A Path All Her Own

Who knows where the path ends?
Who knows where the path ends?

I’ve been binge reading throughout this seemingly endless heat wave, and, as even the most diehard fans of Jane Austen know, there comes a time when you simply can’t reread all her books more than once a year, and the search to find novels of a similar caliber is an exercise in frustration.

So many novels are embellished with blurbs and quotes hailing this or that young darling as the “new Jane Austen,” yet, in spite of my sincere desire to find even one who comes close to that droll tone of refined humor, I’ve yet to find a writer who can walk a mile in Jane’s shoes. Or write a page with her pen, whatever.

However, last week a friend loaned me his copy of an out-of-print book by Sylvia Townsend Warner. It hit me like a cool breeze in this stifling August.

I had completely forgotten about Warner, though her name rang a distant bell. She was an English poet, born in 1893, and her writing reflects something of the constraints of her time. Her first novel, Lolly Willowes, starts out in the mold of many Victorian novels, as the story of a young woman forced to abandon her dreams of independence. When she is unwilling to marry, she’s condemned to a life of familial servitude in her brother’s household. For twenty years. Right? Twenty years down the tube, minding the nieces and nephews and helping out around the house in the name of propriety. I was reading this feeling the sort of bitchy twentieth century irritation and hoping for some sort of improbable romantic twist, but what happens took me by surprise.

Spoiler alert. She sells her soul to the devil to gain her freedom to live her own life. Yeah. I know. I didn’t see it coming either. But what makes it great, what makes it funny, what makes the story such a breath of fresh air, is that the devil isn’t some badass guy with a pitchfork and an evil agenda. No sirree. He’s just a genial character doing business, like his competition on the top floor. He’s out to capture the soul market, and he’s willing to make a deal.

The conceit here is classical, but the writing is so deadpan, so finely tuned to the fierce passion of this plucky spinster, that you can’t help but cheer for her. Okay, so maybe she’s a little bit nuts. But who isn’t?

Anyway. The underlying issues of women’s rights and the mystery of life in general set the novel apart. The writing dances on the borderline between fantasy and philosophy, an area Warner continued to explore in her second novel, Mr. Fortune’s Maggot, which upends the trope of the missionary who goes to a remote tropical paradise and attempts to convert the natives. He is spectacularly unsuccessful at this, but, to his astonishment, he is utterly transformed by the friendship of one charming native boy. Laced with gentle satire and wisdom, the story further illustrates Warner’s wit and compassion.

I was surprised to learn that Lolly Willowes was chosen as the first selection of the Book of the Month Club, newly formed in 1926. Somehow I would have expected them to launch with a more conventional story. Yet I guess they knew what they were doing. Nothing sells like controversy with a hint of scandal. It was true in 1926. Still true today.

Deep Rooted Soul

Tucked away in the Japanese Garden, a Moon Bridge symbolizes the difficulty of living a good life.
Tucked away in the Japanese Garden, a Moon Bridge symbolizes the difficulty of living a good life.

If you fly into Seattle and head north on I-5 to the city, you will not see The Kubota Garden on the way. Even if you notice the modest sign for the turnoff, you may be in too much of a hurry to reach other destinations to visit this gem hidden in plain sight.

When I lived in Seattle I always assumed I would one day visit the garden, but somehow the time flew. I wasted my opportunities.

Last week I finally got there.

Serenity goes with the territory at The Kubota Gardens.
Serenity goes with the territory at The Kubota Gardens.

This extraordinary garden began as the work of one man, Fujitaro Kubota, who immigrated to America in 1907. He worked on the railroad before establishing his own gardening company in Seattle in 1923. In 1927 he began planting the garden on five acres of swampland in the Rainier Beach neighborhood. By 1930 the core of the Japanese Garden was complete.

Waterfalls enliven the mountainside trail.
Waterfalls enliven the mountainside trail.

However, as anyone who gardens knows, a garden is not a static creation. Its life and health and beauty depend upon the persistent care and vision of the gardener. The Kubota Garden suffered an unusual setback during World War II, when, like tens of thousands of American citizens of Japanese descent, the Kubota family was incarcerated at an internment camp in Idaho for four years.

When the Kubotas were allowed to return to Seattle, Mr. Kubota and his sons set to work to restore and expand the garden. The result of their labors is a stunning testimony to the power of gardening to foster peace and generate goodwill.

Hydrangeas light up the shady borders.
Hydrangeas light up the shady borders.

The calm voice of reason is too often lost in rabble-rousing and the vicious spin cycle of media rivals. It’s worth remembering that this great country of ours has been built in large part by the immigrants who arrived here from Europe, Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Most arrived with little but hope and ambition, and most endured resistance from the folks who got here “first.” Yet, with the exception of the original citizens of this nation, who were nearly wiped out by the early pioneers and now are compelled to fight for the most basic human rights, here in the United States of America we are all immigrants. We all wave the same little flags on the Fourth of July and during electoral seasons. But flags mean nothing if we forget what they stand for.

At The Kubota Garden, the meaning of good citizenship is embedded in rocks and roots. It flows freely in the waterfalls, stands tall in the evergreens. It tells us: work hard, grow strong, and remember where you came from.

Under Cover Escape

You could easily lose yourself in The Last Bookstore's Labyrinth.
You could easily lose yourself in The Last Bookstore’s Labyrinth.

It’s that time of year again. Too hot to move, too tired to care, too many mosquitoes in the steamy air.

Summer in the Capital City. The limousine crowd have their serene getaways, their island cottages, their lakeside cabins. But once they get to their secluded vistas I wonder if they really spend much time drinking in the scenery. Or do they, like so many ordinary folks, pack a book or two to escape from the quiet boredom that sometimes lurks behind too much perfect scenery?

I don’t do a lot of traveling, but wherever I am, whatever the season, I’m lost without a book to read.

With all the thousands of books in stores and libraries, to say nothing of the continually expanding ebook universe, you’d think it would be easy to always have a book or two on hand. Yet, reading is such a very personal experience. One person’s “timeless classic” is another person’s dreary yawnfest. Like many chronic readers, I have my short-list of go-to authors whose works I’ve read and reread over the years. But there is still the thrill of the hunt, the hope of finding some new or old previously undiscovered voice in a book.

While it’s not hard to find lists, hundreds, nay thousands, of lists assembled by enthusiastic readers eager to share their opinions about various authors, I’ve found such lists to be of little value. Nor am I swayed by the gushing blurbs on book covers, the ringing endorsements of superb authors, or the bludgeoning force of best seller statistics. For me, it all comes down to the writing. Either it speaks to me or not. One word at a time, one sentence after another. A tone of voice, a touch of humor, perhaps a pinch of mad romance or helpless folly, and I’m in.

I freely confess I enjoy the hunt almost as much as the discoveries. In the pursuit of engaging stories I’ve spent many happy hours wandering in bookstores, but not the big chains with full-court marketing strategies. The bookstores I seek out are the independent champions of the written word, where all books, especially ones with pages you can turn with your hot little hands, are beloved.

On a recent trip to Los Angeles, a city where traditionally spectacle has overshadowed text, I was thrilled to visit The Last Bookstore. The name itself sounds like a good title for a story. Inside, it unfolds like something dreamed up by Lewis Carroll. Thousands of books, new and used, aren’t simply displayed on shelves in the ordinary manner. Venture beyond the ground floor to the Labyrinth above where whimsical arrangements offer a kind of meta commentary on the delights of getting lost in a good book. You won’t want to leave in hurry.

The dizzying displays call to mind the magical library of Unseen University in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, where books contain spells so powerful they must be chained to the shelves to keep them from flying free.

That’s what I’m talking about. Hard core literary magic. It’s good for what ails you.

The Wonder of it All

Visitors fall under the spell of Janet Echelman's "1.8."
Visitors fall under the spell of Janet Echelman’s “1.8.”

Sometimes one look is not enough.

I returned to the Renwick this week to see if the crowds had diminished at “Wonder,” the first show since the museum’s reopening last fall following a two-year renovation.

The first time I tried to see the show the place was so thronged that you could hardly take in the scope of the art, much less enjoy it. It was like trying to stand hip-deep in a rushing river. It can be done, but it’s distracting.

It was quieter this time. Perhaps the flashy tulips blooming in front of the White House had encouraged the tourists to stay outside. For whatever reason, I was grateful to get a chance to experience the show at a more contemplative pace. The Renwick I remember from the 1970’s, when it was saved from demolition by the efforts of Jackie Kennedy, was already something outside the usual in the District. Back then it was the first national museum to showcase the studio craft movement.

In the current exhibition nine visionary artists were each given a whole room in which to present a work on the theme of “Wonder.” The results are thought-provoking, surprising, and strangely enchanting. I enjoyed Maya Lin’s luminous glass marble “unfolded map” of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. I was mesmerized by the magical harp of light playing across Gabriel Dawe’s miles of embroidery thread. And of course, Jennifer Angus’s Day of the Dead-ish bugs on the wall. Who could resist?

But for me the siren’s song is Janet Echelman‘s stunning “1.8.” The first time I wandered through this, the largest room in the show, I was unable to take it all in. The constantly shifting light above, the people sitting around on the carpet in the semi-darkness — the ambience reminded me of a crowd waiting for a rock concert. I failed to read the explanatory note on the wall.

This time I read the note, and learned that Echelman’s work reflects a map of the energy released by the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. “The event was so powerful it shifted the earth on its axis and shortened the day, March 11, 2011, by 1.8 millionths of a second.”

Since the dawn of time doomsayers have speculated on how it will all end, and who, or what, may survive to tell the tale. Yet doesn’t it seem altogether possible that, in spite of, or who knows, maybe because of, all our apocalyptic posturing, we won’t see it coming?

At the Renwick I sat on the carpet with a friend and watched the light shift above while we lost track of time and talked of the past and futures possible. Great art has the power to release us from self-absorbed dithering and wasteful anxiety. We have problems in this world. If we can’t work together to solve them we could be washed up in no time at all. Say, 1.8 millionths of a second.

Think about it.

The View From Here

The Big Pinnacle of Pilot Mountain can be seen for miles in all directions.
The Big Pinnacle of Pilot Mountain can be seen for miles in all directions.

Yay! A fresh crispy New Year to spend on whatever mad caprice strikes our fancy! Buy something random! Go somewhere undiscovered (good luck with that). Or begin that brave new adventure, quick before Winter remembers where it left the blizzard.

Some people find inspiration climbing great heights, or diving deep into oceans. Me, I’m more of an armchair adventurer. But every now and then, lured by the promise of restorative vistas and therapeutic exercise, I venture beyond the gravitational pull of my own inertia.

Such was the case not long ago when I hiked up Pilot Mountain, near Pinnacle, North Carolina. The mountain has been a landmark for centuries. The Saura Indians, who once lived in the region, called it Jomeokee, which, I’m told, means Great Guide or Pilot. Since the name must have been given long before the days of air travel, I’m guessing Great Guide is truer to the original moniker.

Call it what you will, it’s an impressive pile of rock, and one that draws legions of intrepid climbers in these thrill-seeking times. While I prefer my thrills without rope burns and terror, I empathize with the desire to set goals for yourself.

Each New Year I look back at the list I made at the start of the previous season cycle. The list never gets shorter. Usually when I manage to check something off, two or three eager ideas push their way onto the new list and clamor for attention, even as some of the older projects complain about my neglect. It’s hard to please everyone, even when they’re all inside your own head.

Up on Pilot Mountain I enjoyed a brief respite from the nagging demands. Up there, the air is clear and cool. You can see for miles. The problems of a few fictional characters hardly seem to matter. Which is good, because I’m giving a couple of them some time out to work on their issues while I attend to other business. The Goddess of Green Lake, for example, will be off on a spirit quest for a few months. But I’m confident that when she returns she’ll be stronger, bolder, and more magical than ever.

Sometimes we all need a fresh start, even if it’s only fictional. Onward and upward.

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.