Friday, July 30, 2010

Adventures in Simple Living

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Published on the Cleveland Park Listserv, July 30, 2010

Friday, July 23, 2010

Minding Your Pens and Keys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Friday, July 16, 2010

Did the Earth Move for You, Too?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 9, 2010

Beaches, Here and There

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

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