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.

Mad Men, Madder Women

Buy things. Drive everywhere. It's the American Way.
Buy things. Drive everywhere. It’s the American Way.

I’m not good at goodbyes. But I was ready for the departure of Don Draper and his conniving crew long before Matthew Weiner wrapped up the much-lauded television series.

True confession: I am a TV junkie. Not that I have to have it every day, but everyone has a weakness. I’m a sucker for stylish characters delivering neat lines in dramatic scenes. I don’t require violence or tension necessarily. Humor is a must. And a touch of romance, in my view, makes everything better.

Mad Men, which ended its seven season run on AMC last Sunday, had everything going for it. Style, strong acting, and a dramatic arc that took viewers from the end of the Korean War to the quagmire of the Vietnam era. As history would have it, this allowed the writers to pick and choose from a smorgasbord of cultural phenomena, all of which added to the show’s curiously addictive appeal.

While I was initially hooked by the elegant opening sequence, which remained just as seductive in the final episode as it was in the first, the show’s use of music to underscore plot developments and character studies was unmatched. From the moment Amy Winehouse crooned “You Know I’m No Good” at the conclusion of the first episode, the template was set. I could have listened to her for the entire series. Somehow, her tragic death seemed to foreshadow the dark parabola of the show’s narrative direction.

Yet, week after week, year after year, I found it impossible to join the rabid fans who gushed about Don Draper’s irresistible charms. I can only assume that the character of the alpha male who bluffs his way to the top of a corporate hierarchy while women continually throw themselves at him must resonate with a lot of people.

He irked the hell out of me. But then, so did most of the male characters in the show. The carefree air of self-satisfied entitlement and male-chauvinist patronizing was all too familiar for any woman who experienced the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s in the United States. Maybe it was different in other countries.

But, that said, my hat’s off to Weiner for the female characters who battled their way through Mad Men. Each of them represented some aspect of the challenges women faced during those decades when women’s rights were still viewed as a kind of novelty by the majority of men in power.

True, Betty seemed a little psychotic at times. But after all, she smoked her way through seven seasons, and that stuff will kill you. Joan and Peggy fared a bit better, in spite of the shabby treatment they endured from most of the men they encountered along the way. But at least they fought the good fight and both of them emerged stronger at the end.

For a time part of my huffy attitude toward the show was lodged in the concept of advertising itself. Was I supposed to care about people who spent their lives writing advertising? I have a mute button and I know how to use it.

But my resistance eventually collapsed after a certain episode, one of many in which one of the writers pitches a campaign to a group of executives. Peggy stands in front of a group of skeptical men and tells them a story about a working mother trying to feed her family. And so compelling is her story that she draws them all into it, until they get it. For a moment they feel that transcendent lift that a good story delivers, when it allows the reader, or viewer, to see things from a different perspective.

In the end, that’s what the best stories and television shows do. We may not buy into the dubious premise that “Coke is it.” But when we see hundreds of fresh-faced people standing in the sunshine with bottles of sugar-saturated soft drink, we don’t care if it’s good or bad, because for one brief shining moment, perfect harmony seems only a sip away.

Old Stoneface

The Lyndon Baines Johnson Memorial Grove is a far cry from the Washington Monument.
The Lyndon Baines Johnson Memorial Grove is a far cry from the Washington Monument.

Monuments and memorial statues occupy a lot of real estate in Washington, D.C..

The more popular historical figures naturally claim pride of place along the National Mall, where millions of tourists pay homage annually. However, not all the significant players on this world stage are commemorated in stone or bronze. While there are no less than three statues of Lincoln downtown (and who doesn’t love Lincoln?), some worthy national figures don’t even rate a plaque.

Across the Potomac from the National Mall, on a small strip of land nestled between the Columbia Marina and Reagan National Airport, but still technically part of the District, the Lyndon Baines Johnson Memorial Grove offers a unique perspective on our Nation’s Capitol.

A rough granite monolith sits surrounded by a grove of white pines and dogwoods. There are a few benches and a serpentine path through the woods. There are a couple of quotes from Johnson, but they weren’t drawn from his landmark work on the Civil Rights Act, or his efforts to end poverty. They’re just a couple of simple lines about how all children should have the freedom and opportunity to enjoy the beauty of this nation. Of course, Lady Bird Johnson, who guided the creation of the memorial grove in 1974, probably selected the quotes in an effort to remind visitors that her embattled husband was, beneath his forceful and plain-speaking exterior, a sensitive man fighting for justice in a system tilted to benefit the rich.

That system is still going strong. The War on Poverty, which Johnson launched in 1964, ran out of gas well before the ’80s. But that doesn’t prove it wasn’t a good idea.

The recent riots in Baltimore, like the continuing violence in our cities nationwide, reflect the sense of hopelessness that breeds in a system which perpetuates economic injustice.

Popular television shows that portray a decayed and corrupt system of government in this country have some value. But reality is a lot harder to wrap up in one or two seasons. When the War on Poverty began in 1964, the poverty rate in the United States was 19 percent. In 2014 it was 14.5 percent. That’s some progress. But it’s hard to appreciate when your kids are hungry.

Not many tourists cross the river to spend a quiet moment staring at the big rock that symbolizes the hard-headed 36th President of the United States. Like so many of us, he was complex. People remember his crude sense of humor, his determination to win the Vietnam War. People forget that it was Johnson who created the National Endowment for the Arts.

Politicians are only human. Critics hungry for heroes might do well to try serving on the local school board before they assume it’s easy to run a country of 325 million strong-minded individuals.

Lyndon Johnson, the boy from Stonewall, Texas, was one of them.

Between a rock and a hard place, a fitting memorial to LBJ.
Between a rock and a hard place, a fitting memorial to LBJ.


The Way We Live Now

Is this freedom or simply a roomy cage?
Is this freedom or simply a roomy cage?

Everyone reads Dickens in high school. Trollope not so much.

As an English major, I read a lot of literature. But somehow the works of Anthony Trollope never made the must-read list. I would pick up one of his dozens of classic novels and glance at the hundreds of pages of dense text and think, maybe some other time.

That time finally arrived last month when I was looking for a good long book to provide a portable door (thanks be to Tom Holt) through which to find respite from the exhausting realities of current problems. I was intrigued by the title: “The Way We Live Now.”

Anthony Trollope was born on April 24, 1815. The “now” in which his characters strive and scheme and pine is a far cry from the “now” of 2015. Thus, in some ways reading “The Way We Live Now” now was, for me, rather like watching one of those soporific BBC series in which a rigid sense of propriety locks all the characters into their places on the social scale.

Trollope’s writing style, however, offers surprising turns of wit and wisdom delivered with unhurried grace. Published in 1875, “The Way We Live Now” is driven by issues which remain relevant today: women’s rights, entrenched economic disparity, and the power of audacity to sway public opinion regardless of evidence. The story bustles with life. And there’s a good bit of romantic foolishness as well, with young women pining for handsome cads while worthy heroes suffer in silence.

The contrasts between the now of Trollope’s world and the now in which we live are too numerous to count, and perhaps modern people living in the First World feel secure enough in the embrace of technology to ignore the ideas of a writer so two centuries ago.

We moderns think we’re so free.

Yet in spite of all our jets and handheld gadgets and security surveillance, freedom remains a complex challenge. Freedom of movement, freedom of thought, freedom of speech — these concepts we cherish must be rooted in respect for the dignity and worth of all life on Earth, regardless of gender or ethnicity or religion or age. Without compassion for each other, all our so-called sophistication is worse than meaningless. It’s a fraud.

Thus wrote Anthony Trollope, and he wasn’t wrong.

“The Pearl That Broke Its Shell”

Among the millions of books available to the modern reader, there are books that educate, books that entertain, books that break your heart, and books that help to mend it.

My own selections tend to be based on my admittedly narrow focus on fiction. I avoid grisly horror, for instance, since I get my fill of that in the daily news. But even a diehard escapist occasionally feels drawn to read novels that deal with reality.

A few weeks ago I read a modern novel about the life of women in Afghanistan. I went into it with a kind of starry-eyed optimism. You know how it is. Book blurbs sometimes entice with vague marketing babble that obscures the real message of a book.

When I was considering whether or not to read Nadia Hashimi’s literary debut, “The Pearl That Broke Its Shell,” I skimmed through the reviews to see what to expect. I saw that Khaled Hosseini, the esteemed author of the powerful novel “The Kite Runner,” had described the new book as “a tender and beautiful family story.” Booklist described it as “spellbinding.”

I decided to give it a try.

And I was thoroughly engrossed from the first page to the last. Nashimi weaves a mesmerizing story of the struggles of two young Afghan women, born a century apart.

Set in Kabul in 2007, the story paints a devastating picture of the conditions for Afghan women living in the rural areas of that country, where men, and only men, decide who is allowed to move about freely, to hold a job, to be educated, to speak in public. Rahima is a young girl with a drug-addicted father in a family with no sons to chaperone the five daughters. As part of an ancient custom called bacha posh, Rahima is allowed to dress as a boy temporarily, so that she can help her mother, and as a result she is allowed to taste the freedoms that only boys have there. What follows, as the family is torn apart with the daughters virtually sold off as child brides to support the father’s drug addiction, is hardly what I would call a beautiful family story.

But then, I’m a spoiled western woman. Perspective is everything.

Women in the United States have made a lot of progress in terms of demanding equal pay for equal work, and access to education and healthcare. And women here still aren’t satisfied.

After reading “The Pearl That Broke Its Shell,” I was depressed to think of the habitual abuses women in some other countries have to endure.

And then this past week, a 27-year-old religious scholar in Kabul was beaten to death by a mob of men after she was falsely accused of burning the Quran.

Having just read Hashimi’s novel, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised by this atrocity. But I was stunned, as I sincerely hope all the world is stunned by this monstrous behavior. The increasing violence towards women must be stopped, not only in Afghanistan, but in India and Pakistan and other countries where religious unrest and economic disparity drive men to acts of anger and desperation.

I think about the young girls in Afghanistan. The heroines of Nashimi’s novel are not so different from young women anywhere. They have hopes and dreams of happiness, even love, in spite of being trapped in a complex cultural situation from which there is no easy escape. Yet, even in the worst situations, people find hope in stories.

“The Pearl That Broke Its Shell” is such a story. Though it’s full of pain and suffering, the author offers some hope of a better future, not just for Afghan women, but for women everywhere.


Flown Away

Even raptors must feel the urge to nest.
Even raptors must feel the urge to nest.

Like birds on the wing, the flutter of opinions stirs the air we breathe. Try as we might to still our minds and think pure thoughts, currents of rage and sorrow and desire carry us far from the places we thought we were going, and we may wind up asking ourselves, as the Talking Heads so eloquently put it: “How did I get here?”

Recently I watched two very different films, each of which addresses the way humans struggle to control the direction of their own lives, and how they cope with the loss of it.

In “Birdman,” the Oscar-winning darkly funny study of egos clashing onstage and off, Michael Keaton delivers a riveting portrayal of a man whose dreams of artistic achievement were swept away by the hurricane force of his early commercial success in a movie franchise of a comic book superhero.

As a former Batman himself, Keaton’s credibility in the role of Riggan Thomson is never in question. Less certain is the artistic integrity of the character played by Edward Norton (a former Hulk, another irony-laden casting choice) who gives a vivid portrayal of the sort of actor who is most alive when pretending to be someone else.

It’s a fascinating movie about the human need to feel relevant. However, as Riggan’s damaged daughter, Emma Stone sums up the futility of the effort in a few passionate lines about how it feels to grow up in the age of Twitter and You-Tube, when anyone may suddenly acquire a million followers in the blink of an eye, yet still be profoundly lost.

I enjoyed “Birdman” in part because it’s the sort of film that allows viewers to feel compassion, while remaining comfortably detached from the problems of these self-obsessed characters. They’re all actors, after all. They’re not saving the world. They’re desperately seeking validation through applause and critical acclaim.

A totally different sort of the cinematic experience is presented in “Shun-li and The Poet,” an award-winning Italian film from 2011 about the struggle of a Chinese woman trying to reunite with her eight-year-old son. The story takes place near Venice, but it’s not the postcard-perfect Venice tourists flock to see. In a small tavern Shun-li waits on the fishermen who work the lagoons surrounding Venice. Most of them harbor deep distrust of foreigners. Shun-li tries to keep her head down and her hopes up that eventually she will pay off the debt she owes to her Chinese bosses. We feel for her, especially when she develops an innocent friendship with Bepi, a Yugoslavian, known to his fisher pals as “the poet” for his habit of rhyming. Alone among the other patrons of the cafe, Bepi shows Shun-li some kindness.

The film moves slowly, revealing the way lonely people find solace in their shared humanity. Poetry, spoken and visual, flows through the film. It left me feeling both sad and hopeful.

Much as I enjoy happy explosion movies where quippy heroes make the world safer for us all, at the end of the reel there’s the real to be faced. Still gritty, sometimes beautiful, often heartbreaking. A little poetry eases the transition.