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.


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

Friday, April 23, 2010

You Call That a Bargain?

Like everyone else I love a good deal. But perhaps even more, I hate losing out on the chance to get a good deal when it's offered. So when an email arrived from Air Tran telling me I had enough points for a free flight, I was delighted. Then I read on and immediately had to worry that I'd lose the deal: My points would expire unless I booked a flight within the next 45 days. So now I have to go somewhere. Well, I earned those points by frequent trips to Boston, and I have to go again in a month, so why not make the next flight free? Sounds good, right? But here's the thing: If you book on Air Tran at least a couple of weeks in advance, flights to Boston from BWI are ridiculously cheap, just thirty-nine bucks. Still, a free flight is a free flight, and if I don't book that flight, the points are gone for good. Booking now seems the thing to do. As I'm planning my trip, I realize there's a wrinkle that makes this bargain less than it would appear. Air Tran charges $15 per bag for luggage, and on this particular trip, I need to bring some large items with me, things that are better brought in person than shipped. Which means that I'll pay $30 for the two bags I'll need to check. My $39 free flight will now cost me $30. And that makes the value of my spent points a measly nine bucks! I've blown that much on bad airport coffee and a bagel.

On the other hand, if I reject the deal, I've got to find some other use for the points. I just can't let them fade into nothingness. I take a look at Air Tran's route map. Hey, they fly to Aruba. Maybe the thing to do is to take an impromptu island vacation. Then I start looking up hotels in Aruba. Yes, I can fly to Aruba for free, but it's not gonna be cheap to stay if we pick a nice place. And it does have to be "we," because I'm certainly not going solo. Now the bill is mounting: $368 for additional airfare, plus $312 a night for hotel times four nights, plus dining and cab fare, and airport taxes (not included when you use points for your flights), and we're looking at a bill for over $2,000, easy. All to avoid losing a free flight. Such a bargain, I realize I can't afford.

So it's back to Plan A, use the freebie for the flight to Boston that I'd have to pay for, one way or another. That nine dollar savings isn't looking so bad. However, it is a dollar less than I'm saving on another great offer that I feel I can't pass up, this one from Office Depot. If I spend fifty dollars there by May 15, I get ten dollars off. The trouble is, I earned that ten-dollars-off coupon by buying a ton of office supplies just last week -- enough to last me the rest of the year. I don't even have the storage room to hold any more office stuff. So...if you're with a nonprofit and you have at least fifty bucks worth of office supply shopping that you need to do within the next couple of weeks, drop me a line. I'd rather give away this deal than see it go to waste.

I guess it's my own fault that I keep getting these offers that do me so little good. I get them by signing up for award miles programs with every airline I fly and frequent buyer programs with every store I visit more than once. I should just say no. Here's how it happens that I don't: I'm at World Market in Chevy Chase Pavilion. I am buying some exotic food items, and I happen to see some wines on sale. I pick up a fair number of bottles. Next I see a tea kettle and realize that I've been meaning to replace my old one. Then I notice that World Market carries the hard-to-find brand of decaf tea that I like. By the time I've reached the checkout counter, I have more than a hundred dollars worth of stuff in my cart. But it is all good and useful. No regrets for the purchases. The next thing that happens, the checkout clerk says to me, "If you join our World Market Club, you will instantly get ten percent off this order." It's like being offered a ten dollar bill; why would you say no? So I sign on the dotted line and provide my email address. Now every week, week in and week out, I get an email from World Market with offers. And coupons. It's not the amount of email that bugs me. I have the emails set to go straight into a folder just for these offers. I can look at it at my leisure. It's just that when I do, I see they have me pegged. They know exactly what I want to buy, and they have just the right offers to lure me back to the store. Well, why wouldn't they know? When I signed up, I gave them permission to track my purchases. Now they know more about me than anyone except my mother. Wait, even she doesn't know what brand of decaf tea I prefer. So now, every week, I find that, for example, I can get that strange tea that I like at an incredible price -- if I will just buy enough of it at once to last me till 2012. What to do?

Yes, I know, the right answer is to trash these emails unread. A bargain isn't a bargain if you didn't really need the stuff in the first place. But somehow they've got me convinced that if I don't act, I'm throwing away big savings. It's a head game...and they're ahead. Now it's my move. It's off to Amazon, where I'm such a frequent buyer that I'd never dream of letting my membership in the Amazon Prime Club lapse. (Free shipping on every purchase!) I'm looking for a book to tell me how to spend less and simplify my life. I see I can get a book called Living with Less: The Upside of Downsizing Your Life, by Mark Tabb, for $10.39, rated four and a half stars out of five. But wait, if I buy that book together with two others, Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping, by Judith Levine, and Give It Up!: My Year of Learning to Live Better with Less, by Mary Carlomagno, I can get three books with a cumulative worth of $41.94 for a total of $27.50 -- a savings of $14.44! And I can have all three the day after tomorrow, no shipping charge, with one click.

My finger is hovering over the mouse click. Is this a bargain or isn't it? Should I click? Or empty my cart? Tune in next week to find out.


Correction to my 4/16 column on holidays: Emancipation Day is not, as a public school parent pointed out, a regular school day for kids in DC public schools, and the libraries and rec centers don't stay open, either. So that knocks it down a few pegs on my ranking of good-but-little-known holidays.

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

Got a local story? Overheard a funny conversation on the Metro? Traveled somewhere that made you wonder why we can't do things as well here as they do there? These and more may be fodder for future columns on All Life Is Local, so by all means, send them my way: (alllifeislocal @

Friday, April 16, 2010

Happy [Fill in the Blank] Day!

Today, April 16, is Emancipation Day, a legal holiday in the District of Columbia. I love holidays, but not all of them equally. This one, however, meets all of my personal criteria for a very good holiday:

* It commemorates a real and important event, something worth learning about: Lincoln's proclamation that freed the slaves of the District of Columbia on this date in 1862.
* It has activities and/or ceremonies for present-day celebrants -- in this case, a rally for DC voting rights at Freedom Plaza. (It ended at noon.)
* It's not disruptive of normal life -- that is, there's still trash pickup, school is still on, and everyone's open for business.
* It's a free parking day!

Some other holidays that meet these criteria are: Halloween, Valentine's Day, Cinco de Mayo, Groundhog Day, Pi Day (that's 3-14 at 1:59pm and 26 seconds), Bloomsday (June 16) and Talk Like a Pirate Day (aarrrgh, that one be September 19, matey). Okay, I know what you're thinking: By these standards any day of the year could be a holiday. Yes, it could ... and what's wrong with that? It's not a bad idea to have something special to note about each day of your life. There are national days of other countries, 192 of them. There are days that mark historic events. There are days set aside to appreciate things in nature (Arbor Day, the last Friday in April), to honor a national symbol (Flag Day, June 14), to campaign to protect the planet (Earth Day, April 22), as well as dozens and dozens of lesser known, should-be-known days set aside to celebrate or appreciate something in our lives.

How do you find out about these days? An easy and fun way is to call Verizon's weather line (202-936-1212) first thing each morning. If the weatherman on the line is Neal Pizzano, you will be treated first to his reading of the day's weather report in his indefatigably cheery voice, followed by his proclamation of the day's "holidays." It's National Mushroom Day! -- he will announce -- and it's No-Socks Day! And Caps Lock Day! Yes, these are all real days that have been declared by some group or other, with observances that the organizers want you to know about. You can Google them if you don't believe me. Neal's usually on at 7am, but if he's not, you can go to the source of many, if not most, of the goofy, oddball holidays he comes up with: .

Of course, there's a big difference between marking a day on which people became free and, say, the day you take your teddy bear to lunch (Teddy Bears' Picnic Day, July 10). I just thought I'd say that, before I get angry notes from people who think I'm lumping the solemn holidays in with the silly. Yes, today's Emancipation Day rally is far more noteworthy than tomorrow's Ford Mustang Day. But that shouldn't stop owners of Ford Mustangs from tooling around in their cars and having a glorious time on the 17th.

Since I couldn't make it to this morning's DC voting rights event, my participation in today's Emancipation Day celebration will be limited to publicizing the day through my column. Hooray for DC voting rights! Most of the time I don't do a single thing to mark the day, except smile when I hear what I should be commemorating on this day. If you like the idea of finding something that makes each day worth honoring, you might want to start with your own birthday. For something substantive and significant to celebrate, try "This Day in History" by the History Channel: . I learned that my birthday, June 19, like today, marks an important advance in the fight to end slavery. It's called the Juneteenth, and on that day in 1864 Lincoln signed a proclamation that freed slaves in all parts of the South then under Union control. It's a legal holiday in 35 states.

That's it for this Friday's column. Prithee visit again on Friday next, April 23 -- Shakespeare's birthday!


Posted on the Cleveland Park Listserv, on April 16, 2010.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Fun Places to Go Without Leaving Your Desk

My purpose today is twofold: First, to give out the web addresses of some fun and diverting websites that I hope you'll enjoy, and second, to balance out the number of curmudgeonly columns I've written with something that's entirely positive. This is something I intend to make a regular practice of doing, because I really don't want to be known as that cranky lady who only writes about things that go wrong, don't work, or blow up in her face. I could end up looking like Wile E. Coyote, if I don't watch myself! I'm also happy to have your suggestions for good things to write about. Have a good luck story, a bit of serendipity? Send it my way at AllLifeIsLocal @ Now on to today's fun stuff.

My very first column was about the Complaints Choir of Chicago and the complaints choirs of a few other major cities. Too bad our city doesn't have one, I complained. By the time my second column was out, I had learned that we do indeed have a Complaints Choir of Washington, and by the time the third column was out, I had the assurances of the director that the choir's video was being edited and would be available soon. Soon means right now! I'm pleased to report that it's everything you would expect in a song complaining about life in DC, from tourists standing on the wrong side of the escalator to summer interns wearing unsuitable apparel, as well as a lot of deeply weird surprises. A word of warning to parents of young children: This is not exactly family-friendly fare!


Now here's a fun web site if you're stuck inside on a beautiful day and wish you could go for a long walk, maybe visit the zoo, but you just don't have the time. Just pop on over to PandaCam and see what Tian Tian and Mei Xiang are up to:

Want to see any the flamingoes? black-footed ferrets? clouded leopards? naked mole rats? some strange species you never heard of? (Gharials, anyone?) Here's the complete lineup of available animals you can spy on:


It will soon be summertime and you may wish you were at Rehoboth Beach, especially if your friends are there while you're on this side of the Bay Bridge. Here's what you do: Call a friend at the beach on her cell and then tell her to walk to Dolle's Candy Shop on the Boardwalk at Rehoboth Avenue and look up at the nearest light pole to find the beach video camera, then stand in front of it and wave at you. After you're clicked on the Dolle's web cam link at , you should be able to see her. (Note: Don't try this just yet; you need to wait for "the season" to start before the camera is activated.) My French nieces had fun with this a few years ago, when they called friends in France -- it was close to midnight there -- and told them to wander over to the site and they'd be there. And they were


If Rehoboth Beach in the summer is too hot for you, try London. And one of the best things about London is the possibility of seeing a great sidewalk chalk artist at work. Almost as good as seeing the real thing is the online version:


Although plenty of people admire the monuments of DC, when you're here all the time, the buildings can begin to seem beige and bland and mostly alike. Want to see some architecture that could never be built here? Through the wonders of armchair travel here are some places you can visit that have buildings to make you wonder how they ever got built at all: -- keep clicking through "older posts" to get to the Swallow's Nest Castle in Crimea, Ukraine -- it's worth it! Then go to the home page, which is titled "Most Amazing and Funny Things in the World." Go on, procrastinate your whole day away looking at the various categories. It's addictive. Don't say I didn't warn you!


Posted on the Cleveland Park Listserv, , on April 9, 2010.

Friday, April 2, 2010

To Print!

Today's story is a lot like the perennial joke about changing a light bulb. But the object here is not to shed light, but to get a printer to print – so the question is not how many people does it take, but how many days does it take to change a printer cartridge? (The answer is at the end of this column.) A long shaggy dog story follows. Apologies in advance for the length, which I suppose will try the patience of the tech-savvy among you but which I hope will engender sympathy from the rest of humanity.

March 20. I notice that my color laser printer, a Konica 2400w, is out of black ink and can no longer print. I find I have a spare black ink cartridge lying around (great!) and so I open up the printer, thinking I can just stick it in -- a no-brainer. Inside of the lid of the printer I find a set of diagrams illustrating how to pull out the old cartridge and insert the new cartridge. But these diagrams are both primitive and cryptic. I suspect they were drawn by the same person who does all of IKEA's wordless furniture assembly pictures. Which is to say, they are impossible to follow. I decide I need to get hold of the manual. But I'm going on a trip out of town the next day, so I need to do that when I return, in a week's time.

March 28. Knowing that the printer came without a manual (since absolutely nothing comes with a manual anymore), I go to to view the instructions online. After I successfully navigate the company's website to find the right model, I come at last to the relevant page of the 100-plus-page PDF document to read the full instructions for changing the cartridge. I attempt to follow the instructions, but am stumped at the outset by the command to locate the "Print Tab" and then choose "Toner Replace." What's this "Print Tab" and where is it located? On the outside of the printer? On the inside? In one of my computer programs? Clearly, I need some help in understanding the terms in the manual. So I spend some more time online looking for a Konica help line, or failing to find that, an email address to send my question, or maybe a web form to fill out to get an answer back the next day. After some searching, I strike out on all three counts. Discouraged, I decide to investigate further another day.

March 29 and 30. On advice of members of my family who are more computer-savvy than I (that is, my husband and my teenager), I decide to Google the question and get some help from people who know how to explain things in plain English, not hieroglyphics. This turns out to be a complicated task, requiring more time than I can put into it on a single day. On the first day, I foolishly enter the name and model of the printer and the cartridge into Google. That gets me a bazillion hits to buy printers and cartridges. I refine my search by adding the words, "change printer cartridge." That takes me straight back to the online manual. I refine my search again, by asking for a forum on troubleshooting problems with this printer. That takes me to multiple discussion forums dealing with every manner of problem that every customer has ever had with this model of printer: installing drivers, uninstalling drivers, unjamming it, changing the drum…everything, it seems, except changing the printer cartridge. Hours pass almost without my realizing it. At midnight on the 30th, I decide it's time to give up.

March 31. I decide I have invested way too many hours of my life into changing this $!#% cartridge on this demonic printer. I am now determined to buy a whole new printer. Yes, that's right. A new one will come with a whole new cartridge in it, ready to use. Amazon can ship one to me overnight, and I'll be printing again tomorrow. I can stop Googling printer instructions, and actually get some work done. It's not such a crazy idea. I can get a new HP color laser printer for just $189. Or I can order up a color inkjet, which goes for a mere $79 -- that's just $9 more than the cost of the replacement laser cartridge! Plus, Amazon's offering me a special deal of $3.99 for next-day delivery. The only thing that stops me from putting this plan into action is what to do with my old printer that merely needs its cartridge changed. I can't throw it away – that's too wasteful. But it seems wrong to give it to some worthy organization. If I can't change the cartridge, why would I expect some poor, underpaid employee of a nonprofit to wrestle with the task? Besides, I tell myself, I am just not the sort of person who gets rid of something out of inability to change a part. I'm smarter than that. It can't defeat me. I won't let it. I'm not going to give away a perfectly good printer just because the instructions are in IKEA-nese. I will crack the code. But not today. Tomorrow, as some determined heroine once vowed, is another day.

April 1 (it's April Fool's day). Back to the challenge. It's back to the Internet. This time I get a few pages into the hits on Google that I've summoned by using yet another, more refined set of keywords. And this time I get somewhere: a third-party site, LaserQuipt, , that has a page with nice, detailed, clear illustrations – and well written text! -- showing step-by-step how to change the black ink cartridge on my model of printer. If only I could print them out to hold them in front of me while I work! Despite this ironic setback, I am buoyed with hope. I discover that I have missed a crucial step. To make the old cartridge removable, I have to press a button on the printer's control panel that rotates the colors until the low-ink cartridge is positioned so that its pull-tab is face-up. Then and only then can it be dislodged. Bingo. I do that, and triumphantly, I pull the old cartridge out. Now all I have to do is to slip the new one in, and I'm good to go. Right? Wrong! The new one won't fit in. I keep trying at various intervals during the day, until it's no longer April Fool's Day, and then I go to sleep.

Today, April 2, in the morning. I wake up full of energy and resolve, and get back to the problem. I take advice from my husband and in-house tech support, Bill, who suggests that I first power the printer off and back on again. That doesn't help. I try rebooting my computer. (I don't know why I think that would help, but I do it, just because it's one of those things I've been conditioned to do with any type of computer problem.) I go back to trying to force the new cartridge into the slot, where it obviously doesn't fit. I go back to contemplating buying a whole new printer. So close, and yet so far! Then a new thought: Why don't I call one of the highly skilled tech consultants that I can find among the recommendations on the wonderful Cleveland Park Listserv. Yes, it will be a sort of defeat. Yes, that means paying someone $75 essentially to pop in a slab of ink. But at least this long ordeal will be over. I grit my teeth and search for a phone number. For tomorrow, if it comes to that. I'm going to give it one more shot today.

Today, April 2, in the afternoon. I'm re-studying the LaserQuipt instructions, and I notice that the hooks that hold the cartridge in place are shown higher up in the diagram than they are in real life on my printer. Remember that "rotate" button I told you about earlier? It seems that my printer rotated enough to allow me to remove the old cartridge, but not enough to allow me to insert the new cartridge. I press "rotate" again, even though the instructions don't say to do this. My printer whirrs for a second, and when I open the lid, there are the little hooks again, but now moved up by half an inch, just enough to allow me to pop in the new cartridge, which now fits snugly in the slot and makes a satisfying click when it's locked in place. The cover closes and the "ready" light goes on. Hallelujah! Now all I have to do is press print, and I'm good to go, yes? Well…no. It's not that easy. (Is it ever?) Now I find that my computer no longer recognizes my printer. But that's the sort of software problem that I know either my husband or my daughter can solve. Bill sits, opens up some program that I don't even know I have, clicks on some things, and my computer is again on speaking terms with my printer. He gives me back my chair, I open up the document which has the draft of this ordeal that I've written down for my column today, I hit print, and, miracle of miracles, the printer starts whirring and in just seconds, does what it has not done for the past week and a half: It prints!

I proofread the copy on the printed page (an environmentally unfriendly habit, I must admit, that I have retained from my pre-computer-age youth), and then post it as today's All Life Is Local column.

And the answer to the question, "How many days does it take to change a printer cartridge?" Six.


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

Thngs I've Lost at the Airport

I like to think of myself as savvy traveler. Before I pack, I check to make sure my carry-on will fit in the overhead bin of the type of aircraft I'll be flying on. And I keep my favorite shampoo and conditioner in three-ounce bottles, packed in clear, quart-sized plastic bags, to be sure they'll pass TSA muster. I wear shoes that are easy to take on and off. My netbook fits into a travel-sleeve so that it's protected while it sails through the screening machine. But no matter how well prepared I think I am, I always lose something to airport security. I just got back from a five-day trip to Panama, and this time was no different. We were already through the screening process and in the secure area of the airport in Panama City when we -- meaning all the passengers on the flight bound for Miami, not just my family -- were put through a second screening that involved a hand search through everyone's carry-on. The security man took away a bottle of water that I had just bought from a shop next to the gate. They took away everyone's water bottles, so I can't complain of being singled out. I'm just baffled, that's all.

Because I'm still slightly jet-lagged, this will be a short column, a list of all the things I've lost, going backwards from yesterday's de-aguafication.

Item: Water bottle, bought at shop in secure area of airport. Panama City, Panama. Reason prohibited: Unknown.

Item: Souvenir key-chain with minuscule folding tools, bought as souvenir of the Atlanta Olympics. Taken away at BWI. Reason: One folding tool was a tiny scissors and another was a mini-pen-knife. Not sure which one was deemed the potential weapon. Maybe it was having them in combination. As I was in a rush to make my flight, I never asked.

Item: An eyeglass repair kit, which had a miniature screwdriver. Taken away at Dulles. It had passed muster on a number of other flights, so I thought it was okay, but this time it wasn't.

Item: A tweezers, seized in Manchester, New Hampshire. This incident was the closest I came to speaking up, since I was very fond of that tweezers and can't imagine any scenario in which a villain could do any damage with that implement other than use it to aggressively over-pluck a victim's eyebrows. And really, if anyone tried that, I think the other passengers could put a stop to it. Well, that's what I thought at the time, but refrained from pointing out.

Item: Bamboo knitting needles, size: number 10. These weren't actually mine, but my then-12-year-old daughter's. Taken away at London Heathrow. I asked why and the screener shrugged and said apologetically, they were on the prohibited list. The only bright spot was that that my daughter had no current knitting project attached to the needles.

Items: Multiple bottles of toiletries, toothpaste in a tube, and a prescription cream that cost about $300. This was in Melbourne, Australia, the same day that shoe-bomber Richard Reid attempted to blow up the plane he was on. All at once the rules changed, and all passengers in Melbourne were hand-screened, hand-frisked, and all liquids, gels, pastes – even Tylenol in liqui-gel capsules – got taken away. Everyone was just grateful that all flights were not completely shut down, and so no one made a peep about anything.

I'm sure I've left out at least three items from this list, but that's okay. It's not the length of the list that matters, it's that not one item on this list was in any way a credible threat to anyone in the air or on the ground. I do understand the need to be one hundred percent sure that nothing gets on board that could conceivably used as a weapon. And I completely accept the premise that it's best to err on the side of caution. That's why I never tried to talk my way into keeping any of the things I lost. Besides, the airport security personnel don't make the rules, and they don't get to bend them for anyone. So this column is not calling for change, for more common sense in the rules, or for anything else, for that matter. It's just the personal musing of someone who sat on a three-hour flight yesterday without a water bottle, scribbled in draft form while waiting, waiting, waiting for the flight attendant to come around with the drinks cart.


Published on the Cleveland Park Listserv, March 26, 2010.

Driving Range

For the past several weeks I have been doing something harrowing almost every day: I have been teaching my teenager how to drive. My younger daughter has her learner's permit and she's rejected our offer to hire a professional driving instructor. It's simply a problem of time: Professional instructors require students to schedule lessons in advance to suit the instructor's schedule, but with her long school days and varying after-school activities, she needs to be able to fit in lessons on the fly (perhaps an unfortunate turn of phrase in this case), and only her parents can do that. So I'm teaching again, my least favorite activity. There are times I think I can actually feel my hair turning white under its veneer of L'Oreal.

Not that my daughter is bad at learning this particular life skill. Quite the contrary, she's a conscientious student, takes the lessons seriously, and is doing a great job so far -- just as her sister did three years ago. I have every confidence that she will be a fine driver in time. Really, I'm not worried about her -- it's all the other drivers out there who are twisting my stomach in knots. For example: My daughter is now advanced enough to drive around the streets of Cleveland Park. But at this stage in the process she's driving a bit more cautiously than most drivers, making a right turn onto a main road only when she's sure that no one is coming. So she was waiting at an intersection for there to be a long break in traffic before she'd turn right. She was just about to go when the car behind our car suddenly lurched to the left to scoot around our car, making the right turn ahead of her. I would tell you honestly if my daughter had been hesitating an egregiously long period of time. But she was merely being conservative about when the road was clear to turn. The car that jumped around her caused the oncoming car to have to brake to avoid an accident. This happened yesterday.

Drivers around here are just too much in a hurry, so I guess she'll have to get used to it. I remember how my older daughter learned that lesson. (This one is so vivid in my mind that it feels like it happened yesterday, although it was in 2007.) She was driving down Reno as the light at Porter turned yellow. She decided, unlike 99 percent of drivers in DC, to stop for the yellow, so she braked fairly hard to be sure to come to a stop before the stop line. But the driver behind her had apparently assumed she'd speed up to run the yellow, and was speeding up himself to go through it as well -- or possibly run through the beginning of the red. Fortunately for us all, he did realize she was stopping just in time to slam on his brakes and avoid rear-ending us. By about two inches. Lesson learned: Always check your rear view mirror before stopping for a yellow light. If the guy behind you is zooming along and shows no signs of slowing down, it's better to run the yellow than risk a crash. And in this city, that describes almost any approach to a yellow light, except perhaps for one in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night.

The teaching process has helped to crystallize rules like this for me that I'd previously applied but never thought out in words. That's made me a better driver. I know people from other places commonly think that the driving is better back where they came from. I'm originally from Atlanta, and I truly believe that Atlanta drivers are more courteous, more relaxed, more willing to let others go first. I could be wrong about this, but if we'd stayed in Atlanta, I can't help but doubt whether I'd have to teach my daughters to watch out for all the crazy, illegal things that Washington drivers do routinely. I tell them, for example, that you just can't count on any driver who arrives at a four-way stop sign to come to an actual stop. If you're lucky, they may slow down a lot and then roll on through. And then there's the "second car doesn't have to stop" rule that so many drivers seem to believe is on the books in this town. If the car ahead comes to a full stop at a four-way stop sign, causing the car behind to come to a full stop as well, then when the first car moves on, the second car can go without waiting for any other cars already at the intersection to go first. I'm happy that both girls have been taught to look out for this maneuver. I even like it when they chide me sometimes when I'm driving and come to a stop sign, because they don't feel the full "set-back" of the car making a complete stop. I've become much more careful about doing this, even as I notice how rare it is to see another car do so.

Well, I could go on and on about what else I've observed during these daily instructive drives. The crazy U-turns. The tailgating. The intersection blocking. The cellphone yakking. Everything you want your teenager never to do, on display in a single half hour spin around the neighborhood. I know there's no alternative but to acknowledge the reality and teach my daughter to drive with the idea in mind that others will be doing all these things and worse. All the same -- futile gesture though it is -- let me send out this plea: If you see a small red car driving around the streets of Cleveland Park, perhaps five miles under the speed limit, perhaps waiting an extra second or two before making a turn, please be patient. Please don't honk. And don't swerve around that car to jump the turn. It might not be my daughter at the wheel but it could be someone else's daughter or son in the first few weeks of learning.

Thanks in advance from that white-knuckled bundle of nerves in the passenger seat.

P.S. Here's a tip if you have a teenager with a brand new learner's permit. A great place to have a first lesson is the Carter Barron parking lot. There are actually two large connected lots, with some roadways circling around them. If you pick a time when there are no events on (and that's most of the time), the parking lots will be practically deserted – except for one or two other cars
circling slowly around (that is, other parents giving their kids driving lessons).


Published on the Cleveland Park Listserv on March 19, 2010.

They Keep Changing the Names on Me!

First, an update to last week's update about the Washington, DC Complaints Choir. I was happy to receive this newsflash from Evan Tucker, the director of the Voices of Washington choir, who informs me that "We just wrapped up our filming of a Complaints Choir for Washington DC tonight [March 8]. We've staged unannounced outdoor performances of it at the White House, the Capitol and Dupont Circle. We are going to be editing the footage for the next few weeks and should have a complaints choir film ready and totally worthy of all DC's faults by the beginning of April (and hopefully well before that). If you have any questions about the project, I would be absolutely delighted to answer them. My email is etucker82 @ Please feel free to contact at any time, and I'm so happy to hear that other DC people are as interested in the complaints choir project as we are." So keep watching this space. I will post a link to the finished film as soon as it's available. Now on to the main course:

Comcast is becoming Xfinity, but don't expect me ever to call it that. And what's with the initial X for companies? (Actually, that's for another column; this one's about my fondness for old names.) I found myself pondering the name change on my walk home from People's Drugstore. Um, I mean CVS. I can't help myself: "People's" must be stamped on the primal neurons of my brain, which just can't seem to recall the three simple letters of the new ("new" meaning since 1990)name.

I'm not as bad about names changes as my mother, who still refers to that big hotel at the corner of Woodley Road and Connecticut Avenue as the "Wardman Park." Which became the Sheraton Park in 1953. And then became the Marriott in 1998. But wait! Marriott restored the original Wardman Park to the hotel's name, so that now it's officially the Washington Marriott Wardman Park, which may be called "Wardman Park" for short. So after half a century of mis-labeling the hotel, my mother is now correct again. That gives me hope.

Meanwhile I continue on my merry way, flying in and out of National Airport, not "Washington Reagan National Airport." I don't know any DC native who calls it that. Actually, I doubt I've ever heard the phrase coming from anyone other than a Metro train operator. So there's no reason for me to change.

I think part of my resistance to name changes stems from the loss of a sense of place. "National" Airport tells you that you're in the nation's capital. When I'm in New York, I often hear New Yorkers refer to Sixth Avenue, which officially got renamed "Avenue of the Americas" in 1945. But what does that "of the Americas" tell you? That you're in the hemisphere which has two continents called America. What does Sixth Avenue tell you? That you're on the avenue that falls between Fifth Avenue and Seventh Avenue -- now that's useful information! So much so that sometime in the 1980's, the city of New York acknowledged the truth and installed "Sixth Avenue" street signs alongside the "Avenue of the Americas" signs.

I can claim a bit of credit myself in keeping a useful street name unaltered, right here in our neck of the woods. When I was a commissioner of ANC 3-C back in the early 1980's, there was some political momentum to change the name of a short segment of Massachusetts Avenue to "Nelson and Winnie Mandela Avenue." The name change would be just for the block in front of the South African embassy, then controlled by the apartheid regime that had imprisoned Nelson Mandela. Now I admire Mandela as much as anyone – I was even arrested and jailed for a day as part of the series of staged protests in his behalf – but I just could not see the value in hanging new street signs and printing new maps, all for a one block segment of a street. What would be the impact? Perhaps some mild annoyance for the rulers in South Africa -- though this would have been the least of their problems -- versus a good deal of confusion for tourists trying to navigate their way down an avenue already hard to follow through its various circles and squares.

Fortunately, the name change never happened. If it had, we'd probably still be trying to get the Council to change the name back. By the way, take a close-up look at the 1100 block of 16th Street on Google Maps. You'll see that segment of the street is officially named "Andrei Sakharov Plaza," a moniker slapped on it during the early 1980s to annoy the Soviet Union, which had its embassy on that block back then. If the Council would like to make a stand for rationality of place names and control of its own street grid, as well as recognition that
times have changed, it should take the quick, simple and long-overdue action of changing the name back to 16th Street.

My mother and I would be grateful. And I suspect that the Andrei Sakharov, champion of democracy that he was, would not have minded at all.


Published on the Cleveland Park Listserv, March 12, 2010

Compliments, Not Complaints, for Helpful Strangers

My very first column for "All Life Is Local" generated some interesting reader feedback. One of the first reactions came from a reader who said she's sick of hearing complaints, even comedic complaints put to music and sung by a choir. She writes: "I think we should be more positive and focus on the beautiful things in life... I'm tired of the complaining." Point taken: So I thought with this second column, I should heed her call --um, her complaint, actually--and present some anecdotes about people who have been helpful to strangers. Fortunately, two other responses I received to the column fit the bill nicely.

First, from Lois on Woodley Road: During the height (depths) of the snow, I watched my husband try to dig his car out with our flat-edged, dented, aluminum shovel. Fitfully slow. So I found my pointed garden shovel out back. I was handing it to him when I noticed a young woman across the street trying to dig out her car with a tool as pitiful as my husband's, only plastic. Before giving my shovel to said husband, I punched my way around the ice near the woman's tires, hoping for a quick liberation. It took just a few minutes, and her huge smile and thank you's flooded the street. Soon, too, my stubby garden shovel had freed my husband's car. I then handed the woman my shovel for her to try a few more whacks at the ice, for good measure. More profound thanks followed, in fact, way too much for my small gesture. A few days later I found a lovely, hand-made valentine in my mailbox, along with a bag of Lindt chocolate truffles from the young woman. Now that's appreciation!

And next, from Charlotte on 38th Street: When we rescheduled our tickets to The Rivalry at Fords Theatre, after the snows, the theatre didn't have two seats together, so I was sitting by myself. Behind me, I heard someone say to his companion, "Once at Ford's Theatre we heard, oh, what was his name, he was a cabinet secretary in the Eisenhower administration and then president of U. of Oregon?" Amazingly, since I attended U. of Oregon, I knew the answer! Despite my reluctance to interrupt, I turned around. The three of us, all from greater Cleveland Park, talked avidly about 1960s Oregon. How unlikely is that? One benefit of the snows: more willingness to connect. Oh, the answer: Arthur Fleming, secretary of HEW under Eisenhower.

That leads me to my own little story about a helpful word from a stranger, similar to Charlotte's. I was waiting in a long, slow-moving line with my daughter, and to pass the time, we were discussing her upcoming test in US history, which would cover the Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson administrations. I remarked to my daughter that when I was in high school during the Johnson Administration, all students had to take a course in Civics, which required us to memorize the names of all members of LBJ's cabinet, and all 9 justices of the US Supreme Court, along with the top positions of both parties in the House and Senate. I aced that test, and I still remember most of them to this day. My daughter pooh-poohed this sort of course, saying any teenager or adult living in Washington who is the least bit interested in current events could name the people in these positions without having to study. Go, I challenged her, name all 9 justices of the current court. She rattled off the first five without hesitation. With some thought she came up with a sixth name. After a bit more pondering, she named a seventh. Then she was stumped and could not come up with another name. I was able to think of one more. But for some reason neither one of us could summon up the last name to complete the court. We were about to give up in frustration (since neither of us had a smartphone with us to allow us just to Google the answer), when a white-haired gentleman in front of us in the line turned around and quietly said one word: Stevens. Thank you, Mr. Random Retired Washington Lawyer Waiting In Line! Only in DC!

And finally, the most helpful responses I received to my column came from readers who alerted me to the existence of Voices of Washington, which is organizing a Complaints Choir of Washington. So far there's just a very spare web site, , with little more than a name, phone number and email address on the "contact" page. But if you'd like to get involved in this effort, that's clearly the place to start. I'm sure the main contact person would welcome any and all helpful strangers willing to come together to make this happen for our city. (My thanks to Susanna Beiser for being the first to pass along this information.)


Published on the Cleveland Park Listserv on March 5, 2010.

All Life Is Local, debut column: A Chorus of Complaints

This is the premiere of a new feature on the Cleveland Park Listerv (, a column called All Life Is Local. It will appear every Friday and will be a sort of grab-bag of a column, with stories from the neighborhood, odd little quirks and anecdotes that people send in, and musings about this and that, not necessarily all neighborhood connected but all in some way adding a bit of flavor to the stew that is our local life. The inspiration comes from former House Speaker Tip O'Neill's observation that "All politics is local," but that's just a jumping-off point, as the column won't be limited to politics or even just to this particular local area. Today's column, for example, is more about Chicago than DC, but the subject is universal: Complaints. Of which there is no shortage here in Cleveland Park.

A Chorus of Complaints

Ever since Snowmageddon, I've been hearing a loud chorus of complaints: about snow, about cabin fever, and shoveling, and people who don't shovel, and people who save parking spaces with lawn chairs, and from those who put those lawn chairs in their shoveled-out spaces moaning that space-takers don't respect the amount of work it took to shovel out that spot. We've had complaints about city snow plows that never arrived, followed by complaints about the city snow plow that did arrive but left a giant snow barrier in its wake. You've read all these things and more on the listserv. (You haven't? Just visit Cleveland-Park and click on the "join this group" link at the top of your screen.) Add to that all the other complaints of everyday life, snow or no snow (late night noise, early morning noise, misdelivered mail, people with too many items in the 15-or-less line, signs that say "15 or less" when they should say "15 or fewer," -- the list goes on and on until life itself seems like one unending chorus of complaint. What if somebody were to put all those complaints to music? Make them sound nice by turning our whines into an actual song? Well, someone already has. And not just one somebody with one song but a whole lot of somebodies, enough to make up a choir. And not just one choir either, but a network of them from all over the world. Where and how? On the Internet, of course. (Isn't everything on the Internet?) Take Chicago's Complaints Choir, for example:

Want more? Pick your city or region from the main site of Complaints Choirs:

I like Philadelphia's Complaints Choir, and the one from the "As It Happens" Radio Show of Canada. But some of the videos on the site don't work – that's my complaint!

How can we get a complaints choir of DC? I'd organize one but I don't have a single one of the skills needed to assemble a choir, write and arrange the song, videotape the result and upload it to But somebody ought to do it! Isn't that the nature of complaints? That you always want somebody to do something? Until that happens, I hope these other choirs of complaint fill the void.


First published on the Cleveland Park Listserv,, on Feb. 26, 2010.

Send me your comments, complaints, compliments, funny stories, yada-yada: AllLifeIsLocal at fastmail dot net