Vision Aerie

Room without a roof.
Room without a roof.

Last night I watched the first episode of the revived “Cosmos,” the legendary television science series created by charismatic astronomer Carl Sagan.

Sagan was less known for his scientific achievements than for his amazing ability to make science comprehensible, and even entertaining, to audiences not normally interested in hard-to-grasp facts and theories.

In 1980 when the series first aired on PBS, computers were only beginning to infiltrate every aspect of our lives. Geeks and nerds hadn’t yet ascended on the social/cultural evolutionary scale. “Cosmos” helped to glamorize the pursuit of knowledge at a time when stunning photographs of the vastness of outer space were first being sent back by the Voyager satellites. Such images let us see with our own eyes how very small our little planet is in the Big Picture.

The world has changed a bit since those starry-eyed times. Some things have improved. Others seem to be regressing.

In our current era of “reality” television, widespread conspiracy theories and muddy thinking, irrationality appears to be gaining ground. It’s a bit disheartening.

But at least now we have astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson, who hosts the new series, to rev the engines of hope and wonder and science. He’s the right man, on the right planet, at a critical time.

I’ll admit, I never watched much of the original “Cosmos” series in 1980. I had just given birth to my first child and was expecting a second. My world was very tightly focused. But I had a cursory grasp of the basics of “Cosmos.”  An infinite universe? Check. Evolution? Check. Room for improvement in the human interface with our beautiful planet Earth? Of course!

In the years since then I’ve had to cash in a few reality checks. Apparently not everyone fully accepts the fact-based discoveries learned through centuries of science. Though brave thinkers died for this knowledge, and the discoveries they made have improved life, at least for humans, immeasurably, this reality seems not to count for much with the crazy crowd.

I understand crazy. Been there, done that.

I prefer science. It’s more exciting, more fascinating, and far, far more hopeful.

Last week on a trip to the west coast of Florida I visited a nature preserve on Honeymoon Island State Park. The park aims to encourage native wildlife, as opposed to the sort of human wild life that thrives across the causeway, where bars and restaurants and gift shops cater to tourists and kids on spring break.

Honeymoon Island caters to ospreys. Eagles too, and also rattlesnakes, in addition to some snuffling armadillos and camera-shy turtles.

It’s quiet in the park. The high-pitched shrieks of nesting ospreys carry on the wind. The nests are easy to see, a hundred feet or more above the ground. You can see why the birds thrive there. The surrounding waters provide a steady supply of fish, and there aren’t any predators. A perfect place to raise offspring.

If you look at Earth objectively, from a scientific point of view, our little planet has all the fixin’s for the human species to raise its offspring. Yet we continue to be our own worst enemies, with whole generations killing each other off, century after century, as if there were no tomorrow.

If we keep it up, perhaps there won’t be. For us.

That’s why shows like “Cosmos” are so important. News broadcasts may keep us aware of some of the dangers we face, and other forms of entertainment may divert us from facing those problems, but “Cosmos” urges us to open our eyes and our minds and reflect upon how magnificent and breathtaking is the universe in which we live.

The show, which is airing on Fox (!) on Sundays for the next 12 weeks, will be repeated Mondays (tonight at 10 p.m.) on the National Geographic Channel. Catch it if you can.

Mom eagle keeps a watchful eye on the youngsters while Dad's out catching dinner.
Mom eagle keeps a watchful eye on the youngsters while Dad’s out catching dinner.


St. Patrick’s Month

The sprites of spring.
The sprites of spring.

One day is not enough.

While technically St. Patrick’s Day is a few week’s away, this past weekend the City of Alexandria kicked off the green season with a flourish of bagpipes, a swirl of step dancers and a celebration of all things remotely Irish. The inclusiveness of the modern holiday is one of its most endearing qualities. Just as you don’t have to be Irish to enjoy Irish music, beer and storytelling, so too you can march, or dance, or strut in the parade as long as you do it with joy.

It was a cold afternoon, but high spirits and infectious enthusiasm warmed the appreciative crowd.

The City of Alexandria Pipes and Drums get things rolling in black hats and spats.
The City of Alexandria Pipes and Drums get things rolling in black hats and spats.
Some things never out of style.
Some things never go out of style.
Step dancing in the street.
Step dancing in the street.
Irish Scotty
Irish Scotty
Bike riding is green by nature.
Bike riding is green by nature.
The Saint himself parades.
The Saint himself parades.
Irish is a state of mind.
Irish is a state of mind.
Everything's better with kilts.
Everything’s better with kilts.
The Shamrock has landed.
The Shamrock has landed.


Going With The Flow

The Potomac River assaults the rocks before it reaches Great Falls.
The Potomac River assaults the rocks before it reaches Great Falls.

The sun came out and the temperatures rose above 60 for two glorious days this past weekend.

That might not mean much to folks living in southern California, but on the East Coast the last couple of months have been something of a trial by snow shovel. Now it’s almost March and the novelty has worn off. Thus, in celebration of sunshine on a weekend, we made a pilgrimage to a favorite local park.

Having grown up in Northern Virginia, I thought I’d seen all Great Falls National Park had to offer. But I’d never seen the falls from the Maryland side.

On the Virginia side Great Falls Park is a small (800 acres) National Park with views of the falls from three overlooks which keep spectators at a safe distance high above the powerful falls.

On the Maryland side, the falls are part of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park, which includes miles of trails in addition to the 184-mile canal path that runs from Georgetown to Cumberland. You could spend a lot of time exploring the history of the canal, but our mission was simple: see the falls from a new perspective. Since we have been getting every variety of precipitation for months, I anticipated seeing some high water. But I never imagined I’d be able to get so close to it.

To me, the greatest feature of the Maryland side of Great Falls is Olmsted Island. Carefully planned to preserve and protect the delicate habitat which thrives in the rugged rocks through which the river flows, the island has a well-designed wooden walkway that allows viewers to see the falls from multiple viewpoints as they approach the grand vista on the river. On the day we were there the sound of the falls was thunderous and the overlook was packed with visitors taking selfies with their phones.

No one photo can truly do justice to the falls, but it’s impossible to resist the urge to try.

The quiet wetland on Olmsted Island seems a world apart from the river nearby
The quiet wetland on Olmsted Island seems a world apart from the river nearby.
Gorgeous gorge.
Gorgeous gorge.
A delicate ecosystem thrives in the rocky pine woods by the falls.
A delicate ecosystem thrives in the rocky pine woods by the falls.
The power of the river crashes through the implacable rocks.
The power of the river crashes through the implacable rocks.
Beaver work zone.
Beaver work zone.
Play of light and shadow.
Play of light and shadow.
All is calm on the frozen C&O canal.
All is calm on the frozen C&O canal.



Meryl Davis and Charlie White are golden Olympians.
Meryl Davis and Charlie White are golden Olympians. Photo Credit: Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

I watched the Olympics on a small black and white television when I was a young child in the fifties. Like a lot of things—cars, music, telephones—television coverage of the Olympics was different then. We would watch contestants competing in real time. And the networks showed all the athletes, not just the Americans.

The slick packaging of sports as a form of entertainment hadn’t ascended to an Olympian level back then. The close-ups were limited, the interviews rare, and the camera angles not always the most dramatic. But the sense of watching something unique lent the event a glamor unmatched by today’s technically superior coverage.

When I was child I was given to understand that what made Olympic athletes different from other athletes was that Olympians came from all walks of life, that they were just regular humans who worked hard in their spare time to achieve athletic greatness for the honor of their country. There’s still an element of that beneath the massive marketing and the publicity circus that both sustains and feeds off the modern Olympics. But more often it seems that the athletes who climb their way onto the podium are nothing at all like ordinary mortals. Most of them devote years to develop the skills and strength and mental fortitude essential to compete at the highest level.

Perhaps this is how the Olympics were always meant to be. Perhaps my childish notion of an Olympic competition as a bloodless pageant that could, ideally, foster peace and understanding between all the nations of the world was as naive as many of my ideas at that age.  But even now, when I watch the Olympics, marveling at the unparalleled daring and skill and grace of the competitors, that same naive hope still burns bright as any Olympic torch.

In the Sochi Olympics I’ve been mesmerized in particular by the ice dancing. For many years I never paid much attention to the ice skaters. I could skate. Big deal.

Then I saw Charlie White and Meryl Davis skate together, and I realized that what I did wasn’t even the equivalent of crawling compared to the athletes who dance on ice and make it look easy.

White and Davis, who have been skating together for seventeen years, met as eight-year-olds in Michigan. Last night they won the gold medal in ice dancing for the United States, the first time an American team has won the gold since the sport was accepted into the Olympics in 1976.

While many Olympic events seem focused on driving athletes to go faster, higher, and farther, not many require the synthesis of artistry, passion, and teamwork that make ice dancing so thrilling. Sure, there are always a few people who don’t get it. Some people seem suspicious of any sport that doesn’t involve grunting.

On ice White and Davis move with breathtaking precision and fluid grace that is nothing short of astonishing. Watching them swirling over the ice I was reminded of a line from an old jazz ballad, Crazy He Calls Me: “The difficult, I’ll do right now. The impossible may take a little while.”

It took seventeen years, but White and Davis did the impossible last night. On Russian soil they performed with flawless brilliance. Some may flap flags and feel proud to American, and that’s part of it. But for me, their performance makes me feel hopeful for humanity.

If our crazy self-destructive species can still turn out a pair of kids like Charlie White and Meryl Davis, then maybe there’s hope for us yet.
Go Team Earth!

A La Cartography

Some of the most interesting places can't be found on ordinary maps.
Some of the most interesting places can’t be found on ordinary maps.

My status as an antique has recently been upgraded to “living fossil” due to my persistent preference for paper maps.

My children don’t even bother to hide their condescending smiles when they see me rattling the pages of my trusty map books, while their fingers dance lightly over tiny touch pads to ascertain the best route to our destination.

I don’t mind. Inquiring minds may question whether or not zombies will rule the world come the apocalypse, but one thing is certain. Once the internet is felled by a meltdown of all the bright gadgetry of modern technology, we who folded our paper maps properly and kept them handy will still be able to navigate through the steaming wreckage of the dystopian landscape.

Probably. One can never predict the future with certainty. However, with a map, even an old, out-dated map, there is a probability that some of the landmarks and routes pictured on it remain.

Probability is the spice of life. A little bit adds zest to every venture.

Recently our local weather forecasters have been taxing their hard drives with attempts to calculate the probability of snow, ice and frigid conditions.  I saw a map today that included a “probability legend” to enable viewers to comprehend the weather data. I’m not all that interested in the data. Data comes and goes like the snow. But I love the term “probability legend.” It has a winsome inscrutability that I find irresistible.

I’ve always been a sucker for language that slips past the fortress of cold reason and stokes a cozy campfire of possibility beyond the walls of convention.

Thus, some of my favorite maps are of imaginary places. The first map I remember studying with delight was of “The Hundred Aker Wood” in A.A. Milne’s timeless Winnie the Pooh. Everything about that map appealed to me—its scale, the little drawings of trees and landmarks.

I still find pleasure in novels that include well-wrought maps of imaginary places such as the stellar examples in George R.R. Martin’s epic A Song of Ice and Fire, which provide a superb landscape for a work of great imaginative scope.

One of the great things about maps is how they can be used to convey ideas beyond the geographic. There is a marvelous “Map of a Writer’s Mind” by Anne Emond, for instance, which offers a humorous look at the challenging terrain many writers know.

And let us not forget that most personal of maps, the human face, with its lines etched by time and experience. The map of my face includes not only the Frown Lines of Perpetual Worry and the Blemishes of Self-indulgent Folly, but also the Freckles of Summers Past, the Crowsfeet of Laughter, and the Pleated Lips of Kisses.

In our youth-mad culture there are those who try to erase the evidence of time on their personal maps. I would no more do that than I would erase an old letter from a dear friend. I’m grateful for every line.

They remind me who I am: a Probability Legend, if only in my own mind.

In A World Distracted

I was told there would be snacks.
I was told there would be snacks.

Yes, I watched the Super Bowl. No, I don’t care about football.

But I am continually amazed by the peculiarities of my species, and those are on display with extra sprinkles during our nation’s annual rite of roughhousing. Love it or hate it, football is entrenched in our culture, almost as deeply as the beer and cars and snack food whose ads support the whole ritual.

And, I admit, I enjoy critiquing the Super Bowl ads at least as much as I enjoy watching the game. I mean, breathes there a soul so dead that never involuntarily said “aww!” at the first sight of those Budweiser ads with the puppy and the Clydesdale? Come on! Puppies! Clydesdales! United in their appreciation for American beer, even if that company is now owned by a Belgian-Brazilian corporation. It’s still our beer, right?

Well, beer aside, the Super Bowl is over, and now we have to face the rest of February with only Mardi Gras, Valentines day, and the Olympics to distract us from the tiresome work of reality. In Washington, D.C., people pay a lot of attention to the news. And a lot of people in this city are actively involved in trying to change and/or improve the way things work in this country and the rest of the world. There’s always room for improvement. But it’s never as simple as one might hope, it’s rarely easy, and often slow to manifest.

That slowness represents a challenge for us humans. We all want instant results. Lose weight fast. Get rich quick. Dominate the market today.

Yet there’s an upside to a slower process that allows for adjustments, refinements, and perhaps a closer brush with perfection. It’s hard to stay focused on one goal persistently, day after day, week after week. Everyone needs a break from time to time. Thus, some watch football. Others prefer the Kitten Bowl, or the Puppy Bowl.

In a world where the problems sometimes seem too large to manage and the people in charge appear unequal to the task, it’s important not to lose hope. When my spirit sags I turn to movies. This past weekend I watched “In A World,” Lake Bell’s brilliant and funny film about the curious business of voice-overs. The film has a lot to say about ambition, gender issues and perception, but most of all it challenges the notion that we are all stuck “in a world” where things can’t be changed. Bell makes it clear that even when the game is rigged and the odds are stacked against you, you can change the game.

As Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson said in his interview after the Super Bowl, his father always encouraged him to follow his dreams even though they seemed out of reach, saying, “You have the ability…so why not you?”

In a world where the Seattle Seahawks can defeat Peyton Manning and the Broncos, it feels like anything can happen.

Apocalypse Wow

The Potomac has been frozen solid for weeks this winter.
The Potomac has been frozen solid for weeks this winter.

We’re starting to get the hang of it.

That first “polar vortex” caught us napping, dreaming our playful global warming scenarios, the ones in which we don’t run out of fresh water but we do get to have a beach ten minutes from downtown D.C.. You know, the kinder gentler apocalypse where somehow we pull a last minute yoo-ee and don’t wreck the planet.

But this latest “parade of clippers” paired with a brisk course of Arctic palette cleansers gave us all a chance to embrace our inner Yetis.

People in other parts of the nation, not including those rarified climates of California, Florida or Seattle, regularly have to put up with the sort of winter smackdown that we’ve been enjoying for the past month, so I don’t expect the residents of, say, Michigan, have much sympathy with whining.

There will be no whining here. Instead, I strapped on my camera and set forth to capture the wonderfulness of the frigid landscape. Unfortunately, I’m not the intrepid shutterbug I once was, and failed to come up with anything remotely dramatic.

Bright berries light up the snowy Georgetown Waterfront Park.
Bright berries light up the snowy Georgetown Waterfront Park.

However, luckily, here in D.C. there is no shortage of crazy weather nuts who make the effort and share with us all the most breathtaking sunrise and sunset and storm photos. Several of these guys also write for the Washington Post’s Weather Gang column, and they post their stunning pix there. Check these out!

I may never learn to love the cold, but I’m a sucker for beautiful sunrises and sunsets. And this bone chilling weather seems to lend an extra dimension of dazzle to the scenery.

I appreciate the quiet beauty of the season of ice and fire. And as a gardener, I’ve also learned to respect the value of a reliable blanket of snow. Nothing hurts plants more than an unseasonal warm spell followed by the sudden return of normal cold. Robert Frost, who composed many poems about the seasons, described this particular peril most eloquently in a few lines of “Good-bye and Keep Cold.”

No orchard’s the worse for the wintriest storm;
But one thing about it, it mustn’t get warm.
‘How often already you’ve had to be told,
Keep cold, young orchard. Good-bye and keep cold.
Dread fifty above more than fifty below.’

We don’t have a lot of orchards here in the city, of course. But the principle is solid. Each year the people who bank on the Cherry Blossom Festival endure months of anxiety over whether or not a late frost or a turbo-charged spring will sabotage the blooms.

So maybe we’d best keep those earmuffs handy. And people who don’t like it can just chill.

The Panda Perplex

The baby panda's father, Tian Tian, is unfazed by the pandamonium.
The baby panda’s father, Tian Tian, is unfazed by the pandamonium.

In a city where power politics and grandstanding are routine, the need for diversion from the perpetual feuding drives some to great lengths.

Some people find relief in music or sports, either as spectators or participants. An obsessive interest in any sport offers a giddy disconnect with genuine problems. The operative word here is obsessive. Rational humans appear immune to obsessive behavior. They plan their lives carefully, set goals, work towards them, eat right, think constructively and generally set an example for the rest of us.

Do the math.
Do the math.

But they can never know the joy of the True Obsessive, who charts a course through life guided by an unwavering conviction that certain actions must be taken, certain sights must be seen, certain foods must be consumed, etc. While this might seem irrational, from another angle it reveals a cunning strategy to find satisfaction in a world which all too often refuses to play ball when it comes to fairness.

For the obsessive who defines happiness as the attainment of whatever particular experience they have chosen as their guiding star, the goal of satisfaction becomes less remote.

All of which is to say that if your obsessive passion is panda bears, it’s a great time to be alive in Washington, D.C.

On the planet at this point there are only 300 pandas in captivity, and only 1,600 left in the wild.

Our newest celebrity panda cub, Bao Bao, born August 23rd, 2013, is only the second panda since 1972 to survive birth in captivity at the National Zoo. She made her public debut on Saturday, and thousands of people waited in line for hours to get a precious minute to snap a photo and drool on the glass separating the public from the wee bear.

The Zoo's live Panda-cam lets fans get a panda fix anytime, night or day.
The Zoo’s live Panda-cam lets fans get a panda fix anytime, night or day.

I wasn’t one of them. Not that I don’t like pandas, of course. Who wouldn’t like pandas? But since my children are grown, and my patience isn’t what it used to be, I declined the opportunity to stand in line for 90 minutes to get a glimpse of the adorable newbie. But I respect the devotion of those pandamanians who got up before dawn on Saturday, and waited long hours in the freezing cold to be among the first to see Bao Bao. Some drove nine hours for the privilege.

Visitors pass through a bamboo tunnel while waiting for a glimpse of Bao Bao.
Visitors pass through a bamboo tunnel while waiting for a glimpse of Bao Bao.

However, just because I wouldn’t go the distance for a baby panda doesn’t mean I might not do it for some other obsession. There was a time when I waited in line for almost two hours to get a book signed by Terry Pratchett. You might not think there would be that many people interested in such a thing, but, trust me, the distance between desire and obsession is mutable. One minute you think you can do without something, and then…gotta have it.

You know you want one.
You know you want one.

So my hat’s off to the panda crazies. I salute their funny hats, their whimsical backpacks, their umbrellas, their bento boxes. It’s all good. It goes to support panda research. And though some members of  Congress question whether too much money is being spent on one endangered species, at least the public is chipping in big time to shoulder the cost when it comes to pandas.

But if the giant anteater ever gets a star on the endangered list, I wouldn’t bet on its chances of touching off a meerkat-like whirlwind of devotion. We humans are a fickle bunch. Our obsessions come and go. Not unlike the endangered creatures who inspire them.

Just Rewards

Red carpet royalty.
Red carpet royalty.

I never plan to watch these things. But there I was on Sunday night, sucked into the Golden Globe awards before Tina Fey cracked the first joke.

I’d like to think I was immune to the siren spell of glamorous people in their glamorous outfits with their carefully styled hair and state of the art make-up. Yet when the stars shine, I’m dazzled.

But much as I love watching movies and surrendering my disbelief for a few hours every now and then, the sheer number of entertainment award shows is, to borrow a showbiz term, colossal. Remember when it was just the Academy Awards? One night of the year when movie buffs and cinema snobs could cheer for their faves, and grumble about the injustice of the system? The movies were in their golden youth back in 1929 when the first Academy Awards were handed out. By the time the event was first televised in 1953, it had grown far beyond its humble origins. And its success as a commercial entertainment has inspired a worldwide genre.

In this era of global coverage, I bet you could find an award show to watch almost every week of the year. France, Britain, Australia, Japan, and countless other countries have their own award shows. And then there are the Emmys, Tonys, Grammys, etc. In fact, with so many award shows, and so many memorable moments in each one, doesn’t it seem inevitable that we should have an award show for the best of the award shows?

I can see it now: the categories would include Most Convincing Show of Genuine Emotion for winning an “unexpected” award, Most Thrilling Dress, Most Embarrassing Dress Mishap, Best Acceptance Speech, of course, Most Vindictive Acceptance Speech (Payback Is Hell category).

I would watch this show. I think most of us would be happy to nominate contenders. After all, every award program, from the lowliest local theatre gathering to the Academy Awards gala, is held together by magical filaments of glorious vanity dancing with brave ambition. Some crushed toes are inevitable.

We like to tell our children it’s not how you look that determines how the world will respond to you, that actions matter more than words, that truth is powerful. And these are noble ideas. But in the world of entertainment, you won’t go far if your clothes don’t flatter you. Or if you can’t remember your lines. Or if you tell it like it is to an audience that wants to hear the same soothing lies.

Movies are a remarkable medium. They can educate, enlighten, move and terrify us. Sometimes they can even change the way we see the world. But award shows are all alike. Beautiful people make jokes about each other. Everyone thanks their “team”, their directors, their agents, their families, and God, who, along with being a big sports fan, is apparently is a huge movie buff.

If there were an award for the most gullible I’d be right on there on the stage , clasping my little statuette, thanking all the kind fans who voted for me. But most of all I’d be wishing I were someplace else.

Bye Bye Love

The Everly Brothers' flawless harmony charmed a generation.
The Everly Brothers’ flawless harmony charmed a generation.

In this country nothing defines generations quite so clearly as the music they love.

For my father’s generation it was the big dance bands that played swing music with full horn sections, driving rhythms and sweet melodies. I like that kind of music, but it was never mine.

It wasn’t until I heard the Everly Brothers on the radio that I began to sing along.

Bye bye happiness. Hello loneliness. I think I’m gonna cry.

The words may be simplistic. The harmony was unforgettable. For those who had the good fortune to hear the Everly Brothers when they first came on the scene, it was a joy ride.

These days music is embedded into every aspect of modern life. It’s piped into every public space, it’s easily available on countless portable devises, it streams constantly in the air. But in the fifties, when the Everly Brothers burst into song there were fewer sources for live music and tighter control over recorded music.

The Everly Brothers inspired thousands of young men to pick up guitars and start strumming. But while others attempted to copy their harmonies, no one ever did it better.

In the memorial coverage since Phil Everly’s passing on January 3rd at age 74, mention has been made of the friction that existed between the famous brothers in the later part of their lives. While it’s disappointing that they weren’t always as harmonious off-stage as they were on it, perhaps it’s inevitable that some discord would breed in such a long and close partnership.

At the height of their success they were almost never seen apart. In hundreds of photographs they appear joined at the shoulder, Don always on the right, younger brother Phil always on the left. When contractual disputes and the stresses of touring and performing grew, they still had to maintain that facade of Everlys, together forever. Until now.

But I will never forget how fresh and beautiful they sounded. All I have to do is dream.