My Back Pages

The Library of Congress has room to read and no end of books.

My resolution for this new year is simple: less time on Facebook, more time with real books.

It’s not that I hate Facebook. It’s more a mild sort of cringing from the whole leap into the virtual social pool. Inside, you see, I’m still that shy nerd I was at age six, 12, and pretty much always.

I’ve learned to mask it, of course. One can’t function in the push and shove of modern life without developing a crust of some thickness. But, given a choice between entering a room full of laughing talking humans or a meadow full of sky, I would head for the sky. Space. The final frontier, as the fellow said.

Actually, I’ve never had the slightest desire to go to space. I’m an earth sign, after all. Even if I give no credence to astrology, I enjoy the poetic symbolism of its design. But I’m more a burrower than a flyer. And nothing completes the cozy burrow like a shelf of books. Or a wall. Perhaps a room. Or two. It could be a long winter.

Libraries are my spiritual home. The hushed atmosphere of a reading room seduces me. It was one of the many, many, things I loved about Buffy the Vampire Slayer – how so much of the story took place in the library, and how Giles, the librarian, was heroic, geeky and adorable.

But I digress. The point is, the task of keeping up my Facebook appearances – liking this, commenting on that, posting proofs of my existence to the universe – is taking away from the time I need to read, write and daydream.

Daydreaming is a key component of the writing thing for me. I need that staring into space part of each day. Although sometimes a baseball game works almost as well – there’s something mesmerizing about watching a ballgame. Anyway, that’s the kind of space to which I do relate – the kind in my head. Without it I begin to feel trapped in ye olde burrow.

Books are a wonderful way to create space inside your mind. But sometimes you need to step out of the page and into a world of your own.

So that’s my plan for the New Year. How long will it last? Well, it’s only a hundred days till opening day. I think I can make it. After that the sky’s the limit.

Words cast a timeless spell.

Suit Up

Here Come Santa Clauses

Washington, D.C., is known around the world as a center of power. Traditionally, men in suits are the ones wielding that power.

Suits change, but do they change the men inside?

I wonder.

If, as they say, clothes make the man, shouldn’t it follow that if all men wore Santa suits they would find themselves becoming kinder, jollier, more generous old souls?

Perhaps, given the intractable nature of politics as usual in our fair city, it might be worth giving it a shot. We could start by insisting that all our elected representatives don red fuzzy suits for the month of December (white whiskers optional) and see where it takes us.

Would the curmudgeonly types suddenly feel the force of compassion for those less fortunate? Would the bickering and back-biting give way to cheery goodwill?

Yeah, I know. Not in this lifetime.

But maybe someday there will come a time when men in red outnumber the Scrooges and Grinches.

And that would suit me just fine.

Lighten Up

Winter Light is Short and Sweet

I was a winter baby.

Born on one of the darkest and longest nights of the year, I have always felt drawn to the light: the sun, the moon, fireflies, fireworks – and perhaps most of all, the bright lights of theatre.

When I wrote my first novel, it felt only natural to have the plot revolve around a dramatic production. That first novel marked a significant change in my personal writing, from personal essays to complete fiction. It’s been a bumpy ride, for the most part, but I was lucky with that first book. It found a home at the very first writer’s conference I ever attended.

The magnitude of my lucky start was born in upon me as the years passed and changes in the publishing industry transformed the business so much that all bets are off anymore. As one small part of the wave of change, my initial publisher, Avalon, was bought by Amazon, and now, as a result, my first novel, Tall Order, which came out only in hardback, is due to be released as an e-book and in paperback.

Tall Order is a traditional romantic comedy about a tall woman who is pursued by a much shorter man. When he casts her as one of the leads in production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, unexpected chemistry occurs.

It’s a light tale for a dark winter’s night.

Tall Order will rise and shine again on December 18th, or thereabouts. If you’re looking for something a little sweet for the holidays, it could be just the thing.

Timeless

I have never been an autograph seeker. The whole notion of chasing after famous people and begging for scribbles has always seemed just another inane 20th century fad to me.

However, when I heard the news that Dave Brubeck had died at age 91, the first thing I thought of was the autographed program I still had in my desk from the 1964 concert  series Brubeck played with his quartet at the Carter Barron Amphitheatre in Rock Creek Park.

He was the opening act for Louis Armstrong. That’s how cool the Carter Barron was back then.

I was a callow teen. I knew very little about jazz, but my brother Jeff was enthusiastic about all kinds of music, and he had an extra ticket. He invited me to come along. I remember the summer night was beautiful, the air soft and warm, the sky lit with stars. And the music blew my mind.

At that point in his career, Armstrong was so beloved by the American public that he had only to walk on the stage with his trumpet and his ubiquitous handkerchief to be enveloped in applause. And he was great, of course. But the songs he played were familiar to me, from having heard classic swing and popular dance music all during my childhood.

But when Brubeck and his quartet played, it was like nothing else. This was the same foursome who had recorded the groundbreaking album “Time Out” in 1959: Dave Brubeck on piano, Paul Desmond on alto sax, Gene Wright on bass and Joe Morello on drums. The brilliance of their playing seemed impossibly perfect and yet spontaneous.

Afterward, I would have been content to float home in a state of euphoria. But enough is rarely enough for my older brother, never a shy one. When Brubeck finished his set Jeff said, “Come on.”

I didn’t know what he was talking about, but a few minutes later we were standing at the edge of the stage, getting our programs autographed by the very gracious players. And before we left, Louis Armstrong cheerfully added his autograph to the collection.

The access we had that night seemed totally natural at the time. I doubt it could happen so easily in these security-conscious times. Crowds have gotten so big, concerts so grandiose and over-produced. The lights, cameras and fireworks create a barrier of technology to keep fans at distance. That night at the Carter Barron had the intimacy of a small club.

Today, in memory of Brubeck and his magical quartet I listened again to “Take Five,” their landmark hit. Even now, after hearing it hundreds of times, it gives me chills. It still has an almost miraculous sense of tension and possibility. Paul Desmond’s playing is sublime – sophistication and cool made audible. And Joe Morello was a revelation. He was the first drummer I ever heard who played the drums not simply to bang out the time, but as an instrument with a voice of its own, dancing with the bass line.

The year 1964 was full of dramatic change in the world. When you listen to Brubeck’s music, you can hear it coming.

Joe Morello signed my program too. On the back.

Shrink Wrap

Have houseboat, will travel.

So now that I’ve moved across country again, I’m sifting through stacks of boxes, most of them filled with paper – letters, photos, books, clippings and articles – and I’ve come to the realization that it’s out of control. I’d like to think I’m not a bona fide hoarder. But the argument could be made.

I trace the beginning of this to sometime after the birth of my first child, when, like so many first-time parents, I shot a lot of photos. A lot. And this was back in the days before digital cameras, so the piles of prints and negatives grew at an alarming rate.

Now that my kids have grown and moved out into the world, I’m left with these boxes of images of the little people they used to be. I also have their report cards, certificates, drawings, letters, etc. etc. I did winnow the piles before we moved. But not enough.

As another season of irrational consumption unfolds in our complacent nation, I find myself thinking perhaps this will be the year I try to be more creative and less acquisitive. I’m dreaming of a small Christmas.

In truth, we’ve been on a down-sizing arch for several years now, starting when we left the wide open spaces of rural Virginia and headed for urban Seattle, where tiny bungalows and cottages abound. The charm and practicality of making do with less is that it makes life simpler. With less to clean, less to maintain, less to heat and cool, there’s more time for the simple pleasures of life.

For me, that means gardening, and I’m downsizing there as well. There was a time when I thought I could manage ten acres of wild and wooly nature. Nature soon set me straight on that idea. Now my goals are more modest. A tiny backyard with a few flower beds, perhaps some beans and a contented cat, and I’ll be a happy camper.

The trend toward downsizing is catching on in these economically challenging times. A recent article in The Washington Post took note of the “tiny house” movement, which has been gaining popularity in the last ten or fifteen years. Most of these petite charmers come in under 200 square feet. I’ve seen bathrooms bigger than that in some of the more grotesque MacMansions blighting once-open spaces outside the Beltway.

Lovely old homes have their place in the architectural landscape. But the rash of blimped-out super-sized dwellings that have become standard in so many areas in the last twenty years has produced vast tracts of unwalkable “neighborhoods” where life without a car is unthinkable, and where there’s more empty space inside the houses than outside them.

In his landmark book 1973 book Small is Beautiful British economist E. F. Schumacher wrote:

“The modern economy is propelled by a frenzy of greed and indulges in an orgy of envy, and these are not accidental features but the very causes of its expansionist success. The question is whether such causes can be effective for long or whether they carry within themselves the seeds of destruction.”

Schumacher’s wisdom inspired many of the environmental projects that have helped to raise awareness of our dependence on Earth’s natural resources. Our willingness to make changes in our own lives remains a critical part of the mission.

No one ever said it would be easy. Just thinking about it makes me tired, I’ll admit. But at least now that I have a much smaller house to clean, I have a little more energy to put to better uses.

I don’t know if I’ll ever have the discipline to whittle my stuff down to the point where it can fit in 200 square feet. But at least I’m trying to lighten the load for the next move, wherever it may take me.

Grateful Green

The poet tree: Catalpa.

Today the final chapters of my online fantasy novel The Greening are up on the site.

The experiment of serial publishing has been interesting for me, but, as with my other self-publishing efforts, more akin to loosing note-laden bottles on the sea than anything else. Now and then a response floats back, encouraging me to believe that someone, somewhere, is reading it.

I had this idea of following in the footsteps of Dickens, but digitally. In retrospect I’m not sure this was the brainiest idea ever. In Dickens’ time there were few diversions for average folks. If they got to read a chapter once a week they felt things were moving right along. Nowadays, midst all the Twittering and texting and online chatting, few people care to wait. And who can blame them? Life is short. Read fast.

In the coming months I hope to make The Greening available as a regular eBook. And when I publish Part Two of the series next spring, it will go straight to eBook.

In the meantime, I’m grateful to all the kind readers who let me know they were following Shiloh’s adventures. The idea of the Green Man seems more relevant than ever to me now, as our world appears to be entering a dangerous new phase of calamitous weather, rising seas, and diminishing resources, mostly due to human actions. It’s my hope that the planet may be able to heal itself if we humans can improve our stewardship.

The Greening continues…

Looking Up

Where there's light, there's hope.

Ahhh. Savor the pause button.

Now that the election season with its attendant antagonism and anxiety has finally blown past, maybe we can get back to work on the real problems in an atmosphere of quiet cooperation.

In a way, this started almost before the marathon voting began, when super storm Sandy delivered its walloping reality check. Natural disasters, and unnatural ones as well, shake us out of our complacency and remind us of our common vulnerability. We are none of us immune to disasters. And in the face of calamity we turn to those with cool heads and warm hearts for help.

In the summer of 2011, when the talking heads in Washington, D.C., were absorbed in business and bickering as usual, an unusually strong and widespread earthquake measuring 5.8 shook the suits out of their insular hive and into the open air of the common people. No one was seriously injured, but the event cast a long shadow in the city due to its lingering effect on landmarks such as the Washington Monument and the National Cathedral.

The Washington Monument remains closed indefinitely, awaiting repairs. The National Cathedral has remained open, even as repairs are ongoing.

At our best, that’s the way we roll in this country. We get knocked down, but we get up and keep going, looking for that higher ground.

High above the pews in the Cathedral a veil of black netting now shields visitors from any bits of debris which may yet fall. The netting could be seen as a barrier, diminishing the impact of the building’s magnificent windows. But when the light shines through those windows now, at certain times of day it gets caught in the netting, producing a magical transitory illusion, something like the magic of faith itself.

It will take time to heal the discord in our mighty nation. There’s no magic wand or super pac power that can unite our divisive reds and blues and make them like it. But maybe it’s worth a try. Sometimes we just forget to look up.

Taking Stock

Rock Creek in The Calm Before the Storm

The day after the super storm known as Sandy, we woke to find our electricity still on, our trees still standing, our flood levels not catastrophic.

All we had, in addition to the relief of feeling spared the worst of this extraordinary storm system’s brute force, was the ache of sympathy for those who weren’t so lucky.

The fickleness of weather is a gambler’s dream. People who build on sandy shores play a game whose odds are not in their favor, but as long as the sun shines and the breezes are soft and refreshing, beach dwellers enjoy the envy of many inlanders.

Not feeling much envy this week.

The after-effects of this nightmarish weather event will still be felt next summer, when the suntan lotion and beach umbrellas go back on the repaired beaches. The people who have suffered most from this storm will never forget it.

But for the rest of us, those of us lucky enough not to have had trees fall on our houses or cars or worse, lucky enough not have had the water rising inside our homes, the memory of even a storm such as Sandy will inevitably fade.

It’s human nature. It’s tough to dwell on frightening scenarios and carry on with the daily routines of life. Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, we all gotta work and play until we die. Dwelling on misery doesn’t make it any less likely to happen again. So we do our best to manage the fear. We keep it handy, right there on the shelf with the batteries and candles and extra rolls of toilet paper.

Here’s hoping we won’t need to restock any time soon.

Paint By Number

Just Another Brick in the Wall

The first time I participated in a national election I cast my vote for George McGovern.

I believed in him and his entire platform. Some people may remember him only as the man who suffered a crushing defeat against Richard Nixon in 1972, but McGovern was so much more than that. A lifelong advocate for peace and justice, he was also a former war hero who flew 35 missions in Europe in World War II, including several during which his plane was so shot up he barely managed to fly it to a safe place to land, feats which earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Yet his remarkable resume wasn’t enough to overcome the slander and innuendo heaped upon him during the 1972 campaign in which he ran as the anti-war candidate, determined to end the bloodshed in Vietnam. Nixon’s team branded McGovern as a pacifist sissy.

A proud liberal, McGovern spent his long life working to promote peace, to end hunger around the world, and to implement tax reform and better health care. He didn’t get a lot of respect for his efforts until late in his life, long after the corruption of Nixon’s campaign and the machinations of the Republican Party¬† had been exposed.

I was sorry he lost in 1972. It was the start of trend, for me. The candidates for whom I voted rarely won, and if they did, they usually didn’t last long. Jimmy Carter was in and out of the White House so fast it barely registered. Then came the Clinton triumph, and I thought for a while the jinx was over, until he revealed that he was only a man, even in the Oval office.

When Obama won I was far away, on the west coast, in the other Washington, where the constant clanging of partisan swords and sound bites that provides the ambient soundtrack inside the Beltway seems pleasantly remote. But as I watched the gathering on the National Mall during Obama’s inauguration, I felt a wistful pang of homesickness. At last, I thought, the tide was turning, and I wasn’t there to enjoy it.

Now, the stage is set for another showdown. I’m not confident. I’ve seen enough of these things to know that money matters far more than it should in our political system. And the poorest among us, the ones who can least afford to lose more, are the ones who stand to lose the most.

Still. There’s hope.

On a wall near Calvert Street in Washington, D.C., a striking mural covers the side of Mama Ayesha’s restaurant. Completed in 2009, the painting by artist Karla “Karlisima” Rodas depicts the last nine presidents, from Eisenhower to Obama. In the center is Mama Ayesha herself, a petite yet powerful woman whose Middle Eastern restaurant began serving to Washington notables in 1960, as the Calvert Cafe. After Mama Ayesha’s death in 1993, the name of the restaurant was changed to honor her. Born in Jerusalem, Mama Ayesha came to this country in 1940 and began her career as a cook for the Syrian Embassy. Her enduring success (the restaurant continues as a family business) is a tribute to all that America stands for – opportunity, freedom, social justice and the dignity of the individual. It is fitting that her portrait is included among all those powerful presidents.

But the question remains: Will there be a new face in the mural line-up after November 6th? Maybe the artist has no plans to update, no matter what happens. There’s no telling, after all. Polls and maps and surveys toss numbers around like confetti, but in the end it will come down to hard numbers.

How much is your country worth to you? There’s a number out there.

Tilt

Pewter Potomac

The shift is on.

Darker clouds cluster in the October sky.

Beware of falling nuts.

Must be the season of the switch.

Already the daylight is losing ground; winter’s night is gaining purchase.

Fallen leaves skitter to the gutters as traffic storms past.

But in the stillness between scudding clouds and gusty winds a burnished glow gilds the emptied landscape, lit from within by dreams of another spring.