Monday, March 31, 2014

When Walking Was King

I had another blog topic rattling around in my head this morning, something about March coming in and going out like a lion, when I read an op-ed in today's Washington Post. It's the opening of baseball season, America's national pastime, wrote Matthew Algeo, but long ago, fans gathered to watch another sport, competitive walking.

It was called pedestrianism, and it involved people walking around a dirt track for six days at a time. The races lasted for 144 hours (with participants napping on cots), included heavy wagering and winners (the celebrity athletes of their day) could take home as much as $425, 000 (in today's currency).

At first, I checked my calendar. Could this be an April Fools joke? But no, it's still March. And yes, pedestrianism was a genuine phenomenon.

The author's point was cautionary: Pedestrianism was in part done in by doping scandals. At one time in our nation's history no one could have predicted that it wouldn't have remained the nation's pastime forever.

But I take something different from the piece. For a walker in the suburbs, it's funny proof of how once walking was king.

(Wikipedia: An 1836 illustration of a "Walking Wager", from Peter Piper's Practical Principles of Plain and Perfect Pronunciation, by Anonymous, Philadelphia.)


Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Power of Play

Last night I stayed up late to watch one of the craziest, most fast-paced and ultimately satisfying basketball games I've seen in years. (Of course, I seldom watch more than half a dozen games a season!)

It was the University of Kentucky Wildcats (Go, Big Blue!) versus the University of Louisville Cardinals in the "Sweet Sixteen" round of the NCAA basketball tourney.

As you might expect with teams that are 80 miles apart and a coach who left one team and ended up at the other, the rivalry is intense.

At first, the UK starters, all freshman (Kentucky Coach Calipari having no problem with "one and done"), seemed nervous, out-of-sync. But by halftime the Cats had closed to within a few points of the Cards. From then on, they were on Louisville's tail, trailing by a point or three but seeming like  thoroughbreds patiently biding their time on the rail so they can let it all out in the home stretch.

Kentucky led for less than two minutes, but they were the right two minutes. When the buzzer sounded it was 74-69, UK.

The last time I watched the Wildcats beat U of L was December 28. That night I watched with Dad. Last night I watched for him.

(No basketball photos but here's a street scene from downtown Lexington, where there is much jubilation today.)

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Friday, March 28, 2014

Walking West

Long day at the office and the best way to unwind: walking an extra mile to Metro through the streets of D.C.

I'd stayed so long that I strode right into the setting sun. E Street was a swath of light, and the faces of the people marching toward me were shadowed spheres.

It was a strange way to see the world, as if my direction were the only direction. I thought briefly of skipping a block north, finding another route, but quickly realized the sun angle would be the same.

I was walking west, going home. It was the only way to go.


Thursday, March 27, 2014

Seven to Eight

The return to routine. A dull knife, the kind that doesn't cut. A balm perhaps? We'll see. At this point it's drudgery on top of sorrow. But it's early yet.

And speaking of early, I've taken to watching the clock, waiting for 7:08 a.m., the exact moment of Dad's passing. It's become magical to me, a time of movement from one world to the next.

In fact, the whole hour is that way, the hour from seven to eight a.m. It's permeable now, bridging the now with the hereafter.

And so, because I'm in that hour now, and for Dad's sake, I take some deep breaths, I square my shoulders, I move on with the day.


Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Snow Flowers

Spring is trying, really it is. Green shoots shove through the half-frozen earth. Maples redden with buds.

But the snow keeps falling, and the colds winds keep blowing and the temperatures keep dropping.

In Virginia and throughout much of the country, in the landscape of the body and the landscape of the soul, it's the winter that won't go away.


Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Of Friends and Flowers

They came in the evening and they came in the morning. Good friends, coffee buddies, nieces, nephews, cousins, neighbors.

They came bearing photos and family trees, casseroles and sandwiches. You have to eat, and you have to talk, and the physical comfort of friends and food eases the grieving. Doesn't banish it, of course, but softens it.

The last few days have been a whirlwind of calls, visits and rituals. Of looking through photo albums and sorting through papers.

It's better not to stop too long.  


Monday, March 24, 2014


The days that follow death are filled with rituals and details and their own to-do lists. Soon these busy hours will give way to ones of raw loss. I know that.  But until then, I'm still coasting on tales of my dad shared at the wake. On the love and support of family and friends. On the Brahms German Requiem in my ears as I walk. And on transcendence.

Two stories from my girls at the time of their grandfather's passing. One sat down two hours later — unaware of what had happened, five time zones away in Africa — and wrote him a letter.

Another snapped this photograph of our street as she was leaving to fly here and be with me. It was taken in the exact hour of Dad's passing and is as radiant and other-worldly as I've ever seen the place.

Coincidences? Probably. But today I'm believing otherwise.

(Photo: Claire Capehart)


Friday, March 21, 2014

Frank D. Cassidy 1923-2014

My father died on the first day of spring, just as the sun was rising — the sun that would be up all day in a cloudless blue sky.

Blue skies were Dad's specialty. Not that he didn't have plenty of storm clouds. But he endured them or ignored them or sometimes just opened his umbrella and danced through the rain.

One of my first and fondest memories of Dad is walking outside with him one morning on a family vacation to Colorado. Dad loved the Rocky Mountains, had spent time in Denver when he was in the service, after he'd flown 35 combat missions over Europe as a tail gunner in a B17 bomber. So as soon as he and Mom had a few dollars in their pocket, they drove my brother and me out west. I was five years old at the time, but I distinctly remember Dad looking up at the whitened peaks and the blue beyond and saying, "Look, there's not a cloud in the sky."

So I looked and saw and remembered — and I learned from his example. I learned that there is almost nothing so dire that it can't be remedied by a good laugh. I learned that you can never tell someone you love them too many times. And finally, to quote a favorite movie of mine, I learned from his life that "no man is a failure who has friends."

Dad was the youngest of six and the last to go. He leaves behind a wife, four children, seven grandchildren, many nieces, nephews and cousins  — and lots and lots of friends. He never knew a stranger.

I write this at an hour when Dad and I, both early risers, would often be up alone together. This is my first morning to wake without him in the world. I have no complaints. He was on this earth for almost 91 years. But I wish he could be here 91 more.


Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Window on Winter

When I woke yesterday I thought it would be another exercise-in-the-house day, but by mid-afternoon, I could see black pavement on my street and beyond.

Whether it was due to the relatively warm pavement temperature of mid-March or my county's new, hard-won facility with snow removal, the roads were clear and I could walk through winter unimpeded.

This was a gift. I didn't have to look down at my feet, dodging snow, slush or ice. I could look at trees sagging with the white stuff, at snow heaped on buds near to blossoming.

For a moment I was in an alternative universe, one stripped of color, where spring comes not in yellow, pink and purple, but in parchment, eggshell and alabaster.

It was a window on winter, before it goes away.


Monday, March 17, 2014

The Whiting of the Green

On Saturday I spotted signs of spring, snowdrops and green shoots, that pinkish haze that appears in the tree tops, proof the old oaks are coming to life.

It struck me as I strolled that I might be imagining the greening branches, the swollen buds, that maybe they were like the puddles of water that appear on a hot summer tarmac.

Because today, St. Patty's Day, I'm not so sure. It looks like a foot of snow outside. It's the whiting of the green. And for some reason, I welcome it.

It's such a quiet, dutiful dousing, wet and heavy, clinging to each twig and bough. It stills me — and fills me with wonder, that such meteorlogical marvels can exist this far into the greening season.

Spring will come soon, no way it cannot. The shoots and buds are biding their time. But for now, on this day devoted to green, we have a different kind of beauty. It's white.

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Saturday, March 15, 2014

A Mystery in Real Time

Has there ever been such an aeronautical mystery? Of course there has, I tell myself. There was Amelia Earhart. But she had no transponders, no black box. When I mention Amelia Earhart to my kids, they draw a blank. That mystery is forgotten.

But the mystery of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 is not. How could it be? Cable news blares it almost nonstop, and there are newspaper articles on the quality of the coverage and the amount of speculation the story forces on reporters.

Today's leads are some of the most dramatic. The plane flew for hours after the transponder was turned off. It appears that the aircraft was deliberately diverted, says the Malaysian prime minister. I drag out an old atlas, refresh my geography of the Malay peninsula and Indian Ocean. I catch up on a week's worth of facts and rumors. I consider how much this seems like a made-for-TV movie.

And then, like most people in the plugged-in, news-aware world, I wonder: How does a huge jetliner disappear? Could it possibly have landed? Where did it go? Where is it now? And will we ever, ever find it?


Friday, March 14, 2014

March: An Appreciation

A delay in writing this morning gives me more time to think (a dangerous activity!). And what I'm thinking about is March, this in-between month. One day spring, the next day winter. Unsettling, to say the least. But also inevitable.

Weather, like so many other things, is never a smooth progression from one season to another. It's a series of fits and starts, of warm southerly breezes challenged by Arctic fronts. Of rain that changes to snow and back to rain again. Of jackets in the morning and sweaters in the afternoon.

But don't we need such "give," such wiggle room, in our own lives? I'm thinking about how we acquire skills, how babies learn to walk or talk and how adults learn — well, almost anything, how to tap dance, for instance! Hard-won mastery one day, two left feet the next.

I'm trying to learn a lesson from March, to see in its intermittency a gracious acceptance of change and growth. Heaven knows I need it!


Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Sound of Engines

My suburb is quiet, given its proximity to a major international airport. But when a wild wind barrels in from the west, planes are routed over the house and the sound of jet engines fills the sky. The harder the wind blows, the more planes there seem to be. Just the opposite of what one would like, of course.

Last night the airliners seemed to be using Folkstone Drive as a runway and skimming the tops of the tall oaks. The fact that I was dodging limbs and crunching over downed tree branches on the drive home only heightened this impression. I was glad to pull into the garage.

But this morning the wind still roars and the planes still circle. Winter is back, and it wants us to know it.

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Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Free Hour

A free hour, from 6-7 last evening, and the trail beckoned. The sun was low in the sky and the evening was soft and warm. Cyclists whizzed by me and my legs felt heavy and tired, so I kept to the right and warmed up slowly. 

Ten minutes in and I was flying. Well, not really. But it felt that way. It's been such a long, cold winter. And to be dressed only in one layer, moving at my own pace down a path in the suburbs, seemed perfection to me then.

Maybe it was runner's high or maybe it was spring fever — and it certainly had something to do with daylight savings time. But whatever it was, I was not alone.

Everyone I saw — from the ferociously helmeted bikers to the boxy guy padding along in thin sandals — seemed to feel the same way.

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Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Skirt

Is winter really over — pants tucked in boots, thick socks, turtleneck, sweater? Can I finally think about ditching the winter uniform?

I seem to remember another article of clothing, something I wore long ago, when days were warmer.

I even have a few of them my closet, relics of another time. Is it my imagination or do they look forlorn, wrinkled with disuse, wondering why it's been so long?

I check the weather. Highs in the 60s, though it's cool now. Still, it's do-able — if I still own a pair of tights anymore, that is.

Only one way to find out.  I'm heading upstairs now to put on a skirt.

(Not this one; it's a dress, anyway!)


Monday, March 10, 2014

West Wind

Any walker will tell you which way the wind blows. Whether it roars in from the west or brushes up from the south, all soft and warm. 

Often it makes the difference: How long I walk or how far.

On a route I'm getting to know here in Lexington, the west wind smacks me in the face every time I turn a corner. I know my directions here, so that helps. But I think I would know the west wind anywhere. It is not timid or subtle. It takes my breath away.

But oh, the joy of having it at my back. It pushes me all the way home.

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Saturday, March 8, 2014

Jump on the Day

For the owls among us — heck, for most people — tonight's time change is reason to cheer. In come the long, languorous evenings of spring and summer. In come barbecues, alfresco dining, after-dinner strolls and cricket-addled evenings. Not yet, of course, but we're finally moving in that direction.

For the early-risers among us, though, the time change means a return to dark mornings.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. I'm so conditioned to predawn rising that morning light on a weekday makes me nervous. Have I overslept? What have I missed?

Waking in darkness is the ultimate jump on the morning. It's being up before it's day. And starting Monday, I'll have it again.

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Friday, March 7, 2014

50 Words

If Eskimos have 50 words for snow, then we tired, winter-weary suburbanites have 50 words for the  substances that keep us going through the snow.

There is snow melt and grit and cinders and kitty litter and rock salt (although that may not be around anymore for environmental reasons). The other day I heard a radio announcer suggest table salt. Sometimes there is just a residue of salt, but seeing it convinces me there's no black ice and it's safe to traverse that patch of sidewalk.

Above all, of course, there are the tractors that spread this stuff.

They may not be pretty, but they are our heroes.


Thursday, March 6, 2014

Sleep Week

It is with no irony — only earnest good intentions — that the National Sleep Foundation has set aside this week, March 2-9, as National Sleep Awareness Week.

The irony, for me, comes from the fact that this coming Sunday we "spring forward" into daylight savings time, losing a crucial nighttime hour. It's a lost hour I notice mightily, since I live on the edge of sleep stability.

But no, the professionals say, this is exactly when you should be doubling down on best bedtime practices — sticking to a sleep-wake routine, exercising daily, avoiding naps, creating a cool, dark, comfortable sleep environment.

What happens when you do all these things and still wake up at 4 a.m.? It's hard to find much on the National Sleep Foundation website about that. But I have some ideas.

Reading, writing — even blogging, perhaps?  There are worse things.


Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Season of Growth

Lent is late this year. Like spring, it is taking its time. But today is Ash Wednesday, so the 40 days have begun, the ecclesiastical season that prepares us for Easter with prayer, fasting and contemplation.

Somewhere along the way — it's been a few years ago now — I learned that "Lent" comes from the Anglo-Saxon word "lencten," meaning spring. The days are lengthening. It's harder to appreciate this when Ash Wednesday falls on February 13, as it did last year.

But this year it arrives on March 5. It's light outside as I type these words. And I decide to approach the season with less dread and more optimism. A bit more like Advent. As a moving toward rather than a dredging down. As a season of growth rather than self-denial.

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Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Best Picture

Academy members look not as much for "feel-good" movies, critic Ann Hornaday wrote in a recent Washington Post article — but for "feel-deeply" movies. These are the films that become "Best Picture."

Not always, but sometimes. This year, yes.

I had seen almost all  the nominated films by the time I made my way to "12 Years." I'd hesitated at first, heard it was hard to watch — and it was. But when the film ended and I walked, half-dazed, out of the theater that cold gray Saturday, I felt emptied and re-filled. It was the kind of movie experience you have once or twice a year, if you're lucky.

It was a reminder that nothing beats superb acting and straight story-telling, building to a powerful conclusion. It was a true catharsis – for the main character and for the movie-goers who took the journey with him.

(Taken last year at one of the great old theaters.)


Monday, March 3, 2014

Tap Happy

Years ago, when I lived in Manhattan, I drug some friends to 34th Street, where a record number of tappers were dancing along the pot-holed streets in front of Macy's. I remember wanting to join in.

It's taken several decades, but yesterday my feet were two among 80 others with metal-plated shoes flapping, slapping, digging, brushing, scuffing, shuffling — tapping away. The sound alone altered reality.

Add to that the hopping and twirling, the sheer exhilaration of moving the body through choreographed steps in unison — and fortissimo — and, well, it's impossible not to be happy when tapping.

It's been almost six months since I started taking dance lessons. Life hasn't been especially easy since then. But tapping has been.

(Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and the late Shirley Temple in the famous stairway tap-dancing scene from "The Little Colonel." Photo: Cinewiki.)


Saturday, March 1, 2014

Trudging On

March has never been one of my favorite months. But this year I approach it with a fair amount of gratitude. Gratitude and wariness.

I'm grateful we're in a month of longer days and shorter nights. Glad to see the spring birds crowd the feeder. Encouraged by the warm sun on my face, by the halfhearted witch hazel and the tentative green shoots of the daffodil.

I'm wary, too, though. March is fickle. March is proud. March likes to keep you guessing. And indeed, we frolic this weekend under threat of a winter storm Sunday night into Monday. Predictions are we'll see our coldest temps of the winter on Tuesday morning. That's Tuesday, March 4.

What's a walker to do?

Pull on the coat, the gloves, the ear-warmers; find the sunniest music possible — and trudge into the wind.

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