Blowing in the Wind

"Cake? For me?" I was a happy camper at age four.
“Cake? For me?” I was a happy camper at age four.

When your birthday falls on or around Christmas, people tend to offer you sympathy, as if it must be your loss, being overshadowed, and most likely overlooked, by the grander celebrations taking place worldwide.

I was never bothered. For me, the lights, the music, the cookies, the hint of magic in the frosty air, all lent a festive note to the annual observation of my entry into this particular life, which has outlasted my childish dream of happy endings for us all. I now know far too much to put my weight on that flimsy branch. At this point in the narrative I am high up on the tree, and avoid looking down whenever possible.

However, during that brief golden age when I still tried to twist the facts as they entered my precocious mind, wanting to believe in such a character as Santa Claus, for instance, while preferring not to believe that my parents were liars, I had a few Christmases that imprinted on my emotional retina as firmly as any snowy Currier and Ives print.

Christmas only happened in one place back then: my grandparents house in Erie, Pennsylvania. Even after my father moved our family down to Virginia, we still drove over the river and through the Pennsylvania Turnpike tunnels to the deep snow and cousin-rich comfort of Erie, a town whose hey-day was over long before I was born there. I didn’t know this then, and wouldn’t have cared. It was the one place where I felt safe from the mockery of my peers.

One of the most disorienting things about moving to Virginia was the not-so subtle shift in what qualified as humor among the children my age. Whether it was my sheltered nerdiness that drew their attention, or simply their instinct to rough up newcomers, whatever. I was shy to begin with; after a few months of southern “hospitality” I was disinclined to open up to anyone. It took me years to learn the system, and to develop my own protective shell of tough humor.

In our current climate of paranoia and aggression, a sense of safety seems more elusive than ever. I feel for parents who send their kids to public school, and I have nothing but the highest respect for the teachers brave enough to keep trying to bring light into this modern dark age.

It’s tempting to draw the wagons and lock down in full defensive mode. But if we give up on all the things that make life worth living, then the lunatics have won.

Humor is an essential part of humanity. When people lose the ability to laugh, especially at themselves, they risk losing their ability to empathize, and without empathy there can be no compassion. And without compassion … Right.

So here we are. Another Christmas season. Songs of joy and peace, etc. And, as usual, the world seems poised on the brink of another apocalyptic finale. Well, if we’ve learned anything from Hollywood it’s that nothing is ever final. There’s always a sequel, a prequel or a remake. In real life we’re fascinated by makeovers. We’re told there are no do overs.

But who really knows? Maybe life is like those trick candles on the birthday cake that keep relighting themselves. Maybe we get to keep blowing our chances until we get it right, like in Kate Atkinson’s weirdly compelling novel Life After Life.

Seems like a lot of work, if you ask me. But you didn’t. So I’ll just get back to blowing out these candles. Time’s a wastin’.


Poised in the Boat

M.G. “Brad” Bradlee spent many a happy hour in boats in the wilderness.

I haven’t been able to summon the joie de vivre to write a blithe blog lately. I have my excuses, but who doesn’t?

Years ago when I considered it a lark to forge my own ‘get out of class’ notes, my mother never knew how often I signed her name to excuse my time wasting ways. She lost her ability to write notes or anything else more than twenty years ago. It took me a long time to learn that there’s really no time to waste.

When at last I awoke to the fact that we are all of us adrift on a sea of chance and doomed to sink beneath the waves one way or another, I still had three aging parental figures living out their final years on the East Coast. I decided to try to make up for lost time. We moved across the country and I began my campaign. What an idiot.

As Shakespeare famously wrote, “There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to victory.” However, if you miss the boat, all your flailing will only attract sharks.

I knew I’d be getting back just in time for funeral season. But I was determined to make the best of it and give the parents I had left all the care and comfort I could manage.

It wasn’t enough. They died anyway. And here I am, trapped in a logjam of regret.

Well. I’ve been coping with the self-recrimination, etc., by attempting to: (a) be a better person; (b) forgive myself for failing at that; and (c) do better work. Option (c) is the only thing that seems to be helping so far. I’m writing a lot. And reading voraciously. In the process, I’m rereading a lot of the books that cast a kindlier light upon my soul through the years.

At the moment I’m mid-stream in Jerome K. Jerome’s brilliantly silly “Three Men In a Boat.” This slender novel was first published in 1889, and some of its language is dated. But the voice of the author is a marvel of deadpan humor, alternating with flights of philosophical observation. A welcome tonic against this age of violent intolerance in which we live.

The simple story gives an account of three young men, and a dog, who set out for a week’s vacation, rowing and towing on the Thames. As the friends begin to pack the boat, encountering the difficulties we all experience when trying to decide what to put in and what to leave out, there occurs this sample passage:

“Throw the lumber over, man! Let your boat of life be light, packed only with what you need — a homely home and simple pleasures, one or two friends, worth the name, someone to love and someone to love you, a cat, a dog, and a pipe or two, enough to eat and enough to wear, and a little more than enough to drink; for thirst is a dangerous thing.”

In the last year of his life my wonderful father-in-law enjoyed the terrific true story of “The Boys in the Boat” by Daniel James Brown, which has been a bestseller for some time. The story of a group of young men who overcame daunting odds to compete in the Olympics just before World War II resonated with my father-in-law, who, like many of his generation, was a veteran whose life was changed forever by his war time service.

But long before he joined the service, my father-in-law had been a boy in a boat. His experiences as a young boy camping and boating in the woods of New England taught him to value self-reliance and simplicity, fairness and friendship, and trust.

I’m grateful that he lived long enough to share his wisdom with me. I’ve never been much of a sailor, but with the memory of his generous nature as my compass, I hope to stay poised when my own boat springs a leak.

Debugging Retirement

In retirement there's time for whatever floats your boat.
In retirement there’s time for whatever floats your boat.

Some years ago Robert Atchley, a gerontologist, published a paper about the seven stages of retirement. He described the honeymoon phase, the disenchantment that follows it, and the reorientation that gradually evolves. The paper was widely quoted, and boomers who expected to live forever blithely ignored it.

We’re not so blithe anymore.

Yet we of the grey ponytail set still rebel against the notion that we must follow the path our elders took. We prefer to follow our hearts, even when they lead us into shark-infested waters.

However, as we find ourselves slipping, kicking and screaming in some cases, into geezerhood, I can’t help noticing that Atchley wasn’t far wrong in his assessment of the process. But I have my own take on the stage settings.

The way I see it, stage one is Relief. Free at last! This is celebrated with lots of sleeping in and various libations according to taste, until the balloons wilt and the gang leaves.

This leads to stage two, Wild Speculation. You can do anything now! Take that trip to Easter Island, remodel the kitchen, climb Kilimanjaro, or at least take a picture of yourself beside it, which is just as good and earns you points on the been-there-done-that scale.

Unfortunately, all that activity eventually leads to stage three, Exhaustion. Also, unless you were very thrifty before this whole retirement notion sank in, you’re beginning to realize there are limits, monetary and stamina-wise, to what you can do.

But you aren’t about to let that cramp your style. Thus you charge ahead into stage four, Planning Your Strategy, with a determination to enjoy life to the fullest and make the world a better place at the same time. Nothing will stop you.

However, as you wade deeper into the logistics and hard realities of planning a better life, etc., you begin to feel that this is a lot like work. Welcome to stage five.

Gradually, as you continue to gather facts and figures, the complexity of it all begins to weigh you down and a numbing lassitude sets in, signaling that you have reached the Why Bother stage. It has a number, but who cares?

Some people never make it out of this stage. I feel for them.

But you know, we few, we lucky few, we who band with our brothers and say to hell with stages, we’ll play for our friends and make the world a brighter place if only for a few hours, we place our faith in the Bank of Denial. That’s right. Good old fashioned what-me-worry? denial has stood the test of time and, by golly, it can work for you if you give it a chance.

The important thing, the vital prime directive of this mission into senior air-space, is: Don’t Sit In the Chair. Yes, I know. The chair beckons. It’s so comfy. It welcomes your tired aching body like the warm hug of a sweet lover. But you must resist. Once you give in to the chair, there’s no getting back up.

The whole key to survival, really, is to keep going. Where almost doesn’t matter.

I’ve recently become addicted to the stylish, loosely-based-on-reality series “Halt and Catch Fire.” The title refers to an old computer coding mnemonic that causes a program to cease meaningful operation, often requiring a restart of the computer. Set in the 1980s, when computers were just beginning to take over the world, the show manages to take a quiet, nerdy business and make it sexy and exciting.

Computer technology has always been a game of speed and wits. The fast succeed. Those who stop to rest never catch up. They get left in the dust.

The real secret to retiring is: don’t. Find something you love to do and do it as long as you can. The final frontier is, after all, another frontier. Further!

Ask Me If I Care

Time is running out for the Nats.
Time is running out for the Nats.

It began so innocently.

I was working on a book in which softball figured prominently in the plot. As far as I knew, there weren’t many rules. I had no experience with the game, aside from a very brief attempt at playing on the girls team in high school, and the only games I’d watched as an adult had been casual field games in rural Virginia in the ’70s when rules were made to be bent.

Anyway, I thought it might lend some credibility to the book I was writing if I learned a thing or two about baseball. So I turned on the TV and found the Mariners game and started watching. I don’t remember anything about that particular game, but the next day there was another game on, so I watched that one too. And then the next day …

I hadn’t planned to become Mariners fan, of course. It takes a special kind of person to root for a team that loses a lot. A lot. But there wasn’t much else on TV, and I got into the habit. I became addicted to the soothing sound of Dave Niehaus’s voice. I didn’t know then that Niehaus, the announcer for the Mariners for 33 years, was already in the Hall of Fame. But I instantly appreciated the warmth and generosity of his on-air manner. From him I learned what a can of corn was, and also a grand salami. My oh my.

By the time I left Seattle it had happened to me. I had somehow become a baseball fan. The obsession might have ended when we returned to D.C. had it not been for my brother Bill, who took a job at the Nats’ ballpark in 2008. Talking about the game became just another thing we did.

In many ways the Nationals are a very different sort of team from the Mariners, but the most jarring distinction to me is the catchphrase “Natitude.” The Mariner’s current phrase is “True To The Blue.”

There’s nothing inherently wrong with “Natitude.” But the way it’s framed in the team’s marketing suggests a kind of pugnacious sense of entitlement. I appreciate the important of confidence in sports. You can’t play if you don’t think you have a chance. And belief is a powerful thing. But there’s a world of difference between quiet self-possession and noisy boasting.

This season has been particularly tough for the Nats, who started out at the top of many lists of likely playoff contenders. Now they’re eight games back from the surging Mets, and only the diehard crazies are still clinging to the hope of a mathematically possible miracle for a post season.

There was a time I wouldn’t have known or cared what any of this meant. I’m not even sure I care now. But I have learned a bit about baseball since that first Mariners’ game. I understand the infield fly rule and the ground rule double. And I know what will happen when the Nats get the bases loaded in the bottom of the eighth inning and they’re trailing the Marlins by four runs and there are two outs and Ian Desmond comes to the plate. I sit on my couch and mutter, “He’s going to strike out and I don’t care.” This is called defensive indifference.

I could care. But it’s only a game, right?

Summer’s Last Gasp

Paddlers revel in the Potomac.
Paddlers revel in the Potomac.

Not with a bang but with a sizzle.

We haven’t set any records for heat this summer. Other parts of our fair nation have endured far more scorching than the D.C. area. But when it comes to the humiture,  our sticky city claims the sweaty trophy.

Resistance is futile. Escape is the only answer. But for those who lack the means or will to travel, there’s always the river.

There didn’t used to be. I mean it’s always been there, but for many years it wasn’t the kind of river you’d want to risk falling into. Thankfully the cleanup of the Potomac has been amazingly successful and now you can hardly throw a stick on a Sunday without beaning a kayaker or a paddleboarder.

Rush hour on the river.
Rush hour on the river.

But even the hottest summer eventually throws in the towel. And, knowing this, the river rats have been swarming these last few weeks. We’ve had a good run. Fall is in the air.

And, of course, as we all know,  winter is coming.


In the heart of the city a secret beach bubbles with fun.
In the heart of the city a secret beach bubbles with fun.

Finally, on the brink of Labor Day, summer’s traditional finale, I made it to The BEACH.

Here’s what it didn’t have: sand, saltwater, the scent of sun screen.

Nonetheless, if you closed your eyes and listened only to the happy shrieks of children and the delighted chatter of adults above the curiously sea-like murmur of the balls, you could imagine yourself at another beach, perhaps one where you dare not close your eyes because, you know, it’s been a good year for sharks.

It's a surreal place to unwind.
It’s a surreal place to unwind.

The BEACH opened on the Fourth of July at the National Building Museum as part of its Summer Block Party program. The interactive architectural installation created by Snarkitecture provides a beach-like experience you can fit in on your lunch hour if you work downtown.

I knew I wanted to experience this from the moment I read about it. But the sands of summer slip through the hourglass faster than fireworks fade from the night sky.

I finally took the plunge yesterday. The buzz of excitement in the Great Hall exactly mimics the blithe soundtrack of a sunny beach scene. The 10,000 square-foot space is contained inside a white wall, high enough to provide a sense of enclosure, but open to the lofty reaches of the museum, which allows beams of sunlight to shaft down on the beach umbrellas.

The BEACH is a state of mind.
The BEACH is a state of mind.

Yes. There are beach umbrellas, and a “shore.” There’s a snack bar and a pier of sorts. But mostly there are people of all ages frolicking in the “surf.”

Some people just have to make a splash.
Some people just have to make a splash.

You could describe it as a plain vanilla ball pit. But it’s a million balls.

And this is part of the brilliance of the design. The way the translucent white slightly squishy balls reflect the light suggest the brightness of the beach. And it’s this brightness that lends a kind of surreal serenity to the scene.

The BEACH balls never get more than three and a half feet deep, and diving is forbidden, but children and adults alike can’t seem to resist the urge to submerge. Or you can just lounge in a beach chair and let the big ball spin.

The BEACH closes on September 7th. If you’re looking for something inside a box but outside the ordinary, don’t miss it.

Escape Routes

City filigree.
New York City filigree.

Our fair city has been pretty quiet of late, apart from the unending political jousting and the rising tide of random violent crime.

A lot of people try to get out of town during August, when the sidewalks sizzle and the mosquitoes never sleep. Others hunker down and find ways to unwind in situ. For me this means reading even more than usual. Most recently, on the suggestion of a cousin who has spent most of her life living in New York City, I read A Tree Grows In Brooklyn. My cousin was shocked when I told her I’d never read it.

I had heard of the book. But in spite of being an English major in college, I somehow never was required to read this particular classic. I realize that picking and choosing required books is a complex business. School administrations have to take into account a lot of cultural and social and political forces when selecting books for public schools. But still.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was selected as one of the “Books of the Century” by the New York Public Library. Of course that was last century, but having spent a lot of my life in that one I could totally relate to the book which, in case some of you haven’t gotten around to it, is a lovingly detailed yet realistic account of the childhood of an impoverished young girl of Irish heritage in Brooklyn in the early 1900s. Written by Betty Smith, and drawn from her personal experiences growing up in Brooklyn, the story delivers a compelling sense of energy and optimism amid the social problems and prejudices of that particular time.

Most of all, Smith creates an emotionally resonant portrait of a family struggling against the odds to achieve even a small portion of the so-called American dream. Young Francie Nolan, the bright plucky heroine, has a big heart and a vivid imagination. She loves to read and cherishes her library card. And one of her favorite places to read is on the fire escape outside her family’s tiny apartment.

On a recent visit to New York City I was struck by the beauty of the fire escapes in lower Manhattan. New construction eschews the old exterior stairs that zigzag over the facades of so many old city buildings. And no doubt modern fire prevention systems are more reliable and practical for any number of reasons.

Yet there’s something about those old fire escapes that speaks to me of romance. And not just Holly Golightly playing “Moon River.”

In summertime the old fire escapes serve as a kind of interstitial zone between the public life of the street and the private life inside buildings. Like an urban tree fort with connections to others.

Cities work best when the people living in them feel connected in positive ways. When circumstances drive people into hiding something precious is lost. Our modern cities may have outgrown the need for old fashioned fire escapes, but our need for community has never been greater. Spaces that allow people of different social backgrounds to mingle in harmony provide an important part of the process of civilization.

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn reminds us that the character of a place plays a big role in the development of personal character. We all need an escape from time to time. But having a place to call home is what keeps us going.

Rain of Signs

D.C. has had record breaking rain this summer. Keep those umbrellas handy.
D.C. has had record breaking rain this summer. Keep those umbrellas handy.

When I was a kid there was no Weather Channel. The idea that millions of people might spend a great portion of every day watching news on screens was a far-fetched notion, worthy of a science fiction story perhaps, but not plausible.

Welcome to modern life. Plausible it may not be, but stranger than fiction it certainly is.

When we lived on the West Coast and were considering the challenges of trying to move back East, we had an imaginary white board on which we listed the pros and cons of the two coasts. Each has its merits. Each has its downsides.

But whenever the issue of weather came up, I would tell myself that wasn’t the main reason. Every place has weather. No place is perfect. Not even Hawaii, or Los Angeles, no matter what the locals may say.

It’s a matter of degree. In weather, as in body temperature, a few degrees one way or the other can spell the difference between delight and delirium. Also, there’s the issue of quantity. A couple of 100 degree days here and there, with low humidity, and you might think, so what? But if an extreme situation persists without letup, say, forty days of rain, or four hundred maybe, it’s only natural to start wondering if maybe Mother Nature is fed up and starting to clean house.

And we are the ants in the cupboard. No offense, Ant Man.

While governments and policy makers continue to drag their feet in acknowledging global climate change, the climate is changing so quickly now that even the Pope has taken note. Unfortunately legislators accustomed to giving lip service to religion have no qualms about continuing business as usual, allowing the destruction of irreplaceable natural resources in order to keep the engines of greed churning. If only that were science fiction.

I don’t read a whole lot of science fiction. I don’t have a lot of interest in distant galaxies although I enjoy watching them explode on the big screen. I’m only human.

However,  I picked up one of Kim Stanley Robinson’s novels because I was intrigued by the title: “Forty Signs of Rain.” Written in 2004, it reads almost as if it were taken from today’s news. Set mostly in a steamy summer in Washington, D.C., the story centers on the efforts of a Senate staffer working on environmental issues, while his wife works to solve the problems from the scientific side at the National Science Foundation.

The book is replete with scientific detail that I, quite frankly, didn’t bother to commit to memory, but the essence of the story is compelling and the scenes of weather-related chaos resonate in part because these situations are already happening with increasing frequency all over the world. The flooded zoos where the animals must be released to have a chance of survival, the outreach from the “League of Drowning Nations,” islands and whole cultures facing obliteration as the sea inexorably rises, the mega “100-year” storms happening every month.

Readers looking for a neat solution or an apocalyptic end won’t find either in this novel, but the scenario Robinson creates is vivid and entirely plausible, and coming soon to a reality near you and me.

You won’t need to watch it on the Weather Channel. Just step outside while you still can.

Lift Off

Wingfor blog


When I was a child I read a lot of fairy tales. Way too many, probably. The guiding principle in most of those stories was that truth and justice will eventually triumph over evil, that love will find a way, and that lasting happiness is achievable if you work hard enough.

These are comforting ideas when you are child. Children are small to begin with, and forced to take orders from much larger beings, who are themselves compelled at times to submit to all sorts of cultural practices, many of which are a huge waste of time and emotional energy. Fortunately, the average child is resilient and resourceful, and soon enough learns either to manipulate the system or to avoid it altogether.

I chose the latter route. Fiction was my hot rod Ford out of dreary convention.

Of course even in fiction conventions thrive which perpetuate the system. However, authors at least have a choice to follow the rules or bend them.

My newly released novel “On The Wing,” Book Three of The Greening trilogy, is a bender’s tale of hopes and dreams, young and middle-aged love, vengeance and heroism. In it the characters who fought and fell and got back up again in Books One and Two band together to save the world one more time.

Eva Carter, who ran away from home as a teenager to find the father she never knew, finally learns the truth about Shiloh Carter’s “day job” when she returns to help her mother in the struggle to repair damage caused by destructive magic sown in the Greening. In the process, Eva reconnects with her emotionally wounded father, her haunted grandfather, and a winsome sprite with otherworldly Green connections.

But when Destiny comes calling, Eva and Shiloh join forces with a ragtag crew of not quite superheroes as they head into the final battle. Sooner or later one of them will have to pay the ultimate price to save the world from going up in smoke.

Happily ever after? Could happen.

Something in the Air

Unforgettable fragrance emanates from the nearly invisible flowers the American linden tree.
Unforgettable fragrance emanates from the nearly invisible flowers of the American linden tree.

Breathe deep.

If you are lucky enough to be walking almost anywhere along Massachusetts Avenue in the District this month, you can’t fail to notice the fragrance.

You might walk right past the blooms without seeing them, however.

The modest tiny flowers of Tilia americana cluster under the lush leaves of the American linden tree, hidden in plain sight.

During springtime in the District many lovely flowering trees enjoy the rapt attention of tourists and residents. The cherry blossoms alone inspire a euphoric response that filters throughout the local economy.

Yet scant attention is given to some of the other stately and elegant trees that help make the Capitol City a capital place to live. People who get all their news from lurid headlines and the usual bad-news-first policy of competitive journalism may never discover all the surprising charms of this particular city.

But for those who take the time to walk the sidewalks of Embassy Row in June, a heavenly aroma awaits.

Look up. There, those trees with the heart-shaped leaves that are green on one side and fuzzy pale gray on the other? Step closer. Inhale.

There’s more than one way to get high in this city.