Virginia, got out, walked up and down in the Shenandoah Valley in the beautiful springtime, then returned to New York by rail. While asleep in an upper berth, I dreamed of a small character who had the features of a mouse, was nicely dressed, courageous, and questing. When I woke up, being a journalist and thankful for small favors, I made a few notes about this mouse-child — the only fictional figure ever to have honored and disturbed my sleep."
 What caught my eye is the phrase "being a journalist and thankful for small favors." As usual, White  nails it in a few words. When one makes a living asking other people questions, one is grateful for information. And inspiration.

It took 15 years after the mouse-child appeared in his dream for White to complete the manuscript for Stuart Little. Talk about inspiration. I'm grateful for small favors.

First Edition Cover from Wikipedia

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Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Tunnel of Trees

In the great cycle of seasons, topics announce themselves with some regularity. Every year at this time (if not earlier), I notice the steady progression of leaf and bough, how the trees on one side of the road lean in, reach over and touch the trees on the other side.

The result of this mutual growth and attraction is a tunnel of trees, surely one of nature's most subtly beautiful offerings.

Why is it so magical? I think about this when I'm driving down Fox Mill or Vale or (when in Kentucky) Pisgah Pike outside Lexington.

Do the lofty boughs remind me of a cathedral? Or is the appeal from the coziness, the impenetrability, of a cavern built of leaf and shade?

There's no explanation, of course. It's beauty plain and simple.

Photo: © All Rights Reserved
by tom8yours

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Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Door, Wall and Flower

Art imitates life imitates art. The door bedecked with flowers, a variety of hydrangea, I think, larger and more open-petaled than the usual. The wall decorated with wisteria — and a bicycle, in case you get tired of walking.

To walk in an old city is to stop often to photograph buildings. It makes for a halting step but a full camera (phone?) upon return.

It's more than worth the trip.

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Monday, July 8, 2013


A view from on high. It's what we get from airplanes, towers, mountaintops, rooftops and other lofty places. It's perspective. Our world grows smaller when measured against the immensity.

It's a necessary corrective, an antidote to most craziness. It can also be lots of fun.

Today the indoor parakeets are spending some time outside with me as I work. To say they are excited is putting it mildly. They haven't shut up since I brought them out here. A moment ago a baby bird landed on the table beside me, attracted by the exotic chirps of these unfamiliar creatures.  A change of scenery for them, too, that of the wild beside the tame.

What has the birds so excited? The same thing I've been treasuring recently — perspective.

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Saturday, July 6, 2013

Flowery Bower

So far so good in this hard-fought battle between deer and day lily. A battle in which the day lily does nothing except bloom and be beautiful. A battle waged by the human on the day lily's behalf. A human with a spray can of Invisible Fence.

Let us now praise the human and the spray can. Let us now praise the beauty that is the result.

It's midsummer. The rain has stopped. The lilles are blooming. It's a flowery bower.

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Friday, July 5, 2013

In Miniature

A view of the Capitol Fireworks I'd never seen before, from across the Potomac and down a few miles. The fireworks in miniature but just as splendid.

The spectators were a mini United Nations; they spoke Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, Tagalog (maybe). Babies toddled, parents chased, teenagers stared not at the sky but at their phones. Some people sat on blankets, others on the grass. Some had packed elaborate spreads, but more had simply wandered over with a snack and a soda.

Like the fireworks, the venue was a miniature, a snapshot of our country now.

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Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Fourth in History

I know at least two re-enactors at Gettysburg this week, one fighting for the North and one for the South. And I remember the school trips each of the girls took to the battlefield in sixth grade, playing out roles in their own Picketts' Charge.

There's a battlefield site minutes from here where another battle was fought, the Battle of Ox Hill (or the Union name, the Battle of Chantilly) and I think I'll go there today. It's a place I've passed several hundred times and always meant to see. It's tucked between malls, hidden in plain sight, a bit of history almost buried by modern life.

But it's still there, not quite five acres. And visiting it seems like a good way to celebrate the day, here in the Old Dominion.

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Wednesday, July 3, 2013

What To Do When It Rains

Conked out to rain, woke up to rain. Rain on the weekend, on Monday, Tuesday, now Wednesday. Dodging the drops to take a walk. Today if there's a break I'll be outside again.

Meanwhile, morning arrives gray and soggy. It's a good day to clean the basement, sort through old files. Only that's not what I want to be doing on July 3!

Tomorrow will be better, they say. Until then, I pile the books beside me. Four from the library yesterday and another, electronic one I couldn't find in hard copy. That's the one I'm reading now.

I'm in war-worn Berlin, riding the U-bahn, hungry, cold and afraid. Is it raining? Is it dry? Who cares?

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Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Bird Land

New bird feeders have turned our back yard into an avian paradise. Goldfinches flit from branch to seeds, sometimes posing on top of the tomato cage, a perfect perch.

This morning I watched a female hummingbird for what seemed like hours but was only minutes, long enough for her to dart in and out, sipping nectar with each rush to the feeder.

And as I write these words a pileated woodpecker nibbles at a peanut butter block.

Birds catch on quickly. They have passed on word about the chow here. It's good, you ought to try it. And with the living room couch still turned south I have a, well, bird's eye view of all the goings on.

Parakeets in the house, and sparrows, robins, cardinals, jays, finches, woodpeckers, chickadees and hummingbirds outside.

It's Bird Land, for sure.

Monday, July 1, 2013

July Morning

This time last year we'd had plenty of heat advisories plus a derecho. This year it's been cool and soggy. I haven't watered the plants once!

But the humidity is building and mornings hold that familiar sigh of longing, as if they know what's coming and are reluctant to let go of their coolness.

They, like us, know that July is finally here.


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