Monday, April 30, 2018

Virginia Bluebells

I can't let April slip away without a nod to Virginia bluebells. I went to see my favorite patch of them last week.

The bluebells cluster near a trail, which winds around and through them.  It was a sparkling spring afternoon when I took this walk. A little later I spied some deer along the trail — or they spied me.

I kept walking until the wildlife trail turned into a paved path and then, finally, into the Cross-County Trail. Parts of it took a hit during the March windstorm. 

I finished off the stroll with another peek at the bluebells. Ah, that's better. That will last me a while.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Seven Miles

Yesterday Suzanne and I went for a walk after work. It was a lovely spring afternoon, just begging to be strolled through.

We started at my office in Crystal City, and quickly angled onto the Mount Vernon Trail, dodging the high-speed through bikes on the narrower connector path. We had to talk a little louder when we got to Gravelly Point, where jets roared overhead from take-off at National Airport.

But by Memorial Bridge the air was soft and quiet. The fresh green weeping willow branches shimmered in the lowering sun.

Mostly, we talked. But sometimes we marveled, too. Washington has its monster traffic jams, but it has marvelous foot paths, too. And yesterday I felt like we were on all of them.

We walked for hours. So this morning, curious, I looked up the distance.

Seven miles. You could have fooled me. It didn't feel an inch more than five.

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Thursday, April 26, 2018

Cleaning Up

Today has been set aside for office cleanup, and I've worn jeans for the occasion. But it occurs to me that the tidying up I most need to do is not tangible but virtual. And for this, most any attire will do.

I seldom delete email. I spent 20 minutes yesterday looking for a document that's nowhere to be found.  Is it on my desktop? Dd I accidentally save it in a strange file? Global computer searches have yielded no trace. But while I was looking for it I shuddered at the disarray I found.

This is the way digital cleanup happens for me: a search and rescue mission.

Meanwhile, I don't want these jeans to go to waste. I'll find some real files to toss somewhere!

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Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Two Years

I started at Winrock two years ago today. It may have seemed an odd choice given my previous jobs in print journalism. But it's the words that matter, I decided, not the medium in which they're read. As for the autonomy of my reporting, I've decided that very few of us can say we're not beholden to someone or something, whether it be editors, advertisers or management.

Any job change requires soul searching, asking what really matters. And what matters for me is the work itself, the pace and the breadth of it, what it stands for. This organization has its heart in the right place. I believe in its goals and mission.

More than that, this work is perfect for the easily bored. At Winrock I have a huge canvas on which to paint. I've interviewed old and young, farmers and bank executives, solar technicians and victims of human trafficking. I write stories and talking points, ad copy and op-eds.

I usually write without byline and most of my output ends up online. But in the end, it's the stories that matter — that, and the writing of them.

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Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Walking to Listen

A book group friend recommended this book, the tale of a young man who walked across America and listened to the voices of vagabonds and preachers, beauticians and firefighters.

Andrew Forsthoefel was newly graduated from Middlebury College when he decided to make the journey. "Everyone of us has an extraordinary story worth hearing, and I'm walking the country to listen," he wrote on his travel blog at the beginning of the trip.

Admitting it might sound contrived, but resolved to do it anyway, Forsthoefel quickly gained my trust when he told the story of his leave-taking. His mother was worried but brave. She acts like I hope I would if one of my children announced she was walking across the country. The picture she snaps of her son walking down the train tracks behind their house in Pennsylvania is priceless. It's the picture of a young adult doing his own thing, back turned to the camera, arms outstretched as if to say, enough, I'm done, catch 'ya later.

Needless to say, he survives the trip — and gets a book contract, to boot. He only just reached Georgia, so I imagine I'll have more to say about Walking to Listen.

Let me close for today with a passage about walking:

The walking itself was slowly become my home, or something like it. It was the only constant, the connective thread that tied everything together. 

(Photo: Courtesy Bloomsbury Press)

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Monday, April 23, 2018

The Lady Has a Tramp!

After two bounce-less months, I finally ordered a new trampoline last Sunday. Two days later, there were three boxes sitting outside the garage when I got home from work.

They were heavy and compact, a tidy package.

After a few days in the garage and hours of labor yesterday, the three boxes have become — a trampoline.

Limbs and branches from last month's storms may still litter the landscape, but in one important way, the backyard is back in business.  Once again, the lady has a tramp.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Baby Trees

"A society grows great when people plant trees in whose shade they will never sit."
Greek proverb

Last winter I sent a $10 donation to the Arbor Day Foundation, which promised to send me an American redbud, crape myrtle, crabapple, Washington hawthorn and white dogwood in exchange.

And that they did.  The trees arrived last week in a little bag, their roots protected with a watery gel. Here they are in a jar of water, looking more like a dead plant that a bunch of potential trees.

It's not that I expected lush greenery for my tiny investment. But I was still a bit shocked by the meagerness of the saplings.

Still, they have potential. One day these sticks will grow roots and leaves, trunks and boughs. They will turn their faces to the sun, rustle their leaves in the wind. One day my grandchildren may sit in their shade.

At this point, though, I have modest expectations for the baby trees. Given the number of tall oaks we've lost the last few years, I just hope that they bend rather than break when the wind blows.

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Friday, April 20, 2018

Fernweh and Heimweh

Homesickness is when you long for the place you know best of all. But what about its opposite? Wanting to venture to a place you've never been? It's a feeling deeper than wanderlust, stronger than attachment. Until the other day, I didn't know it has a name.

Farsickness —or "fernweh" from the German "fern" (far) and "weh" (pain) is when you yearn for a place you've never been, for the faraway. I heard about it on the radio, and a quick Google search shows me the word has been out there for a while. There are "Fernweh" t-shirts and "Farsickness" travel blogs.

Digging a little deeper I learn that the word "homesick" also entered our language from the German — "heimweh." It comes from a Swiss dialect and can also mean longing for the mountains. Ah, I think, just like Heidi. Remember when she's sent to Frankfurt and entertains Clara but all she wants is to go back and live with her grandfather on the mountain?

To have "fernweh" we need "heimweh." The familiar propels us to the faraway — then brings us home again.

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Thursday, April 19, 2018


I grew up on road trips — long, car-sick journeys to Cincinnati, Greensburg or Natural Bridge. Kentucky is rolling country, so driving through it is not for the faint of stomach. Dramamine was my friend.

None of this dampened my love of travel. In fact, it conditioned me to rigor. Which brings me to these wonderful trips I've taken the last two years. They haven't been easy either — once I get there. But the fact that I can board one plane, then another — and wind up on the other side of the world ...  will never stop being miraculous to me. 

So in honor of the miraculous, and because I want to keep reminding myself I was there ... a few photographs from Nepal.


Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Haiku Day + One

Late Tuesday I learned
The day's syllabic net worth,
April 17th.

This year's Haiku Day
Was almost done when a text
Knocked me flat with joy:

"Metal birds stirring
Orange claws puncture the night sky
Sunrise at Reagan."

Thank you, Ms. Abo,
My own firstborn, Suzanne E,
Keep writing poems!

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Tuesday, April 17, 2018

As the Light Allows

As the days lengthen I notice new landmarks on my evening walks through Arlington. Yesterday's "find" was discovering the Virginia Square Metro Station. I looked to the left, and there it was. Not that I was ready to ride the rails. I pushed on to the Ballston Station. But it was nice to know it was there.

My first walk on this route was late last year. I barely made it to Court House before the street lights came on. And by Clarendon it was completely dark, so I hopped on a Metro there.

I got lost on my next two forays to the neighborhood. First I swung too far to the north, the next time too far to the south. I was looking for the middle way.

It took the brighter afternoons of early spring to reveal it. Fairfax Drive, the street I was looking for, looks like a parking lot when you enter from the east. It's only when you stroll a few yards beyond the entry way that you see it blossom into a road. This is not something I could discern in darkness or even in dusk; full daylight was required.

I like discovering this neighborhood little by little, as the light allows.

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Monday, April 16, 2018

Mischief Managed

This is what you say to close the Marauders Map, also handy for concluding any project, in Harry Potterese. And the project I'm concluding is reading the seven J.K. Rowling books.

This was urged on my by youngest and most Harry Potter-familiar daughter. She was my guide for this endeavor, finding each new book in the series wherever it was hiding in the house, keeping remarkably mum about certain things that I will also not disclose (which means there are no spoiler alerts in this post!).

What there is, is an appreciation for these modern classics, for their presence in this world, for the fact that my daughters grew up with them. They do what books for young people ought to do, which is to give them a taste of the world, its joys and sorrows, treacheries and sanctuaries.

Yes, there is plenty of evil and danger, they say, but you can handle it if you work hard, trust your instincts and seek the counsel of good friends. And what saves the day, always, is love.

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Friday, April 13, 2018

Deck Thoughts

It's my first work morning on the deck since last fall. I've cleaned the glass-top table and brought out the old seat cushions.

Now, instead of the clickety-clack of computer keys, I hear the drone of a chain saw, distant traffic noise, small birds chittering.

There is plenty of mental effort required for the writing I do, but once outside all I see are the physical chores: tying down the climbing rose, chopping up the dead wood, preparing the garden for spring.

It's a bit overwhelming until I remind myself of this: We're here to labor, to try and fail, to wonder and to grow.

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Thursday, April 12, 2018

Brave Blossoms

The weather will warm up here for a couple of days, a welcome development. But I've enjoyed what the chilly temperatures have done for our spring ... which is, of course, to prolong it.

The Bradford pear trees were in fine fettle when I arrived home from Asia two weeks ago — and they're still going strong. Forsythia and daffodils, spring's yellow front line, are still around, too. And we've had a lovely run of tulips and hyacinths.

And then there are the famed cherry trees. I saw them in the Tidal Basin with Suzanne, then in the Kenwood neighborhood of Bethesda with my friends Lyn and Andrea, who were visiting last weekend. The cherries in Bethesda are planted on either side of the road, so their branches entwine to make a tunnel of blossoms. It was magical!

As we move to the next batch of bloom, I can't resist a backward glance and a toast to the brave flowers of early spring.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Digital Trail

I'm not a big Facebook user. I remember posting vacation photos on the social media site once years ago — and realizing how much control I lost when I did that. I've been skittish about the site ever since.

But I give away data all the time, in ways great and small. The books I order, the words I write, the tweets I tweet — all leave a digital trail.  All I can do is make it a faint one.

Privacy has been on my mind these days, what with revelations that Facebook sold user data to Cambridge Analytica. I was amused to learn that an enterprising AP photographer was able to snap a picture of the talking points that Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg had in front of him at yesterday's congressional hearings.

The New York Times reports this tidbit: "Resign? Founded Facebook. My decisions. I made mistakes. Big challenge, but we've faced problems before, going to solve this one. Already taking action." And, if he had been asked if Facebook should be broken up, Zuckerberg was prepared to say: "U.S. tech companies key asset for America. Breakup strengthens Chinese companies."

 It's a fitting irony that Zuckerberg was outed not by social media but by old-fashioned media. Long live the camera ... and the pen!

(Savvy Facebook users might learn that this was my high school.)

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Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Staging a Revolt

Last weekend's getaway not only involved a garret room, but it also brought me face-to-face with the practice of staging. Not the kind they do on Broadway ... but the kind they do in competitive real estate markets.

Staging, from what I can tell, involves taking every shred of personality out of a house and leaving behind what you might find in a high-end hotel room. Potential buyers can see the house stripped of unnecessary clutter and distraction, can see just its bones.  No bills thrown on the dining room table, no keys hung by the back door.

But what if you're looking not for the bones of a house but for its soul? What if you are looking for a house that touches you, a house where happy lives, real lives, have been lived? 

If I was shown a staged home, I would open drawers and shower curtains, would look high and low for signs of habitation. I'd pay less attention to the perfect birch logs in the fireplace and more to the almost hidden crack in the closet door. 

Agents assume that buyers want a blank canvas on which to sketch a new scene.  I'd rather paint on top of what's already there. 


Monday, April 9, 2018

View from a Garret

Over the weekend I stayed with friends in the city and slept in a third-floor bedroom. When I saw the slanting eaves, the bed tucked up by the two windows, I wanted to cry out with delight.

It's not that I don't love my own house, my own bed. It's cozy here, and warm. I like our house and neighborhood.

But that doesn't mean I don't crave a garret. To be writing up there would be to channel Jo March, with her apples and her writing smock. A romantic notion? Of course!

From what I gather, the derivation of the "writer in a garret" phrase was the English writer Samuel Foote, who said that an author's fate was to be "born in a cellar and liv[e] in a garret." Bohemian poverty has been celebrated in literature throughout the last couple of centuries.

But it's not the poverty I like about the garret; it's the combination of coziness and expansiveness. And it's the view. It's being able to look out over rooftops and treetops. It's perspective — something I think all writers (and all people, for that matter) need.

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Friday, April 6, 2018

A Place for Everything

Sometimes on mornings at home, in what I know is an elaborate form of procrastination, I tidy up before I begin writing. It's part compulsion. I like to look up from the screen and see some order in the universe — even if the order is only that I moved the covered rocking chairs from in front of the deck door so they don't block the view.

This morning while putting papers in the recycling bin and tucking a cloth bag up on a shelf where I keep shopping bags ... I thought about the phrase "a place for everything and everything in its place."
I'm a big believer in this. It's how I keep from losing things (including my mind).

The problem with this method is that I avoid the place where much of the stuff I'm moving should actually go — and that is what we used to call the circular file, the wastebasket.

So much of my tidying is a futile attempt to stem the flow. Until I purge — really purge — my tidying up will only be of the most superficial order. But this morning, like so many others, a superficial order is all I need.

There's a place for me, too — and it's sitting on this couch, typing on these keys.

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Thursday, April 5, 2018

Workday Travel

Travel has many advantages, one of them being how it shakes me out of my routine. It forces me to take a few risks, talk to people more than I would otherwise. It's hard to be bored when I'm traveling. Tired, nervous and hungry, maybe. But never bored.

Sometimes, even traveling to work will do that. Today was one of those days.

With the two main subway lines coming in from the west partially shut down due to smoke in the tunnels, I took a bus I'd never taken before.  It was a jolly crew of commuters and travelers crammed together, many of us standing.

I chatted with a young couple from Slovenia. She was model-caliber gorgeous. He spoke excellent English, had a pierced eyebrow and wore a button that said, "Ask me how to lose weight." (I didn't.)

"Slovenia is small, but we are mighty," he said, reeling off names of some of its famous citizens, including First Lady Melania Trump and various sports figures I'd never heard of. But he was so proud of his small country that he made me want to go there immediately!

All this is to say that when I got off the bus at Rosslyn, I barely knew where I was.

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Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Lesson in Resilience

Martin Luther King "ran out of certainty but never faith." This from an op-ed in today's Washington Post. In it, Stephen Kendrick and Paul Kendrick remind us that King had become unpopular by 1968. There was a great weariness in him. But there was also resilience. It's the resilience we need to remember now.

One of the great surprises to me in all the MLK coverage this month is to realize how young he was: only 39 years old when he was assassinated 50 years ago today. Perhaps it was the weight of the weariness that made him look older than his years.

Here's Kendrick and Kendrick again: "Fifty years later, it would look too familiar to the King of 1968 to see our continued economic inequality, hawkishness, backlash to civil rights gains, and racist violence from Charleston to Charlottesville. His response then was to resist exhaustion from the deluge of issues and to enlarge his work instead, hold firm his insistence."

King's insistence, his persistence, his grace under pressure, is a lesson to us all.


Tuesday, April 3, 2018

The Sacred and the Profane

I snapped this photo on a walk around Nagarkot, the hill town on the cusp of the Himalayas. It speaks to me, summarizes the way Nepal combines spirituality and chaos, how it mushes up prayer life and real life until you can't really tell the difference.

And isn't that how it should be?

I looked up "sacred and profane" not really knowing the origin of this dichotomy, and learned that it's attributed to the French sociologist Emile Durkheim. Sacred things are those forbidden and set apart; they represent the interests of the group. Profane things are individual interests, more mundane concerns.

While Durkheim believed that all religions contain this dichotomy, other scholars disagree. It's a western way of looking at faith, they say.

After visiting the temples and stupas, seeing the Ganesh statues in taxis, and of course, the prayer flags ... I would agree with those who disagree with Durkheim.

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Monday, April 2, 2018

Easter Monday

Easter has its own rhythm, different from Christmas or Thanksgiving. Church comes first.

Yesterday, through some miracle of timing, Suzanne arrived only minutes after we did, which meant she could park her ambrosia salad, backpack, running tights and jogging shoes in the car and slide into the seat we saved in the big sanctuary.

The sermon was more honest than others I recall. It was as if the priest was trying to convince himself of the significance of the empty tomb. His conclusion: there must be something to it, because of all the good people we know who are gone, and because of the incompleteness of life.

A cynic — heck, even a realist — could easily counter these arguments. Of course, there are good people in the world, but that doesn't mean there's a God and an afterlife. As for incompleteness, that's why we have irony.

But I was touched at the honest homily. The priest is one I've seen for years, and he looked noticeably older this year, walked with a cane. Maybe he's working out some things in his own mind. Whatever the case, I appreciated his candor.

In the end, he said, it all comes down to faith.

And so it does.

(Detail from the Cambodian monastery at Lumbini, birthplace of the Buddha)

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