Friday, August 20, 2010

Still Life With Robin

Hello Friends,

I'm keeping this blog page open, but I'm not updating it after today (August 20, 2010). That's because at the start of this week on August 15, 2010, Bill and I launched our new online magazine, All Life Is Local, the companion web site to the Cleveland Park Listserv.

Now all my columns, previously called All Life Is Local (now renamed Still Life With Robin) can be found on that site, along with all the Cleveland Park Listserv's other columns: The Tech Column, The "Is It News?" humor column, That's Entertaining!, Living Happily on a Shoestring, as well as other features and news.

Here's what I wrote to explain the switcheroo (this was my note published on the Cleveland Park Listserv on August 20, 2010):

First a note about this column's title change. Its former name, All Life Is Local, has now become the title of our new online magazine:, the companion web site to the Cleveland Park Listserv, where you can find all the listserv's columns, plus readers' comments, a Deal of the Day, additional news items, and more. The site is just 5 days old, and we're adding features all the time, so please, visit often to see what's new.

Meanwhile, my column was left in need of another name, something that suggests what you can find here. Rather than the broad "All Life" perhaps it's more like little snapshots of life, or little portraits, like still life. And since it's by me, it's unmistakably "with Robin" Which just happens to be a play on the title of a wonderful, whimsical novel by Tom Robbins, Still Life with Woodpecker. So that explains it: Still Life with Robin.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Deeper Meaning of the Mundane

Yesterday's Washington Post reported on a study showing that couples who are in agreement on the big philosophical questions like religion are happier, on the whole, than couples who disagree. (See: .) My reaction to that is a big "DUH!" Well, of course, living with someone is easier when you see the big picture through the same lens. What concerns me, though, is how couples can live together successfully when they disagree over all those little, seemingly trivial day-to-day things. Like this: What's the right way to load a dishwasher? (Is there a right way and a wrong way? The answer is at the end of this column.) Or this: Should you take the first available parking space you see or keep driving until you find the one closest to your destination? Couples may not break up over these kinds of questions but they can certainly keep up a vigorous debate about them for twenty years or more.

Perhaps the explanation is that there are really are no trivial arguments. Underneath any seemingly small, meaningless question lurks the deeper question about the purpose of our time here on earth. If the point of life is, for example, to maximize happiness, then when you're tackling the parking issue, you will naturally want to keep circling until you find the parking space that meets your ideal definition of "a good spot." If your deeper motivation is to maximize the good you accomplish in your allotted lifespan, then, quite the contrary: You will want to take the first available spot within walking distance of your destination, get out of your car, and get some exercise walking to where you want to go. That's better for the environment, too.

The number of these kinds of questions is as limitless as the number of petty chores of the day. And sometimes there isn't a this-way/that-way dichotomy of approaches but an infinite variety of ways to deal with the problem -- of, for example, what items can safely be put down the garbage disposal. On the one extreme, there are advocates of using this appliance to deal with virtually all the foods of the earth, and on the other, those who say even the softest foods like pasta or fruit salad, when dumped down in sufficient quantity, can jam up the works. Now think of the endless spectrum of issues in between: Each different type of vegetable raises a whole new set of considerations. Are parsley stems too stringy? Are orange seeds so small and hard that they will they get lodged in the blades? The overall question quickly breaks down into so many specific permutations and ramifications that it becomes readily apparent why certain argumentative types could find a bone of contention in each and every leftover at the end of every meal.

You don't think so? I can already anticipate the objections you are planning to email me in response: This isn't a philosophical question at all! It's one that an expert can answer definitively. Well, you might think so, but I say that if you call 10 different disposal repair people, you will get 10 different answers. Everything depends. What type of disposal is it? Are you running hot or cold water through it while it grinds? I talked to one repairman who said, in essence, that the whole concept of the garbage disposal is something of a sham, an illusion. Eventually, they all will break down over something. So if you want to avoid trouble with them, just get into the habit of throwing all your uneaten food in the garbage, and don't waste your time with this appliance at all. Now my friends who are environmentally sensitive agree with that advice, but not because they think disposals break down too often, but because the disposal does not break the food down in an environmentally responsible way. They say the only right way to dispose of food garbage is to compost it. You see: The more opinions I seek, the more philosophical issues arise. Now it's not just a question of how to use the appliance correctly, but whether it should exist at all.

Then there's the laundry. Do you believe there's truth in the words "Dry Clean Only?" Or do you think it's just another legal disclaimer, slapped on clothing indiscriminately by the manaufacturers' corporate lawyers, so that you can't sue them if the garment ends up damaged after washing or drying. Those who believe the latter may just throw everything in the wash on warm and tumble dry on high. That's one way to approach the dirty clothes in your life -- take risks and see what happens. If every so often you lose a piece of clothing that you liked, what's the big deal? Then there's the cautious approach: Things that can be machine washed, even if the label says warm, you might do on the cold/delicate cycle. You let almost everything drip dry. Even if the label says "Tumble dry low," you believe that your clothes will look better and last longer if allowed to air-dry naturally. But then, are you wasting hours of your life hanging things up (and then ironing them later, because you know that hang-drying makes them come out stiff) -- hours that you could be spending with your family, or alone with a good book, or taking a nice, long walk through the woods? Because, you see, it's never just about the laundry.

Now for my final example (of the thousands of things that I could pick): Filing papers. Here you have the old way and the new way to choose from. Old way: File your papers in clearly labeled file folders, organized systematically in some way (e.g., by subject and chronological order) and save all your old files until at least the IRS's minimum of three years -- six, if you like to be on the safe side. New way for the digital age: Why save any paper at all? Everything is stored electronically somewhere. Just be sure you've saved ONE thing on paper: the sheet with all your passwords so that you will be able to access your online accounts in perpetuity. Anytime you get a paper receipt that you feel you should save, just use your phone's camera to photograph it and send the file to an electronic filing system like Evernote that will even index it for you, so that it's always searchable. Then throw the paper receipt away. (Or better yet, recycle it.) Why wouldn't everyone go for approach number two? The underlying philosophical issue here is the permanence of the physical world. Is something that exists only in cyberspace really real? Or perhaps there really is no material reality at all? Even if that's the case, you might still want to hang on to your paperwork, because the bureaucrats who people our world (whether it truly exists or is all just in our minds) are more likely to believe in paper than in pixels. At least that's my philosophy.


[Answer to dishwasher loading question: Yes, dear reader, there is a right way, and this is it: Bowls, cups, glasses and anything made of light plastic on the top rack. Pots, pans, and large plates on the bottom. Knives, forks and spoons go point down in the utensil holder. Everything needs to be positioned so that the water spray can hit it on all sides and the water can drain away during the rinse and dry cycle. All of these precepts are in keeping with the laws of physics; therefore they are immutable.]

Friday, August 6, 2010

Don't Help Me...Please!

You know what they say about good intentions? But what are you supposed to say in response when someone with the very best of intentions has done something supposedly to your benefit that you not only didn't want but consider a big nuisance? Do you still say thank you? Are you honest about your reaction (perhaps causing that person to mutter within earshot, "Well, that's the last time I'm ever going to try to do someone a favor again!") Or do you just smile one of those awkwardly pained smiles and make the best of it?

Consider these situations:

1. Homeowners A&B go on vacation, leaving their home to the care of unpaid house-sitting grad student C, the daughter of a close friend, who is getting three weeks of rent-free accommodations in return for keeping the plants watered, taking in the mail, and making the house look lived-in. One day house-sitter C notices how dingy and gray the front hall curtains look. In an effort to do a little something extra for A&B, C decides to take the curtains down and wash them and put them back looking all clean and new. However, these are extremely delicate handmade lace curtains that A&B bought in Belgium on their honeymoon twenty years ago -- and they are definitely not machine washable! They come out completely in tatters, and upon their homecoming C tearfully tells A&B that she was only trying to do a nice thing. She offers to pay for some new curtains, but A&B know that it's well beyond her budget even to pay for standard curtains, much less replace the curtains they had custom made from lace they lovingly selected and purchased abroad. They go the
make-the-best-of-it route, suck up the loss, preserve the relationship with the daughter and her parents -- and vow never use a student house-sitter again.

2. D flies to Boston several times a year. Each time she goes, she rents a car, filling out a web form to reserve the smallest, cheapest model she can get. The last several times she's done this, she has arrived at the rental counter to find the perky attendant happily informing her that she's been "upgraded to an SUV at no additional charge." But D doesn't want an SUV: Not only is it harder to navigate Boston's narrow streets, but it's almost impossible to park in the tight spaces of the neighborhood where D will be staying, and the cost of the fill-up is substantially higher. But when D politely turns down the "better" car, the counter clerk gives her a look that says, "What, are you crazy that you don't want this beautiful big SUV that normally costs three times the rental price for that junky little tin box you were going to get?" (Yes, that's a lot of words packed into one look, but if you've ever seen it, you can read it very clearly.) On top of that, the formerly perky clerk now has to redo all the paperwork, and that takes extra time. On two of these occasions the small car has not been available right away, and D has had to wait a half an hour to forty-five minutes for the smaller car to be cleaned up and made ready. D has tried to explain that this "favor" is not a favor in her eyes, but she can see that her best attempt to make that clear has simply marked her in the clerk's eyes as a difficult customer. D has tried being polite but persistent, and she's tried being blunt. She has even tried switching rental car companies, but still she's been "selected" to be "awarded" an upgrade, with all the usual hassle that follows. She is still looking for an effective way to deal with this problem.

3. E needs to get a package to a client overnight and calls FedEx for a pickup. Dinner guest F arrives, sees the package on the front porch, and figures it's a FedEx delivery, and brings it into the house. F mentions to wife of E that he's brought in a package, but Mrs. E is focused on making dinner and does not realize that it's the same package that her husband has just set out and is anxious to have picked up by 7pm. Fortunately for everyone, E thinks to check to see whether FedEx has made the pickup. There's no package on the porch, which might indicate that it's already been picked up, but then E happens to see the box on the front hall bench, and even more fortunately, learns that it's not too late for FedEx to come back to make the pickup (although it does cost extra for the return visit). Is this a let-the-guest-know situation? Or is it really Mrs. E's fault for not paying attention when Guest F said, "I've brought in the package that was on your porch"?

4. A couple, G&H, called a tree removal company to cut down a huge, dead tree in their tiny back yard. In order for the massive tree to come down, the swingset behind the tree had to be removed first. G&H's children had outgrown it, and so they had no problem giving it away. After the tree was down, the tree cutter showed G how well he had cleaned up all the debris and sawdust after the tree removal. Then he added, gesturing at the mulched area where the swingset once had been, "And we did a little something extra for you, too -- no charge. We seeded this area with grass. In a few weeks' time you'll have a nice little lawn here." A lawn that would need to be mowed and tended was actually the last thing G&H wanted. But it seemed ungrateful to complain when the tree contractor thought he had done a good deed. However, months later, when G&H were really, really sick of having to mow the grass that now grows copiously, they wish they'd said, "No, no, we never wanted grass, so please do something to keep it from growing." Someday soon, when G&H are ready to do a re-landscaping of their back yard, the first thing they'll have to do is pay for someone to tear up this new, unwanted lawn.

5. (I've been saving the worst case for last): J is a teenage girl who walks home from school every day. One afternoon she's standing patiently at a marked crosswalk, waiting for the traffic to clear in both directions. There are four lanes of traffic, two in each direction, and no traffic light. A lady driving a large car in the lane closest to J stops for her and waves to let her know that it's safe to cross. J starts walking across the intersection. Unfortunately, neither J nor the lady in the stopped car can see that there's a car in the next lane over, coming up fast toward the intersection. The driver of that car cannot see J in the crosswalk at the point because she's obscured from view by the height and bulk of the first car that has stopped for her. The lady in that stopped car continues to wave J on, and so J steps right out in front of the speeding car in the next lane. This story doesn't end quite as horribly as it might have done. J is hit and suffers a broken leg, but it's an injury that will eventually heal completely. J is now fine, having learned the hard way that sometimes you can't just go along with a friendly gesture and trust that the other person is able to look out for you. You still need to stop and ask yourself, "Is this okay?"

And if it isn't, you might have to say something. Or at very least, not take that next step!

Published on the Cleveland Park Listserv on August 6, 2010.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Adventures in Simple Living

In the days since the thunderstorm on Sunday that left hundreds of thousands without power, I've been hearing stories of how people are managing without electricity. "It's like being thrust temporarily into an Amish lifestyle," someone writes. (Except that the Amish do not ordinarily lug their laptops to the nearest coffee shop with wifi to update their Facebook status.)

Last summer at this time I was sad that we had to take down our 80-year-old silver maple, which was hollowed out and dying; this summer I'm so glad it's gone, before the windstorm had a chance to send it crashing through our house, which could well have left us in a similar condition to the one shown in this photo. The areas to the north and west of Cleveland Park were hardest hit, with friends in AU Park, Bethesda, Chevy Chase, Takoma Park, Rockville and Potomac out of power for forty-eight to seventy-two hours. That's long enough to have to toss out everything in the refrigerator and freezer -- unless you've taken the step of turning your refrigerator into an old-fashioned icebox and you've been scurrying back and forth to the store, constantly restocking it with bags of ice. People are resourceful that way.

A few days without power can also be a valuable learning experience for kids. I think of the young relative of mine who, during the great Northeast and Canada Blackout of August 2003, gave his parents this invaluable advice about dealing with the heat in their New York apartment: "Let's get out the fans!" It was something of a revelation to him to find out that such an old-fashioned technology as a fan still relies upon electricity to work!

While our children are learning how dependent we are on electric power for just about everything, adults have been learning that it's possible to drive along major thoroughfares without traffic lights. People do take turns. Most of the drivers I saw while out driving on Monday and Tuesday were courteous and willing to wait, but I would bet if the situation had gone on for any longer than it did, that impatient honking and turn-jumping would have become the norm.

At my house we are very into preparedness, and have an inexhaustible supply of battery-operated lights, fans, water jugs, and other items from the recommended emergency checklists. On top of that, we're lucky to have various relatives with houses scattered around in the metro area, who, if they did not lose power, too, would be able to store some of our perishables for us until the power was back on. We've been equally lucky, in the past decade or so, not to have to use any of the resources we have at our disposal. In fact, the last time I can remember having to adapt to a few days of home-life under more primitive conditions was during the big snowstorm of February 18-19, 1979, which according to weather records brought us 18.7 inches. Our problem back then was a heat outage, not a power outage, which brought its own challenges at a time when the average daily temperature was in the mid-twenties, and at night it was down to the teens. (Yes, you think that sounds good now, don't you?)

Eighteen-plus inches isn't on par with our most recent Snowmaggedon, but it was quite sufficient to keep the heating oil delivery truck from making it to our house before the tank ran out of oil. (We have since converted to natural gas, and that running-out incident was high up there among the reasons.) For three days we had no heat. But we did have electricity and so ran a couple of space heaters, judiciously placed around the house. To keep the electricity bill from reaching ridiculous heights, we did not try to heat the whole house to a normal temperature but strove for somewhere in the mid 60s in a few key rooms. We all wore thick sweaters inside and took multiple breaks for hot cocoa, tea, and coffee. The fireplace was lit all day and it served to keep the first floor not just adequately warm but nicely toasty. At night we covered ourselves in multiple blankets and quilts and spread out our down sleeping bags on top of those layers. By the third day we had fielded plenty of offers from friends and family to take us in for the night, but we were young and in good shape and more than up for the challenge of coping with the temperature drop each night.

Although it was over three decades ago, I like to think we'd weather another heatless house experience as well now as we did way back then. And there's something wonderful about calling to mind those cold nights during this, the hottest summer on record in the Washington area. Cools me off just thinking about it.

I wish all of you uninterrupted power and gentle breezes for the rest of the summer of 2010!


Published on the Cleveland Park Listserv, July 30, 2010

Friday, July 23, 2010

Minding Your Pens and Keys

I was in the Cleveland Park Post Office a few days ago and happened to notice a customer using a strange-looking pen to fill out a form. Actually, I couldn't avoid noticing it because the pen was at least three times the normal length, and at the non-writing end it erupted into a gargantuan red flower. When I got to the postal window and had to sign a receipt, the clerk handed me a similarly-sized pen, this one topped by a flaming orange bloom. I signed and handed the pen back to the clerk, and then went across the street to California Tortilla, where I found the pen to be used for signing the credit card slip quite normal -- but attached to the counter by a mighty chain, one that would work just as well for tethering a ship's anchor. There is no way on earth a customer could walk off with that Cal Tort pen.

Of course, I understand the need to make one's pens unstealable. It's not that customers actually plan to make off with the pen, but that it's just too easy to stick one in your bag as soon as you're done with it. It's almost second nature. Rather than have to watch the customers with an eagle eye and then confront the pen-swipers when they're all but out the door, businesses take defensive measures and tie their pens down or, following the Post Office model, they provide oversized pens that won't fit in anyone's purse.

At the bank the pens are always tied down, but the problem there is that customers use them so much that they quickly run out of ink. So the odds are good that any time you pick up a bank pen, you'll be unable to get any use out of it. When you slide sideways along the counter to the position of the the next tied-down pen and you test that one with a scribble, you find that it's out, too. So your next move is to ask another customer if you could borrow a pen, at which point you put yourself at risk of absentmindedly walking off with that kind stranger's pen.

The solution to this problem is, of course, to never be caught without your own pen. That's one of those simple life lessons I've learned over the years. The only trouble is that my pens have a tendency to hide themselves in my bag. They slip out of the penholder strap and somehow burrow their way down to the bottom of the bag, where they lurk under the mini-umbrella or the packet of tissues or any of the dozens of other things that I always carry with me, as prescribed by all those other little life lessons I've picked up over the years. My bag is basically a survival kit that could sustain me indefinitely, should I suddenly find myself abandoned on a desert island. In the time I spend rummaging around down there, holding up the line, I usually find some sympathetic soul reaching out to me to supply the thing I need. I abandon my own search and gratefully accept the stranger's pen. I just have to remember not to walk off with it and turn a good deed into a regrettable one for us both.

Pens are not the only thing that need to be made impossible to pocket. The other object that needs similar treatment is the key, whether to the bathroom in an office building or to a room in a small hotel or inn (the type that's too quaint and old-fashioned to have card-activated door locks). There the standard practice is to keep the key a normal size but attach something to it that turns it from a small sliver of metal into something so bulky or heavy that if you drop it, it could break your toe. A chunk of wood, for example, the size of a breadbox. Or a metal ring that could double as a juggling hoop. At the dentist's office, the attachment is a two-foot-long plastic toothbrush advertising the dental practice, so you not only feel foolish lugging around this outsized object, but everyone knows which dentist you see.

On rare occasion, however, the key is big because it needs to be that way. This happened to me once and only once. We were staying at an old hotel just outside of Inverness, Scotland. Long before it was a hotel, the Culloden House was a country estate owned by supporters of the English crown during the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745. It was taken over by the rebels and was the last place Bonnie Prince Charlie slept before the Battle of Culloden (which he lost). On our last night at the hotel, we told the hotel-keeper that we were being picked up by a taxi at four in the morning to make the the early morning flight from Inverness that would get us to London in time for our connecting flight home to DC. Declining to get up at the same time to see us off and then lock the door behind us, the hotel-keeper asked if we could just lock the front door behind us after we left and then drop the key through the mailslot. We agreed, and then he pulled out what looked to us like some sort of strangely designed fireplace iron. Except that it was in the shape of a key – that is, the sort of key that might lock up a dungeon in a Hollywood version of a medieval castle. Or the front door of a Scottish manor house, apparently. "I bet no guest of the hotel has ever inadvertently walked off with that key," I commented. And even if one did, a key like that would set off every metal detector at the airport. The next morning, bleary-eyed from our too-brief night's sleep, we had no problem remembering to drop the key through the mailslot before we got into the cab. Fortunately, the slot was low to the ground. If it had been a long drop, a key of that size would surely have shattered the beautifully polished tile inside.

I doubt very much I'll ever handle a more memorable key than that, but if you have a story about a strange key or key attachment, or a funny pen or method of securing a pen so that it can't disappear, I'd like to hear it.


Published on the Cleveland Park Listserv on July 23, 2010.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Did the Earth Move for You, Too?

For this week's column I was going to write about swimming but rather suddenly, sometime after 5:05 a.m., I changed my mind. That's when I woke up to hear a loud rumbling, which sounded something like a helicopter landing on the roof. The whole house shook. I came sharply awake just as the shaking and the noise stopped. I remember falling back asleep, thinking, "Well, whatever that was, it's over now, but I should remember to find out what happened in the morning." A couple of hours later, when I was up for the day, I checked my computer for news and learned that that rumbling had been an earthquake, 3.6 on the Richter scale. A respectable sized earthquake for a part of the world I had previously -- and erroneously -- believed to be earthquake-free.

This wasn't my first experience of an earthquake. I went to college at UC Berkeley in the mid-'70s and I continued to live in the Bay Area for a couple of years afterward. In January of 1977, I was thinking of moving back to DC, but was still mulling over the pros and cons in my mind. Settling for good back on the east coast would mean having to get used to sweltering summers again, plus the occasional threat of a hurricane, and every now and then in wintertime, the odd blizzard. It was in this undecided state of mind that I found myself up in the wee hours of the morning, restless in my little rented bungalow, and so I switched on the TV to see what was on the late movie. It was "For Whom the Bell Tolls," starring Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman. There's a scene in that movie where the hero spends the night under the stars with the heroine. In the book, this is the scene where they make love for the first time, and then afterward, the heroine declares: "The earth moved." In the Hollywood version of the story, they just kiss passionately for a minute or so, and that's it. The famous line from the book has been cut; it was just too explicit for 1943 when the movie was made. But it was just at that point in my viewing when I was expecting the line to be said, that the earth actually moved! The TV was shaking on its stand. What timing!

While I started out laughing at the irony of it all, a minute later I was in panic. Cracks were appearing in the walls of the house. The windows were rattling so hard I thought any second there'd be flying glass. I had no idea what I was supposed to do, how to protect myself. All three of my housemates, who were native Californians, were away at the time, and I was alone. What if the house collapsed? Should I run outside? Where do you go when the earth itself is unstable under your feet?

After few more minutes the main quake was over. I later found out that it measured 5.3, and when my housemates returned the next day, they shrugged and agreed with each other that 5.3 is nothing. They'd all experienced far bigger ones than that. One had been in L.A. during the 1971 San Fernando quake, a 6.8. Now that was a real earthquake. I also learned from them that during the shaking I should have been looking for a strong table to hide beneath, or I should have braced myself under a doorway. That's what you should do the next time, they told me, and I remember thinking, "Yeah, well, there isn't going to be a next time." That was it. I had finally made my decision about where I would spend the rest of my life, and it would not be in California. The decision that I'd been unable to make for the past few weeks was made, and I began to prepare for the move back to DC -- where earthquakes never happen.

Now jump ahead 33 years, and it's happened. But I'm dedicated to my hometown, Washington, DC come Snowmaggedon, come hurricane, come floods, come 17-year-locusts, and now earthquakes. Still, you can't stop me from playing the Californian for a moment as I say: "Three point six – that's nothing! I've been in a five point three!"

Published on the Cleveland Park Listserv, July 16, 2010.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Beaches, Here and There

It's time to go to the beach. Yay! But which beach? When I was a high school student (at BCC, in a previous century) there were only four possible answers to this question: 1. Rehoboth Beach 2. Dewey Beach 3. Bethany Beach 4. Ocean City.

Now that I'm no longer a kid who has to get parental permission to use a car or be a passenger in some other kid's parent's overloaded car, there are thousands more beaches available to me, almost every one of which, I must concede, is superior to the four I've just named:

There's a beach on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, that has lovely swathes of reddish pink sand lying between outcroppings of smooth rocks around a cove of tide pools. You can splash around in the filling-and-emptying pools or move out beyond them into the glittering ocean.

On the island of St. Kitt's, the beach is made of that fine, sugary-powdery Caribbean sand that is picture-postcard white against the blue-green sea. You lie in a string hammock under the palm trees with your delicious frozen daiquiri, and the words "tropical paradise" don't seem like a PR cliche.

On the Big Island of Hawaii there's a beach along a lagoon; you slip into the water with your snorkel and fins and suddenly you're swimming alongside giant sea turtles.

There's a cafe atop a cliff on the Greek island of Hydra that has steep stairs winding down toward a rocky beach on the Mediterranean. When you're done with your lunch, you wander down for a dip in the sea. If it's too hot to float on your back in the full sun, just swim into the cool waters of the cave beneath the cliff -- or go back up the stairs to the cafe and have decadently rich frozen dessert.

On the other side of the world on a tiny dot in the ocean is Heron Island, part of Australia's Great Barrier Reef. You can walk the circumference of the mile-long island in less than an hour, but not if you're stopping every so often to swim in the shallow waters that gently lap up to the beaches. There are manta rays that breeze by you, and harmless little sand-sharks, orange and black clownfish darting in and out of purple and blue corals -- everything brighter and bolder in real life than it was when you saw it on the screen in "Finding Nemo."

You don't get any of this in a trip to the Delmarva peninsula, so what's the appeal of the beaches there? Why do I still go back? Nostalgia is a good reason, but it's not enough to keep me coming year after year. (As comic author Peter deVries observed, "Nostalgia isn't what it used to be.") Here are my top ten reasons for going to one of our local beaches, in classic David Letterman reverse order.

10. Good building-quality sand. It's not pretty white sand, but it is packable, durable, just right for making a magnificent castle, a sculpture, or a fort that will stand up to the tides, for at least a few exciting seconds before a bigger wave comes along to seal its doom.

9. Dolphins. Without fail at some point during our time at the beach we've cast our eyes toward the horizon and have seen the curve of the dolphins' backs, the dorsal fins appearing and then sinking gracefully into the sea, only to surface moments later, farther along the coast. Sometimes they're gone after a few minutes; other times they cruise back and forth for hours. We've never tired of watching them.

8. Beach cams. This is a fun feature that didn't exist in my high school days. In Rehoboth Beach, you go to the corner of the Boardwalk and Rehoboth Avenue, near Dolle's Candy Shop, and look up at the light pole to see lens of the video camera peering down at you. Smile while you call or text your friends stuck in an office somewhere. Tell them to web surf on over to Rehoboth Beach Cam and take a look. Wave at them, and they'll see you.

7. Kite flying. I've never managed to keep a kite aloft anywhere but at the Delaware beaches. Somehow the wind there always seems just right to catch and lift my kite and keep it hovering. The kite shops at Rehoboth have some fantastic offerings -- dragons with flapping wings, giant butterflies, and silver space ships -- although a cheap diamond kite from the drug store may be all you need.

6. Boogie boarding. The waves of the mid-Atlantic coast may draw sneers from real surfers but for a ten-year-old with a boogie board, they're not too big, not too rough, but just right for gliding in toward shore.

5. State Park/National Seashore Beaches. If you don't like sitting amid a sea of beach umbrellas, dodging the occasional frisbee or volleyball that flies across your beach blanket, get away from all those houses, condos, and hotels by driving down Route 1 to either of the two Indian River State Beaches, on the north or south ends of bridge over the Indian River Inlet. Or go much further south, to Assateague National Seashore. The beaches are uncrowded, you can wander the dunes, and not have to worry about body-surfing into anyone by accident. If you go to Assateague, though, watch out for those thieving ponies. I was swimming there once (well, it was forty years ago) and I emerged from the water to see one of them running off with my towel in its mouth. Though I've been back several times, I've never seen that pony or that towel again!

4. Funland at Rehoboth. It's the most family-friendly arcade of all the ticky-tacky arcades I've ever known and loved. The bumper car ring is not too big, not too small, and the lines are not so long that they exceed stand-and-wait capacities of small children. You can play skeeball or air hockey or about a million video games. The best game of all, I think, is the horseracing game, where you roll a ball toward a triangle of holes, advancing your horse according to the point value of the hole you hit with your ball. If you can bring a nice-sized family group to the table at a slow time when there are no other players, then you're guaranteed that someone in your group will take home the prize. Let me tell you, there has never been a stuffed animal so loved as one that's been won for a child (or by a child!) at a boardwalk arcade game. Another great thing about Funland is that the tickets you win at the arcade games never expire. I've got tickets dating back to the early 70s that I keep meaning to bring along on my next trip, and one day I will actually remember...and I know they'll still be good.

3. Funnel cakes! I'm sure there is no other combination of sugar, flour, and fat as unhealthful for you as the funnel cakes you get at the beach but there's nothing that tastes better, either. To me, no local beach trip can be complete without a funnel cake, and if you share one among three or four of your party, it's not so hard to work off the calories doing any of the activities listed above.

2. The people. I've heard that the crowd at Dewey Beach can get a bit rowdy (not that I'd know, since I haven't been to that beach in an eon, and the last time I was there, I suppose I was a bit rowdy myself!) but the people at Rehoboth, at Bethany, at the state park beaches, have always been a pleasure to be around. If an over-adventurous child strays from your line of sight, you will instantly be able to raise a posse of determined adults who will bring the wanderer back to the fold. Volunteers may spontaneously help you if you're struggling to erect a beach canopy or an umbrella. If the wind blows away your Sunday New York Times magazine, not only will a kind stranger chase it down for you, but he might even give you tips on a few of the crossword puzzle clues upon return. Even waiting in endless traffic jams on the road home on a Sunday evening, I've found people good humored and friendly. I just don't know what happens to them the minute they cross back inside the Beltway, but they always seem so nice to me on the other side.

And now the number one reason that I keep going to Delmarva beaches: Because they're here! If you can get away mid-week, midday, you can get to Rehoboth in two and a half hours. Of course you need to add an hour or two to the trip each way if you're leaving on a Friday night and coming back on a Sunday. (My advice: Don't do it!) But remember all those other beaches I told you about in the beginning of this column? They'll all take you a full day or more to reach. To get to our local beaches, you don't need a passport, you don't need a guidebook, and if you go for a daytrip and bring a cooler full picnic food, you don't even need a lot of money. I'm on my way there now, possibly as you are reading this. Maybe I'll see you there?

Published on the Cleveland Park Listserv, July 9, 2010.