Friday, August 20, 2010

Still Life With Robin Lives...at http://www.AllLifeIsLocal.com

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: http://AllLifeIsLocal.com, 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: http://tinyurl.com/349f4ym .) 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.

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[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!


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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!

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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.

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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!"

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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?

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

Friday, July 2, 2010

DC Is for Fireworks!

There are many disadvantages to living in DC: No vote in the House or Senate; getting delayed in traffic due to official motorcades, getting to understand the truth behind the phrase "a city of northern hospitality and southern efficiency"-- to name just three. Sometimes it's enough to make you want to pull up stakes and decamp for the country. But then the Fourth of July rolls around, and you realize you get one of the best fireworks shows in the country, absolutely free. If, like me, you are a true pyrotechnophile (okay, I just made that word up, but it sounds pretty good, doesn't it?) you want to get yourself seated as close as possible to the fenced-off "fallout zone" where the burst shell fragments and ashes descend. (That's a bit to the west of the Washington Monument, by the way.) But at the same time, you want to avoid being close to any trees that might impede a full view of the sky. This isn't a difficult trick, so there's no need to get there super early, unless you happen to enjoy sitting out in sweltering heat, having frisbee-playing kids run right over you, while you listen to has-been rock bands playing tired old retreads of their 60s hits. I like to get there no earlier than 8:30 -- even 9pm is not too late -- and it's never been so crowded that I've had any trouble spreading out my decently-sized ground cloth. The show gets going as soon as its dark enough, typically around 9:15, and to me, it's always been well worth the hassle of the trip.

I have to acknowledge, however, that many of my friends, relatives, and neighbors do not share my degree of enthusiasm for this annual aerial display. I learn this anew every year as I try to gather a Mall-bound party, and hear, with some variations, these responses: "I wouldn't spend my 4th of July on the Mall if you paid me a million dollars!" And: "Why would anyone want to sit in a huge, horrible, sweaty crowd on what's always one of the steamiest days of the summer, where you get your hearing damaged by the noise, just to see 30 minutes of some patterns in the sky that are more or less the same every year. You've seen it once, you've seen `em all." And then the clincher: "Sure, the fireworks are fun, but it's just hell of getting home afterward. You're either stuck in traffic for 40 minutes trying to go 5 blocks in your car, or you're stuck in the Metro, watching jam-packed trains pass you by, until you finally manage to squirm your way into one and ride like a packed sardine all the way back to Cleveland Park. No, thanks!"

Yes, all of the above accurately describe some part of the 4th-on-the-Mall experience. I have no argument for people who see things in such a relentlessly negative light. I am just too entranced by the anticipation of the spectacle of the whole night sky dancing with brilliant colors and syncopated sparks. I wordlessly sweep aside all objections and make my plans. I generally manage to recruit at least one fellow fireworks enthusiast to join me in my annual trek...but I will go solo if I have to. I've done it before: It makes for a very well-timed arrival and an even more efficient departure. (I just run as fast as I can ahead of the crowds all the way to the Dupont Metro, and can usually manage to board the first or last car of the next Metro train to arrive in the station.)

I also have trio of good tricks I've learned over the years to deal with the traffic nightmare on the way back. I am willing to share these with you, my neighbors, in the hopes of persuading you to join the ranks of Mall-goers so that Cleveland Park is at least decently represented. Here they are:

1. Bike. This works only if all in your party are all swift and in shape and are intrepid, experienced city bikers. Use whatever route you like to arrive. Rock Creek Park bikeways make for a pleasant excursion on the way there. Leave your bike at the attended bike lot at 15th Street between Independence Avenue and Jefferson Drive (east of the Washington Monument). Find a place to park yourselves nearby. The minute the show is over, or better yet, as it's just ending, retrieve your bike, get your lights working, get your helmet on, and get going. You'll need to walk your bike through the crowds for at least the first 10 blocks or so, but as soon as you reach a point where car traffic is allowed, you can ride on the street, and will have no problem immediately putting a good distance between you and the gridlocked car traffic. Once you've accomplished this, you will find yourself riding up a practically deserted Connecticut Avenue straight back to Cleveland Park, and you will be home long before any drivers. Believe me, I've done this.

2. Take a car, but only if you can go with someone who has a permit to use a parking lot within a half-mile of the Virginia Avenue entrance to Rock Creek Park. Employees of GWU who drive to work perfectly fit the bill. Cultivate a close relationship with a professor if you can. If you do this in the spring semester, it will pay off handsomely on July 4! Now I caution that this is not a perfect solution, because you're still going to have to sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic for 15 minutes just to inch your way down Virginia Avenue into the Parkway, but the minute you make that right turn into the Park, you're good to go, and now it's only 5 to 7 minutes before you're back in the heart of the neighborhood.

3. This is my real secret weapon: Take the Metro...but first, go the wrong way. Yes, that's right. Once the fireworks are done, walk as briskly as you can from the Mall to Farragut North. (This will take about 10 minutes.) Take the first train that comes by, in the direction of Glenmont. At each stop, see how crowded the platform is. You may be able to get off at Judiciary Square. Definitely by Union Station, the platform should be empty. Now get off and wait for the next train going in the direction of Cleveland Park. It will be empty, or near empty, and you can have your choice of seats. The train will, of course, reach Calcutta-levels of crowding by the time it's at Metro Center, and it may not even be able to take on another single rider by the time it reaches Farragut North. But that's okay, because you're already on it! Now your only problem is working your way toward the doors in time to get off at Cleveland Park!

If none of these strategies appeals to you, okay then: Stay home and watch the thing on TV. But I'm telling you, watching fireworks on TV is to the on-the-Mall experience as watching the tropical fish tank in your dentist's office is to scuba diving in the waters of the Great Barrier Reef.

However you observe it, wherever you are, have a great Fourth!

Happy birthday, America!

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Published on the Cleveland Park Listserv, July 2, 2010.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Four from the Past (All Follow-ups to Previous Columns)

On a blazing hot summer day like today, I'm inclined to laziness, which means taking the easy route of revisiting some topics I've dealt with before, starting with one from the cooler days of mid-spring, ending with the one from just last week when it was already pretty much like today.


First, from my column of May 7 on the new Georgetown Safeway:

Safeway Revisited.
I've been back a few times, and am still a fan, though a bit of the thrill has worn off. That happened on my second visit, after the opening week hoopla was over and the greeters, aisle-guides, and checkout ushers were all gone, and shopping returned to being a more humdrum experience of negotiating a maze of aisles while checking off a long list of needed grocery items, until the cart was full and it was time to stand in the checkout line, get checked out, and haul the stuff home. This is not the fault of the store, of course: It would be unreasonable of me to expect all those first-week added helpers to continue to offer personalized shopping assistance on an ongoing basis. However, I must report that my most recent trip to the Georgetown Safeway did include a bit of serendipity: I was told I had been randomly selected to receive a gift from the bakery department and was then offered my choice of a free carrot cake or chocolate cake. I took the carrot cake and shared it with the Rosedale Annual BBQ Picnic on June 20. It was all gone within minutes, while I was still on my main course, so it must have been good!


Second, following up on a discussion-within-a-discussion in the Wedding Gifts Column, Part II (May 21):

Who Needs So Many Vases? There were two comments on vases as wedding gifts in that column, both decidedly negative. What do you do with that unique, artistic vase you've received if you happen to think it's ugly as dirt? This, apparently, is a common enough problem that it cropped up again in Ask Kelli's June 23rd column, and she said it's fine to return it if you can figure out out where it came from. I certainly agree with that advice, but the problem with the vase-not-from-the-registry is that you are unlikely to be able to discover its origins, at least not without having an awkward and potentially feeling-bruising conversation with the giver of the gift. Now being 22 years past the window of receiving opportunity for wedding gifts, I'm not very likely to be saddled with an unshapely vase for that reason, but just this week I seem to have ended up with the "what do I do with these vases?" question, all the same. You see, my adult daughter has a summer job with the Commission on Presidential Scholars, which last week put on a four-day series of events honoring 141 of the nation's top high school students. There were dinners in their honor, receptions, a photo op with the President, official tours of museums, and more. At each of these events there were floral arrangements on the tables. After some of them, the staff members were told they could take the flowers -- in their vases -- home. My daughter took advantage of this offer twice. The flowers have since faded, but I now have two leftover vases.
They're not bad, actually, but they're nothing special either. One is a clear glass cylinder, the other an opaque glass pitcher. I also have a half-dozen other vases that once held Valentine's Day flowers, Mother's Day flowers, birthday flowers. Right now they're taking up a lot of room on a back shelf. I guess I could add them to the next Value Village pickup. But I'm wondering, do these things even have a thrift shop resale value? Perhaps I should just put them in the recycling. I'm thinking that vases are becoming like wire hangers -- but at least those you can return to the dry cleaners once you have more than you want to keep. Maybe one of our local florists could establish a drop-off collection so that glass flower vases can be reused. If anyone knows of a florist that already has such a program, please let me know! Just send the florist's name and address to alllifeislocal @ fastmail.net and I'll do a follow-up in a future column. (Well, since this is already a follow-up to a follow-up, that would be a follow-up cubed.)


Third, a follow-up on my column of June 14, on my overnight stay at a hotel in New York City:

Reviewing hotel reviews.
After giving a thumb's up to the Park Central Hotel in my column, I decided to give the hotel a good write-up on Trip Advisor, the biggest and most popular customer review site. Before posting my own mostly positive review, I thought I'd look over the last four or five pages of reviews already on the site. Most were like mine, generally good, but I was surprised to read a few that made an overnight stay in the hotel sound like a descent into the lower depths of hell. These were not just negative reviews but reviews that included words like "BEWARE" and "Worst experience ever." (To read the actual reviews, look for those by: desertcrow, freqtravels_10, cricket 4445, bnormant, and sstfam). It seemed impossible to me that someone could have had such a terrible experience at a place that I, along with most other customers, had found clean, well located, well maintained, and competently run. Some of the causes for complaint in the intensely negative reviews seemed to me to be things that were either trivial or things that could have been fixed with a call to housekeeping (burned out light bulbs, for example) -- and even if not fixed promptly, hardly the sort of thing calling for such outrage on the reviewer's part. In most cases I found myself mentally taking the management's side, wondering if the customer had given the hotel a fair chance to put the problem right, or even whether the complainer was representing the situation accurately. (I especially rejected those negative reviews that included a slam to the "outdated d├ęcor" of the hotel's lobby, which struck me as attractively "retro." In my own review of the Park Central, I noted that having obtained the room at the bargain price of $100 per night, I was not expecting perfection, but, having found the room clean and comfortable and the service pleasant, I was quite satisfied by what I got for my money. In some future column I expect to come back to the problem of how to read between the lines of a business review, including how to detect when the reviewer has some personal axe to grind against the business, and how to recognize when someone is simply shilling for a friend or relative in the business. (Both of these are something we have to deal with everyday as listserv owners.)


And finally, a follow-up to last week's column (June 19) on the woes of World Cup soccer played to the ceaseless whine of vuvuzelas:

World Cup Cacaphony Continues. (Bet you can't say that three times fast.) The people at CollegeHumor.com have at least made it possible to laugh at the noise: http://www.collegehumor.com/video:1937652. And while you're there, you might get a chuckle out of this other soccer parody, as well:
http://www.collegehumor.com/video:1937652. I wish I could add a follow-up note here with the answer to the main question posed in that column: Where is there a sportsbar, either in Cleveland Park or in the vicinity, that is showing the World Cup matches with the vuvuzela noise technologically erased from the soundtrack? Alas, no one supplied an answer, and I suspect that is because there isn't one. Not too late, though, if you know of someplace and are willing to share it with the anti-vuvuzela brigade, Cleveland Park division; just send it to alllifeislocal @ fastmail.net.

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Published on the Cleveland Park Listserv on June 25, 2010.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

A Vuvuzela-Free Zone in Cleveland Park?

Today's column is about the World Cup Soccer games going on in South Africa (go USA!) but more specifically, it's about that infernal buzzing noise coming from the stands as South African fans blow incessantly on their plastic horns called vuvuzelas. How is that a topic fit for "All Life Is Local," you might well ask. I have a couple of answers to that, but first let me give you the context of the question.

If you have watched even the briefest bit of any of the World Cup games on TV (and here's the schedule, if you'd like to start: World Cup Soccer Schedule ), you already know what the problem is. The vuvuzela, when played by lots of people spread throughout the stadium, produces a tremendously loud droning, like a gigantic swarm of bees, or worse, like a concert of dental drills. The constant din makes it hard to follow the commentary, and the sportscasters on site say that it's so loud down on the field that the players can barely communicate with one another. There's already been an instance in which a player said he did not hear the referee's whistle because it was drowned out by the blowing of these horns.

Despite complaints from the players, fans at home, and fans in the crowds, FIFA, the governing authority of international soccer, has ruled that the vuvuzela can't be banned because it's part of the culture of the host country. FIFA's official position is that polite guests (that is, the soccer players) should not tell their hosts how to behave. What's wrong with this analogy is that the host country is not inviting guests into their parlor to enjoy a vuvuzela concert. The guests are actually the ones called upon to perform, and it's the sort of performance that requires full attention and ability to communicate with each other -- skills that are impaired when it's too loud to think straight. And why should the musical culture of the hosts be allowed in the stands, anyway? If the World Cup were played in Scotland, could the stands be filled with bagpipers piping nonstop? If it were played in Switzerland, would alpenhorn blowers be allowed to boom throughout? If it were played in Japan, could taiko drummers drum through every match from start to finish? You get the idea.

The buzzing of vuvuzelas isn't just an annoying sound but it prevents one of the more pleasurable sounds associated with the World Cup games: the cheering and singing of the fans of different countries and teams. This time around, there's no possibility of hearing chants of USA! or GOOOAL! or "Allez, Ola, Ole!" that livened up the experience of the great World Cups of the past. It's all bzzzzzz-bzzzzzzz and no chance to hear anything else.

There may be a solution, however. The techie web site Lifehacker reports that you can attach an equalizer to your TV and set it to balance out the frequency of the buzzing of the vuvuzelas, which will go a long way toward muting the sound. Here's the web site that explains how to do this: Lifehacker anti-vuvuzela page http://lifehacker.com/5564085/how-to-silence-vuvuzela-horns-with-an-eq-filter?sk\
yline=true&s=i
. And that bring me back around to question I alluded to in the second sentence of this edition of All Life Is Local: How is the problem of vuvuzela noise at the World Cup in South Africa connected to life in this corner of the world? Well, I'm hoping it's possible that there's a sports bar somewhere around here showing World Cup Soccer games for people like me who want to watch them without getting a vuvuzela-induced migraine. A bar with big TVs hooked up to an equalizer, right here in Cleveland Park, or perhaps a metro stop or two away. If you know of such a place, please direct me to it! Getting an equalizer and hooking it to our own TV just for a few weeks of games is not a practical solution for us, but we figure it could make economic sense for a venue that could draw in patrons by the busload. A bar with a super hi-def screen could also offer superior World Cup viewing as well as listening pleasure. Plus I'll throw in the incentive of free advertising on this Listserv (9,500-plus subscribers) to any bar that can offer us vuvuzela-free viewing.

Beyond my quest to find a place to watch the World Cup without the being driven insane by that buzzing sound, I want to use this space to urge you to join the movement to get FIFA to reverse its disastrous tolerance of vuvuzela-blowing in the stands. Please add your name to the international petition:
http://www.banvuvuzela.com .

Finally, I want to end on a positive note. (I wrote in my second "All Life Is Local" column that I would do my best to stay upbeat and keep this space from being a repository of my natural curmudgeonly tendency to pile up complaints.) There is one very good thing that I want to point out about the vuvuzela: It is an amazingly point-worthy word if played in Scrabble -- a game I know and appreciate far better than I'll ever know soccer (and may well make the subject of some future "All Life Is Local" column). If you ever happen to have that bizarre combination of letters and you can find someplace on the board to play your seven, connecting to an eighth already played and accessible, you'd have a bingo (that is, a play that uses all seven tiles at once) earning you a bonus of 50 points, on top of the minimum score of 25 points you'd earn for those letters played on the plainest possible squares, for a total of 75 points. Now consider this: if you could manage to play "vuvuzela" starting on one triple word square and stretching to the other triple, that would place the Z on the double letter score, so that the whole word would be rack up 33 points, which would then be tripled and re-tripled, for 297 points -- plus the 50-point bingo bonus, for a whopping total of 347 just for that one word! Of course, that would be a once-in-a-lifetime play. If I ever made such a play, I would definitely want to blow a vuvuzela in celebration!

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Published on the Cleveland Park Listserv, June 18, 2010.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Cool Air and Warm Regards

If you're a regular reader of all the columns on the Cleveland Park Listserv, then you will have read the story in Tuesday's Tech Column about the complete failure of our central air conditioning system during a heat wave, ending eleven days later with a total system replacement. So now I have two loss-of-AC-during-a-heat-wave experiences in my life, but I still like the first story the best. It happened when I was fifteen and living with my parents in a rented house in Baltimore. Our landlord was Dominic Piracci, a big city building contractor and father-in-law of the then-mayor of Baltimore, Tommy D'Alesandro III (whose sister is Nancy Pelosi, but at the time she was not a public figure, so this little factoid is completely irrelevant to my story, and I don't know why I'm bringing it up).

On the fourth of July in 1967 on a day when the temperature was close to 100 degrees, the air conditioning in our house failed, and my mother called Mr. Piracci to report the problem. She started by saying that she was sorry to disturb him on a holiday but hoped he could send someone soon. Of course, she didn't expect a same-day visit but was thinking that it might be possible to have someone out the following day.

Much to her surprise, within an hour of that phone call, an AC service truck came up the driveway and a pair of technicians appeared at the front door. My mother led them to the central unit, which they were able to put back in working order in perhaps as little as twenty to thirty minutes. My mother, after signing the work completion order, marveled at the speed and efficiency of the repair company and how wonderful it was that they would come out so promptly to fix someone's air conditioning on a national holiday.

The head technician shook his head ruefully. "No, lady," he said, in a gravelly voice, heavy with a Baltimore accent, "We don't normally work on a holiday. We don't even normally do private homes at all. We only do work in big buildings." Then, lowering his voice to a respectful near-whisper, he continued: "But when Mr. Piracci says go...you GO."

The story doesn't end here. A few months later, we read in the newspaper that Mr. Piracci had entered into a plea bargain with prosecutors who had charged him with corruption over certain city building contracts. He would be going to prison for at least the next few months. My mother, having been so impressed with his diligence as a landlord, decided to send him a sympathy note, something to the effect of "sorry to hear about your troubles" and sending him her best wishes and warm regards.

At the end of the following summer, my father unexpectedly died. Over the course of the next month my mother had to figure out how best to deal with our radically changed circumstances. One of the decisions she made was to move from Baltimore, where my father had worked at the headquarters of Crown Oil, to Washington, where she had her job at the ACLU, thus enabling her to give up her long twice-daily car commute. The only hitch was that shortly before my father's death, my parents had just renewed their lease on the house for another full year. So she called Mr. Piracci and hesitantly asked to be released from the terms of the agreement.

His initial response was to tell my mother that it was his longstanding policy never to let a tenant break a lease for any reason. Then he paused a moment and added, "You know, when I went to jail, a lot of people turned their backs on me. Some of them were business associates, and some of them were people I thought were my friends. But you wrote me that note. You don't need to worry about the lease. You can leave whenever you like, and just pay what you owe up to the day that you move out. And I wish you and your children only the best." With the magic of the Internet, I have just learned that he died in 1982 at age 69 in his native Baltimore. To us he was a gentleman, and I send his descendants my warm regards.

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Published on the Cleveland Park Listserv on June 11, 2010.

Friday, June 4, 2010

One Night in New York

Two weekends ago I was in Austin, Texas for the wedding of a cousin on my mother's side of the family. On the last day of the Memorial Day weekend I was in New York for a funeral on my father's side. All I need is 3 more weddings to feel like I'm in a Hugh Grant movie. However, my purpose today is not to tell about the funeral (except to note with love and respect that it was for my very kind and talented Aunt Shirley, my father's sister, who was a professor of English at John Jay College, as well as an occasional concert performer in the piano duo of Meister & Schnitzer; she was 85). The purpose today is to run through the pluses and minuses of a DC-to-NYC overnight planned at the last minute.

On Friday the 28th I learned that the funeral would be held on Tuesday, June 1st. Since the service would start at 11:30 a.m., my first thought was to take a same-day flight into LaGuardia and fly home sometime in the late afternoon, but the moment I saw the cost of the air shuttle back and forth (about $600 round trip!) I started looking at train fares. That was better, but still not great: $106 for the regional (the slow train, not the $180 Acela) there and $74 for the even slower train back (leaving Penn Station at 8 p.m. and arriving at Union Station at 11:25 p.m. That had some appeal, but in order to make it to the service on time, after figuring in the ever-present risk of delays, I'd need to take the 7:25 a.m. train, arriving at 10:44 a.m., or maybe, to be really on the safe side, the 6:35 a.m. arriving at 10. Either way, it was going to be a very long day.

Bill, my husband, was the one to suggest the solution that worked best: Stay overnight. (Neither he nor my children could change their schedules to attend, so I was going solo.) That way I could take one of the super-cheap bus lines that take you to New York in comfort, with wifi and electric outlets at every seat, in 4 to 5 hours, depending on time of departure. The maximum bus charge is $25 each way. If I spent just $50 on transportation, I could still beat or equal the Amtrak price by finding a hotel for $130 or less. But was that possible?

Hotels.com to the rescue. Bill's search turned up the Park Central at West 57th Street near Columbus Circle, just 3 subway stops from Riverside Memorial Chapel where the funeral would be held. It got three-and-a-half stars on Trip Advisor along with generally good reviews. And a room on the night of the 31st could be had for an even hundred bucks. That seemed the way to go, so I grabbed it.

Next task, booking the buses. According to busjunction.com, the Bolt Bus (which I'd used in the past and had liked) was completely booked up on the way there, but I reserved a seat for $23 on the way back. To get there I tried a new bus -- well, relatively new, in service just for the past 8 months -- called the Tripper Bus, which departs from the Bethesda Metro station, ending at 34th & 7th Avenue near Broadway, just 3 subway stops south of the Columbus Circle stop near the hotel. The price was $25, or two bucks more than the Bolt Bus...but they give you a free bottle of water.

Now that I'm back, here's the report:

Tripper Bus Grade: A-. The bus was clean, on time, and had a good wifi signal the whole way. My only complaint is that the seats are upholstered in a scratchy, fuzzy fabric, and I was in shorts. The main annoyance of that trip, though, was not the fault of the Tripper bus but was due to a problem with the iTunes movie that I had planned to watch on my netbook to pass two hours of the time. Something went wrong with the download, and the movie kept freeze-framing on me. The dialog continued normally, so it wasn't entirely unwatchable, but it was still not what it should have been. (Upon my return I asked for and received a credit from iTunes.) I would certainly take this bus again, but would wear long pants the next time. After 4 rides, your 5th one is free.

Park Central Hotel Grade: B+. If I had been paying anything more than $100 for the room, I'd have had a lot of complaints (long check-in line; the shower water never got hotter than lukewarm; I was charged $3.75 to store my luggage for a few hours; the elevator system was confusing and slow), but hey, when you can get a safe, clean, quiet, centrally located hotel in walking distance of the theater district for that price, you really shouldn't grouse too much.

Bolt Bus Grade: B. I would have given the Bolt Bus an A but something went wrong with the wifi connection and the driver couldn't get it working at all during the trip. Fortunately, this time the movie that I had downloaded played perfectly, and I also had a good book with me. The bus was comfortable and on time.

All in all, taking into account the somber purpose of the trip, an efficient and hassle-free there-and-back. Plus one bright note: My aunt's only child, a never-married man in his mid-50s, introduced his fiance and let everyone know that wedding invitations would be forthcoming. I hope to be returning to New York in the not too distant future for that happy event. I will keep you posted.

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Published on the Cleveland Park Listserv on June 4, 2010.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Cooking Minus X

My 17-year-old daughter cooked for the family last night. Earlier in the day she'd given me a list of ingredients to pick up for the meal she planned, but either I misread her list or I messed up on a few of the items. Rather than have me run back to the store to get the right ingredients, she decided to be creative and try substituting the wrong things I had bought. She was making a vegetarian dish mainly of grilled vegetables, and in this case the substitutions worked brilliantly. We all enjoyed the meal and complimented her on her originality.

I start out with that story to lay the groundwork for the story of the week before, that followed more or less the same script, but with a difference, as you will see if you stick with me to the end. Here's how it goes: Daughter decides to create a culinary treat for the family, but this time it's brownies, something she's often made before to universal acclaim. So she's mixing things in a bowl and has come to the part where she's supposed to add the eggs to the mix, but when she opens the fridge, she sees we have no eggs. The time is late in the evening -- too late to pop next door and borrow some from the neighbors. No one feels like driving to a 24-hour grocery store, either. But it's okay, she says -- she'll just Google up a recipe for no-egg brownies. And sure enough, with a few simple clicks on the keyboard, she's got her recipe, which she follows carefully, step by step. The familiar, delicious aroma of brownies baking fills the house; our mouths are watering with anticipation. The timer dings and she takes the brownies out. The 20 minute cooling time seems to drag on forever. At last the time comes for her to cut the solid panful into 12 square pieces for us to eat. She takes out the Teflon knife, draws it across the surface and presses down...and can't make so much as a dent. It's hard as concrete. She switches to a sharp bread knife, but that's no better. She thinks maybe the middle might be softer than the edges and tries to pull up a piece from the center with her fingers, but can't break off so much as a crumb. The only things in danger of breaking are her nails.

At this point she has to concede that the no-egg brownies are a flop and there's nothing to do but throw them out. She takes a spatula and attempts to dig down under the brownies to pry the whole sheetful up and dump it as a unit, but it's as if the brownies are welded to the bottom of the pan. Nothing gives. I suggest we put the brownie pan in the sink, fill it with hot water, and after it's been softened that way, dump it all down the disposal. We try that, but after 5 minutes of running hot water over it, it's still a solid un-budge-able mass. By this time it's after 11pm and we're done wrestling with it. We leave it soaking in the sink overnight.

The next morning we come down to the kitchen to deal with it once and for all. Now it's just barely soft enough for me to work the spatula against one side and get enough leverage to lift up the undivided mass of brownie. After much applied force, it finally rises up and away from the bottom of the pan as a single heavy slab. We're all doubled over with laughter at this point. I'm telling my daughter the best thing to do is to send that recipe to a manufacturer of industrial supplies; they could use it to create a new, ultra-strong building block that comes with its own super-bonding mortar!

I started with the good-substitutions story so that it's clear that I don't blame my daughter for the brownie fiasco (she is generally an excellent cook, and that's not just my opinion, nor is it even an in-the-family opinion). Nor did I want anyone to come away with the idea that I think substitutions are always bad. I'll let my daughter have the final word on the meaning of this episode: You make the best of what you have. Sometimes it works (vegetarian mixed grill, yes!) and sometimes it doesn't (unless you're trying to create your own ship's anchor from a brownie recipe). One needs to be fearless in the attempt...and have another dessert waiting in the back of the fridge.

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Update to Wedding Gifts, Parts 1 and 2: My cousin's wedding in Texas last Saturday was beautiful, fun, moving, everything a wedding should be. But my solution to the present conundrum -- to send them an Amazon gift certificate -- which seemed so versatile and well suited to the situation (that is, after every single item on their registry had been purchased) proved to be less than perfect: The email never arrived! Fortunately, I had enclosed a note with our card to let her know to watch out for something from Amazon coming to her inbox, so she did not have to wonder whether I had simply decided not to give a gift. Once it was clear that it had vanished into cyberspace, I was able to have Amazon resend it, and the second time the email came through without a hitch. And the newlyweds are, as predicted, happy to have it.

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Published on the Cleveland Park Listserv on May 28, 2010.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Wedding Present, Column #2

In last week's column I asked for your help in choosing a wedding present for my cousin and her fiance, who are getting married tomorrow (May 22) in Texas. I listed four choices from their registry but said I'd consider off-registry ideas as well. I thought I'd get 20 or 30 emails in response and would simply report the totals at the end of this week's column, which would mainly be about something else. However, I was surprised to get 58 responses, and more than enough feedback to take up a whole column. Apparently, this is something many of you have strong opinions about! I had no idea it would be such a hot-button topic.

First, to the numerical results:

Coming in first place, with 10 votes, was the Martha Stewart Cutlery Set. (There were also 3 votes that specifically went against this item, or more accurately, against Martha Stewart herself, but I did not deduct any points for negative votes.)

Second, only one vote behind, at 9 votes, was the set of Pilsner beer glasses.

Third, with 8 votes, was money -- that is, cash, a check, or a gift card.

Fourth, with 5 votes, was the toaster oven.

In a tie for fifth place, at 3 votes apiece: the cordless hand vac, versus something else from the couple's registry other than the 4 options I listed. For example, someone said, "Buy them extra dishes from their china pattern. Dishes break. Also, if you want to invite more than 10 dinner guests, it's good to have more than the typical number of plates shown on the registry." Someone else suggested buying more pots and pans than requested, and a third vote went to a collection of practical kitchen things from the registry, such as potholders, dish towels, and small hand utensils.

The total number of votes for sticking to the registry was 38 out of 58, or 65 percent. People like using a registries because you know the couple won't have to return duplicates of anything. "Just give them what they want!" the pro-registry side writes. If it's something they will use everyday, they will think of you every time they use it. They won't re-gift it to someone else or let it sit in a closet until it finally goes off to Goodwill.

Now let me get to the 35 percent of you who hate registries. In a nutshell, registry gifts are: unimaginative, unmemorable, impersonal, and just plain boring. Many of the votes for cash or a check contained some version of this comment: "Why buy them something that they've picked from a registry? Just give them the cash and let them spend it themselves." The argument for gift cards instead of cash is that the couple must actually go out and buy themselves something with the card, but with a check, they might just spend it on their utility bills. You do want them to get themselves something nice, something they'll take pleasure from owning and using in their life together.

Seventeen of you, however, argued that a wedding present should be some special item that the guest chooses for the couple, thoughtfully, lovingly, as a token of your feeling for them, perhaps to become an heirloom to be passed down from generation to generation. Since people took the time to send in their creative ideas, I thought I would list all 17 of them:

- a work of art by a local Cleveland Park artist
- homemade cookbook with old family recipes
- 2 votes for a silver picture frame from Tiffany's
- a ceramic pitcher
- a unique serving dish
- an antique or unique piece of tableware from the Opportunity Shop in Georgetown
- a beautiful wooden cheese board
- a wooden box or bowl
- silver serving pieces
- a set of Wusthof knives (better quality than the Martha Stewart knives, according to Consumer Reports)
- a portable grill
- a picnic basket with nice, reusable plastic ware and a ground cloth
- a weekend stay at a romantic B&B or a dinner for 2 at a fine restaurant
- beer of the month club membership (since we know they drink beer, evidenced by the request for the Pilsner glasses)
- a unique or artistically designed vase or bowl
- a donation to a charity in their name

Some of the messages told charming or instructive stories about wedding presents given or received. Here are three of them:

"We were given a set of ceviche serving bowls, with handles in the shape of porcelain fish. The only trouble is my husband is severely allergic to fish. The bowls really aren't practical for anything else. I think they may have come from a shop that imports handmade goods from Latin America, no chance of returning them. So they sit, never used, on a back shelf in my pantry."

"I remember one gift, an unusual vase. I know my wife's friend took care in picking it out, but it just wasn't our style. But we knew of another couple getting married, and we thought they might like it. Just as my wife was carefully packing it up in bubble wrap to send to them as a wedding present, I noticed that on the underside of the vase, engraved in teeny-tiny lettering, were our names and our wedding date. Yikes! What a mistake that would have been! It's the registry for us from now on."

And here's one that explains why a set of knives might not always be a good choice for a wedding present:

"When my daughter married a man of Chinese descent, a friend gave them a gorgeous antique knife. I thought it was stunning, but my daughter's new in-laws were HORRIFIED. In the Chinese culture, a man and a woman are tied together -- symbolically -- by a red thread. A knife would imply a severing of that thread. The friend is a great person, but the in-laws will never get over this gift!"

Thanks to all who took the time to send me your thoughts, arguments, pet peeves, and deep-seated beliefs on this topic. And now...drumroll, please! The result: I decided to go with the second-choice winner, the Pilsner beer glasses. They look pretty in the registry picture. And when it's hot in Texas (when isn't it?) a cold brew is refreshing, served in chilled glasses. So this morning I went back to the registry, prepared to click and send. What I found was this: "Item Fulfilled." Rats! On to the toaster oven: Fulfilled. The Martha Stewart knives: Fulfilled. Even the hand-vac! And everything else, fulfilled, fulfilled, fulfilled. Lucky couple. But now what? Suddenly I see the virtue in the number three vote getter, the gift certificate. To my mind the most practical one is from Amazon.com. It can be used for anything at all: books (always useful for grad students), electronics, housewares, you name it. Problem solved, and I don't even need to worry about shipping, as the gift simply shows up instantaneously in my cousin's inbox. Just to make sure she doesn't miss it, I'll tuck a copy of the printed order form inside the lovely, handmade wedding card I'm bringing with me to the event.

I'm sure she'll love it.

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Published on the Cleveland Park Listserv on May 21, 2010.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Vote for the Best Wedding Present

In my last column in this space I mentioned that I’d be missing my kids’ school fair next Saturday to attend a cousin’s wedding in Texas. Now I’m thinking of what to get the happy couple. To make the process less of a guessing game for family and friends, they’ve set up registries at two different department stores. Some people object to being given a list of material desires, but I’m not one of them. I’m perfectly content to let them clue me in on what they can use as they’re starting their life together. They’re both grad students at the University of Texas, on a tight budget. Their wish list has nothing of the outrageous or extravagant about it; in fact, it’s a plain and practical list of kitchen implements and dining accessories. I just don’t know what to pick, so I thought I’d ask your opinion.

But before I present the choices, I need to explain why I’ve waited until a mere eight days before the wedding to get around to this task. I wasn’t always such a last-minute giver. A long time ago Bill and I were actually quite speedy present-pickers, responding soon after the arrival of the engraved invitation with the purchase and shipment of the object of choice. We changed for a reason. Three reasons, actually: Not once, not twice, but THREE TIMES, we sent a gift to a couple whose wedding never occurred. One of those times the cancellation call came just two days before the big event was to take place. And I do mean big: that one was to be held at a cathedral, followed by a 200-guest reception at a fancy New York hotel. All three times we had the gift sent back to us, which meant we had to mail it back, or haul it back to the store ourselves to get a refund. Now I know I shouldn’t complain too much of the inconvenience to us. Of course we’d far rather deal with the nuisance and minor expense of a store return than see a friend go through with a wedding that she (in two of the cases) or he (in one case) had come to see as a grave mistake.

However, after the third such incident, we decided it would be worth our while to defer the present-choosing process until after the marriage was on the books. According to Miss Manners, there’s no etiquette violation in waiting. So I was planning to stick to my policy of no presents till the couple had actually said I do, but then I woke up this morning with the sudden realization that … they had! That is to say, they are already legally husband and wife. I don’t know why, but I forgot that fact, announced some months ago in an email to all family members. We can thank Congress, the Department of Homeland Security and stepped-up immigration checkpoints for this wrinkle in the story. My cousin’s fiance is Canadian, and for the past few years he’s been working in Texas and traveling regularly back and forth between Montreal, where his parents live, and his home in Austin. The trips, which used to be fairly smooth sailing, had lately become an ever-worsening hassle, involving lots of waiting in lines and line-by-line scrutiny of his documentation. At some point he and my cousin decided it made sense to have a quick civil ceremony, to give him the friendlier standing of the husband of a US citizen, if not yet a citizen himself. They saw no profit in waiting until May 22 for this relief. That means that the ceremony at this event is actually going to be a re-enactment, a speaking of vows for the poetry and symbolism of the words, and for the enjoyment of the audience. The legal significance has been taken care of.

So there’s no chance that the marriage won’t happen, when it already has. And no need for my usual let’s-wait-to-see-if-it-falls-apart hesitation. That wake-up thought sends me straight to their registries, only to discover there’s very little left to buy. Hmmmm. Now what do I do? Usually when I wait until after the wedding is over, I have something in mind that I know that the couple still needs. In past weddings, the couple has been local, and I’ve been to their house and have a sense of their tastes and interests. Although I feel close to my cousin, I have always seen her at family gatherings on the east coast, never at her home in Austin. So I’m left looking over some very humdrum but practical items on her list. Nothing here speaks to me, saying, “This is just the thing for them!” Or “Wow, they’ll love this!” Here is what I see, followed by what I think:

o The Black & Decker Convection Toaster Oven. Sure, every couple should have a toaster oven. But could there possibly be a more boring gift?

o The Black & Decker Platinum LinX cordless hand vac. What this says to me is that it’s dusty in Texas. But would they interpret the gift as a subtle hint: “I think you need to clean more” ?

o A set of Pilsner beer glasses. Does it say that I think they sit around and drink beer all day?

o The Martha Stewart 20-piece collection of fine cutlery, in a nice wooden countertop display block. Sharp knives. From the collection of a convicted felon. Is this really the best symbolism for the start of a life together?

So you see my dilemma. Perhaps it would be best to ditch the whole registry approach and try to come up with something original, something that speaks to my own appreciation of them as a couple, but not so original that they’d feel stuck with it if it wasn’t to their taste. Something returnable, that is. I welcome your thoughts. Just drop me an email with your vote: alllifeislocal at fastmail dot net. You can vote for any of the four registry choices or suggest something new.

I’ll let you know next week how the votes came down, and what I did. I’d like to promise to follow your votes -- but I'm afraid that's too much of a commitment for me.

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Posted on the Cleveland Park Listserv, May 14, 2010.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Grocery Heaven Is Here

I have been to the new Georgetown Safeway
and I am here to sing its praises. After closing for a year-long renovation/total rebuilding, the new store is now open for business, and boy has it won my business! It's everything I want from a grocery store, except Costco prices. (But then, that really would be asking the impossible, wouldn't it?) It's big, but not overwhelmingly so. It's got everything I put on my shopping list -- even some obscure items I would have bet I'd never find. And it's good looking -- by which I mean it's not the ugly concrete box we've all come to expect a large store to be. From the street it appears appropriately sized for the neighborhood and inviting to pedestrians as well as drivers. The two-level parking lot is nicely tucked around the back and underneath the building. Inside, it's clean and logically laid out. I had no trouble finding things, but even if I had, during this first week, there are greeters and guides standing by the front door, ready to take you around and personally escort you down the aisles until you arrive at your destination. (Well, I'm sure that won't last, but in the meantime, it gives a certain Japanese Zen-like quality to the shopping experience. Enjoy it while you can.)

Actually, I didn't require a guide. I was happy to wander around, making each new discovery on my own. There's the bakery with a bay of lovely loaves, enticingly arranged. Next, the patisserie, where I was encouraged to sample the cakes and confections. The young man behind the counter earnestly assured me that there was a chocolatier on site at all times checking the equipment so that the temperature of the chocolate remains constant. I tried a dark chocolate pretzel that came from some famous chocolate pretzel maker in Pennsylvania. (I pretended to have heard of it, because I didn't want to disappoint him.) I wandered past the sushi bar and was tempted for a minute to take a seat at the counter and have a California roll, but I couldn't spare the time, not if I wanted to tour the aisles and aisles of wine offerings. Nor did I have time to enter the separate, climate controlled, ultra-high-end wine shop, where the hundred-dollar-a-bottle-and-up wines are stored with special care. Next time, perhaps. Same for the sit-down Starbucks cafe. I finished up my tour with a dash through the frozen foods section, but soon realized there was no need to move so fast; for the first time in a grocery history, I felt no need to rush through the chill-zone. With these new energy-saving freezer cases, there's not even a nip of frost leaking out into the air. No wishing for a sweater for this part of the trip. Though I didn't have to rush to stay warm, let hastily finish off my virtual tour with a quick mention of the full-service pharmacy, the florist shop, the deli counter, the cheese offerings, the produce departments (organically grown and not) and the multiple places to buy different kinds of prepared dinners (I may never cook again!).

And now to the checkout. In this first week, when it's bumper-to-bumper shopping carts all up and down the aisles, I assumed that the checkout couldn't help but be slow. Pleasant surprise: It was actually pretty zippy. They've got all cashiers working, with ushers to steer you to the shortest line. There are self-checkout cashiers for those adept at doing their own scanning and bagging. (One day I'll get the hang of that!) I'm definitely going back soon.

I expect to be a weekly customer, until such time as Cleveland Park gets its own upgraded, new and improved supermarket. (Why don't we have such a thing already? Hmmm....I don't think I'll get into that, lest I be accused of sneaking an editorial into what's supposed to be my quirky-cute column on life in the city. But I do need to toss out this observation: That a store of this size and scope can be designed to fit in comfortably, even charmingly, into a low-scale historic neighborhood, without causing traffic backups or any other widely-feared effects. Go take a look and see the example in action yourself.) I digress. I didn't mean to talk about anything but this Safeway. There's one thing I'm sure my single readers will want to know: Is it still the "Social Safeway"? Yes, and now more than ever, it lives up to its reputation. You can linger over the melons just as you did in the past, waiting for that someone of your dreams to seek your counsel on the question of firmness and ripeness. But now you have other choices as well: Looking to meet a hiker? Hang out at the trail mix bins. Or find a fellow caffeine addict at the Starbucks. Wait for a wasabi lover at the sushi bar. You get the idea. (And if you do find your soulmate while shopping at the Social Safeway or in any other consumer-related excursion, I'd be interested to hear your story, perhaps for a future column. Bill and I met at a Safeway -- in a manner of speaking. But that's a story I'm saving for another column, perhaps sometime in October, around our 22nd anniversary.

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Published on the Cleveland Park Listserv, May 7, 2010.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Rate Your School's PIS Level

This year I'm missing my kids' school spring fair. It's the Fete Champetre at Maret School on Saturday, May 22 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., and it's free and open to the public, with a moonbounce, climbing wall, and other games and activities, a rummage sale, vendor tables, food pavilions and more (end of commercial). I'm skipping out this year to attend a family wedding in Austin, Texas, one of the few times I've dodged this annual semi-mandatory parental job assignment. The parents of my daughter's class are in charge of selling the scrip used to pay for games and food. I feel guilty enough about my dereliction of duty to make it the subject of this column. But not guilty enough to send regrets to my cousin's family and stick around to man the ticket-booth. How did it get to the point where I would even consider such a thing?

Let me get back to the beginning, circa 1994, when we were looking at schools for our two children, one of whom would be starting kindergarten the following fall. We looked at every school, public and private, in the Cleveland Park/Woodley Park/Tenleytown area. We went about it very systematically: We drew up a chart with the name of each school on the vertical axis, and a list of school criteria as headers on the horizontal axis. That created a grid with boxes in which we could assign a rating to each school in each category. For example, we had "Quality of Faculty," "Class Size," and "Curriculum" as three of the most important areas on which we judged each school. Then we had some practical considerations: "Closeness to Home" -- we assigned more points to the school if our kids would be able to walk there when they were old enough -- and "Cafeteria," with lots more points to a school that had one than to a school that didn't (as we could not see ourselves packing bag lunches for the next 14 years). One of our quirkier rating categories was something I'm calling "Parental Indentured Servitude" (or PIS, for the purpose of making it fit into the grid heading box). This was a category that was scored in negative numbers. The more we thought the school required parents to work on the school's behalf -- running school functions, assisting on field trips, staffing the auction, putting on the spring fair, soliciting for the annual fund, and a multitude of other "volunteer" jobs -- the greater the negative number we assigned to that school. We figured the rating for each school based on firsthand reports from parents already indentured to the school.

Now don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that parents shouldn't be expected to volunteer at their children's schools. Absolutely, they should. We would not have been interested in any school that didn't have active, involved parents. What made a school go into deep negative territory was a high pressure atmosphere, and a heavy load of guilt for parents who didn't do as they're told every time they were assigned a task. We were looking for a school where voluntary actually meant voluntary, and a "No, sorry I can't" would be accepted graciously with a friendly response: "Then we hope to see you next time." We were looking to avoid the taskmasters who think they can whip insufficiently dedicated parents into shape. These are almost always other parents -- virtually never the administrators. Every school has at least a handful of over-zealous PIS-meisters. The key for us was to pick a school where they were not the defining spirit of the parent body.

I won't reveal the rankings that we assigned in the PIS category to the schools we considered for our children. It's all so long ago that doubtless things have changed. All I will say is that we thought a few schools rated a -8 or -9 (the max was -10), while the school we ultimately chose, Maret, seemed to us about average in this regard. It ranked very high for closeness to our house, for having a cafeteria, and, as a small school, was top ranked for small class size and individual attention to students. We were generally impressed with the teachers and courses offered at all the schools we saw, so there was little point variation among them in those categories.

Sixteen years later, one child having graduated and the other with just one more year, we can sit back and reflect on our original assessment. Maret was and is a great school. Our kids loved it and got a great education. But what about the PIS level? Well, now that I've put in my hours, no, my years -- baking cookies for bake sales, cooking casseroles for class potlucks, running two class email lists (well, I kinda had to volunteer for that one, now didn't I?), taking dictation from kindergartners for their "autobiography" projects, being a room parent for the first grade, being a fortune-teller at the spring fair for 5 years in a row, shepherding kids on field trips, drumming up speakers for assemblies, delivering dinners to the cast and crew of the musical, donating items to the after-prom party and the rummage sales, and stepping into perhaps a dozen other jobs over the years that I've forgotten to add to this list ... now where was I? Oh yes, after all that, well, the reality is, everything I did I was happy to do, and would do again, if I could go back in time. Yes, I was asked to do many things, but I never said no. Until this year's Fete, when I won't be there.

So now that I'm missing ONE THING, why after all these years of cheerful compliance to my school's call for a high level of PIS do I suddenly feel guilty? It's certainly not due to any external pressure from my fellow parents. I supposed I've so fully internalized the mindset of a PIS-syndrome parent that there's no other outcome possible. So, all during that wedding, as the bride and groom are exchanging their vows, as we're dancing and toasting, somewhere in the back of my head I'll be thinking, "I should be selling scrip today." And "I wonder if they found someone to staff the booth for that last shift?" But don't pity me. I have only one more year to go.

Still, something tells me that even when it's over, it's never over. In my own mind, I'm at PIS level -10, and may take a long time for me to come back up to a normal level.

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Posted on the Cleveland Park Listserv on April 30, 2010.