When my family moved from Pennsylvania to Northern Virginia in the early 1950s we lived for a while in a small motel on Arlington Boulevard, near Fort Myer, while my parents looked for a house.
We were within Frisbee range of the Nation’s Capitol. Of course we didn’t have one back then. Flying discs were still a new West Coast idea and hadn’t yet evolved to become a lifestyle.
However my Dad was enthusiastic about the educational and cultural opportunities that would be ours living near the Big City. And in time, we did learn a lot as we explored D.C., Alexandria, and points west. We went to the Smithsonian regularly. We heard free concerts by military orchestras on the steps above the Potomac River.
But most memorable of all, we went often to the National Zoo. To do so at that time, we traveled by way of Rock Creek Parkway, fording the creek just before we got to the zoo. We drove our 1954 Ford station wagon right through the water. This, from a child’s viewpoint, was real adventure.
That ford across the creek is no longer an option for today’s zoo visitors. Times change and with them the roads we travel.
When we first settled in Northern Virginia there was no beltway. Route 66 hadn’t razed its way through the heart of old Falls Church and Arlington. There were still a few cow pastures and horse barns at the small intersection known as Tyson’s Corner. There was no Roosevelt Bridge, etc. etc.
So, yeah, I must be old. But the beauty of old, if you’re lucky enough to get there with a few brain cells intact, is the perspective.
I still love the zoo. In some ways it’s better than ever. It has all kinds of support organizations and activities for all ages. There are pandas now. All they had were regular bears when I was a kid. They have free-ranging orangutans and fabulous new elephant facilities. Right now, for the holiday season, they have ZooLights, a great way to spend time in the cold and dark with your kids, or just to release your inner child.
But you can’t drive your car through a stream to get there anymore. And you’ll have to pay to park.
I tuned in to the Concert for Valor last night, after I learned that HBO was unscrambling its signal so that even non-subscribers such as I could enjoy the Veterans Day tribute.
I expected the usual bland assortment of pop music stars delivering the usual red, white, and blue anthems with earnest efficiency. And the first couple of performers I caught didn’t do much to stir my soul. The Black Keys were pleasant and capable. Carrie Underwood, bright-eyed, blonde and slightly pregnant, delivered a mild set of forgettable songs.
I reached for the crossword puzzle to work on during the breaks. But then Tom Hanks showed up on the big screen in a prerecorded piece about Team Rubicon and suddenly I was totally engaged. Started by two veterans, Team Rubicon unites military veterans with disaster response teams to provide lifesaving assistance in emergency situations worldwide. The project not only rebuilds civilian lives, it offers vets a new sense of purpose and fulfillment after their military service is over.
The theme of what happens to veterans after they come home gave last night’s tribute a deeper resonance than a mere collection of musical performances could provide. The examples of veterans, some with devastating injuries, returning home and finding ways to keep inspiring others, was profoundly moving, and underscored by the presence in the audience of those veterans. The emphasis on the veterans, true heroes who give all that is asked of them yet often return home to find they can’t get a job, made the Concert for Valor more meaningful.
Of the 800,000 people in attendance, many were uniformed service men and women invited into the areas closest to the stage. They sang along to some of the songs. But no act got a more enthusiastic response than the band that has for more than thirty years exemplified the gritty power and controlled fury of heavy metal.
If you had told me thirty years ago that I would ever be a Metallica fan I would have scoffed at the idea. I’m not scoffing now.
Those guys are incredible. The audience, which had been listening with polite attention to all the previous acts, jumped into action when James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich unleashed their blistering brand of rock. Let’s just say it was a far cry from “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.”
Of course, the truth is, the world is a much different place than it was in 1940. Wars have changed. They seem to be continual, for one thing. And the adversaries are harder to define, much less find and root out. The only thing constant is that young men and women continue to suffer and die to keep the rest of us safe. And we owe them. More than an occasional concert or parade. We owe them a country worth fighting for. A country that takes care of its own, and more.
Opinions will always vary about what sort of music is best. But even if we disagree about whether or not Bruce Springsteen was right to sing an antiwar song at the Veterans Day concert, surely we can agree that it’s past time for us, as a country, to stop bickering about trivial matters and get back to working together on what matters. Let’s take care of our veterans, our children, and our world.
Bang your head once if you agree. Bang repeatedly if it feels right.
Far from the maddening mud fight of politics, the world of gardening spins steadily along. Days shorten, temperatures drop, and leaves skitter across the lawn.
Gardeners are immune to the vagaries of political power struggles. Regimes and movements come and go. Conditions get better or worse, fortunes rise and fall almost as predictably as the tides.
Meanwhile, in the quiet backwaters of real life, gardeners carry on. We rake and clip and mulch and dream of other summers, other springs. It’s not all roses.
Murderous storms, withering heat, deadly cold and relentless bugs provide a gritty ballast to keep even the giddiest gardener from harboring illusions of success. But there are moments.
For people caught up in the madness of horticulture, the troubles of the fractious grasping world recede to a background static. We sympathize with the passion and the agony of those trying to make the world a better place. But the world is such a big place. Perhaps if everyone made a start in their own backyard?
For me, the madness of gardening began as a child. I planted radishes and Indian corn, not from any desire to eat either of them, but because it was an adventure to plant a seed and watch what happened. My gardens in the last several decades have seldom lived up to my dreams, but my dreams still sustain me when reality fails and negativity don’t pull me through (thanks be to Bob).
Yet even the most enthusiastic gardener occasionally yearns for a little encouragement from a kindred spirit. I have been blessed with some wonderful gardening friends, but the constraints of time and distance limit our time together. However a good book can work wonders. I recently discovered “Garden People: The Photographs of Valerie Finnis,” by Ursula Buchan. Published in 2007, this remarkable collection documents the colorful and personal gardening styles of legendary British gardeners by one of the greatest of them, Finnis herself.
Her unmatched passion for horticulture and for sharing and encouraging others is an inspiration.
As this gardening season shuts down and another dark winter looms with forecasters predicting all sorts of weather-related mayhem, I plan to hunker down in the company of “Garden People” and dream of other springs.
The crisp feeling in the air, the rustle of dry leaves skittering along the sidewalk, the scent of fresh apples — these things signal the most poetic time of the year, for me.
Others may wax nostalgic about spring or soft summer nights, and those things have their appeal. But nothing quite compares to the bittersweet bliss of October, when the world tilts toward the darkness again, at least in this hemisphere. There is a rush of energy to this autumnal shift, a sense of urgency. Time’s a wastin’, get the harvest in. The season hums with a “back-to-school,” anything-can-happen mood of fresh opportunity.
This mood changed my life back in October of 1969, when there were a lot of fresh ideas, and some recycled ones, adrift on the shared consciousness of our nation. At that time I had already dropped out of high school, dropped out of college, and tuned in to the mesmerizing pull of a group of scruffy musicians in the D.C. area who were gaining momentum on the local scene.
They started out as a trio, guitar, bass and drums. Within a few months that core had expanded to a collective whose appearances included anywhere from six to 12 performers on stage. The repertoire was eclectic and the group dynamic was volatile, but when they were going good, they were as good as anybody, and better than many.
For the last century, to play in a band has become almost a rite of passage for a large percentage of America’s youth. The type of music doesn’t matter. It’s the playing that defines us.
The United States is a nation of bands. But what makes a band different from individual musicians who may be more skilled and talented than the average band, is that bands can only exist through consensus. And consensus is never easy. Ask anyone in Washington, D.C.
In the beginning of the band that dominated my life for three years, we all lived together in one house. When the band grew too big to fit into the house we shared in D.C., we found an old farmhouse in the Virginia countryside and moved there. The house was big and rambling, but it wasn’t designed to accommodate a horde. There were enough rooms that could be used as bedrooms, but they weren’t equal in size or charm. The question of who should get the best, or biggest, room was discussed. In the end, it was decided that the order of choice would be decided by a cut of the cards. The day before the move happened to be the drummer’s birthday. He was late to the card cutting and as it turned out the card he drew was the lowest.
Yet, as the guys went through the house for the first time the next day (none of them had seen it before; in order to rent the house we had sent our most respectable looking pair to negotiate the deal, keeping the musicians out of sight) each found a room that suited his needs. And most were happy, with the possible exception of the organ player who chose one of the smallest rooms because it had the only private bath, which later proved to be nonfunctioning. Also one of the lead singers chose an attic room that had great potential after he lobbied to have the group pay for his building supplies to fix it up. Those supplies are probably still sitting up there in the dust.
But the drummer, choosing last, selected an overlooked room above the kitchen. It had its own private staircase to the kitchen, thus ensuring a good spot in the line for dinner, and was the warmest room in the house, a key plus in the drafty old structure.
We were happy for a while in that old house. Everything the band earned was used to pay our expenses. The musicians got one dollar per gig.
If that sounds like communism, I suppose it was to an extent. But it was more than that. It was a democratic commune. We debated every expenditure. The milk vs beer argument was never won by either side. And there were other, ahem, expenses.
By the time the band broke up a couple of years later, we were no longer living together. We got together for gigs, but the day-in-day-out sharing of good times and bad had lessened, and without that daily closeness, understanding and sympathy lose the race with self-interest and ambition.
Yet the funny thing is, the band enjoyed its peak when everyone was more concerned about the group as a whole than about themselves as individuals. The willingness to work for the good of the whole benefits all the parts.
This is the key not simply to rock and roll survival, but to national strength. We in this country like to think of ourselves as champions of individual freedoms. But what made this country great in the first place was the readiness of all the individuals who sacrificed for the good of the whole.
It might sound corny, but sometimes nothing swings like the basics. The country that plays together stays together. We may never agree on the milk vs beer question, but as long as we keep the discussion civil, we still have a chance for greatness.
I used to be this fiction person. Never willingly read anything else. But something’s come over me in the last year or so. Call it reality, at long last rearing its hydra heads, or maybe it’s just the anesthetic of youth finally wearing off, but whatever it is, I find myself increasingly drawn to long, detail rich, laboriously researched and exhaustively annotated books about history.
I’m not sure where this is coming from, though I suspect it may be rooted in the sense of vertigo that came upon me after losing both my parents. Suddenly there’s no one holding down the floor anymore. It’s up to me to know what came before. And before that. And boy there’s a lot.
While I’ve more or less abandoned hope of ever fully grasping the ups and downs of the Byzantine Empire or the Balkans, and European history is so full of incident and horror that I doubt I have the intellectual stamina to get far in that field, I feel the least I can do is try to get a grip on the story here in North America.
You might have thought that, as product of Virginia public schools, I would have picked up a bit on my way through. But back then I was unable to really care about what happened before I was born. I mean, you know, life begins when you’re born, right?
However, I just finished reading “No Ordinary Time,” Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 1995 Pulitzer Prize winning account of how the extraordinary partnership between Franklin D. and Eleanor Roosevelt changed the United States during World War Two, and I’m beginning to realize that I owe a lot to Eleanor. Also probably FDR. But honestly, as I worked my way through more than 600 pages filled with incident and amazing detail, it was Eleanor’s courage, determination, and vision that inspired me most. Her influence on civil rights, labor, and social justice for all helped change the nation. She took a lot of heat for being an uppity woman back before people had learned to appreciate the wonders an uppity woman can perform. She paved the way for generations of crusaders.
The 1940s were indeed “No Ordinary Time.” Yet perhaps no time is ordinary. We live in an age of such breathtaking miracles and heartbreaking terror, sometimes it makes me want to curl up on the couch and take a nap.
But then I think, what would Eleanor do? She was no napper.
In our nation’s capital, a place normally immune to the dictates of fashion, detail-oriented paranoia never goes out of style. For people who want to be taken seriously — that is to say, almost everyone except the tourists who come to do the museum half-marathon, take in a few memorials and buy some cupcakes in Georgetown — the gold standard for the District Look remains The Suit, and nothing but The Suit.
Obama may get away with shorts while he’s on vacation, but bare knees never look presidential.
However, D.C. in the summertime often feels like a clambake from the clam’s point of view. To get by without wilting it behooves the locals to head for shade. In most of the city this is easy. Washington is a city of trees. Their storied canopy is even protected by local law (the Urban Forest Preservation Act of 2002). You have to pay a hefty fee if you want to take down a big tree on your own property ($35 per inch of the trunk’s diameter). And that’s not counting the cost of paying some tree service to do the job.
So, D.C. is a good place to be a tree. However, the one part of town where trees and the canopy they provide is less apparent is where the federal government occupies most of the real estate. Lots of massive marble and granite buildings, not so many oases, unless you count the National Mall, which is most often awash with tourists or protesters or celebrators of one thing or another. Still, wily wonks find quiet nooks where even the most weary policy analyst can enjoy some peace and quiet in the midst of the capital’s hubbub.
There’s a tendency in other parts of our great nation to look on Washington, D.C. as a kind of foreign country, perhaps even a hostile one. Yet if you prick us, do we not bleed? If you don’t vote for us, do we not air our views in the media anyway? The point is, everybody’s got a dork side. You just have to know where to look.
They’re here! The hottest weeks of summer. That time the Romans called caniculares dies, or, for those of you who skipped that class, dog days.
Tradition holds that the dog days of summer usually occur between July 3rd and August 11th. But why do dogs get blamed for searing temperatures?
The Roman notion apparently arose from the whimsical idea that the Dog Star, rising with the sun during that time frame, added to the sun’s heat. Which may be true for all we know, though I suspect Neil de Grasse Tyson could offer a more fact-based explanation.
Still, as a lover of myths and fables and a lot of ordinary nonsense, I’m going with the Dog Star on this one. We give credit to the moon for making humans crazy, romantic, or, in some cases, exceptionally hairy. We trust rainbows to bring us good fortune. Many people spend more time reading horoscopes than they do reading scientific reports or even People magazine. Clearly, among our many cherished freedoms in this country is the freedom to believe just about anything.
As a writer of fiction I’m grateful for our national credulity, although I sometimes wish we were a tad more patient as a species. However patience is a virtue, I’m told, and we all know how hard those are to master.
So, anyway, here we are, temps in the 90s, humidity in the high 60s. Good times. Actually, to be honest, today is one of those blissful exceptions that proves the rule. The thermometer was chillaxing at a cool 59 degrees on my back porch this morning, thanks to some passing cold front. By the weekend we’ll be back up in the heat stroke zone. That’s D.C. weather. It’s a pendulum town. What with the constant politics, the thousands of visitors, and the determined lobbyists all with their pressing agendas, life in the nation’s capital is rarely laid back and mellow.
But even D.C. idles in late July and early August. It’s the only way to get through the dog days. Slow down, think pleasant thoughts, drink a lot of lemonade, or the beverage of choice. To paraphrase Noel Coward, only mad dogs and bureaucrats go out in the noon day sun. Or, to quote G. Gordon Liddy, who knew something about taking the heat in Washington, “The trick is not to mind it.”
September will be here all too soon, with its back to school, back to work agenda. We’ll all have to suit up and buckle down. Until then, I say let’s make the most of Sirius, the brightest star in the firmament, blazing down on us from Alpha Canis Majoris, the constellation of the Big Dog.
Everybody sing: “Back of my neck gettin’ hot and gritty.”
In 1966, whether you lived on a farm or in a penthouse, chances are you heard that Lovin Spoonful hit floating on the breeze. It was everywhere for a few weeks that summer while it rose to number one on popular music charts.
With its catchy rhythm track that included the sound of car horns and even a jackhammer, the song evoked the kind of pressure cooker atmosphere that makes living in a major city such an adrenaline boost. You either love it or you don’t.
I did. Having been raised in the suburbs, I couldn’t wait to make my home in a city. In the summer of ’68, I lived in Washington, D.C..
The District is always full of energy and passionate people espousing causes. That summer was unique. The city was recovering from the riots that tore through downtown in the spring. Anti-war sentiment mixed with a surge of frustration and anger after the murder of Martin Luther King had left many people feeling hopeless and bitter.
But life goes on. And when we have a choice of either working to make things better or tearing down the whole country, I’d like to think our better natures will prevail. They did in 1968. People regrouped, rebuilt, and continued the process of trying to make things better for everyone.
One of the small steps taken in that summer of 1968 was the beginning of the summer in the parks free music concerts at Fort Reno Park in the Tenleytown neighborhood. Tenleytown was fairly low-key back then. There was no Whole Foods, no metro stop, and Wilson High School was relatively small.
The stage was nestled under some trees next to a basketball court. The concerts were casual and eclectic. I have fond memories of those first few summers in the city.
The city has changed a lot since then, but I was happy to see that the Fort Reno concerts are still going strong. Stronger than ever in some ways. The stage has been moved to an open field, and the crowds are much bigger. In fact, the scene has become so popular that this week there was talk on the news about shutting it down because the Park Service wanted organizers to provide paid security staff. As there is no budget for this, there was concern that it would be the end of an era. At present, it looks like the crisis has been averted, and I, for one, am glad.
Summer in the city, any city, is a special time. When large numbers of people live in close proximity to each other, their chances to interact are influenced by the architecture of the city in which they live. Unlike New York City, D.C. has no Central Park. Our riverfront is a work in progress. But our parks are vibrant and plentiful and full of life in the summer. The chance to enjoy free music together is an essential element of our shared environment.
Another song that got a lot of airplay in the late sixties was “Get Together.” Written by Chet Powers in 1964, it became a hit after The Youngbloods released their version in 1967. The lyrics might strike modern ears as too earnest and sappy, but the message still resonates, even for today’s bright young millennials with their cute chapeaux and sustainably sourced optimism.
Come on people now Smile on your brother Everybody get together Try to love one another right now.
You need a lot more than love, of course. You need affordable housing, a decent job, access to health care — subjects too weighty for popular music. But lightweight as it may be, the songs of summer help lift the mood when the going gets sweaty.
It’s July. Let’s get together and celebrate the music of warm summer nights.
We set off to explore the wilds of Foggy Bottom on Saturday. The clear blue skies and mild temperatures provided a perfect framework in which to view the outdoor sculpture biennial‘s fourth season.
I’m a big fan of art, but sometimes it’s just too nice a day to go trawling through the big museums, even when they house world famous art works. For this reason when I’m in a city I always keep an eye out for public artworks, whether sanctioned monuments or inspired graffiti.
I was curious about this exhibition because of the location. Foggy Bottom, where George Washington University, the Watergate, and the Kennedy Center loom large, was once the site of Washington’s light industry. It was the home of glass works, lime kilns, and breweries, a low rent district noted for its smoke and fumes. Thus the quirky moniker.
The neighborhood has gone considerably upscale since those early days, of course. But something of its gritty past lingers in the thoughtful art scene that thrives just under the radar. We strolled up and down the narrow streets and mews, musing over the contemporary works of 15 artists. I wasn’t crazy about every one. But all were intriguing.
One of the standouts for me was a stainless steel installation titled “Square Wave” by Bill Wood. Nine mirrored squares rose out of the garden greenery like a reflective mountain range. As the squares reflected pieces of sky and movement, they also brought to mind the light and energy of a body of water. It was a simple concept, deceptively complex.
Another sculpture, more difficult to capture in a single image, is Mary Annella “Mimi” Frank’s “Remembering Andromeda.”
This tumble of small welded steel chair frames appears at first glance to be a chaotic spill from the sky. But when you learn the concept behind Frank’s piece — she was inspired by the Greek myth of Cassiopeia, who was punished for her rebellion by being tied to a chair and left to drift through the stars for eternity — the empty chairs resonate with modern issues of gender and freedom.
It’s one of Art’s great functions to call attention to important topics, to tip sacred cows, to wake the slumbering conscience.
But let’s face it, sometimes all we really want is something pretty to put on the wall. If I had to pick a favorite out of the fifteen works, I wouldn’t have to think twice. Elizabeth Graeber‘s “Garden” made my day. I’ve been an admirer of her work for a while. She’s illustrated funny books, and has a lovely light touch that makes me smile. Her “Garden” will be on display for a few more months on an out of the way wall in Hughes Mews, blooming like the secret prize at the end of a scavenger hunt.
Gryffindor vs Slytherin. Edward vs Jacob. Angel vs Spike.
Fans of Jane Austen tend to be a civil bunch, disinclined to wage the sort of rough and tumble debate that thrives on the internet. Although, much as I like Colin Firth, whose 1995 portrayal of Mr. Darcy in the TV series raised the bar for repressed heroes everywhere, I think we can all agree that the 2005 Keira Knightley/Matthew Macfadyen film version of Pride and Prejudice was as close to perfection as we are likely to see. Ever.
However, that doesn’t stop us from allowing our modest hopes to rise every time some trailer bursts on the scene announcing a new take on the works of Miss Austen. Thus, when I saw the wacky clips from the 2013 spoof Austenland, I couldn’t help hoping it would at least be watchable. After all, the cast included Keri Russell, Jenifer Coolidge and Bret Mackenzie, all gifted actors adept at light comedy. It seemed reasonable to expect something entertaining.
To be fair, the movie wasn’t terrible. But it was no moon shot. In spite of an amusing premise — a modern American woman visits an Austen theme park in England in hopes of finding her own Mr. Darcy — the film managed to shoot itself in the slippered foot.
Yet of course, Austennut that I am, I still enjoyed it. It’s comforting to believe that there are other people similarly obsessed with the carefully edited and beautifully observed world of Austen’s novels.
I had only the sketchiest idea about her work when I went to college. But there, while seeking respite from the weighty work of Aristotle and Plato, I came across an old copy of Pride and Prejudice in the college library. From the famous first sentence I knew she was The One, the writer I could count on to soothe my soul and provide escape from the fractious static of the so-called real world.
People who don’t enjoy fiction must, I presume, find other ways to negotiate the sticky parts and sharp curves that give life its curious flavor. But for me, fiction has always been essential.
I’ve never been to England. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to make the trip to visit the places Austen describes. Perhaps those places don’t exist anymore, at least not in the way they did when she was writing. But I know how I’ve always seen them in my mind.
Recently I discovered a place right here in the District that comes close to that imaginary ideal. On a surprisingly secluded 5-1/2 acre property at the northern edge of Georgetown, Tudor Place offers a serene glimpse into the past. In the gardens, especially if you are an Austen fan, you can easily imagine Elizabeth Bennet strolling the gravel paths, enjoying the roses and the grand trees, while musing on the perplexing business of human emotion. And perhaps hoping to bump into Mr. Darcy in the shrubbery.