Monday, October 31, 2016

Crystal City Underground

I knew they existed but am just beginning to explore them. "They" are a series of enclosed walkways and tunnels that honeycomb the Crystal City neighborhood.

Billed as an underground mall, the Crystal City shops are connected by wide, well-lit sidewalks (halls?!) that lead to a bakery, an optometrist, a theater ... and more.

Halloween would be a perfect day to write about subterranean walkways -- if only they were creepy, scary, low-ceilinged and cobwebby. They are anything but.

Still, they're odd enough that today's the perfect day to introduce them. The tunnels are one of the funkiest things about my new work 'hood — and the weirdness is welcome!

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Friday, October 28, 2016

Kitchen Window

At home today, and thinking about windows, especially the kitchen one, situated to give the dishwasher (the human one) a sylvan view. This time of year the view reminds me how much raking there is to do. But usually a glance outside is more calming.

I've looked out the kitchen window often in the past 27 years. I've see trees grow, age and die; leaves sprout, green and shade. While sudsing plates I've seen snow fall, sprinklers shower and kids run, bounce and swing.

The kitchen window faces south, and this time of year the sun is low enough to cast dancing shadows through the glass.

It's a window on the world, this window is. Or at least my little corner of it.


Thursday, October 27, 2016

Vienna Waits

At first I wasn't going to chance it today, the first day the Orange Line would be running straight through from Vienna to Ballston again. Forty-two days of track work had made me a Silver Line refugee.

Sure, I got used to it. The station is a little closer to my house, and there are these funky pop-up stores on the plaza. But the pop-up stores aren't open at 6:30 a.m., and there is the basic fact that I'm driving away from the city to get into it.

So today I threw caution to the wind. I drove that familiar route, the rolling Fox Mill, the many-curved Vale. And I parked in one of those ample spots and passed through that familiar turnstile.

What can I say except to channel Billy Joel:

But you know that when the truth is told
That you can get what you want or you can just get old
You're gonna kick off before you even
Get halfway through
When will you realize, Vienna waits for you ...

Cue the accordions. It's my stop, and it's back in business.


Wednesday, October 26, 2016

All in the Family

There were frost warnings, so I brought the two ferns in last night.

I was thinking when I did it about the living they've seen, not only this summer — the wedding, the weeding, the frantic painting of the deck furniture — but summers past, too. The smaller plant, in fact, has been around since Suzanne was a baby.

There's no secret involved, no green thumb. The fern is a survivor; that's all. And it looks like one, too: leggy and potbound.

After a while a plant becomes part of the family: the rumpled uncle, the delicate aunt, the crazy grandpa. Imperfect and lovable, one of our own.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Manhattan Minutes

It's the City that Never Sleeps — and I'm a person who doesn't sleep much. Not the best combination. Which is why I find myself typing these words at this hour in this city.

Do I do the practical thing, which is try to get a few more of those elusive 40 winks?

No, of course not. 

I'm answering work emails, writing posts, editing a story -- and getting ready to walk downtown. That last one — that's the fun part! 

For this trip I've had only minutes in Manhattan, but I'm trying to make the most of them.

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Monday, October 24, 2016

Passing the Birthday Torch

Yesterday we celebrated Suzanne's birthday at the newlywed's house. I've only spent two of my oldest daughter's last five birthdays with her — given the long sojourn in Africa — so this October 23 was cause for special celebration.

It felt like a passing of the torch. We came to her rather than the other way around. She showed us new paths for walking, the way the sun slants in her back windows, some wedding gifts they just received. There was a giant cookie rather than a cake.

But when we finally all gathered (arriving in three separate cars and one bike), there was lots of laughing and talking — while consuming great quantities nan, rice, lamb vindaloo and chicken tikka.

It's a marvelous ride, parenthood. Not always smooth, of course, but unstinting in the possibilities it provides for  surprise and gratitude and joy.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

The Wind Today

The wind is unsettling and brave. It rattles pipes and the branches. It shakes leaves from the trees. It is used to having its way. You might even say it is a bully, but that would not be fair.

The wind today is like rain, blowing with such intensity that I want to brush it out of my hair and eyes. I come inside from picking up the newspaper surprised to be dry.

I tried to take a picture of the wind, of the leaves swirling in its wake. This is all I could manage.

Should I walk now or wait? Wait, I think. It is difficult to be calm when branches are bending and air swirls around you in gusts and eddies. Best to hunker down with a good book and a cup of tea.


Friday, October 21, 2016

Smells Like Fall

A headline in the paper yesterday: Feels like summer, smells like fall. Exactly! Trees are yellowing and thinning. Leaves are piling up, collecting in gullies and storm drains. Mums are in their glory.

But all of this is happening (yes!) in 80-degree temps. The evenings have been chilly enough to set the trees on fire, but days are warm and mellow. It couldn't be better for someone who longs for summer temperatures all year long.

Meanwhile, that lovely aroma, the acrid smell of autumn, is in the air and on the tongue. These are days you wish would last. The color and the light, each day a drop of butterscotch or honey.


Thursday, October 20, 2016

Hillbilly Elegy

In Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance describes his unlikely journey from a chaotic childhood in Middletown, Ohio, to college, Yale Law School and a real shot at the American dream. It's been a good book to read during this crazy election season, as we have a national conversation (shouting match) about "making America great again."

While Vance does not disparage the government help he receives — the Pell grants and scholarships and the four years he spent in the Marine Corps that turned his life around — what made a difference for him, he says, was not policy but people: his grandparents, sister, aunts and uncles.

They were there to pick him up when he was down, to show him by example how to live his life. But they — his hillbilly tribe — have deep-seated problems of their own that government policies alone won't solve.

To read this book is to feel both depressed at the depth of these problems and inspired that someone can surmount them. It is, also, to realize how complex are the workings of the human heart.


Wednesday, October 19, 2016

See How They Run

Washington, D.C.'s Metro system has been much maligned lately, both here and, frankly, all over the media. But here's one advantage that is seldom mentioned: Metro keeps us in shape.

I thought about this today while running for a train. D.C. strap hangers know how long it will be until another train appears, so when they see one coming — especially at the end of the Silver Line, where the tracks are visible across a vast stretch of elevated sidewalk — they take off.

This is in addition to the escalator and stair-climbing (systems are often broken so you'll be climbing no matter which you take), the balance improved by frequent standing in crowded cars, and, of course, hanging on for dear life (great for upper body strength).

The commuting life is a healthy life, as long as you ignore the stress levels. Take those out of the equation and you have the perfect fitness opportunity. Puts a whole new spin on the words "in training." Why join a gym when you have Metro?


Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Moon Shadow

I took the flashlight, but I didn't use it. The moon was bright enough to light the road and throw shadows on it — dense and hulking where woods meets the road, a more delicate tracery where only a tree or two (and earth's atmosphere) stood between me and the orb.

The illuminated landscape was like a negative, an inside-out version of the view. Devoid of life and color, a dreamscape in black and white.

I passed no cars until I was on the way home, their harsh, artificial glare a counterpoint to the natural light.

It was like plunging into another world, this early morning walk, like visiting a barren island nation.

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Monday, October 17, 2016

One Year

Sometimes when I can't sleep I wander into Suzanne's old room, where there's a four-poster rope bed that I made up using Mom's quilt and pillow shams after my last trip to Kentucky. It's the same room where I've stored a lot of her jewelry, papers and photographs. I've whiled away many wee hours in there lately, reading and thinking, remembering her last days and hours.

Today marks a year. While it's been a full one in most senses of that word — personally, socially, politically — it seems little more than an instant since she died. Like the flipping of a switch or the turning of a dial, it's another world I live in now.

It's difficult to understand this new world in a few weeks or even in 52. The strangeness of it constantly surprises me. But there is one surety: I know she's at peace now, and that brings some comfort.

As for the long nights, when I get drowsy again I turn off the light and snuggle into the covers, her covers.  I feel her presence there in the dark, and finally, finally, I can sleep.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Week Without Metro

It wasn't planned, it just worked out that way, but as of yesterday, I've had one week without Metro. And yes, it's been nice! It won't last, of course. I can't pull off a drive everyday. But if nothing else I will appreciate the reading time more next week when I jump back on the much reviled public transportation system.

In general, a train or bus is a good place for walkers to be. You hoof it to the bus stop or the subway. You make it work.

But time is a factor, too. And with daylight hours dwindling, walkers need every minute they can find.

So let's hear it for a week without Metro ... and more Metro-less weeks to come!


Thursday, October 13, 2016

With Pen in Hand

The late Oliver Sacks was called "Inky" as a boy because he always had ink-stained fingers. He began keeping a journal at age 14 and had completed more than 600 of them by the time he died at the age of 82 in 2015. 

Sacks ended his autobiography On the Move with these words about writing's importance in his life:

The art of writing, when it goes well, gives me a pleasure, a joy, unlike any other. It takes me to another place — irrespective of my subject — where I am totally absorbed and oblivious to distracting thoughts, worries, preoccupation or indeed the passage of time. In those rare, heavenly states of mind, I may write nonstop until I can no longer see the paper. Only then do I realize that evening has come and I have been writing all day. 
 Over a lifetime, I have written millions of words, but the act of writing seems as fresh, and as much fun,  as when I started nearly seventy years ago.
In fact, he was writing with great clarity up until days before his died, his collaborator reported. "We are pretty sure he will go with a fountain pen in hand," she said.

I can't think of a better way.

(No photos of pens, but here's one of paper!)

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Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Twelve Years...

Twelve years ago I went to work in an office. I'm still not sure exactly why. I was busy as a freelance writer and had started teaching, too. But the magazine business was changing, and I felt isolated and creatively stuck. So I opted for camaraderie and a steady paycheck.

The work I have now challenges my mind, fills my days and even sends me out into the world every few months. I'm grateful for it. But that doesn't means the years aren't passing — and that time, the only currency we have, is dwindling more quickly than I'd like.

I'm resisting the temptation to add "A Slave" to this post title. That would be a cheap shot. But there are times (many times) when I miss the freelance freedom I used to have. And there are days (many days) when the words I write here are the lifeline, what gets me through.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Turning a Corner

Yesterday's drive to and from the office was like a dream. Forty minutes in and forty minutes out. I gained 100 minutes of free time. I know it was unusual, I know it won't hold up over time, but even if I saved 50 minutes, that's almost an hour (a daylight hour!) a day.

Put five of those together and you have a paragraph written,  a closet cleaned — a walk enjoyed.

Driving has its own frustrations. Stop-and-go traffic, crazy drivers, the inability to get anything else done at the same time. (I love my reading time on Metro.)

But a flip has been switched, a corner has been turned. Fifty minutes is 50 minutes.

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Monday, October 10, 2016

Ghost Land

The streets are deserted, the high-occupancy vehicle restrictions lifted, and I am abroad in a Ghost Land. The buildings are still here, the air system hums as it always does. But gone are the suits on the eleventh floor, the officers in camouflague gear, and most of all, the bustle of a busy work 'hood.

We are suspended in our glass house while wind whips the yellowing trees and stirs the Potomac into ripples and eddies. We are here where the coffee machine punctuates the silence and voices I've grown to recognize call from distant corners.

When you work in a company town, you accept the company rhythms. But today, I'm cutting against the grain. It's Monday, it's Columbus Day, I'm in the office.

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Saturday, October 8, 2016

Awe Walk

It helps us see things in new way, boosts our immune system and lowers our blood pressure. It's even being used to treat PTSD.

The emotion of awe is gaining new respect and appreciation, says an article in Parade magazine. Being in the presence of something that is beyond human scale and understanding — the kind of feeling we get from watching a sunrise or lying under a blanket of stars — can have a profound effect on ordinary living.

Being awe-struck often has an element of surprise, though; it is, almost by definition, out of the ordinary. How to make awe a more permanent part of our day?

Drop the devices and get outside, says the article. Visit a park, museum or planetarium. Or ... take an Awe Walk.

Ah, an "Awe Walk" ... sounds familiar!

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Friday, October 7, 2016

Afternoon Appeal

I'm a morning writer, so it feels a strange to be posting this in the afternoon. Afternoon is a time to wind down instead of up. It's a time to exercise and clean out a closet, to start dinner or have a cup of tea.

Truth to tell, afternoon is not my favorite time of the day. Is it anyone's? Maybe the late riser prefers afternoon, but only because it is his or her morning — undoubtedly an "a.m.-centric" attitude!

The thing about an afternoon post, though, is that it says, by its very existence, that intellectual effort may be expended even when one thinks it's too late to bother. And, by extrapolation, that it's never too late to start/try/begin again.


Thursday, October 6, 2016

Before the Storm

Today we send our thoughts southward to Florida, which braces itself for Hurricane Matthew.

I've grown fond of the Sunshine State, have reveled in its west coast beaches and marveled at its subtropical clime. And now I feel downright protective as it faces a category 4 storm.

Florida seems a large part water anyway, with its swamps and lagoons. How can it withstand this without serious damage to its roads and homes and shores?

I'm sending sunny thoughts Florida's way, in hopes that this passes quickly, that damage is minimal and the sun soon shines again.


Wednesday, October 5, 2016

A Writer's View

Alistair Macleod's No Great Mischief is a great-hearted tale of family and place. Set on Cape Breton Island and elsewhere in Canada, it makes me remember a trip there more than two decades ago.

What a rugged, misty place it is, the sort of place that would never leave a person. And it never left Macleod. I read this morning that he returned to his ancestral home most every summer to write exquisite short stories and this one fine novel. His writer's cabin was perched on a cliff where he could look out across the sea to Prince Edward Island.

Some writers prefer to ply their craft in a closeted space, physically confining but mentally liberating. I prefer (though unfortunately do not practice) Macleod's method — drawn back year after year to the place that created and nurtured me, with a simple desk and a view that captivates and frees.

(Photo: Wikipedia)

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Tuesday, October 4, 2016

October Sky

Out early for a walk this morning, just chilly enough for a light sweatshirt. The skies were clear and bright. I thought, as I often do when faced with the infinite, that I'd like to understand it better.

Not all of it, of course. Just to nibble around the edges of it, to know a little about astronomy, for instance.

Overhead for my walk this morning was one of the dippers, the little one, I think, and also Polaris, the North Star.

What a comfort to walk beneath this canopy of light, to feel both small and enlarged at the same time. Because isn't that what infinity does for us? Puts us in our place but also connects us with something larger than ourselves.

(Photo:; title: Homer Hickham)


Monday, October 3, 2016

Open Office

After days of rain, sunshine is once more pouring in the back half of the office, and the National Airport control tower stands out in high relief.

Unlike my old office, which fronted on an alley and whose lighting was controlled by whichever truck happened to be unloading at the time, this new office is like a vacant piece of sky.

Clouds, wind, rain — the place is open to all of these, and as such it takes on the character of the day. On rainy days the place feels cozy, almost like a big house where you stop and chat in the kitchen.

On sunny days, like today, it feels closer to the sun and clouds than the interior world of elevators and conference rooms. It's a little like a tree house, with the same openness to trees and wind. The windows and the reflected light, the glass and steel — they all bring the outside in.

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Saturday, October 1, 2016

Farewell to the Van

"For many families, it was a compromise made long ago," I wrote back in 2003. "For us, it is a new one. The day we bought our minivan it rained for the first time in weeks. It's a sign, I said. Even the heavens are crying."

Now the heavens are crying again, this time because the van has given way to a shiny new Toyota Corolla.

Though initially resistant to van-dom, I grew to love the old car. After all, it was the spiritual heir to the '60s woody station wagons, and as such reminded me of my youth in the back seat. The van was more comfortable, of course; these are modern children. But the basic principle remained the same: buy large vehicle and pack it with kids.

The van was a workhorse. It lapped up the miles without complaint, and wore its 240k with grace. In 14 years it gave us very little trouble. Though short on style it was long on practicality.  Its motto: I will get you there.

Oh, the carpools that car has known, the cellos and clarinets and sweaty track kids it has transported. The boats it has towed, the trips to college it has made, the moving of furniture into first apartments, including, just last month, the transporting of newlyweds to their home in Arlington. (We threw rice!)

All of which is to say, what a lot of living that car has known! So I can't let it go without a backward glance.

Thank you, dear van! We'll miss you!

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