Thursday, April 30, 2015

Election Day

In Benin, West Africa, more than four and a half million people were expected to cast votes in the parliamentary elections held last Sunday.

Land borders were closed during the election, and Suzanne has been on "steadfast," which is another way of saying "lock down." She can't leave her post, which in her case this year is the capital but which for many Peace Corps volunteers is a tiny village.

I read that yesterday an observer from the African Union declared Benin's elections to be "transparent" though with some "organizational challenges." I can only imagine. Benin has been independent only since 1960, and there are coups and one-party elections in its not-so-recent past.

A reminder of what fair elections mean to all free people — and a reminder of the marvelous and somehow workable chaos of that beautiful country.


Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Walk to the Station

Sometimes a body gets so tired sitting in one place for most of the day that when the body gets up to make its weary way to Metro, well, the body just wonders how this will actually happen.

Funny thing, though. As soon as the body gets moving, the body revives. Across the bridge, down E Street, past the courts, past the museum. There are streets to cross, "don't walk" lights flashing. And there are corners to pause on, waiting for traffic to subside.

Doesn't matter. The momentum is there. Even with the starting and the stopping the forward motion is still in the toes and the balls of the feet, and it banishes the weariness.

Into the Penn Quarter now. Folks in red jerseys are going to a Capitals game. Office-workers slowing down in front of a watering hole; maybe they'll watch the game on screen. Tourists milling around the Spy Museum.  But most of us are going home. The tide of movement is more out than in.

And the tide carries me from E to F Streets, past the bakery and the wax museum and the boutiques, past the shoppers and the bus-waiters, right to the dim, inviting Metro entrance, the escalators (if I'm lucky) working, and the hustle bustle of life underground making it impossible to do anything but move quickly along the platform until I reach the spot where I always stand, first entrance, second car, one of the less crowded spots.

Soon the train zooms up and I'm aboard. Not really sure how this all happened ... but it did!

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Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Baltimore Burning

The news had escaped me until after dinner. Baltimore was burning. The governor was declaring a state of emergency. The National Guard was moving in.

I have a daughter a dozen miles from center city, so the situation took on a greater urgency. But whose heart doesn't skip a beat when the streets of a major American city are in chaos, when buildings are being looted, police attacked?

As is so often the case, the "cure" is worse than the disease. Or maybe the cure is the disease. Maybe we can no longer tell the difference.

I remember when Baltimore's slogan was "The City That Reads," a slogan too easily mocked with "the city that bleeds." Now it's the city that burns. But what city does not have this capacity? I think we're all asking ourselves that question right now.


Monday, April 27, 2015

White Shoes

Before they are no longer new and no longer white I pause here to celebrate my new white tennis shoes. Anyone who has shopped for jogging shoes lately knows you can find plenty in day-glow orange or hot pink — but pitifully few plain white ones anymore. Even the sales clerks are apologetic.

My philosophy on shoes is that fit trumps everything, so I've had to swallow my love of the simple and inconspicuous lately to ensure that my toes aren't scrunched and my heels aren't slipping.

This year, however, there was a welcome confluence of fit and color, and I'm now the proud owner of white shoes (albeit with fluorescent green laces).

Not for long, of course. The toes are already smudged. But that's a small price to pay for having them white to start off with.


Saturday, April 25, 2015

The Signature of All Things

Once again, I've just finished reading a book on Kindle. This little device, which I welcomed with a "be gone from me, Satan" comment when my brother gave it to me one Christmas, has definitely come in handy the last few years. I've noticed, however, and have described here, that I can't seem to remember what I read on the thing!

That will not be the case with The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert. I'll remember this book even though I've never really held it in my hands, even though the length of it was not immediately apparent to me. (I don't always pay attention to those little percentage marks in the right-hand corner.) I'll remember it because it's a big, messy, life-loving novel of a type I don't read much anymore.

I'll remember it for eponymous passages like this one:
“the signature of all things”—namely, that God had hidden clues for humanity’s betterment inside the design of every flower, leaf, fruit, and tree on earth. All the natural world was a divine code, Boehme claimed, containing proof of our Creator’s love.
And for less splashy lines like these:  
Have you ever noticed how the most splendid lilacs, for instance, are the ones that grow up alongside derelict barns and abandoned shacks? Sometimes beauty needs a bit of ignoring, to properly come into being.
I'll remember it for the character of Alma, a woman who gracefully accepts disappointments and challenges and who at the end of her life says she was fortunate because was able to spend it "in study of the world. As such, I have never felt insignificant. This life is a mystery, yes, and it is often a trial, but if one can find some facts within it, one should always do so — for knowledge is the most precious of all commodities."

Like all good books, this one left me feeling closer to the heart of things. It left me feeling more alive.


Friday, April 24, 2015

Freeze Frame

It's 37 degrees as I write these words, with highs reaching only the mid 50s.  Not the most desirable temperature trajectory — with one notable exception. The cooler it is (within reason), the longer spring will last.

Take today, a wonderful juncture to freeze-frame — the azaleas just budding, trees just greening, the dogwood, redbud and Kwanzan cherries at their glorious peaks.

Speaking of redbud, the wild cousins of these suburban trees were in full bloom on my drive last weekend. They lined the road for miles in spots, a pinkish-purple haze along the highway.

I hope they're in freeze-frame now too.


Thursday, April 23, 2015

A Bevvy of Bikers

I heard them before I saw them. A low-pitched whirring not unlike what we experienced during the summer of the cicada invasion.

But these weren't insects; they were bikers!

Every Tuesday evening from April through October, scores of cyclists (who should probably not be called bikers but I couldn't resist the alliteration) skim along Reston's suburban thoroughfares. They zoom by so impossibly fast that all I sometimes catch of them is a blur of movement.

If I'm close enough (as I was night before last), I might pick up a bit of conversation or laughter, a few words out of context. But other than that, the cyclists scarcely seem human. It's as if person and bike have melded into one creature, a centaur of sorts. An impression that running in packs only reinforces.

After one or two packs swish by there is usually a straggler or two, huffing and puffing and bringing up the rear. They are the lucky ones. In it but not in it. Far enough away to know what they are part of.


Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Promise of Spring

The clouds moved in yesterday as Copper and I took a leisurely stroll through the woods. Clouds at sunset confuse the rambler, take away the visual cues of angled light. So we wandered farther than I intended, deep into the forest where the skunk cabbage borders tadpole pools.

I peered at the tiny creatures darting in the shallow water, thought about the frogs they will become if nature gives them a chance.

At this point in the season, all is potential. Nowhere is this clearer than in the woods. Here there are clusters of violets and carpets of spring beauties, but there isn't the color and greenery you see in suburban yards. There are no flowering cherries here, no tulips or phlox. I did spot a couple of Virginia bluebells but those were in the community meadow.

For parts of our walk, we could have been ambling through late winter. But we weren't. There was a freshness in the air, a humidity and promise. It was spring all right.

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Tuesday, April 21, 2015

A Lilac, Finally

The lilacs in Groton, Massachusetts, hung their heavy heads over Martins Pond Road, and when I would go for runs in those days I would look forward to their company. You didn't have to sniff each individual flower. The scent was everywhere, part of the general spring exhalation.

I'm not a lilac expert, but I can tell these plants aren't suited for D.C.'s warm, humid climate. Still, I have a transplanted one my brother gave me a dozen years ago, tucked away in what would seem to be a perfect corner of the yard. Every year I scan it for blossoms; every year I'm disappointed.

Yesterday I tiptoed up to the lilac and searched for flowers. There were the familiar glossy leaves, the sprig of forsythia which somehow started growing at its base. I was almost ready to walk away when I saw at the very tip-top the palest hint of lavender. It was a slender, anemic-looking blossom, but a blossom just the same.

It has a way to go before it looks like this lilac, which I snapped last weekend in Lexington. But it's a start.

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Monday, April 20, 2015

What Used to Be

Here's what a walk is like in your hometown, every block a memory.

There's my old high school; there's my new one. There's where I lived when I taught high school.

There's where a fellow teacher lived who gave me a ride when it was raining.

There's where my friend Joelle lives, a Bluegrass Trust beauty of a house with Buddhist prayer flags strung across the portico.

There's the bakery that I always reach 10 minutes after it closes (thank God).

There's the old house and the old, old house.

There's the rag-tag park where we used to play. It smelled of earth then, and wet concrete. Now it's filled with earth-moving equipment.

There's the steep hill to the park, down which Dad once sledded, right into the creek.

I saw plenty of new houses, new trees, new people. But I hardly noticed them.

Instead I saw what used to be.

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Sunday, April 19, 2015


The soil is rich here in central Kentucky, dark loam that sends forth an incredible profusion of spring blooms.

But what has struck me this visit is not the soil but the air. It is, quite simply, perfumed. I walk the familiar streets inhaling at every turn.

There are great, heavily laden lilac bushes, their flowers just waiting to be sniffed. And then there is another smell in the air. Is it apple blossoms? Spirea?

Whatever it is, it conjures up for me a childhood spent outdoors, and in the spring of the year, those first warm days,  the heady plunge back into that natural life.

So it is not just the current spring I am taking in, but all the springs before.

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Friday, April 17, 2015


Our late start spring means daffodils and cherries and pears all together.  It means the new spring green of the tree buds popping quickly, banishing winter grays and browns in 24 or 48 hours.

Wood poppies join the sweet woodruff. Forget-me-nots crowd the periwinkle.

It's compressed, intense, riotous. It's spring, finally.


Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Capitol and the Copter

I'm setting aside other post ideas today to write about one of the zanier things that's happened lately in the nation's capital. I speak, of course, of the 61-year-old mailman who landed his gyrocopter on the west Capitol lawn to draw attention to the need for campaign finance reform.

The Secret Service didn't intercept him, nor did NORAD. People in the area (if only I had been on one of my Wednesday walks!) told the Washington Post that the craft looked official with its Postal Service logo. Only when officers surrounded the craft did one bystander realize that "it was someone doing something crazy."

When I lived in New York, people were always doing crazy things. Now that I live in buttoned-down D.C., the crazy things happen less often but are more notable. A farmer driving a tractor to the Mall and threatening to blow it up. A number of White House intruders, one of whom made it all the way to Obama's quarters before being noticed. An intelligence agency employee who accidentally crashed a drone on White House grounds.

I'm tempted to say "only in D.C." ... but I won't!

(The lawn in the foreground = copter's landing pad.)

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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Truth and its Consequences

The Nobel Prize-winning author Gunter Grass died in Germany on April 13. His obituaries note the profundity of his novels as well as the shameful secret he carried into his late seventies: that Grass, the moralist who scolded Germany for its Nazi past, was himself a member of the SS.

Years ago I read The Tin Drum, which hardly makes me an expert on the author or his work. I write this post only to mention a comment (quoted below) that I read in his Washington Post obituary — that whether you praise or condemn Gunter Grass, his secret past may well have been what inspired his art.
"If Grass had not been living with this wretched little skeleton in his closet, he might never have written a word," journalist Nathan Thornburgh wrote in Time magazine in 2006. "Instead a haunted Grass cranked out a series of brutal novels about the war [that] helped his entire country stave off collective amnesia for decades."
Such is the power of art to wound, to salve, to ignite, to free.


Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Lincoln Cottage

One hundred and fifty years ago today, President Lincoln was shot in Ford's Theater. He was carried to a house across the street where he died hours later.

I pass the theater often on my walk home from work, pass it without looking, without thinking, pass it apparently without photographing it — since I've looked through all my photos and can't seem to find one picture of the place.

The house above meant a lot to Lincoln. It was his getaway, his Camp David. Now called the Lincoln Cottage (located on the grounds of the Soldier's Home), it was where he escaped from the city to write, to think, to spend time with his family. He would sometimes ride the three miles from the White House to the cottage unaccompanied — and he survived at least one assassination attempt en route.

Death was in the air here, too. The Lincoln Cottage was located within the grounds of a military cemetery and fresh graves were being dug at an alarming pace. But Lincoln treasured the relative tranquility of the place and wrote the final draft of the Emancipation Proclamation here. This humble house gave him peace.

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Monday, April 13, 2015

Smooth Move

This week Metro returns to automatic train control on the Red Line. Sounds insignificant — but it isn't. Since the accident in June, 2009, that killed nine people, Metro conductors have used individual controls for stopping and starting. And stopping and starting. And stopping and starting.

Which means that some operators hit the right point on the platform first time around, and others — uh, do not.

Which means that some passengers keep on reading the paper, using their phones, playing Sudoku, while others — the ones with weaker stomachs — sit very still and hope for fresh air soon.

The automatic train control promises a less herky-jerky traveling experience. Legato not staccato. But this will be available only on the Red Line (which shares no tracks) until 2017, when the Orange, Silver, Blue, Yellow and Green Lines follow suit.

I ride the Orange Line for a dozen stops, the Red Line for two. I can't wait for my short, smooth ride.


Friday, April 10, 2015

Chilled Blossoms

The cherry blossoms will peak this weekend, but I was downtown yesterday. So I hiked over to the Tidal Basin in the cold mist. And once there, I walked all the way around it, because that is what you do — even if it's 45 degrees.

There was the same beauty, the same pageantry, the same fairytale canopy of white blossoms to stroll beneath.

There was a couple posing for an engagement photo, shivering in a sleeveless dress and thin cotton shirt while the photographers shouted at them to embrace one more time.

There were three guys snapping shots of a pair of tennis shoes atop an ancient gnarled trunk.

There were clots of tourists at the predictable places, the Martin Luther King statue and the Jefferson Memorial, following guides with furled umbrellas.

But because of the weather, there was also space, open pavement, more than one empty straightaway.

The blossoms, mostly open, entirely chilled, looked like they'll last forever. But I know better. This time next week, they'll be gone. 

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Thursday, April 9, 2015

Warming Up

Yesterday's walk was cold and damp. Tourists were unprepared, wearing thin windbreakers and cotton sweaters with no buttons. Anyone who had a hood was wearing a hood. It was that kind of day.

I had 30 minutes and wanted to make the most of them. And it wasn't actually raining (as it is now). What else to do but walk as fast as I could without running, stoke the human engine? Pull my hands into my sleeves, cinch the belt as tight as possible... and go. 

Traffic lights work against this process, since it's all about momentum. But once I was on the Capitol grounds I was warmed up within minutes. 

The transfer of movement into heat is one of those daily miracles. Yesterday it came in very handy.

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Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Inside Out

I write from home this morning, not always a given these days. What I see as I look at the French doors is a reflection of the piano light, the only one I flipped on this morning.

If I were to sit here long enough I would see that light, and the open music book (Schumann, "Forest Scenes") it illuminates, fade away. In its place, the cloudy day outside.

It's not unlike a church at night, stained glass windows gleaming into the void. Dark on the inside without the sun to flood through them.

From 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. we see ourselves; from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. we see the world. At this time of year  an equal measure of both. 

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Baltimore Before Breakfast

Yesterday I drove Celia to campus after a quick Easter visit. We left before dawn and I was back in my home office as the work day started.

A drive that early seems almost not to have happened. As the hours passed, as I wrote and edited and answered e-mails, snatches of those highway moments  slipped into my brain unbidden, like the vaporous trails of dreams scarcely remembered upon waking.

Was I really just rounding the curve after the split? Did I zoom over the Patuxent River, which I vow to explore more thoroughly every time I cross it? Was that lumbering car trailer alongside me for far too much of the way? The tunnel, the straightaway, the toll booth? Yes, yes and yes.

But by nightfall those early hours had left a weariness in my bones. The morning drive was real, for sure. Today, just the usual jaunt on Metro, a much tamer way to start the day.

(This is not the road to Baltimore.)

Monday, April 6, 2015

Easter Monday

Yesterday passed in a blur of family and friends, of early rising, early church, roasting and baking, stirring and stuffing. For many, today is a holiday, a day off work or school, time to ease back into ordinary life, to put aside the apron — or the bunny ears.

Claire and Celia assure me that no animals were harmed in the taking of this photo — unless you count excessive treat consumption as harm.

We have often wondered if Copper feels embarrassed by some of the costumes imposed upon him through the years. The only one we were sure about was when we dressed him in a hot dog costume one Halloween. That was ... until yesterday. These bunny ears are a close second.

(Photo: Claire Capehart)


Saturday, April 4, 2015


On a walk yesterday I saw the forsythia, its stems plump with blooms held in check. I saw the red furze of the maples budding. The few daffodils were hanging their heads in the chill breeze that blew in. They were waiting too, waiting for the warmth to return.

Downtown, I hear, blossoms are already unfolding. But here, where I live, on this Easter Saturday, it is still a day of waiting.

The whole of this winter-gouged, potholed world is poised for spring.


Friday, April 3, 2015

Warm Morning

Sixty-two when I woke up, the first warm morning in a while. Taste of rain in the air. A breeze that stirs the ornamental grass and clatters the wind chimes.

There is warmth that builds steadily through the hours, from a chill sunrise to a parched afternoon. And then there is warmth given from the start, a gift to utilize or to squander.

Today we have the latter — and it brings a coziness to the house. We're here already, no need to strive, to be hopeful about the angle of the sun or the tilt of the wind.

It's the difference between a day that grows into itself and one that starts off fully formed, has everything to lose.

This, of course, assumes warmth to be desirable, which is not always the case. But on this April 3, after this February and this March, it most certainly is.

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Thursday, April 2, 2015

Pain and Perspective

Today I think of Emily Dickinson's line, "After great pain a formal feeling comes." It was "only" a toothache, but for last two days it brought me great pain. And though I have not exactly experienced the formal feeling that Dickinson felt in its wake, I have felt relief at the return of normal sensations.

What little thinking I could do when in its throes, I pondered what it would be like to live always in such misery. Some people do. Can we not all forgive them for ending it?

Great pain brushes small concerns aside. It is both a great equalizer and a great perspective-bringer. None of us asks for it. But it's a part of life, and from time to time, we are forced to remember that.


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