Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Self and Silliness

Halloween has snuck up on me this year. Being out of town for a few days, being busy ... But here we are on the day, little ghosts and goblins getting geared up for their big nights on the town.

I'm thinking about some of the girls' best childhood costumes, which were made by their grandmother: a colorful clown, cuddly lion, tusked elephant and a seal made out of some sort of naugahyde fabric that I can't even imagine cutting, let alone sewing.

Then came the in-between years, when make-up replaced masks. One year Suzanne went as some sort of a sprite or spirit with greenish skin and lots of eye shadow.

On Halloween we can pretend to be something we are not. But that was often the case when raising young children. I might be called on to cackle like a witch or moo like a cow at any time. The line between self and silliness was thin to nonexistent.

Now I'm myself all the time. As the girls would say ... borrrrring.

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Monday, October 30, 2017

Houston Delivers

To riff for a moment on a city defined by a sentence amplified by a movie— "Houston, we have a problem" — let me just say Houston had far fewer problems than I expected to see.

While there was evidence of Hurricane Harvey — a boarded-up motel and piles of refuse in neighborhoods (the latter viewed by other wedding-goers, not me) — the city, on the whole, glittered and gleamed.

From the Johnson Space Center to the funky soul food breakfast joint my sister-in-law found to a host of museums on everything from medicine to bicycles — Houston delivered.

The best part was walking through the parks, past fountains and waving pink grasses and through the studied stillness of the Japanese garden. Dogs and families, girls in ballgowns for their quinceaneras, even a tightrope-walker — everyone out to savor the cool breeze and sparkling low-humidity day.

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Saturday, October 28, 2017

Observe the Moon

On a tour of the Johnson Space Center yesterday I learned that tonight is International Observe the Moon Night, a date set aside each year to look at and learn about Earth's satellite. I didn't even know there was such an event, but I consider myself lucky that I learned about it where I did.

Home of moon rocks and interplanetary dust, of an intact Saturn rocket housed in a building as impossibly long as it is impossibly tall, the Johnson Space Center is also where the Orion spacecraft is coming to life. Orion is built for interplanetary travel — and will someday take humans to Mars.

Also on the Space Center campus is the historic mission control center: the place where nine Gemini and all the Apollo missions were monitored, where scientists scrambled to bring Apollo 13 astronauts back to Earth, where cheers erupted when the words came crackling through the monitors: "The Eagle has landed."

It was the moon they saw, the same moon we can see tonight. Only for the first time in history, a human footprint was outlined in its dust.

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Friday, October 27, 2017

Catching the 43

Sometimes I just miss it, but other times, like yesterday, I look at my watch, think there's no way I can get there in time, but somehow, with much huffing and puffing, I arrive at the line of people that means the bus hasn't yet come. Moments later, the ART 43 bus pulls up to the Crystal City stop.

The Arlington bus system is a marvel. It runs on time, is comfortable and pleasant, and the drivers aren't surly. (I have a low bar for drivers.) Compare this with Metro — dark, crowded, subject to delays for door jamming, arcing, you name it.

The ART 43 runs from Crystal City to Courthouse and back with only one stop in between — Rosslyn. It's 10 minutes of efficient transportation.  No wonder I'm glad when I catch the 43.


Thursday, October 26, 2017

Walking and Living

As if yesterday's post wasn't enough of a paean to walking ... here's this, which I noticed in a day-old copy of the newspaper: "Regular walking may increase longevity, even if you walk less than the recommended amount."

I hope I walk more than the recommended amount — but even if I didn't these words would be heartening. The new study analyzed information from nearly 140,000 adults ages 60 and up, people who were followed for 13 years. Even those who didn't walk the recommended two and a half hours a week still lived longer than the ones who didn't walk at all.

Apparently, though many studies look at exercise and longevity, not that many specifically examine walking. So although this seems like a no-brainer ... it isn't. And there's more: Those who walk from two and a half to five hours a week were 20 percent less likely to die of any cause and 30 percent less likely to die of a respiratory ailment. Which raises a question: Could those who walk 10 or more hours a week become ... immortal?

I'm getting a bit carried away here, but one thing is certain. Walking doesn't just clear the mind and inspire the spirit ... it actually keeps us going longer. I can live with that!


Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Pep Walk

I love the pep talk, whether getting or giving. Those first minutes and hours afterward, lifted on a thin layer of inspiration that I know won't last but feels permanent at the time, a high born of words and gestures, of understandings suddenly grasped.

But when there's no one around for a pep talk, a pep walk will do.

A pep walk begins in desolation. The article you're writing has no focus, the words are cliches. The work load is too heavy, no one can juggle this many projects. The child you raised is having troubles; she's an adult now but when she hurts, you do too.

The reasons are legion, but the remedy is the same. Lace up the shoes, grab the earbuds, step outside. It's a whole new world out there. Other people and their problems. Maybe the problems get all jumbled together and cancel each other out. Or maybe it's just the act of walking, one foot then the other. Forward motion, with all that that implies.

All I know is, the pep walk works. It bolsters spirits, reveals solutions. It inspires.

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Tuesday, October 24, 2017

To the Morning

Thinking this morning of morning's power, and of one of my favorite songs, which is about the morning. It's by Dan Fogelberg, and was the opening song on Chicago's WFMT when I lived there way back when, often the first sound I heard every day. Here's how it goes:

Watching the sun
Watching it come
Watching it come up over the rooftops
Cloudy and warm
Maybe a storm
You can never quite tell
From the morning
And it's going to be a day
There is really no way to say no
To the morning
Yes it's going to be a day
There is really nothing left to
Say but
Come on morning
Waiting for mail
Maybe a tale
From an old friend
Or even a lover
Sometimes there's none
But we have fun
Thinking of all who might
Have written
And maybe there are seasons
And maybe they change
And maybe to love is not so strange.


Monday, October 23, 2017

In the Open

A missing headphone set means that when I listen to music through my phone lately, I do it in the open — not through earbuds. This is a strange yet strangely familiar activity.

It's strange because for years now the tunes I listen to are only for my ears. A feedback loop of one, a solitary bubble, like all the solitary bubbles around me.

But it's familiar because I grew up pre i-Pod and pre-Walkman. When I think of summer afternoons at the pool it's not my playlist I remember (there were no personal playlists in those days!), but Top 40 hits piped through someone else's portable radio. You could always hold a transistor up to your ear or use those early earbuds (there was only ever one, which was just fine since these radios produced no stereophonic sound), but for the most part, music was out in the open.

In fact, it was a musical free-for-all, and you got what was got. You adjusted. I tapped my feet to soft rock, cringed at country crooners. But I came to enjoy tunes I would never have heard otherwise — and I learned that listening can be a communal experience.

Now when I walk past a neighbor I quickly mute my Bach or Rachmaninoff. I don't want to impose my choices on them. For all I know they wouldn't mind. But it's different now. Dogs don't run free and neither does music. These are small changes, true, but put enough of them together and you have another world.

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Friday, October 20, 2017

Still Life with USB Cords

I was thinking today as I pulled a phone charger out of a drawer that I basically live on about one one-hundredth of the things I own. Heck, it may be more like one one-thousandth!

This phone charger was lying on top of a tangle of wires and cables that date back to my house's Paleolithic Era. On the top are a few USB cables but underneath are old Walkman players, ancient cameras and ... a pair of binoculars.  Ah, so that's where the binoculars are.

It's the same in my chest of drawers: Three pairs of wearable pants on top of five pairs that are too old or don't fit. Plainly a purge is in order. But purging takes time.

I don't get rid of stuff as quickly as I could because I think the stuff may some day come in handy. Those old jeans will be fine for painting and the Walkman could be pressed into service if my iPod breaks ... and ... well, you get the idea.

So the stuff remains, and I live on top of it. Makes me feel pretty silly, if you want to know the truth.

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Thursday, October 19, 2017

Around the Edges

I started to write a post early this morning ... then work intervened. I'm writing it now on a 10-minute break between other tasks.  It makes me think about how often my creative work must fit itself into times that are not otherwise occupied.

This means early in the morning, late at night, on the bus or Metro, or on weekends when I'm not doing something else.

This is how it is now. And, truth to tell, the other way scares me. The way of waking up every morning with only my own work to do.  I hope that will change in time, but I'm not there yet.

So for now, it's this blog ... and the writing I do around the edges.


Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Land Lines

I almost called the old number last night — 253-0163. I didn't, but I thought of it. My fingers were ready for those digits, itching to play an old tune I once knew by heart.

It was an easy number to remember when I learned it, had a brisk pace and memorable cadence. But 253-0163 had nothing on 266-8078, the land line of my youth. I knew this number when we were both still wet behind the ears — when it was only 68078. It was the number I lisped as a preschooler, the number I called from college (only for minutes at a time, long distance costing what it did in those days).

I'm convinced these numbers will be some of the last things to leave my brain. Which is why I can't give up on 620-6118. It's a land line, too, of course. And though you can't text it, the number has many things in its favor, chief among them being that it belongs to a house and not a person.

An old-fashioned view to be sure, which my resident millennial reminds me of all the time. But I like how it works when cell numbers don't. I like its continuity through years. And so, even though it's fashionable to fly solo, I think I'll keep it.

(Photo: Wikimedia)

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Tuesday, October 17, 2017

First and Last

Two years and a day ago I was coming home from work, switching from the Red Line to the Orange in the dark underground of Metro Center station, when my phone rang. It was Ellen. "Mom sounds a little stronger; I'll put her on."

For the past six days, Mom had been in the Annapolis hospital with Ellen, my doctor sister, keeping close watch. I'd been there for all or part of most days but had worked in the office all day that Friday and planned to spend the weekend in Annapolis.

"Hi," Mom said. "Hi, hi!" Her voice was girlish, almost giddy. 

"Hi," I said. "I'll see you tomorrow, Mom." 

And I would see her. But she wouldn't see me. By the time I got there early Saturday afternoon, she was slipping away. It was October 17, 2015. 

I no longer switch from the Red Line to the Orange Line, but the other night coming home from an event I found myself in the exact same spot where I last heard Mom's voice. 

"Hi, hi," I heard her say.  And I wonder now, have thought often since then, could those words — the last she ever said to me — have also been the first?

(Mom with her namesake, my oldest daughter Suzanne.) 

Monday, October 16, 2017

A Certain Smell

My cousin Julie lives in Santa Rosa, California. She lost her home in the California wildfires. She and her husband escaped in their pajamas. Everyone is fine, but everything is gone.

"Our house had a certain smell to it," said Jennifer Pierre in an article in yesterday's Washington Post. Pierre's house was also destroyed in the fire, even though houses another street over were spared. A sudden shift of wind.

"It was our house. When you come home it has that smell. How can I replicate that smell for my kids. Or is it gone forever?"

When I read this I thought of Suzanne's friend Katie. One day Katie walked in our house — this has been years ago now — took a long whiff and said, "Your house smells like ... West Virginia!" Quickly realizing that this might not have been a compliment, she added that it smelled like West Virginia in a good, spending-a-week-in-a-cabin sort of way. I laugh about that still. What it meant to me was that the house smelled musty. But musty or not, it was one of the few times I heard anyone directly address the aroma of our house.

What would I do if it was gone forever? How can we comprehend the enormity of it all?

In another excellent Washington Post article on the fire, the author Michael Carlston wrote:

We're trying to function, but it's difficult when you lived in one world, and now it's totally different. There's before, and there's after. My wife and I are two active and directed people, but we find ourselves sitting and staring in confusion. When everything is lost, what do you do? What are the rules?

Friday, October 13, 2017

Chasing Daylight

Yesterday evening I arrived home at my usual time, but it was almost dark. Some clouds had moved in and mist was making it worse, but these were footnotes to the main event, which is that we have far less brightness to go around these days.  My after-work walks are all about chasing daylight.

To find the time I must plot and scheme. If I leave the office right at 5, I get the 5:10 bus, which puts me in Rosslyn at 5:20, which means I'm on Metro by 5:30 and to Vienna by 6:00, then home by 6:20 or 6:30. That gives me 15-20 minutes before total black-out.

There's the morning, of course, but that means walking in the darkness and the cold — before the eyes are open and the air is warmed. And then there's lunchtime, but if I want to leave at 5 I can't take a lunch.

I can fold walking into my day, get up and move around the office more, walk up and down the stairs, all of which I do. But I miss my long, stretch-my-legs rambles.

Just one thing to do: make the best of weekends and work-at-home days and shuffle around the other constraints as best I can. In a little over two months, the days start getting longer again.

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Thursday, October 12, 2017

Hot Lunch

On a lunchtime walk through the neighborhood yesterday I smelled what I imagined was a hot lunch bubbling away on a stove. It smelled vaguely tomato-ey, and made me feel cozy and warm, as if I would soon stroll into a kitchen, pull up a chair and dig into a plate of spaghetti.

Instead, I ate my usual salad.

What is it about the hot lunch? It's old-fashioned, for sure, because someone must be home to cook it.   In fact, it extends further back than I can remember, to a time when people worked close enough to their homes to eat lunch there.

It implies small towns, then, or the Venice of Commissar Brunetti mystery novels. Guido Brunetti often eats lunch at home, if I recall, but he (in addition to being fictional) lives in a place that builds its society around the big lunch and the long siesta.

That will not happen here, I know. But a walker can dream.

(Photo: wikipedia)


Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Cats and Dogs and Beauty

Dancers are satisfied in a way that dieters and exercisers are not, writes Ursula Le Guin in her essay, "Dogs, Cats and Dancers: Thoughts About Beauty," which was summarized in the latest Brain Pickings.

Dogs don't know what they look like, where their bodies are in space. Cats do. Le Guin describes a pair of Siamese, one black, one white. The white one always lay on the black cushion and the black one on the white cushion. "t wasn’t just that they wanted to leave cat hair where it showed up best," Le Guin writes, "though cats are always thoughtful about that. They knew where they looked best."

Dancers, too, are exquisitely aware of where they are in space, she says. And I think about my tap teacher, Candy, still jaunty and perky in her 60s, knowing exactly how to move her arms, to hold her shoulders, so that every angle and line was a pleasing one.

From these observations, Le Guin takes us to a place of pathos and love. She talks about aging, that it's not just the loss of beauty that dismays her ("I never had enough to carry on about"), but the loss of identity. It's that the person she sees looking at her in the mirror isn't her — it's an old woman.

Death, though it is the great equalizer, can also illuminate the essential beauty of a person. Le Guin uses her mother for illustration here, and I will use mine. Because even in death Mom was beautiful: the essential beauty, which lives in the bones, never left her.

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Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Happy Birthday, WCSP!

On a late walk yesterday I learned it was the 20th anniversary of C-SPAN radio. It began on October 9, 1997, and one of the first interviews aired was with Rep. Jay Johnson (D-Wisc.), who, in addition to representing Wisconsin in the U.S. House of Representatives was also a former disc jockey.

The first time I remember hearing C-SPAN radio was in the car taking Suzanne to a ballet recital at Children's Hospital in D.C. It was December, 1998, the Clinton impeachment hearings, so the radio station had been on the air for more than a year already. But it was way down there on the left end of the dial (90.1, WCSP FM), and easy to miss if you were doing a quick scan.

What was notable about the timing was that Suzanne and the other members of the Center for Ballet Arts were performing scenes from the "Nutcracker" not just for the children in the hospital but also for then First Lady Hillary Clinton. I imagined what she must be feeling at the time, what it took for her to show up anyway. Turns out, that was just the beginning.

Anyway ... driving past the Capitol on the way to the hospital that day gave me one of those "only in D.C." moments that I've never forgotten. But C-SPAN radio with its gavel-to-gavel coverage of the House and Senate makes you feel like you're always "only in D.C." — but in a good way.

I'm no policy wonk, but when you can slip in the ear buds of your 10-year-old iPod radio, tune to 90.1 and listen to the Sunday talk shows while you're walking ... well, no secret to why the radio station celebrates two decades (and the television station even more).

Happy Birthday, C-SPAN Radio. Wishing you many happy returns of the day!

(Photo: C-SPAN)


Monday, October 9, 2017

Wrap Season

The rains have finally come, and I left the house with something I haven't had in months — a jacket. True, this is a lightweight rain jacket, hardly a warm winter coat, but still it seems like the end of something — the carefree habit of walking out wearing only what I have on inside.

I thought that this morning when I hung up the jacket in my coat cubby that I haven't used this in a while. Even last week, with morning temps in the 40s, I got by with a sweater and a warm scarf (both of which I needed to wear in the office since they keep the blasted place so cold.

But today marks a sea change; it's the first day of the Wrap Season. (Not the "It's a Wrap Season," which sounds much more interesting.)

I console myself as I always do on issues of weather and climate. At least I'm not in Chicago, where the Wrap Season lasts from September through May.


Friday, October 6, 2017

Long Dive

As I mentioned last month, I've been dipping into journals I kept long ago. This morning's adventure was like a long dive into a long-forgotten stream. It was my voice, my way of looking at the world, but applied to a completely different set of circumstances.

No children yet, not much of a job, I was cobbling together an income from odd jobs and transcribing tapes. It was one of those times that was terribly difficult — except just surviving it made me feel whole and strong and capable.

I'm trying to write about this time, write clearly without remorse or false cheer.

The journals help.

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Thursday, October 5, 2017

Around the Yard

Whenever possible I like to step outside in the middle of the day and walk "around the block" — the block being an unconventional one that includes the service road behind conjoined office buildings, one of which I work in.

This gives me a chance to stretch my legs and clear my head.  If a story I'm working on has been giving me trouble, the walk will often show me the lead, transition or conclusion I need to wrap things up.

But lately, I don't even have time for a walk around the block. So I've begun what I call (in my mind) a walk around the yard. Just as there is no block here, neither is there a yard. But there is a plaza in front of the building, picnic tables, seats, an arbor.  On warm days people play ping-pong or take a zumba class (only the brave souls who don't mind an audience).

Even a five-minute stroll can loosen the old gray matter — and often does.

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Wednesday, October 4, 2017

I Brake for Birds

I heard them in the flower hedge, a bank of New Guinea impatiens aglow at summer's end. Sparrows, I guessed, or one of the other nondescript birds.

They were chirping and chattering, calling to each other. Maybe they were squabbling over a crust of bread or a late-day worm. Maybe they were planning their winter escape. Or maybe they were just commenting on the perfect air, the weightless wonder of the afternoon.

I stopped. I listened. I didn't care who was behind me, who might have had to stop short.

I brake for birds. That's all there is to it.


Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Telling Numbers

In Vietnam we learned the battlefield could be anywhere: in a rice paddy or a house full of children. So we should not be surprised when the bullets ring out at elementary schools, college campuses, nightclubs, restaurants, amphitheaters and now in the most unreal of all unreal places, the Las Vegas Strip.

Violence is always unreal, until it is not.

So the children and grandchildren of a generation defined by "four dead in Ohio" have ...

59 dead at Mandalay Bay
49 dead at Orland's Pulse
32 dead at Virginia Tech
26 dead at Sandy Hook.

When will it stop? I think we're all afraid that it won't. So we say prayers, light candles, hope the next time never happens — even though in our heart of hearts we know it will.


Monday, October 2, 2017

Under Contract

For months I've kept my eyes on a house at the other end of the neighborhood. While other Folkstone homes sold quickly, this one languished. There was nothing wrong with it. I know this because I toured it, went down the weekend of the first open house and walked through the rooms (of which there were many).

It had four levels, four bedrooms, a living room, kitchen, family room, walk-out basement,  conservatory. It had a long driveway and a fancy patio. It even had a view: You could look east down Fox Mill Road and see green yards, the land rising and falling.

But for far too many weeks, it did not have a buyer.

The realtor was diligent. He held an open house every Sunday, tacking up red balloons to pique interest.  They made me sad.

But yesterday when I drove past, the for-sale sign said "Under Contract." It wasn't any of my business, of course, but for some reason this made me very happy.

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