Now Hear This

Fine feathered feeders enjoy the low tide buffet.
Fine feathered feeders enjoy the low tide buffet.

When I lived in Seattle one of the things I missed most about the East Coast was the musical sound of songbirds.

Some diehard Seattle boosters may insist that Seattle has warblers of its own, and I’m willing to believe it. But in the six years I lived there I never heard one. The signature tune of that misty city is the quark and ratcheting caw of crows.

I’ve got nothing against crows. Although it’s a little spooky how smart they are. I read somewhere that crows can recognize human faces, and it doesn’t take much imagination to take that idea a step further and start to recognize the quirky personalities of the crows themselves.

But getting back to songbirds, the D.C. metropolitan area is serenaded by a variety of local songsters, such as mockingbirds and finches. Mourning doves wail in the shrubbery. Orioles pass through on tour. It’s a harmonious scene. If you grew up around here you could close your eyes and recognize the locale by the spring soundtrack.

On a recent trip to the Florida Gulf I noticed a few familiar bird calls. But Florida’s warmth and water attracts a whole different group of birds, not least of which are the ospreys and pelicans, hunters and clowns, neither of which could be mistaken for a songbird.

Fine feathers feast at low tide.
It’s a moveable feast at low tide.

Yet the birds that speak most eloquently to me when I’m in Florida do it silently. The herons, egrets and ibis, with their impossibly long necks, their graceful ballet moves, and their delicate manners, seem to embody a stillness that pairs well with silence.

I assume they must have vocal chords, though I’ve never heard a peep out of them. But that’s okay by me. Something in the way they move speaks volumes, without making a sound.

I could listen for hours.

The One, The Only

In the fall of 2013 the Washington Monument wore a cloak of metal scaffolding.
In the fall of 2013 the Washington Monument wore a cloak of metal scaffolding.

Tourists who come to Washington, D.C., to view the significant sights have their work cut out for them.

The city has no shortage of museums, memorials and historic sites. But one of them has been out of commission for the last couple of years.

Since the summer of 2011, when a rare 5.8 magnitude earthquake shook the city and damaged several local landmarks, the Washington Monument has been swathed in a giant web of scaffolding while repairs were underway. Tourists during this time have had to be content with viewing the 555-foot-tall obelisk from the outside. But now the long wait is over, and they can get in line to ride up to the top and take in the view from the tallest structure in the city.

Whoop de doo!

I went up there once as a kid. If you live around here it’s one of those things you’re expected to do. Like visiting the Statue of Liberty if you’re a New Yorker, I imagine.

I have to say, the Lady’s view tops that of George’s. Washington is a pretty city to see on foot, in places. The river adds a lot. And there’s the Capitol and the White House and the Smithsonian Castle. But most of the scenic sights in D.C. are better viewed up close and personal.

Still, there’s no getting away from the fact that the Washington Monument is the top icon of the city. Even though it’s sort of…how can I put this? Boring. There. I said it.

I mean, compared to the Lincoln Memorial, or the Jefferson Memorial, or the rambling Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, the Washington Monument is just a pointy white pile of stone. And even if it is the most recognizable landmark in the city, that distinction has been maintained mostly through legislation that restricts the height of new construction inside the city.

Paris has its own similar restriction, enacted after a developer built the enormous and none-too-lovely Tour Montparnasse, which tops out at 689 feet, a bit higher than George’s pile. Of course, Paris’s defining sight is la Tour Eiffel, which, at more than 1,000 feet tall, would dwarf the Washington Monument if they happened to share the same turf.

But the Washington Monument is our own pointy place, and it was missed while it was convalescing, so when it reopened to the public today there was hoopla, and gladness in some hearts.

After all, the Washington Monument is unique in our fair city. Because while we have oodles of memorials, we have only one monument.

It’s big, it’s white, it’s not exactly thrilling, but it’s back in business.


Pink is a state of mind.
Pink is a state of mind.

Summer dropped into town for a quick visit this past weekend.

Weather mood swings are part of the landscape around here, but this particular bounce coincided with the peak bloom of the cherry blossoms surrounding the Tidal Basin, and the parade to celebrate same.

These events draw mobs of tourists even during years when the weather’s cold and dreary and the blossoms either refuse to cooperate or open early and vanish before the first eager visitors step off the metro. It can be a frustrating experience to travel hundreds of miles only to find the star attraction down for the count.

Nothing says D.C. like the iconic view of the Jefferson Memorial framed by cherry blossoms.
Nothing says D.C. like the iconic view of the Jefferson Memorial framed by cherry blossoms.

But this year the blossoms stayed under wraps longer than usual, due to our Winter Without End. And as a result, when the temperatures climbed into the 80s on Saturday, a perfect explosion of blooms drew a perfect explosion of visitors. Local media went wild posting pictures of the spectacle, and the spectacle of people admiring the spectacle. It was a real love-fest. Sort of like Woodstock but without the music and the mud. Record crowds rode bikes, pushed strollers and took the metro to join the throngs shuffling around the narrow walkway beneath the famous trees. Yay! Right?

However, you just can’t please some people.

Today The Washington Post ran a story about the trash all these visitors left behind. The much larger than usual crowd naturally left in its wake a much larger than usual amount of empty water bottles, food containers, etc., so much that the usually hyper efficient National Parks maintenance crew was unable to stay ahead of it. They had difficulty even getting access to the trash cans because of all the people. And, it must be said, the trash was neatly piled. There was simply too much, too fast, to be removed quickly.

It’s unfortunate that some visitors may focus on this minor glitch in what was otherwise one of the most spectacular cherry blossom displays of recent years.

It’s human nature to get overexcited when things get off to a great start. The sun shines, the blossoms open, the mood is Aquarian and full of goodwill to all. And then, oh well. Into each life some trash must pile.

Baseball fans get this. The Nationals, who were off to a glorious 7-2 start before the weekend, had their noses rubbed in the dirt in Atlanta in three wish-we-could forget-them games. And to add injury to insult, Ryan Zimmerman got his thumb broken in the middle of it. There was no comedy to the errors either.

But, unlike the Cherry Blossom Festival, which lasts only a few weeks, the baseball season lasts six months. At least. There’s plenty of time for the Boys in Red to regroup, take out the trash, and play some great ball.

The sound I’ll be listening for is that telltale kaboom, when you know it’s leaving the park. That’s the sound of summer, when it’s here to stay.

Hit It Here

Take me out to the ball game.
Take me out to the ball game.

Spring fever affects people in different ways.

For some the sight of a robin on the lawn in late February is enough to touch it off. Others thrill to the appearance of the first crocus, nudging its way through the icy crust of the most recent snow.

But for a great many people, nothing says spring like the crack of a bat, the thwock of a ball in a glove, the warbling rendition of the National Anthem.

Yes, Virginia, Opening Day is one week away, and even though the Nats will be springing into action at an away game this year, there’s no denying the spring in our step as we finally reach the end of this trying winter just in time to Play Ball!

The Nats were taken down a few pegs last year, floundering in a sea of unrealistic expectations and dark soul searching following their 2012 meltdown, blowing a 6-0 lead in game five of the National League Division Series.

This year the sports chatter has been a bit less giddy, less wild speculation about far off October, more focus on getting the job done on a day to day basis. Keeping the engine tuned, the tank filled, the tires properly inflated. We’ll see how far we go.

But even with our pent-up enthusiasm throttled, we can’t help feeling happy just to have another season to unwrap. Mmmm — that new season smell. Essence of fresh cut grass, oiled gloves, honest sweat, beer and popcorn. I am so ready.

I don’t know how many actual games I’ll manage to attend. Life is complicated.  Other demands, events and obligations inevitably trump a day at the ballpark. And that’s okay. There are things far more important than baseball.

But that’s exactly why humans need baseball, or something like it, in their lives.

Life can be so overwhelming. We humans require respite from the relentless tragedies and strife that demand our attention. A good book or movie, a gathering with friends, a walk on the beach perhaps, all these can be restorative. But for me, there’s nothing quite like the buzz in the ball park, rain or shine, win or lose, when the pennants are snapping in the breeze and the balls are soaring into the upper stands. Yeah. Sometimes a great moment.

Going With The Flow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Apocalypse Wow

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

We’re starting to get the hang of it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Panda Perplex

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

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

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

Do the math.
Do the math.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paint Me A Picture

Even in the rain the models in Renoir's "Boating Party" represent a sunny ideal.
Even in the rain the models in Renoir’s “Boating Party” represent a sunny ideal.

Among the many unintended consequences of the government shutdown here in D.C. has been the rise in attendance at the city’s privately run museums.

Art lovers looking for somewhere to get their gaze on have been flocking to places like the Corcoran Gallery (which has funding issues of its own), the Textile Museum (soon to be relocated on the GW campus) and the Phillips Collection near Dupont Circle.

The Phillips is perhaps the most beloved gallery in town, not least because it’s home to one of the world’s most beloved paintings, Renoir’s joyous celebration of all things French, “Luncheon of the Boating Party.” That this famous and priceless work can be seen in such an intimate and exquisite setting as the Phillips is one of the wonders of living in this Capitol city.

So much of D.C.’s tourist zone is writ large, in grand marble monuments and stern statues of famous men. It’s refreshing to step into a place devoted to a more private, personal artistic vision.

I’ve taken Renoir’s masterpiece for granted for years, like a beautiful world I can escape into whenever I need a dose of romantic optimism. But I will never look at it in quite the same way again, thanks to author Susan Vreeland, whose historical fiction novel I just finished reading. Vreeland has made a good career out of researching and imagining the stories behind some famous paintings. Her Girl in Hyacinth Blue, based on the painting by Johannes Vermeer, was a bestseller and established Vreeland as a meticulous and gifted storyteller.

I never read Girl. In general I’m not a huge fan of historical fiction, which usually feels a bit neither-this-nor-that to me. I like my fiction fictional, all the way through. But I understand how readers who long to know more about beloved artists could be attracted to a fictionalized account.

I read Vreeland’s Luncheon of the Boating Party not because I was curious about Renoir, the man. I was curious about the people in the painting. The scene is so relaxed and carefree, the models all look like people who would be fun to hang out with. And this is what makes Vreeland’s Luncheon a success. The story doesn’t simply dwell on the Renoir’s struggle to raise the money to buy his paints and pay for the models and the tremendous amount of food that was consumed during the eight sessions of posing. Nor does it focus entirely on the thematic and philosophic issues that were dividing the up and coming artists of that time in France, when the sense of “la vie moderne” was challenging the old constructs of French society and art.

At one point in the novel Renoir says, “I despise the idea that paintings are investments.” I’d be curious to know if this is an actual quote Vreeland found in a letter or diary. One wonders what Renoir would think of the modern marketing of art.

What makes the novel live and breathe are the portraits Vreeland paints with words of the models themselves and how they interact with each other, and, most of all, how their affection for Renoir and his for them produces the magical chemistry that you can see in the painting. A thousand little brushstrokes coalesce to give an unforgettable impression of a joyous afternoon.

It looks like the sort of party to which we’d all like to be invited. Thanks to Renoir we can at least imagine ourselves there. And thanks to Vreeland, we know the names of all the guests.

Ripeness is All

Celebrities and Big Boys flourish in hot summer nights.

Okay, it’s mid-August. If you haven’t got any ripe tomatoes by now either you’re not trying or you live in Seattle.

I used to dream of ripe tomatoes when I lived there. Yet it was nigh on to impossible to coax the plants to fruition, not for lack of sunshine, which is abundant to the point of ridiculous in August. But the night temperatures drop so low that tomatoes sulk and seldom achieve the sort of shiny overflowing pulchritude that comes so easily in the Mid-Atlantic region.

This summer marks the first time in seven years that I’ve not only grown my own, but had enough to give away. However, I’ll say this for Seattle: they know how to make the most of the tomatoes they get.

In the past decade of so, with the spread of social networks and the ubiquity of the devices in which they fester, there’s been a rapid proliferation of events engineered to bring together carefree young people, and those grown-ups who refuse to abandon all silliness even after they land a real job. Flash mobs were one of the first successful examples of this sort of phenomenon. Large groups of people would gather, as if spontaneously, to sing and dance, “Glee”-style, in public places. As the popularity of this sort of thing grew, it was perhaps inevitable that professional organizers would come up with a profit angle.

But what does this have to do with tomatoes, you ask? Put on your goggles and swimsuit and I’ll tell you.

It appears that we live in the golden age of the Tomato Battle. Young folks these days, not content to make lemonade out of the lemons which life hands them, have found a way to make merry with leftover tomatoes. In cities all across America and abroad, savvy marketers have put together those two staples of outdoor summer fun, the beer garden and the tomato garden, to make an unholy mess. Coming soon to a city near you.

Actually, the most recent Tomato Battle in D.C. took place indoors, and, judging by the photos, was a kind of sedate affair compared to a full-fledged tomato battle royal. The Tomato Battle organizers understand that you can’t run a good battle without ammo. They anticipate going through 100,000 pounds of tomatoes in the upcoming Seattle Tomato Battle, scheduled for this coming Saturday, August 17th, at the Pyramid Alehouse. They also understand that the key to success in any tomato fight is timing. Thus the beer garden opens three hours before the first tomato flies.

The organizers have thought of everything. They assure participants, and all those who object on principle to the idea of playing with food, that all the tomatoes used in the battle were already damaged (aka “rotten”) and thus could not have been used to feed the hungry. This disclaimer fits with Seattle’s firmly held convictions about keeping priorities straight: save the environment, help the helpless, then party like there’s no tomorrow.

And, since Seattle is not known as a tomato town, there’s also a note in the fine print to acknowledge the contingency: “In the event of a tomato shortage we will hold a giant mud battle. The event will go on as planned but with mud instead of tomatoes.” Good to know.

Rounding the Curve

Got to keep your eyes on the ball, at all times.

I watched Trouble With the Curve over the weekend. The Nats were having a night off, but at this point in the season my mind is so tuned to the rhythm of baseball that I fill in the off-nights with something game-related. Thus the recent Clint Eastwood film came to the plate.

And I enjoyed it. It’s always nice to watch a story where things work out the way you want them. Where players don’t get left on base inning after inning. Where closers close. Where fluke bobbles and bad hops don’t turn what should have been a close game into a rout. But such is real baseball. Sometimes it’s painful to watch.

The love-suffer paradox of baseball is something every fan understands. Everyone loves to watch their team win. Only the true believers can stand to watch when the wheels fall off and the wagon hurtles towards the collision.

Such has been the story for much of the Nats season this year, a year that started out with understandably inflated hopes and perhaps more than the usual illusions of grandeur. After winning a National League East title last season, this year the Natitude was writ in bold print, with all the drama of prize fight hoopla. Yet now, with more than two-thirds of the season behind them, and the humbling list of injuries and missed opportunities still growing, the team is struggling to climb back to .500. A wild card would have to be pretty wild for them to qualify for the kind of thrilling post-season they gave us last year.

Last week, after a drubbing from the Mets, Bryce Harper delivered a public plea to his team to pull themselves together and play with “heart.” At 20 years of age, Harper is still so young. I wonder if he ever saw “Damn Yankees,” the classic musical in which a fan makes a Faustian deal with the devil in order to secure a winning season for his team, which, as it happens, was the Washington Senators. The song “Heart,” sung by the entire team to the young phenom Joe Brody, claims that talent and smarts are fine as far as they go, but without heart, no team can go all the way.

I would have loved to hear Bryce break into song. But that would have been a clown move. Not his style.

But I applaud him for trying to remind his team, including the managers and handlers, that all the talent in the world can only take a team so far. Luck and heart—or call it crazy determination if you like—is essential to get through the grueling 160-game season, the ups and downs, the curves and swerves.

Eastwood’s baseball movie has a simple, satisfying conclusion, but the plot also touches on serious issues such as aging, gender discrimination, ethnic prejudices and bias. It’s an old fashioned movie about values. It doesn’t rely on an overly dramatic sound track or special effects (though Amy Adams’ hair could qualify as a special effect—it has enough curve, curl and movement to confuse any hitter.)

But the point of the movie goes beyond baseball. Like a good pitch, life comes at you pretty fast, and your at-bat can be over in a blink. So it’s important to make the most of every moment. And to watch out for the curves, because soon enough we’re all headed round the bend. Enjoy the game while you can.

I think that’s what Bryce was trying to say.