Monday, November 30, 2015

Power of the Press

I saw the movie "Spotlight" with one of my favorite millennials. "It was a little slow," she said as we walked out, providing the perfect opening for a (groan) story.

Not that things were wonderful back in the days when you looked at old newspaper articles on microfiche (mine inevitably got jammed) and did research by looking at actual physical books (sometimes they actually physically were not there).

But watching the movie reminded me of the excitement of reporting a long, complicated story, something you'd immerse yourself in for weeks or months, something you'd begin to dream about or wake up thinking about.

It reminded me of the power of the press and the great profession of journalism, from which not only I (doing media relations at a law school) — but the whole country — has drifted. Few news organizations have the time and resources to devote to long-form investigative pieces. It's a sound-bite world, and we're all the poorer for it.

(Web offset printer, courtesy Wikipedia)

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Friday, November 27, 2015

A Door Ajar

It's a mild day so I write with the French doors slightly ajar. A small breeze wafts in across the deck. The deck where we hung out yesterday eating crab dip before the big feast.

Afterward there was a game of bocce ball — and some energetic raking preceded it. (Hard to play bocce ball with leaf piles everywhere.)

It was a different kind of Thanksgiving. New people to share it with. A tinge of sadness, too. A dish or two we've never tried before. All befitting a change, a shift.

I liken the shift to the door ajar. A door through which one sort of life has ended and another sort of life has begun.


Thursday, November 26, 2015

Smile, It's Thanksgiving!

Thankful for the warm air that's moved in today. Thankful for the walk I took before everyone was stirring. Thankful that the turkey is already in the oven. Thankful that the pies didn't totally burn up last night (they're only slightly singed). Thankful that someone else is bringing the rolls, sweet potatoes and whipped cream.

Thankful that when I picked up the dish detergent under the sink and found it sitting atop a crushed eggshell that it made me think of an eggshell mosaic I made when I was a kid. Thankful that the eggshell mosaic recollection triggered a happy, peaceful memory of Mom, who I miss so much.

Thankful that the stuffing is made and the green bean casserole soon will be. Thankful that the clan is gathering or has gathered. Thankful for a day that's about thankfulness.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Practicing Gratitude

The winds have stilled. The temperature has risen. Crows call from tree to tree. Thanksgiving has come a day early as I spend this half workday at home.

I'm glad not only because I save the three hours I would have spent commuting — which means a head start on the pumpkin pie and stuffing for the crowd of 14 that will be dining here tomorrow — but also because I have an extra day to practice gratitude.

It is, if not a muscle, at least a skill to be honed and fine tuned. One I should practice much more than I do.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

They're Home!

A little over a year ago we were making the sad trek to Dulles Airport for Suzanne's return flight. She would be in Africa another year before returning yesterday "for good" — or at least for a few years, which means "for good" when you're in your 20s.

Yesterday we watched many travelers emerge from Customs into the International Arrivals Terminal — a grandma who was instantly swarmed by two young grandsons, a man whose three beaded-hair daughters yelled "Daddy" and enveloped him in hugs.

And then, finally, emerging from the door, the two we were looking for. Appolinaire in a green sweatshirt over his West African print shirt, Suzanne in a thin flowered  blouse and a colorful lanyard for her passport pouch.

It was — they were — one of the most beautiful sights I've ever seen. But I saw them from a distance just for an instant, because soon they were smothered in hugs, too.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Out of Africa

The second leg of their trip has begun, the one that will bring Suzanne and Appolinaire from a  village in the north of Benin, West Africa, to Washington, D.C. The trip began last night in the little Cotonou Airport and continued with a brief stop in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, before landing in Istanbul, Turkey. There they boarded their U.S.-bound flight, and now they're heading home.

But preparations began over a year ago, pulling together the paperwork for the K-1 (fiance) visa, filling out forms, collecting photographs, sending the packet off and then waiting, waiting, waiting.

Luckily, the waiting was done in West Africa, a place where patience seems bred into the bone, where people think nothing of standing for hours on a hot roadside in hopes that the 200,000-plus-mile Peugeot that's been carrying them to the next village can once more be coaxed to life so they can  cram into it and get going.

This patience, and the shrugged shoulders and hopefulness that go with it, is an excellent trait to carry along to the new world. It will help them navigate a complex culture and the inevitable waiting times and snafus built into becoming first a resident and then a citizen of the United States.

We've been needing a lot of patience ourselves lately as we counted down to the day — November 23 — that we thought would never come. And we'll need an extra dose of it this evening as we crane our necks in Dulles' bustling International Arrivals Terminal, looking, looking, looking for a dazed young couple to walk through the doors and into our arms.

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Saturday, November 21, 2015

State of the Leaves

More leaves have fallen than are falling. They drift up against the fence and under the azaleas. They crinkle under foot. They cluster in the garden, cushioning each chrysanthemum petal that drops quietly to the ground.

In the woods some leaves hang on, stands of red and yellow, brave flags flying. And even in the backyard a yellow poplar shimmers in the breeze.

But by this point in the season, leaves have become the enemy. They must be raked or mowed, bagged or strewn. They are duty, not poetry.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Tale of Two Temperatures

It's 90 degrees today in Cotonou, Benin. It was 40 degrees when I woke up in Oak Hill, Virginia. Fifty degrees of separation — that's a lot for a person who's never experienced winter.This is just one of the many adjustments we'll be witnessing in a few days.

I've been pulling for one of those warm winters that can sometimes grace these parts, especially when there's an El Nino pattern. But the next few days promise brisk winds and seasonable temps, and my purple (excuse me, aubergine) wool coat has already been pressed into service.

Nothing to do but go with the flow, whether it's warm or cold. Nothing to do now but hold on for the ride!

(Rush hour in Cotonou from the back of a zemidjan.)

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Wednesday, November 18, 2015


Though I live in the suburbs, there are rural aspects to my neighborhood. Septic systems rather than sewers. A stubborn attachment to winding two-lane roads. And then there are the farms behind the houses across the street.

These are not big operations with silos and combines. These are not even the "gentleman farms" I got to know in New England. (Now those are my kind of spreads — picturesque orchards run by retired heads of English Departments.)

These are four-acre parcels with houses of varying value. Some still have the original ranches and split-foyers, but most have large multi-gabled mansions that were built after the originals were torn down.

Sometimes I walk on the trails that wind through this neighborhood. I imagine the kind of place I'd like to have — herbs, flowers, chickens, a writing cabin in the back — nothing profitable, of course. I while away time moseying and fantasizing.

But usually, before I get home, something has brought me up short. Maybe it's a prickle-bush barring entry to a favorite cut-through. Or a pile of manure I notice too late. Some bit of rural reality that intrudes on my fantasies. "Neigh," say the horses in the pasture.

Nay, indeed.

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Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Springtime Color

I see it from the back of the yard, a bright spot of color in the autumn garden. In a land of browns and russets this pinkish rosey purple stands out.

It's just a mum that I transplanted in the summer, a potted plant left to root in the hodgepodge end of the flower bed. Truth be told I had forgotten about it. But now it's reminding me of all the springtime colors that await us.

Only four more months till Easter.


Monday, November 16, 2015

Four Walls

It was a weekend to clean and organize. Dust was flying — so much so that I thought for a while I must be catching a cold. No, I was catching a house. A house that had been languishing for lack of attention lately, but a house looking much better after a few days of vacuuming and polishing.

I've been in the house a lot less lately and so have been appreciating it more. I love the way afternoon sun slants in the kitchen this time of year. It reminds me of the old days when the kids were young and playing underfoot there. One of them in the play kitchen that was tucked under the counter, another in the playpen parked in the living room in front of the hutch and the other stirring suds in the sink.

Oh, I was harried, I'm sure. I had a magazine deadline of some sort — I always did.  My mind was probably filled with the interviews I had to do and the errands I needed to run for the girls — new shoes or hair cuts.

But I have those days inside of me now, and the girls do, too. And soon  — God willing, a week from today! — we will all be reunited in that kitchen, as Suzanne returns after three and a half years in Africa. Returns not alone but with a Beninese fiance, Appolinaire Abo, soon to be our son- and brother-in-law!

So much has happened within these four walls, so much more will.

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Saturday, November 14, 2015

Darkness and Light

Today I'm thinking about Paris, about my dear friend Kay who has made it her home for decades. I'm thinking about the beauty of the place, the bridges and buttresses, the way the windows catch the setting sun.

I'm thinking about the forces of civilization and the forces of darkness and how their struggle is playing out across a world stage. And I'm thinking about our cities here, especially the one I now call home: the broad avenues and crisp flags flying. This city and all cities vulnerable.

Last night, watching the dazed survivors being carried to ambulances, listening to those who witnessed the horror first hand, it seemed that all was darkness, that morning would never come. Now the morning has come, but the horror is still with us. The sunlight has an edge to it and the clouds seem lower than before.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Landscapes of Childhood

"We think it essential that a 5-year-old learn to read, but perhaps it is as important for a child to learn to read a landscape," says Washington Post columnist Adrian Higgins in his article "The British Forest That Gave Life to Pooh."

Higgins is the Post's gardening columnist, and he came to this topic after reading The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh, a new book by Kathryn Aalto. Aalto is a garden designer who spent time in the places where A.A. Milne lived with his wife and young son Christopher Robin. Milne drew on these landscapes to create his fictional world. There was the walnut tree that housed Pooh, and Owl's aerie in an ancient beech. There was the real Five Hundred Acre Wood.

The beauty of the English landscape — and Milne's memories of his own childhood decades earlier — made its way into the stories, and as such stands as a testimony not only to the power of topography but also to how important it is in the life of the imagination.

"As important as the Pooh stories remain, they speak to something of greater value, the importance of landscapes to children, places they return to, places they own, places to stage their own dramas, and places that imprint themselves on the mind," Higgins writes.

I found these landscapes in the broad bluegrass meadows of central Kentucky, my children found them in the yards and woods of suburban Virginia. It doesn't take a 500-acre wood; sometimes just an empty lot will do.

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Thursday, November 12, 2015

Two Cities

There are some advantages to living in a company town. One of them occurs on Veteran's Day, when most of the government workforce is at home padding around in slippers and the city (or most of it) is left to the rest of us.

Yesterday First Street was almost empty as I fast-walked down to Constitution and then to Third. No one was picking up a salad at Phillip's Sandwich Shop. No one taking a smoke break at the Hyatt service entrance.

And then ... I reached the Mall.

While the rest of the city was in Sunday shut-down mode, the museum-and-monument district was bustling with life. There were babies in strollers and (seemingly a new trend) dogs in strollers. There were selfie-takers striving for just the right photograph with the Washington Monument. There were joggers and cyclists and pedicabs and double-decker buses, all in a glorious jumble. The carousel was doing a brisk business, too.

There are always two cites here, the one the tourists see and the other, workaday one. But today the boundaries between those two cities were etched in high relief.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Walkers Awake

Yesterday I walked to Metro in an almost rain that required almost an umbrella — but you could get away without one. It was  refreshing.

A misty gloaming, the end of a deluge, meant that those who were fed up with the pelting had given up on any barrier between them and the sky.

And then you had people like me, people cooped up in an office all day and glad for the feel of the elements, any elements.

So I walked quickly, thinking I could dodge the occasional fat drop or two. In my ears the Bach cantata "Sleepers Awake." Trumpet soaring; organ chords giving me a rhythm for footfall, a walking bass line. I let the contrapuntal melody move me forward.

It took three and a half plays of "Sleepers Awake" to reach Metro Center. I was a little damp but no worse for the wear.

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Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Stark Days

Sunday morning, out early in a new day, I felt the difference immediately. The road was lighter, the woods yawning open to the left and right. 

It wasn't a cheerful lightness. It was a vacancy. Something was missing.

It took me a minute to realize what had happened, that the hard rains of Saturday had flushed most of the leaves from the trees, that we had, overnight, slipped from autumn into winter. That the stark days had begun.


Monday, November 9, 2015

Running up the Rocky Steps

I saved a Philadelphia memory to start the week. The destination of my Friday afternoon walk was the Philadelphia Art Museum steps. I wanted to see the Rocky statue and the view of downtown from that perch. I wanted to run up the steps.

My route wound in from the river, so I started at the top of the plaza with the tourists, those who'd already run the stairs and were pumping their arms above their heads with the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and City Hall spread out behind them.

I knew that there was a Rocky Balboa statue at the foot of the steps so I made my way to it and snapped a few shots. As I turned to do the stair climb myself, a little reluctantly — I was tired! — I saw a gaggle of high-schoolers, at least 30 or more, spring from a bus. They were moving so fast  they were a blur. But there was no mistaking it: They were racing — not running but racing — up the 72 stone steps. Behind them three or four adults — teachers, I guess — were in fast pursuit. There was no way they could catch up, but they were trying.

It was funny, it was crazy, it was one of those "life force" moments so full of energy and joy that I knew I would remember it forever. After I saw it, I had no choice but to run up the steps myself. At the top I felt breathless and happy and ready to go home.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Schuylkill River Walk

The meeting ended a few hours before the Northeast Regional left 30th Street Station so I had enough time to stroll from my West Philly hotel, down Chestnut to 34th, then Spruce, then across the Schuylkill to the walk that runs beside it.

It was Friday afternoon, sun had broken through the clouds, and the temperature was about 70. I joined the baby-stroller-joggers, cyclists, skateboarders and others heading north along the river.

I almost went to the Barnes Museum — one of the Philadelphia's new premier attractions — but I like to think that in walking we get a glimpse of the true city, the one that exists beneath the attractions.

There were glimpses of skyline with tall grasses in the foreground, there was the sun striking the water; there were all the people and conversations. There was, above all, the joy of moving through space, a space new to me, thrilling in its unknowns.

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Thursday, November 5, 2015

Up the Northeast Corridor

Yesterday I climbed aboard the Northeast Regional to travel up to a meeting in Philadelphia. On the way out of town, I spotted a familiar landmark of northeast D.C., the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. I used to work next door to the basilica, so I always look for it when I can. Its rotunda and its Marian blue always bring a pang of nostalgia.

I planned to review notes and read on the train. Instead I almost instantly fell asleep. Train travel does that to me, the rocking motion, the blurred scenery, the clickety-clack.

Let's make a deal, said my seat mate. Whoever is awake will let the other know we're in Philadelphia. (He had told me when he sat down that he was getting off there, too.) But as it turned out, we were both awake, and he kindly pointed the way to Market Street as we left the station.

The sun was low in the sky when I started walking to the hotel, but the streets were full of students, and I was on my own in a big city.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Walking Key Bridge

On Friday I had reason to visit Georgetown's main campus — or, rather, an office building 20 minutes away from it. Though I work at Georgetown's law school, I seldom visit the rest of the campus, what's fondly called the Hilltop.

It's a beautiful spot, perched above the Potomac and set apart from the rest of the city. But it's not easy to reach by Metro.  My favorite way to go, though most would say the most arduous, is to get off in Virgina at the Roslyn Station, wend my way through downtown Arlington and then stroll across the Key Bridge.

Friday's weather was brisk. I wore a jacket and scarf. I considered gloves. But none of this mattered once I started across the span. There are the spires of Healy Hall ahead, and beside the campus the narrow, treed lanes of a much older city. Below is the Potomac, and, if you're lucky, a crew team skimming across it. The bridge is clogged with trucks and cars and bikes. All is movement and brightness and wind.

And once in the District, there is an impossibly steep hill to climb. They don't call it the Hilltop for nothing. Motion, sunshine, new vistas — my heart was lighter than it had been in days. And all because I walked Key Bridge.

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Tuesday, November 3, 2015

New Hour, New World

Yesterday I left the office, walked out the door and saw a sky lit from within, clouds shimmering with light and a flock of birds swooping in and out of sight.

It was a different hour, a different light, made possible by the time change. And while it means I leave and return home in darkness, it also means that my walk to Metro takes me by flaming trees, slanting sun and illuminated office windows that reveal what's inside. Plants and posters, an American flag.

It was a new hour — and because of that — a new world.

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Monday, November 2, 2015

Lamplit Afternoon

This weekend I bought a lampshade. It's for the big standing lamp in the living room, an ancient item rejiggered. "Bring your old shade with you," said the sign in the store, as I made my way over to what seemed an impossibly large array of shades.

Of course I didn't do this. I had measurements, but I'd forgotten how many styles of lampshades there are: the empire, hexagon, bell, drum or pagoda. I spent close to a half an hour in that shop, lifting shades from their spot on the shelf, measuring the top diameter and the bottom diameter, the height from base to crown.

The one I finally chose lacks the old-world lines of its predecessor, but it fits and its lining is secure — unlike the old shade with its renegade lining.  And when I turned on the lamp yesterday — not at night but in the afternoon, thanks to our return to standard time — I was glad to be entering this season of early darkness with well-filtered illumination.
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