Thursday, July 31, 2014

Room of One's Own

As a work deadline nears I've been spending more time in the office — 11 hours yesterday. Though I've become an office nomad at home — and I prefer it that way — I find myself sinking into the quiet here. And it strikes me, not the first time, that the office is a "room of one's own" for me.

When Virginia Woolf wrote that a woman must have "money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction," she probably was not thinking of an office in a modern workplace, clicking and typing, moving text with a cursor, putting out an alumni magazine. And I certainly don't pen novels in my office. I write and edit articles about faculty and alumni accomplishments.

But what I do have here is freedom from the hurly-burly of home. Not just from the dishes that need washing and the carpet that needs vacuuming, but from the world of the family with all its attendant joys and worries.

What I have here is separation, and on the best writing days I carry that separateness around with me like a wonderful, warm cloak.

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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

A Commuter in the Suburbs

I dreamed all day of walking home from the new Silver Line station. I plotted the way before my feet found it. And when I began, it was just as I imagined — segments of trail, mostly paved, with clear markers of distance gained.

Strolling south across the highway, I meandered through the leafy association campuses and a golf course, its wide greens calling. A short tunnel took me to parkland paths with benches and a bridge, then up a steep dirt path to a shopping center.

I passed golfers putting, teenagers dawdling, dog-walkers walking, crepe myrtles blooming. Ambling south out of the center, I strolled past a community garden and pool to the lot where I parked my car in the morning.

One day I'll add those two extra miles and walk all the way to the house. But for now, this is bliss: to make my way home (mostly) on foot.

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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Feels Like the Future

My first day on the Silver Line, camera in hand, I soak in the experience as if I was a tourist. Which in a way I am. This is a new place, this strange new commute.

My first thought: It's a long time to spend on the train. My second thought: I wish we could barrel straight down the center of the Dulles Toll Road without that long detour through Tyson's Corner. Four stations is a lot of stopping and starting.

My third thought and most overwhelming impression: this feels like the future. It's not the future yet. Some of the stops lead to sad strip malls and car dealerships. But that will change. In 25 years, maybe even in 10, Tysons will be another Ballston or Clarendon, the Orange Line's great urban density success stories. We have a way to go in this part of Fairfax County, but the Silver Line is a start.

Welcome to the future. Almost.


Monday, July 28, 2014

Power Weeding

It's an ancient rhythm. Step, bend, pull. Weeds figure prominently in some Bible verses — they're always choking out the good plants, being bundled and burned at harvest time — and there must be references to them earlier in human history, too.

Yesterday we tackled the weeds in our yard. They were not quite as high as the ones in this picture (taken in the woods) but high enough. I started late in the day, rushed through the back garden in time to start dinner.

Power weeding: Stooping low, gathering the slender stalks of stiltgrass from the bottom, twisting, pulling and tossing.  (At least this invasive plant separates easily from the soil.)

Before long I had piles of weeds scattered around the cone flowers, piles I gathered and stuffed into the big bag in the front yard. A harvest of greenery. A happier garden. And this morning — ouch! — aching muscles.


Saturday, July 26, 2014

Happy Dance Day

"Up the steep and very narrow stairway. To the voice like a metronome. Up the steep and very narrow stairway. It wasn't paradise, it wasn't paradise, it wasn't paradise, but it was home."
                                         "At the Ballet" from "A Chorus Line"

I missed International Dance Day (April 29) and National Tap Dance Day (May 25), so ... happy National Dance Day!

Ballet Nova is offering free classes and there's a big event at the Kennedy Center. But I'll stay home, practice my buffaloes and think about the dance classes I've taken through the years: the very first when I was five, then adult beginning ballet at 18, folk dance and modern dance in college, and a series of classes as a young adult.

At Joy of Motion in Chicago the teacher actually advanced us to pointe work. For a few precious, foot-cramped weeks I felt like a real ballerina. Later, in New York City, I took ballet uptown and midtown — once even in a studio above Carnegie Hall. I was earnest, tight, worried about my turn out.

Now ... it's all for fun. Tap is loose and joyful. It's difficult to take myself seriously doing it. It's a happy dance for happy National Dance Day.


Friday, July 25, 2014

Poison Idadee

When Suzanne was little and first encountered an itchy rash on her arm, she couldn't quite say "poison ivy." It came out "poison idadee."

And "poison idadee" it has remained these many years.

I've been getting into some "poison idadee" myself lately — and I have the itchy arms and bottles of calamine lotion to prove it.

It's not fun, but I'm glad that I've ventured off trails, explored new paths and hacked my way through brush and briar.

Summer will be over soon enough.


Thursday, July 24, 2014

Last Drive to Vienna?

It's a gray day (not like this photo), flecks of rain on the pavement, when I rush out the door. I grab the newspaper, jump in the car, buckle up -- and I'm gone. There's the familiar route down Fox Mill to Vale to Hunter Mill.

I know every curve and hill of these western Fairfax lanes. I know where the school buses stop, the garbage trucks too. It's 17 minutes of twists and turns that make me feel as if I've come down the mountain. And in fact, the route once took hours instead of minutes.

But today's trip was different — though I was three-quarters of the way there when I realized it:  The next time I take public transportation downtown I will most likely be riding the Silver Line. I will be leaving from Reston, not Vienna. I will drive different roads — or maybe not drive at all.

I can still ride the Orange Line, of course; no one will stop me. But will I want to when the Wiehle Station is half as far from home?

It was a poignant moment, even at 6:20 a.m.

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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

It's Horizontal

Sometimes I snap a shot because I can see it here in the blog one day. It is usually horizontal, for starters. And it is generic. And, in my own eyes at least, it is beautiful.

This is one of those pictures. I was walking through Annapolis with Ellen, talking about our work, our kids, what we're reading now (we had just browsed in a bookstore) and there was the wall, the greenery and the stone.

Annapolis is a place I could photograph forever. The water and the land. The old and new. Church spires and weathered shutters. Flashy yachts and quiet gardens. Landscapes and close-ups. And horizontals, those especially, as many as possible.


Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Urban Corn

Was it whimsy that landed this corn plant here? An urban gardener looking for some fun?

I can't imagine that it's a volunteer. And if the sower of the seed was hoping for a bumper crop, well, there are only so many ears you can harvest with a single plant.

When I first saw the corn plant I was on a bicycle, phone camera back at the house. But my recent wanderings have taken me all over Reston, so on Saturday afternoon I found myself right back at the corner — the urban corn corner — where I'd spied it a few hours earlier.

So here's the little corn stalk that could. Not exactly of Midwestern proportions, but not bad for a little plant in the Virginia suburbs!


Monday, July 21, 2014

Test Walks

Metro's new Silver Line opens in six days. Over the weekend I attended a ribbon-cutting for the new station and came home with bus schedules and maps and a plan in my head. On days when I'm not driving or biking to the new station (and there may be many of those!), I may bus the five miles to the new station -- then walk home.

I tried out half the new route Saturday, Reston trail map in hand. I felt like a tourist in my own community. And in a way, I was. Like anyone else, I'm a creature of routine. I must be drug kicking and screaming from my well-trod trails and sidewalks.

But change is coming to this suburb, and I want to experience it feet first. So I parked in the Hunter's Woods shopping center lot and picked up a Reston trail that took me to a park, then a golf course and finally to within a 10-minute stroll of the new station. Today I'll amble the southern half of the course, from home to the shopping center lot.

So while Metro is doing test runs, I'm doing test walks. Soon we'll both be in business.

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Saturday, July 19, 2014

Most Walkable

The facts are in — and they're surprising: Washington, D.C., is the nation's most walkable city!

Yes, that's right. I thought the same thing: What about New York (just for starters)? Turns out, it's Number Two.

 I heard a fleeting mention of this yesterday on the radio and looked it up today thinking I had misheard. But according to a report prepared by George Washington University's School of Business, Washington has more Walkable Urban Places (WalkUPs) than New York City, Boston, San Francisco or Chicago.

Having lived and walked in three of these top five (and not owned a car in two of them), I'll admit I was scratching my head. But then I started reading the report. WalkUPs are based on the amount of office and retail space and a Walk Score, which looks at how easy it is to run errands without a car. New York comes in second because although Manhattan earns an 89-percent WalkUP score, the other boroughs aren't quite so walkable.

The most amazing nugget: The D.C. area has the most balanced walkability ratio between city (51 percent) and suburbs (49 percent). Really? The George Washington University researchers must be strolling in Arlington or Bethesda, not Oak Hill. Still, there are more paths here than there used to be, and Metro's Silver Line (4 and a half miles from my house) opens a week from today.

So I'm optimistic about walking in the suburbs. It's nice to know I'm not alone.

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Friday, July 18, 2014

Blackberry Winter

I grew up with this expression, used to describe a patch of cool summer weather. I've been thinking about it the last few mornings waking to temperatures in the high 50s — in July!

"A colloquial expression used in the south and midwest North America referring to a cold snap that occurs in late spring when the blackberries are in bloom," Wikipedia says.

That's not the way I remember it. Late-spring cold was dogwood winter. Mid-summer cold was blackberry winter. The time when blackberries were in fruit — not in flower.

Doesn't matter. Both are lovely ways to talk about unseasonable chill. Poetic descriptions of essential contradictions. 

And the blackberries are in fruit and ready for picking. I see them along side roads and fence rows, in what remains of the meadow. They should peak this weekend.

(Photo: Wikipedia)


Thursday, July 17, 2014

Shifting My Weight

"Tap is easy," Candy says. "But shifting your weight, that's hard." This is not the first bit of life wisdom I've learned from my tap teacher. But it's the most recent.

"It's like gymnastics," she continues. "Gymnastics is easy. Landing is hard."

Well, I don't know about that. But I do know that hopping on my left foot, flapping with my right (or as my tap buddy Denise would say, "falapping," since we give it two beats), landing on the ball of that foot before transferring weight to my left ball, heel and right ball, heel — yes, that is difficult.

In fact, balance is the most challenging part of tap class, apart from the traffic I must drive through to get there. And what makes balance tricky is letting go. To transfer weight from one foot to the other, one must, for a single terrifying moment, not have weight anywhere. One must leap into the void.

It's not unlike a trapeze artist or a mid-life career changer. Yes, there is practice, preparation, mastery. But there is also the hand off, the letting go.

I'm thinking there's a point where shifting my weight will cease to frustrate and begin to exhilarate. I'm still waiting for that to happen.

(A tap class in Iowa, 1942, courtesy Wikipedia)


Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Land Between Storms

Driving home yesterday, dashing through puddles left from an earlier shower, racing to reach the house before the skies opened for another deluge, I thought about where I was. It was an interval of time, true, but it was also a place. The Land between Storms. The terrain: Steaming pavement, black clouds, a feel in the air that was part peace and part anticipation.

How many other times are places? The week between Christmas and New Year's Day, the last week of May. But these are fixed in time, not mobile like the Land Between Storms.

There is also the place that springs up after a blizzard. A world of white — silent for an hour or two then filled with the sound of snowblowers whirring and shovels scraping.

It has taken me a long while to realize the commonality of these experiences, how they pull together sights, sounds and smells so reliably, so ineluctably, that I can find the places every time.

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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Blue Spruce

For some reason blue spruce trees have been calling to me lately. I can't quite understand what they're saying -- other than look at me.

Maybe it's their bracing attitude, as if they have imbibed the winter air. They make me feel cooler just looking at them. Or their color, which stands out amidst the oranges and yellows and pinks of summer bloom.

They bring to mind trudging through a frost-hardened field to chop down the Christmas tree, even though when it's time to choose, we always go for a fir.

For whatever reason, they are catching my eye these days. They're not letting me forget them.


Monday, July 14, 2014

Open House

Common sense tells me to turn on the air conditioning. It will be in the low nineties today, high humidity. But another impulse keeps it off, a desire to be one with the summer, to feel the heat, to be cooled by fans and not refrigerated air.

And I think the house likes it, too. The wood swells, the plants thrive. Paper softens and curls. Deck doors are thrown open so the outside comes in.

A breeze flows through from back to front. A chorus of cicada song rises and falls, and because the windows are open I can hear it.

Summer is best in an open house.

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Saturday, July 12, 2014

Tread Well

Yesterday's walk began in the woods, late afternoon light slanting in through the canopy. Copper and I crossed Folkstone Drive, strolled down Treadwell, a street I love not just for its name (perfect for walkers) but also for its length and lack of traffic and for the calmness I feel when I'm on it.

Treadwell ends in a pipestem with houses tucked deep in the forest. Before you reach it, though, there's a path back into the woods. We took it, picking our way through some sticker bushes and crossing a creek that required my first sitting down on the bank (a hesitation Copper didn't understand) before launching myself forward to the other side.

Once across the tributary, we could wander from one trail to another. I noticed the silence, interrupted only by the caws of a crow and the hum of a distant airplane. Was it the silence that freed my mind to appreciate the beauty, the jewel-green moss atop the decaying log, the ferns waving slightly in the breeze?

Nothing is not beautiful here, I thought: the weeds, the stumps, the whole trees uprooted and left lying where they fell, their root balls like the inside of giant umbrellas. All of it a pleasure to the eye.

As we grew closer to the exit, the woods became noisier. It was a landscaping crew grooming the yard of a nearby house. Two mowers and a weed whacker. Welcome back, they seemed to say with their jangle and bluster, welcome back to the world.

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Friday, July 11, 2014

Little Voices

It's summer time and into the click-click of computer keyboards and the businesslike tones of those  in Important Meetings comes another sound, a welcome sound — the high-pitched ping of little voices.

A couple days ago a colleague brought her baby to the office and I could hear the babbling and squawking from many doors down the hall. And both Wednesday and Thursday I ran into daycare kids on campus — yelling, laughing, taunting and teasing.

It brought me back to the days of the little voices in my own life, how I treasured them even then, knowing how precious they were, how fleeting. Now they've matured into the voices of adult women, not even a "like, you know" left from the teenage years. They are still precious to me, but they are different.

When I was knee-deep in child rearing I used to wonder why older folks would smile as I extricated  one of my noisy children from underneath a clothes rack or a church pew. Now I understand. They liked the sound of little voices too. Like me, they listened and remembered.


Thursday, July 10, 2014

Late Arrival

First there is the wakening, slightly panicky, the feeling that something is not right. Next, a peek at the clock. After 2 a.m. Surely she should be home by now.

Should I get up and look out the window? If the car is there I'll rest easy; if it's not, I'll be awake till she gets home.

Last night it was the latter. A late arrival, but not much later than my wakening. I fall back to sleep, happy and grateful.

The morning after the late arrival is another story: Bleary and disbelieving. How can it already be day?

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Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Picture Window

I saw them on walks in Lexington, what we had when I was growing up, what I see in older houses still, but not as much anymore.

The picture window provides an unbroken look at the out-of-doors. No parceled glimpses of street or flower or tree. The picture window is open and unbroken.

Or at least mine was. It was the way I first looked out at the world, and I wonder if it accounts for the fact that I like to be out in it now.

Picture windows, I read, are non-opening windows that allow light into a room. Ah yes, that's right. That window didn't open.

What strikes me now about the picture window is its name, which doesn't refer to panes or light but to framing. The picture window frames what it sees and presents it to us brightly and tidily.

The world in a frame. Almost.


Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Pace Car

My companion for a good 120 miles of yesterday's trip was a gray Ford Focus with Ohio plates. The driver was a young woman, about the age of my daughters, I think. She was careful. She allowed herself to go five miles over the speed limit, maybe seven or eight on a steep grade, but she never nudged up to 80.

I first became aware of the car when it passed me a minute or two after I passed it. Not good, I thought. We're going to have a competition. But she didn't venture far ahead of me, and I was content to follow her. So this early skirmish morphed into a steady companionship as we took the ups and downs of I-64 from Beckley to Lexington in tandem. When she passed, I passed. When she slowed, I slowed.

It's a lovely stretch of road, high country with rows of blue mountains receding in the distance. But it's also lonesome; I appreciated the vehicular companionship.

I often do this when I'm driving alone. Pick a car and stick with it. That automobile becomes my  personal pace car. I keep it in my sights, use it to measure my speed. And I make up stories for the driver. In my white-line-fever-addled brain, my car and the pace car become friends.

Personification makes the miles melt away, and we reached I-81 in no time. I pulled into the left lane to head north. Somehow I knew the Focus would travel south.

I drove three more hours to get home — but I never found another pace car. I missed the Focus.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Dinner Time

I'm about to drive east, loading the car before dawn. The ten-minute span between one load and the other is the difference between darkness and light.

As morning comes, remnants of night stay behind. A stray star gleams in the lightening sky. Bats scour the air for one last feed before sleep.

For me, breakfast is down the road. For them, it's dinner time.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

All That Glimmers

I stepped outside last night right after dark to catch a glimpse of Lexington's fireworks. A neighbor told me he had viewed the display from the backyard of a house three doors down, so I figured there was a chance.

At first I saw only smoke, evidence of local fire crackers and bottle rockets. But from time to time I'd hear the deep boom of the real thing. And then I spotted the colors, the reds and greens barely visible through the trees. Light forms pulsing up and out.

It was a cool evening and fireflies were winking ever upward in the sky. There were more than I see at home, more than I'd seen any other night this year. Their glimmers mixed with the manufactured ones in the sky. The effect was of a fairy land of dancing light. It was a mutual rejoicing, of earth and of all the creatures on earth.

It wasn't what I saw later on television, the spectacular fireworks from the nation's capital (pictured above) that I watched last year from across the river. Last night's light show was too ephemeral to be photographed. It was a moment of holding my breath. It was a moment of wonder.

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Friday, July 4, 2014

Ale & Cobblestones: An Alternative 4th

Sometimes I'm glad it's a holiday because I want to celebrate the holiday. Other times I'm glad it's a holiday because I need a day off.  The lack of patriotic imagery at the top of the page will explain how I feel about today.

Actually, I've been laughing this morning over something I heard on the radio driving to Kentucky yesterday. It's about an ad campaign for Newcastle Brown Ale, imagining if Britain had won the war.

"Coast-to-coast cobblestones, shoe shines on every corner, all the fish head pie you can eat. And at the end of the day you'd kick back and surf through all five of our government-run television stations."

That's dialogue from one of the spots. Other advantages of "Great Britain 2": Lovely accents, free health care (if you don't mind waiting a couple of years for an appointment) and colorful curse words.

The ads are hilarious. But don't take my word for it. Listen for yourself. And dream about driving on the left, eating mushy peas and having tea and scones every afternoon.

Happy 4th!


Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Beaten Path

Sometimes I'm on it, sometimes I'm off it. But I always have a responsibility to it. For who will keep the path beaten if not the walker? Who else will clear it of weeds and stones? Who else will smooth it out, will wear it down to dirt?

On woods walks it's easy to spot which paths are well trod and which have banished from neglect. Animals do their part; there are deer runs in the woods, too. But humans blaze the widest trails.

I find this thought comforting: That the forest needs me just as I need the forest. That in passing through I create the possibility of further passage. That each amble makes the next one easier. That each foot fall is creative.

This is more than just "use it or lose it." It's organic, symbiotic. It's proof, once again, that we're all in this together.

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Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Power of the Perch

Watch birds for long and you'll come to understand the power of the perch. It might be a feeder holder, as this goldfinch models, or the edge of the bird bath. Hummingbirds position themselves on the topmost wire of the tomato cage. Cardinals alight on azalea branches. Doves pace on the deck railing.

Many birds like to perch on the dead limbs that despite our best efforts at pruning still protrude over the backyard. There are only two large limbs, and I think they're unsightly. But they are full of leafless branches on which birds can perch and chatter and clean their beaks. I've come to appreciate the utility of these dead limbs and wouldn't want to remove them — even though they hang like swords of Damocles over the lawn.

Birds use perches to claim territory and assert power — the higher the better, of course. And in this they are not unlike humans.

But perches are also where birds sing and roost and court their mates. Perches are resting places, where birds watch the world go by. They are, in a word, home. 

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