Friday, March 31, 2017

The Righteous Mind

In The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, Jonathan Haidt uses moral psychology to explain political polarization. One of his major points is that when we make decisions we may think conscious reasoning is in charge, but actually it's just a puny human rider sitting atop a large, strong elephant (the automatic and intuitive part of our brains). The elephant almost always wins.

What does this have to do with politics? Actually it has to do with everything, but Haidt applies it to politics in this book by pointing out that we're often unaware of the motivations that underlie our political choices and the narratives that bind us.

Published in 2012, this book long precedes the current political paralysis — but as I read it I had many aha moments. More than Hillbilly Elegy or any newspaper or magazine article, it explains how we ended up with the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

It's difficult to summarize the nuances of Haidt's argument in one post, but here's one of the passages I found most useful.:"If you are trying to change an organization or a society and you do not consider the effects of your changes on moral capital, you’re asking for trouble. This, I believe, is the fundamental blind spot of the left. It explains why liberal reforms so often backfire ... It is the reason I believe that liberalism—which has done so much to bring about freedom and equal opportunity—is not sufficient as a governing philosophy. It tends to overreach, change too many things too quickly, and reduce the stock of moral capital inadvertently."

What to do now? Most of all, try to understand ourselves and each other. And, of course, read. On my nightstand now: The Happiness Hypothesis, Haidt's first book.

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Thursday, March 30, 2017

Finding the Source

I'm skipping the cherry blossoms at the Tidal Basin this year, an annual ritual I haven't missed in 10 years. This is in part because of the cold-stunted blooms this year and in part because I can't easily walk to the show.

But cherry blossoms are everywhere. Even on my 12-minute walks around the block. And I'm not the only one who notices.

It's not a matter of traveling to the source, but of finding the source wherever you happen to be.

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Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Opportunities for Awe

Yesterday's walk took me along a Reston trail. It was late afternoon, balmy and blooming, with crows cawing in the swamp.

I thought  about the name of this blog, "A Walker in the Suburbs." I thought about how if you didn't know my suburb, you might envision streets of sameness, void of nature and texture.

You might not imagine this immersion in a natural world: stream gurgling, peepers peeping, smell of loam in the air. You might discount the opportunities for awe. 

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Tuesday, March 28, 2017


I'd like to say the thunder woke me up, but I was already awake and reading when I heard the first clap. But it did jolt me, and, more to the point, it upset Copper so that he scratched on the door to be comforted.

I escorted him to the basement, his place of safety — though if he only knew how many precariously stacked books and boxes are down there he might seek higher ground.

But burrowing and sheltering have their appeal. I thought about this over the weekend when I draped a comforter over some chairs on the deck to air it out and was immediately reminded of the blanket forts my brother and I made when we were young.

How cozy they were, how beguiling, as if no one would ever find us, as if (it seems to me now), we would never grow up.

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Monday, March 27, 2017

Georgetown Stroll

A Georgetown walk can be full of stops and starts. Crowds bustle and churn. Sidewalks narrow and buckle. Cars jockey for spaces.

This is one of the oldest parts of D.C., and it does not always hum to a modern pace. You can't drive fast here; the four-way stops see to that. And you can't walk fast here, either — at least not on a crowded Sunday afternoon.

But if you hit a lull, and the gods are with you, you can at least stroll. And if you do, this is what you see:

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Saturday, March 25, 2017

Sound Cues

Our parakeets live in a world of sound cues. Even in the dark of early morning, even with their cage covered, they wake to the sounds of the day.

A pair of creaky knees coming down the stairs.  The jingle of a dog's collar. The squeak of the back door as the dog is let out. The early wild birds waking with plaintive chirps.

And then there are the water noises: the filling of the kettle, the tea water coming to a boil.

I often keep them covered for a while because they're so noisy, but they know when the day begins. They don't doubt or second-guess themselves.

If only I could say the same.

(Sid and Dominique in 2012. Rest in peace, Sid, gone almost a year now. Instead of Sid there is ... Alfie. And he's another story altogether.)


Friday, March 24, 2017

Final Farewell

First, it was the elephants. Then it was the clowns. Turns out, there was a good reason to feel sorry for the circus.

These are the final days of the Ringing Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Its last performances are in May, and the last ones here are next week.

I've never been a circus fanatic but there's something so sad about the end of this tradition. I know, it's kinda creepy and the opposite of PC. But it was a big deal before the advent of continual palm-held entertainment, something that linked the generations: my parents went, they took us and then they took my kids.

I wondered in my last circus post if this institution would be around in 20 years. I was off by 18. In little more than a month, it will be the end for the Greatest Show on Earth.

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Thursday, March 23, 2017

Evening View

Now that we're in Daylight Savings Time, I can bounce on the trampoline in the daylight, not the darkness. It's more inhibiting, true. With tree cover still nonexistent this time of year, I have to keep my trampoline dancing moves to a minimum lest neighbors think I'm crazier than they already think I am.

But what daytime bouncing lacks in concealment it makes up for in scenery.

As Copper ran around the yard squeaking his new yellow day-glow ball, I was treated to clear skies, a slow drain of color and finally ... this view.

What a way to leave the day!

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Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Delicate Revision

Today is the birthday of the poet Billy Collins, the Writers Almanac informs me, and in the brief bio it supplied, I learn that Collins approaches revision carefully. "Revision can grind a good impulse to dust," he says.

Collins is not one of my faves, but he's right about this. How often have I taken a halfway decent idea and beaten the life out of it. Not because I want to, but because I can't move forward. It's easier to futz around with the words already on the page than to plow ahead and add some new ones.

It's in part to sidestep this tendency that I started A Walker in the Suburbs. Jot an idea down quickly, first thing in the morning, then leave it alone. Tomorrow, get up and do the same thing. In time there will be a little ouevre of sorts, a bunch of new shoots green and growing.

Of course, I break this rule all the time. But I break it less here than I do otherwise. So here's to delicate revision – and the restraint it takes to practice it!


Tuesday, March 21, 2017


These days I take walks whenever and wherever  I can find them. On busy days, around the block is all I have time and space for.  Yesterday was one of those days.

I pushed open the heavy glass door, slipped on my sunglasses and turned right at the Cosi Restaurant to reach the service road.

Usually it's quiet back there but yesterday there was enough traffic to keep me on my toes, skirting puddles while steering clear of delivery trucks.

At the end of the block there's a fitness park, which is where I snapped this photo. Many of flowering trees took a hit in last week's frigid weather. About half of Washington's famed cherry blossoms were nipped, the first time this has happened in the trees' century-old history.

But this little guy survived. And seeing him there with a background of blue made me feel like it was truly spring, not just March 20.

It was a short walk. But it was enough.

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Monday, March 20, 2017

Watching for Dad

Dad has been gone three years now, which is in itself an explanation for how one lives through loss — the speedy passage of time means the years without those we love fly faster than we originally suppose they would.

Thinking of Dad so much yesterday as I decked myself out in blue to watch the University of Kentucky Wildcats in post-season play. It was a tight game, which required much yelling at the screen.  I'm typically a quiet viewer, someone who sniffles quietly into a tissue at a tearjerker. But all restraint crumbles when I watch U.K. basketball.

I learned from Dad that a game be watched as enthusiastically as it's played. So if Wichita State sunk a basket, I sighed — loudly. And if U.K. claimed a three-pointer, I shouted. And when the boys in blue pulled out a three-point victory at the end, I whooped and hollered.

It's the way Dad would have watched the game. And I was watching for him.

Friday, March 17, 2017


This year the Bishop of Arlington has granted the diocese a dispensation from the usual Lenten Friday abstinence from meat so that Irish Catholics can enjoy their corned beef. There's a slight catch. You're supposed to undertake a work of charity or act of comparable penance some other time to make up for it.

Fair enough. But it's one of those cringe-worthy Catholic moments. Will we really be judged on such details? Yes, obedience is important, but what about the spirit of the law?

I think I'll forego meat just for the heck of it. But the Bailey's — I'll have a sip of that, thank you very much!


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Thursday, March 16, 2017

A Walk and a Change

It was blustery and cold yesterday, and the planes were taking the alternate runway to Dulles, something they only do in the heartiest of breezes, and which sends them right over our neighborhood. I felt like walking but the howling wind and jet noise was unsettling.

Still, the story I was writing was emerging slowly, if at all, and I was feeling that familiar knot at the base of my skull. It was time for a stroll.

The first few minutes were tough — I purposely walked into the wind at the beginning so I'd walk away from it at the end — but once I acclimated I immediately felt the relief that only being outside can bring.

The jets that seemed a menace from inside the house were great gliding gods when I saw them from the street. Dulles handles many international flights, so I imagined where these planes were coming from, the far-flung places — Bangkok and Seoul and Rio and Paris. Maybe they held people who had never been to the U.S. before. I imagined their excitement as the jets prepared to land.

Suddenly I wasn't just out of my house — I was out of the mindset I'd had when I started. It was a welcome change.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Art of Perseverance

These crocus hold their heads above the snow. Don't forget to breathe, they tell each other. Spring will soon be here.

These lavender flowers tell me all I need to know about staying the course. And their spiky green leaves are the exclamation points to this crazy season.

It's still Sprinter, the new hybrid we're pioneering this year. One day winter, one day spring.

The crocus have the right idea, I think. They turn perseverance into art.

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Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Atypical Tuesday

On Saturday I saw my first lawn mower of the season and smelled the aroma of freshly cut wild onions. The daffodils are out and so are the iris and myrtle. Only now there are several inches of heavy snow on top of them.

Late work last night and a delayed start this morning have made today different from typical Tuesdays.  It's a mid-March snow day, and it's a welcome one. Not because of the snow, but because of the pause. Even a lackluster stoppage is a good one.

Though it may slow some of us down a bit (Copper is wondering if he might finally catch that squirrel), it's always good to have a break in the routine.

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Monday, March 13, 2017

Leaving DLT

Here's a modest proposal: Given that Daylight Savings Time now lasts from early March till early November and we have only three full  months in Standard Time, perhaps we should reconsider our nomenclature.

Maybe we should call the time we just entered — which begins with cold, bright evenings and takes us through spring, summer and fall — Standard Time.

And those other outlier weeks — we'll call them either Winter Time or Daylight Losing Time (DLT).

I know. It's a negative message.

But isn't it closer to the truth?

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Friday, March 10, 2017

Carpe Season

These are days of high contrast: 70 degrees and cherry blossoms one day, 30 degrees and sleet the next. Are those petals or snowflakes?

Weather like this reminds me of what I should always remember but almost never do: Enjoy what you have when you have it. So much is out of our control.

I thought of this yesterday when I took a quick stroll around the block at lunchtime. It was warm with a balmy breeze. The jacket-less turned their faces to the sun. The al fresco diners ate salads on round, wrought-iron tables. A lone Tai Chi practitioner balanced two red balls on the top of his arms, slow-mo juggling.

We all knew the forecast. No lamentations for what was to come. Just joy at what we had right that moment.

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Thursday, March 9, 2017

Can't Stop Listening

The La La Land soundtrack is colonizing my brain. After seeing the movie twice and listening to songs on YouTube, I bought the album on iTunes so I could blare it from my laptop while cooking dinner.

But the music didn't stop when I turned off the machine. I hear it in my head when I'm brushing my teeth or waiting for the bus or taking a walk. I hum it under my breath. I tap my feet at my desk.

Last evening, I played the soundtrack while bouncing on the trampoline. That may be the best use yet for the music, which seems to carry one urgent message. Get up and dance! Turns out, I'm not the only one who feels this way.  And the lyrics say it all:
I hear them everyday
The rhythms in the canyons that will never fade away
The ballads in the ballrooms left by those who came before
They say we got to want it more...

(Photo: Wikipedia)

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Wednesday, March 8, 2017


A year ago today I sat at an outdoor cafe on another warm March afternoon and gathered my thoughts for an interview at Winrock International. This is what I saw.

It wasn't Paris. It wasn't even D.C. There was no limestone monolith, no Capitol dome. Instead, there was corporate America, stone and glass, with the name of a major defense contractor emblazoned on the facade.

But in that strange way that a landscape sometimes becomes the emotions we experience in it, this view become a mountain vista, a red-rock canyon panorama. Because as I sat there sipping raspberry iced tea, the neighborhood stirring to life after a long winter, I thought about how the world I inhabited at the time, one that had shrunk to a series of difficult duties, didn't have to be my world anymore. There was a way out.

The realization hit me like a thunderclap. I hadn't even interviewed for the job yet. I had no idea if I'd get it or want it. But something would come through. I would have possibility in my life again.

I walk past this spot most every day now. Sometimes I'm lost in thought, other times I'm worn out after a long day. But every time I pass, I think about the feeling I had that first day. What a gift it was, unbidden and unbound — an hour and a day of pure possibility.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Between the World and Me

I just finished Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me, a book I'd read about and had wanted to try. It's a short book, could be consumed in one sitting, and I almost did. 

Coates sweeps you up from the first words on the page and doesn’t let you go till the end. I don’t believe in reparations, don’t believe the chasm of race is as deep as he thinks it is. But then, I'm white. I am, in his parlance, a Dreamer, someone (white or black) who shares the dream of American exceptionalism that is built on the subjugation of the black body. Because the body is all, according to Coates. There is no savior, no soul or mind that lives beyond the body's end.

But I’m not writing about this book to debate its thesis but to marvel at its prose and its power to sweep me up in an idea I don't believe in and make me feel its force. His idea is an ocean wave, and we readers are the shore. Given time, it might wear us down.

I read this and think about my own story, my own lens. I don’t see the world in black and white, but I see divisions. The gulf between the moneyed and the non, for example, and the canyons that yawn between the left and the right.

The passion Coates brings to his story is the passion each of us can bring to our own. 

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