Canal Cachet

Ways and means.
Ways and means.

At this time of the year, when Earth’s tilt adjusts the planetary mood lighting, we sometimes feel the urge to hit the reset button, to attempt a bold fresh start on another calendar.

Others of us may yield to the snooze button. Whatever. There’s no right or wrong in this process. There is only winter: cold, wet and gray, tormenting us with dreams of gentler climes and fruity drinks under beach umbrellas.

However, those of us who can’t get away from winter’s worst make the most of what we have right here, right now. And if we don’t like it, we’ll reinvent it! Reinvention is a beloved American invention. Take what the game gives you, add a twist of lime and a dash of chili pepper, fry it with love and watch the lines form.

Here in D.C., a city which, by American standards, has a lot of history, the chances are that anywhere you plant your foot was once trod upon by someone famous or infamous. Some of these places have been lovingly preserved with all their dignity and charm intact. Others have been allowed to languish and/or rot. It takes money and will to resist entropy. But sometimes an injection of good old brass-knuckled entrepreneurism can breath new life – or at least tourists – into areas overlooked for decades.

Such an area is the Chesapeake and Ohio canal below Georgetown. From 1831 to 1924 the original C&O canal provided an important route for barges laden with Pennsylvania coal. But the frequent flooding from the Potomac River eventually took its toll and as railroads took over the coal trade the canal languished.

While several high profile politicians, notably Supreme Court Justice William Douglas in 1954 and President Eisenhower in 1961, helped to bring public attention and funds to preserve the canal, the area below Georgetown remained under the renovation radar until recently.

A painless canal route.
A painless canal route.

These days the pedestrian bridges across the canal swarm with bikers, joggers, and cupcake-eating tourists. The old brick warehouses that still line much of this portion of the canal have been remodeled into condos, trendy restaurants and event spaces. Only traces remain of the area’s funky roots, where the old flour mill once flourished along with the Bayou, the legendary local music club.

Evolution isn’t only a matter of blood and bone. It’s a process in brick and concrete too.

The C&O canal slips past the old and the new, quietly reflecting the changes, as we reflect on our own.

Nothing For Me, Thanks

Begging for change.
Begging for change.

Dear Santa Baby,

Hey, how’s it going? Busy time for you, I realize, so I’ll keep this short.

To be honest, I have my doubts about your ability to deliver what I really want for Christmas. I’m not even sure that it falls into your area of expertise, which, as I understand it, is toys and trinkets for children and adults. But I figure what the hey, it can’t hurt to ask, right?

So here’s the deal. No presents wrapped under the tree. No Secret Santa surprises, no mistletoe, no romance tied with shiny ribbon. I’ll forgo the cookies, the eggnog, the chocolate bonbons, the whole freakin’ holiday enchilada.

All I want is peace. And I’m not talking the “Silent Night” variety. I’m not referring to any sort of Christmas miracle where everyone lays down their weapons and their resentment and their territorial blood feuds for an hour or two before reloading.

I mean the honest to God, bone-deep peace that passes understanding and goes straight to universal forgiveness and tolerance for every stupid self-centered human on the planet, myself included.

I haven’t been the best person I can be. You know that. I know that. But I’m making an effort to do better. And I sincerely believe that with your help, Santa, maybe, just maybe, we could at least cut down on the number of massacres of innocent women and children. That’s not asking too much, is it?

So. That’s all for me.

Thanks for trying to make the world a happy place for one day of the year. And good luck with that!


Diehard Peace Freak


Over the River and Through the Woods

Cheap thrill: crossing the ford through Rock Creek in 1960.
Cheap thrill: crossing the ford through Rock Creek in 1960.

When my family moved from Pennsylvania to Northern Virginia in the early 1950s we lived for a while in a small motel on Arlington Boulevard, near Fort Myer, while my parents looked for a house.

We were within Frisbee range of the Nation’s Capitol. Of course we didn’t have one back then. Flying discs were still a new West Coast idea and hadn’t yet evolved to become a lifestyle.

However my Dad was enthusiastic about the educational and cultural opportunities that would be ours living near the Big City. And in time, we did learn a lot as we explored D.C., Alexandria, and points west. We went to the Smithsonian regularly. We heard free concerts by military orchestras on the steps above the Potomac River.

But most memorable of all, we went often to the National Zoo. To do so at that time, we traveled by way of Rock Creek Parkway, fording the creek just before we got to the zoo. We drove our 1954 Ford station wagon right through the water. This, from a child’s viewpoint, was real adventure.

That ford across the creek is no longer an option for today’s zoo visitors. Times change and with them the roads we travel.

When we first settled in Northern Virginia there was no beltway. Route 66 hadn’t razed its way through the heart of old Falls Church and Arlington. There were still a few cow pastures and horse barns at the small intersection known as Tyson’s Corner. There was no Roosevelt Bridge, etc. etc.

So, yeah, I must be old. But the beauty of old, if you’re lucky enough to get there with a few brain cells intact, is the perspective.

I still love the zoo. In some ways it’s better than ever. It has all kinds of support organizations and activities for all ages. There are pandas now. All they had were regular bears when I was a kid. They have free-ranging orangutans and fabulous new elephant facilities. Right now, for the holiday season, they have ZooLights, a great way to spend time in the cold and dark with your kids, or just to release your inner child.

But you can’t drive your car through a stream to get there anymore. And you’ll have to pay to park.


Less Is More

‘Tis the season for excess.

At this time of year, when we should all be thinking of others and trying to be the person our dog thinks we are etc., the impulse to go overboard can get the best of the best of us.

When my children were little, and still true believers in the miracle of things appearing under a magic tree once a year, I felt the weight of their belief on my shoulders. I wanted to give them a happy day. That doesn’t seem like too much to ask, does it? Yet, now that I’m older, if not much wiser, I realize that happiness isn’t something you can wrap up with a bow and hand to your kid.

Happiness has to be won through struggle and toil, trial and error, through rain and cold and dark of night. And then, maybe, if you’re lucky, you’ll have a few moments when the drab wet raincoat of trouble falls to the floor and the radiant joy of life is yours and everything seems worthwhile for a few incandescent seconds.

The secret to being happy is to learn to appreciate those fleeting moments, and to remember them after they quickly vanish, like a beloved song you heard once but can’t download onto your hard drive.

In December it sometimes feels as if too many insipid holiday songs have been weaponized. It doesn’t matter if you only go to the drugstore for a tube of toothpaste, or if you’re stuck in the express line at the grocery waiting to pay for your milk, the tortures of Rudolph and Frosty will make the experience memorable, and not in a good way.

I love music. But as the years have gone by it seems I’m ever more cranky and hard to please. So when I tell you I recently discovered the charms of ukulele music, trust me, it’s that good.

For those of us who had the misfortune to grow up when Tiny Tim was the most prominent ukulele player on the entertainment scene, the mere mention of the instrument was enough to empty rooms. It was a classic case of blaming the messenger.

The ukulele itself is a remarkable instrument, accessible to a small child, yet capable of producing anything from classical to jazz, from rock to bluegrass. And yes, even heavy metal, uke style.

I learned all of this, not only from my ukulele playing nephew, who is always way ahead of the curve on these things, but from a charming short film titled “Jake Shimabukuro: Life on Four Strings.”

Shimabukuro, a native of Hawaii, began playing ukulele at the age of four. He had early success with a small band and gained local recognition. But Shimabukuro’s talent has taken him far beyond the island. His passion for an instrument seldom granted much respect outside Hawaii has made him an inspiration to a new generation of musicians, dazzling audiences around the world with his brilliant playing and his infectious personality.

And he does it all on only four strings. Who could ask for anything more?

Slow Burn

Is it hot in here, or is it just me?
Is it hot in here, or is it just me?

I am part of the problem.

I drive a car. I fly across country in fuel guzzling jets. And even though I make an effort to recycle faithfully, I am part of the dominant throwaway culture.

When the world succumbs to runaway mutant viruses and the ice cap melts and life as we know it vanishes without so much as one last desperate Tweet tapped into a dying iPhone, you can blame me and the millions of people like me, who feel concerned about global warming and the loss of habitat wrought by too many humans wreaking havoc upon the natural world but lack the ability to do much about it.

At times like these I turn to science fiction. Before the days of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, the first authors to enjoy popular success writing about imagined worlds, there were always writers and thinkers who tried to see into the future.

But not until our own era, when powerful computers and vastly improved technology have given us the tools to actually see and measure some portion of the universe in which our planet is but a “pale blue dot,” as Carl Sagan famously noted, have we been able to really get a sense of what a mess we’re making of this former paradise.

Such a perspective could have made us take stock of the very small niche we occupy in the Big Picture. But you know how it is. The movie ends, you walk out, and within minutes hunger, boredom or fatigue divert attention from weighty ideas such as planetary survival.

When I was younger I was never much of a sci-fi buff. I read “1984,” “Fahrenheit 451,” and “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”. I read “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” which, while not exactly hard science fiction, derives much of its humor from twisting the limits of scientific understanding.

We do know a lot more about the universe now than we did in 1898, when H.G. Wells wrote “The War of the Worlds.” Fat lot of good it seems to do us. Our inability to get along with each other remains a huge stumbling block to every sort of progress.

Some people have suggested that video games such as the immensely popular World of Warcraft help humans to work out their frustrations without shooting real people. I wonder. Some of us carry our anger around just under the skin. The slightest bump or scratch and out it comes.

As we enter what could be an end game era for our planet, it would behoove us to get serious about science. Beliefs can be comforting. But they can also lead us into states of confusion, and at this point, with sea level rising measurably every year, it’s time to stop ignoring the data.

This ain’t no video game. When the lights go out all over the world this time it will be a bit late to start brainstorming about brilliant ways to charge up the batteries.

I’m currently reading “The Windup Girl,” a disturbing science fiction novel by Paolo Bacigalupi about a time on Earth after climate change and runaway gene manipulation have led to devastating loss of diversity and worldwide starvation. Not exactly a fun read. But as a cautionary tale it’s right up there with “1984” and “Fahrenheit 451.” When those books were written the ideas they described were considered far-fetched. Surely there would never be a time when a Big Brother government could follow your every move and thought, or when books would be banned for fear the ideas in them might spark revolt against tyranny.

The truly sobering facet of science fiction is how frequently science fiction evolves into science fact.

I am, of course, a dreamer. A Pollyanna in the face of peril. I’d like to believe that even now some brilliant team of nerds is working on a plan to reverse the carbon overload in the atmosphere, to turn back the clock on global meltdown.

Maybe it can only happen in science fiction. But at least that’s a start.

Heavy Medal

I tuned in to the Concert for Valor last night, after I learned that HBO was unscrambling its signal so that even non-subscribers such as I could enjoy the Veterans Day tribute.

I expected the usual bland assortment of pop music stars delivering the usual red, white, and blue anthems with earnest efficiency. And the first couple of performers I caught didn’t do much to stir my soul. The Black Keys were pleasant and capable. Carrie Underwood, bright-eyed, blonde and slightly pregnant, delivered a mild set of forgettable songs.

I reached for the crossword puzzle to work on during the breaks. But then Tom Hanks showed up on the big screen in a prerecorded piece about Team Rubicon and suddenly I was totally engaged. Started by two veterans, Team Rubicon unites military veterans with disaster response teams to provide lifesaving assistance in emergency situations worldwide. The project not only rebuilds civilian lives, it offers vets a new sense of purpose and fulfillment after their military service is over.

The theme of what happens to veterans after they come home gave last night’s tribute a deeper resonance than a mere collection of musical performances could provide. The examples of veterans, some with devastating injuries, returning home and finding ways to keep inspiring others, was profoundly moving, and underscored by the presence in the audience of those veterans. The emphasis on the veterans, true heroes who give all that is asked of them yet often return home to find they can’t get a job, made the Concert for Valor more meaningful.

Of the 800,000 people in attendance, many were uniformed service men and women invited into the areas closest to the stage. They sang along to some of the songs. But no act got a more enthusiastic response than the band that has for more than thirty years exemplified the gritty power and controlled fury of heavy metal.

If you had told me thirty years ago that I would ever be a Metallica fan I would have scoffed at the idea. I’m not scoffing now.

Those guys are incredible. The audience, which had been listening with polite attention to all the previous acts, jumped into action when James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich unleashed their blistering brand of rock. Let’s just say it was a far cry from “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.”

Of course, the truth is, the world is a much different place than it was in 1940. Wars have changed. They seem to be continual, for one thing. And the adversaries are harder to define, much less find and root out. The only thing constant is that young men and women continue to suffer and die to keep the rest of us safe. And we owe them. More than an occasional concert or parade. We owe them a country worth fighting for. A country that takes care of its own, and more.

Opinions will always vary about what sort of music is best. But even if we disagree about whether or not Bruce Springsteen was right to sing an antiwar song at the Veterans Day concert, surely we can agree that it’s past time for us, as a country, to stop bickering about trivial matters and get back to working together on what matters. Let’s take care of our veterans, our children, and our world.

Bang your head once if you agree. Bang repeatedly if it feels right.


Rake Season

In autumn sunlight gilds the birches at the edge of Green Lake in Seattle.

Far from the maddening mud fight of politics, the world of gardening spins steadily along. Days shorten, temperatures drop, and leaves skitter across the lawn.

Gardeners are immune to the vagaries of political power struggles. Regimes and movements come and go. Conditions get better or worse, fortunes rise and fall almost as predictably as the tides.

Meanwhile, in the quiet backwaters of real life, gardeners carry on. We rake and clip and mulch and dream of other summers, other springs. It’s not all roses.

Murderous storms, withering heat, deadly cold and relentless bugs provide a gritty ballast to keep even the giddiest gardener from harboring illusions of success. But there are moments.

For people caught up in the madness of horticulture, the troubles of the fractious grasping world recede to a background static. We sympathize with the passion and the agony of those trying to make the world a better place. But the world is such a big place. Perhaps if everyone made a start in their own backyard?

For me, the madness of gardening began as a child. I planted radishes and Indian corn, not from any desire to eat either of them, but because it was an adventure to plant a seed and watch what happened. My gardens in the last several decades have seldom lived up to my dreams, but my dreams still sustain me when reality fails and negativity don’t pull me through (thanks be to Bob).

Yet even the most enthusiastic gardener occasionally yearns for a little encouragement from a kindred spirit. I have been blessed with some wonderful gardening friends, but the constraints of time and distance limit our time together. However a good book can work wonders. I recently discovered “Garden People: The Photographs of Valerie Finnis,” by Ursula Buchan. Published in 2007, this remarkable collection documents the colorful and personal gardening styles of legendary British gardeners by one of the greatest of them, Finnis herself.

Her unmatched passion for horticulture and for sharing and encouraging others is an inspiration.
As this gardening season shuts down and another dark winter looms with forecasters predicting all sorts of weather-related mayhem, I plan to hunker down in the company of “Garden People” and dream of other springs.

At the National Cathedral the Bishop's Garden offers a glimpse of classic British garden style.
At the National Cathedral the Bishop’s Garden offers a glimpse of classic British garden style.


Tree Worship in The Fog Belt

Visitors whisper in the Cathedral Grove.
Visitors whisper in the Cathedral Grove.

After a few days of hectic activity in San Francisco, we slipped across the bay and made our way to Muir Woods, a place I’d always wanted to see.

It was a Monday, and although it was a holiday (Columbus Day, or, as it is known in Berkeley, Indigenous Peoples Day), we imagined we might have the place to ourselves.

Silly tourists. We got our first inkling that we weren’t the only ones looking to worship giant trees as we neared the park entrance. “Lot Full” read the sign at the first parking area. A park ranger was waving cars toward the overflow lot. Another “Lot Full” sign met us there. But an additional sign offered hope in the form of an arrow pointing to “Roadside Parking” up ahead.

We headed down the narrow roadway, made narrower by the steady stream of people hiking back to the park, presumably from the roadside parking. We soldiered on, bright with hope. After a mile or so we began to doubt. But there were still determined groups tramping in the dust at the road’s edge.

Eventually we found a narrow spot and parked. Then we joined the hikers. The day was warm and sunny, the air dry and dusty. We had neglected to bring water. Silly tourists. As we trudged along, I told myself it would be worth it, but I wasn’t completely convinced. So often much-hyped splendors don’t quite measure up to the imagined experience. Plus, I worried that the presence of all these people we had seen pouring into the park would destroy the serenity I sought.

Silly me.

Too big for any camera.
Too big for any camera.

The trees in Muir Woods tower high, wide, and mighty above the trickle of puny humans down on the forest floor. These ancient redwoods, many of which were old before Columbus stepped foot on the shore of the other side of the country, stand over 200 feet tall. Visitors, self-included, try in vain to capture the sheer magnificence of these redwoods with cameras, cell phones and other devices. It can’t be done. They are simply too big to be caught with our gadgets and toys. They transcend our limited grasp of time and space. They awe, in the truest sense of that word.

Look up. Look higher. Good luck with that.
Look up. Look higher. Good luck with that.

All forests have the capacity to restore the human spirit, to revive our hopes and replenish our souls. But Muir Woods does more. In the stillness of its shadows, in the soft fall of light between the massive trunks, it inspires reverence for the glory of creation. And I say amen to that.


After Happily Ever

The hopeful sign will fade and fall off; the journey goes on.
The hopeful sign will fade and fall off; the journey goes on.

I broke up with Romance a few years ago.

I fired off a bitter post and threw out my romance writer magazines. I put away my childish dreams, having decided it was well past time for me to grow up. After all, my children had done it. Surely it was time for me.

And for the last few years I’ve tried to dwell in the dark and grim margins where the media pack lurches from one horror story to another, groaning and scrabbling like a horde of you-know-whats. I even tried my hand at writing a darker sort of fantasy, forcing my characters to struggle with problems bigger than a rip in the heirloom wedding gown.

But to my surprise, after a while, my characters rebelled. Oh they kept jumping through the hoops I set before them. They quipped and parried with the fell forces of darkness, because, you know, what choice did they have? But gradually, without my willing it to happen, they began to sneak off together into quiet spaces and cavort with each other. And I, being the permissive author that I am, gave them freedom to “explore their feelings.” And wouldn’t you know? In the face of all the gloom and doom, those kids were falling in love whether I liked it or not.

That’s when I realized that try as I might to quit the romance genre, I can’t escape the romance in my nature.

Yet I was born a skeptic. My parents told me my first word was no. However I think this might have been a misunderstanding on their part. I wasn’t saying no to everything. I simply wanted to make my own choices. And there is no choice more exciting, more personal, and more unpredictable than the choice to give your heart to another human. Talk about adventure!

The thing that repels me about Romance with a capitol R is the narrow definition of exactly what is romance. James Thurber once wrote a droll little book titled “Is Sex Necessary?” which described the ways in which men and women differ in their approach to romance. Thurber was never more brilliant than when delineating the vast mystery that exists between the sexes. Most romance novels make good use of this fertile ground. Yet the deepest vein of romance remains untapped until after both parties have passed the checkpoint of commitment.

Early romance, fed on wine and roses and carefree hours together, is a surface thing. It can be fun. But at some point, if it’s going to last, it has to be more than just fun. When the going gets tough, romance either grows deep, or drowns. Either way, it’s a stronger story line than Happily Ever After.

Because there’s always After Happily Ever After. And that’s where I plan to make my stand as a romance writer. Yet much as I admire Shakespeare and appreciate the poetry of tragic love stories, I don’t want to read them. Or write them.

So next spring, after I wrap up my fantasy series The Greening (which has been quietly turning into more of a romance than I’d anticipated anyway) my next book is going to be about love that doesn’t need diamond rings or champagne to keep it alive. It’s going to be about the burning hot flame of passion buried under the quietest mountain.

Because what matters most happens After Happily Ever After.