Saturday, December 17, 2011

Shoes. SHOES! Shooooooooooes....

This is not a deep post about the complexities of life, nor is it symbolic of anything. This is a joyous celebration of a lifestyle in which I get to wear shoes. This might be the very first time in my life in which I can wear the fabulous but sometimes impractical shoes that my heart aches for when I walk through the department stores or along the rows and rows of displays at DSW. I have always loved shoes, mostly because my father works in the shoe business and my mother always loved shoes too. Foot fashion is a family affair. Oh, how I long to don a pair of high high heels or a tall boot to click-clack on tile floors and cement sidewalks for a night on the town; to wrap the ribbons of an espadrille wedge around my ankles or slide on a pair of mules for a summer excursion.

Alas, I was blessed with both an adoration of foot attire and the wrong-shaped foot for most of it. My size 6, narrow-heel/wide-toe, high-instep feet have proven prohibitive in this area. As a kid, I mostly wore fashion athletic shoes but had a few pairs of something fancier lurking in the closet. In college and grad school, I mostly wore what was comfortable because trudging around campus all day in uncomfortable shoes is a bad idea and mostly unnecessary. Why dress up for class when you're just going to head to the gym or computer lab afterward? While living in Chicago and DC, where fashionable feet are everywhere and there are plenty of excuses to strut your stuff, commuting is mostly done by walking, biking, and riding the train and bus, where you will likely have to stand a large portion of the time. Some people wear comfort shoes to commute, then change into their cute shoes upon arrival at their destination. I worked in offices where no one cared and I would have been out of place in pumps, so I opted for comfortable shoes that looked decent enough in the business-casual environs. Oddly enough, Casual Fridays were the only times that the cute shoes came out, because can be worn with jeans, and because as Stacy and Clinton say, just because it's casual doesn't mean you have to look like a slob.

In my new job, in this new state, every day is Casual Friday. I could get away with wearing jeans and a t-shirt and hiking boots all the time. But why? I drive to and from work, I sit at a desk all day, I don't have to run up and down a lot of stairs, and some of the young women in my office do dress more nicely. This is the ideal environment for all of those shoes that lay largely unused in my closet, plus some others that call to me from the store shelves. So, out come the teal suede Mary Jane heels with the  cut-outs on the toes. Out come the black patent booties with the square toes and the tan suede booties with the buckle that rattles. In the past two months here, I have also acquired some brown boots with a chunky heel and grey suede wedges. These tootsies will have to relearn how to walk in heels, because it's time to get stylin' again. Of course, there will be some stylish flats to add to the collection as well, since matching the boring black slacks is no longer a concern.

Shoes may be a small, trivial thing in the grand scheme of life, but we all need our vices. How can we bring joy to others if we don't feel joy ourselves? And, after all, I'm stimulating the economy.

These are the things we tell ourselves to justify our selfishness. Please forgive me, and then compliment my shoes.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Another notch on the proverbial post

Yesterday, I went to the home improvement store and bought a log splitter. Today, I split all of the shorter logs in the pile underneath my porch. It came a month after I replaced my car's side view mirror on my own. Both tasks make me feel like beating my chest and grunting like Tim 'The Toolman' Taylor. Maybe it's more like when Tom Hanks rejoiced in Castaway after starting a fire on his own. I can do this myself, without anyone's help! Well, Google showed me how to replace the mirror, but I did it for real.

I don't recall ever having swung an ax before, but it looked difficult. The heavy iron head tapers to a sharp edge, balanced on a long, thin handle, which makes it hard to lift and too easy to bring down quickly. One false move and a foot or ankle is sliced to the bone. So I begin with caution. Find a crack in the phloem, the brittle bark, that goes all the way down to the xylem, the meaty wood. Lay the log on a flat surface, the crack exposed to all the world. Grasp the handle firmly. Line the blade up with the crack, lift it up over the shoulder, bring it down halfway, deliberately, then let gravity and momentum take over. Feel the wood resist the blade with a smack, or, if you actually hit the crack as planned, a satisfying creak as it splinters. Place a foot on the log for leverage to pry the blade from the cut. A couple (or many) more just like that and the log halves fall satisfyingly away from each other, exposing the fresh wood inside.

Most of the logs didn't take that long. My aim was decent, my strength enough to deliver sufficient power to the swing. Without a large enough crack, though, the wood would splinter but mostly remain intact. I like the physicality of the task, the breaking of something to use later, and the knowledge that I can do this myself. But I'm generally not good at exploiting cracks or weaknesses. I'd rather throw the log on the fire whole and let it burn down on its own, or else find something more powerful to cut it apart quickly, no whittling away needed. I might be better off with a wedge and a mallet - easier to wield, and less dangerous - but the stove is small and all I have is a log splitter, so I swing the ax with care and keep at it until the work is done.

There are more logs in a different pile, some without visible cracks and some too narrow to split and too long for the stove. For those, I will need a chainsaw...

Monday, November 28, 2011

The November of my youth

In case it's not totally obvious from the previous post, today isn't exactly the cheeriest of days. Not depressing or anything, just grey. Boise has been grey for what seems like forever but is probably only a few days here and there. This must be what they call the inversion, when thin clouds settle over the valley and just hang out. Forever. Blue sky is visible in the distance, over the tops of the foothills somewhere, but the clouds hold it back just out of reach. Just enough to reassure us that the world hasn't ended and the entire planet isn't smothered. November in Chicago is cold and grey. It rains. It's windy. But at least it's doing something. Here, the temperature isn't too cold, and it's not particularly windy or rainy. Just grey. Sometimes the clouds thin out and the wan sunlight filters through, like looking at a lightbulb from beneath a bedsheet. It seems like everyone here skis, and now I know why. The ski resorts reside just above the cloud line, right where that unattainable blue sky hangs out. Up there, it's bright and sunny and the snow sparkles festively. Grey sky alone is one thing, but the looming mountains really make the valley feel closed-in, capped, sealed. As if we could climb up and poke a hole in the clouds and a whoosh of fresh air would come rushing in. Or better yet, sweep away the clouds with a broom like we do with the cobwebs in rooms that have gone stale.

Giving Thanks

A few days past the official Thanksgiving holiday, I am especially appreciative of what I am fortunate enough to have. Last night on 60 Minutes, the first story was about families in Florida who are now living out of their cars because they lost their homes when the jobs left and the economy crashed. There have been many stories like this in the media lately; for example, Diane Sawyer hosted a one-hour special last month on an American Indian tribe in North Dakota that is among the poorest communities in the country.  Poverty exists all over the world and is much more rampant in many places outside of the United States. It's one of the core reasons for violence in the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, and in other war-torn areas. From our comfy couches, it's easier to ignore them. Send some money to an international aid organization and hope it doesn't get accidentally used to pay off corrupt politicians or fund projects that are doomed from the start. Sponsor a child, Sally Struthers-style. Some people take up the cause and fly across the world to try to help people whose circumstances are mostly beyond the control of those who live outside that nation and have no political power. Sometimes it works - some microloans and education and infrastructure initiatives, for example - but without support of the government, it's much more difficult to raise a country as a whole out of poverty. So we throw up our hands and turn the heat up in our cozy homes.

But the United States is now on a slippery slope. Our people can't find work, which leads to tighter budgeting, which leads to feeding their families two meals a day instead of three, because they can't afford more food. Food pantries are struggling right now to provide enough food for the growing number of people who rely on them to put food on the table. This isn't just a problem of eating fast food because it's cheaper than fresh food. It's a problem of no food at all. One family in the 60 Minutes piece said that after cutting back from three meals to two meals a day, they still had no extra money, and they ended up living in their car until a woman who runs a local program helped get the family a hotel room to live in. But a family of five can't live in a hotel room forever. It's a temporary fix.

This is sad. We as a country are no longer taking care of our own. Our government is fighting about stupid stupid things, mostly about how to split the money. Raising taxes may or may not help. Cutting spending may or may not help. This problem isn't about just throwing money at people and hoping it doesn't get wasted. Government doesn't exist simply for its own good and it isn't about making rules for rules sake. It's about providing what our society needs to function and thrive. Private business is about providing goods and services for members of our society. During a time of increased need, not just from those in communities where poverty is perpetuated, but also in once-comfortable communities that looked just like ours, why are we fighting over words and ideas? Why are we not doing something, even if it's small, to help even one family move out of their car and into a real home? This isn't a bleeding-heart liberal thing. It's a human thing. Our country might be in debt for years to come, but our neighbors are faltering right now. It could happen to any of us. One medical emergency or a lost job, and we could be next.

On this day, I am especially thankful for all that I am fortunate enough to have. My furnace broke on Thanksgiving, and I had to rely on a space heater and a wood stove for warmth, although I was lucky enough to be able to stay with a friend for the weekend. What it must be like to have nothing but a wood stove for warmth all the time, or to have no one else to stay with in an emergency, or to have no home at all, I just can't imagine. My heart goes out to all of those people who need so much more. I wish that I could give it.

Sunday, November 20, 2011


I knew it would be different here. That was the point. I needed a reset. I needed to start over in a place where no one knows me, where they have no preconceived notions of who I am or where I came from, so I can be whatever I want. I needed a different view, to see things from another angle. But like my cat, I discovered that I long for freedom but am afraid of what's actually out there.

Life in the city is easy. Go to the same few bars and restaurants, shop in the few stores that have what you want, listen to your iPod as you go about your merry way. Keep up the same routines: go to the gym after work or during lunch. Run errands on the weekends. Meet up with friends in between. Meet new people. Cook dinner with the usual ingredients. Listen to the same radio shows, watch the same tv shows, read the same newspapers and magazines. These things are easily transferrable among lives.

It's life outside the city that's scary. Get up into the mountains, among the tall pines and gushing streams, and it's a different world. So quiet. No people around, no airplanes overhead, no birds chirping or leaves rustling. My attempts at hiking have been cut short as I was consumed with a fear of being eaten by a wolf. Or worse yet, partially eaten, with no cell service and no passers-by to help. Leisurely drives along roads in higher elevations feel like death traps, an icy patch or a sneeze all that's necessary to take one wrong turn off the road and plummet into the valley below. Venturing into the wild here is an exercise in stuffing fear into a compartment deep in the belly and trying to enjoy the incredible scenery instead. Coming from a land where people worry more about getting a flat tire on the highway than breaking an ankle while traversing a high mountain trail, this place feels utterly dangerous at times. Is this how other people feel when they move to the West after living in Mamby-Pamby Town for so long? Or are these fears totally unfounded, revealing themselves in this form but being rooted in some deeper, unconscious fear? This is the first time I've done something so different in my life, and being scared is an important part of the process. Maybe it's just that: it's new, and new is scary. Exciting too, but until you learn its secrets and crack its code, new means stumbling in the dark, the world only illuminated as far as your little flashlight beam can reach. Once you know what's just beyond the beam of light, you don't have to guess what's out there, and that's a more comforting place to be. Having someone to hold your hand helps too.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Urban Wildlife, Boise Style

One of the first few days I was here for good, I looked out my window and saw a doe and two young deer standing in my yard. It was opening day for deer hunting, and I wanted to shout at them, "RUN!!!" But no one here in the foothills would shoot at a deer among the houses, especially not with two young. Right? There have been numerous skunks as roadkill, and I've heard rumors of foxes or coyotes running off with the neighborhood cats at night. My sweet kitty doesn't get to go outside at night at all. Not that I have a reason to be worried - she snuck out the open door one evening and came running back a few minutes later. Yearning for freedom, afraid of what's actually out there.

There are also the usual suspects - red and gray squirrels, Canada geese, various song birds, a few small raptors in the open areas. They remind me that I have to get to know a whole new selection of birds out here, because many species don't live out east. My favorite are the California quail that hang out in packs among the bushes, shrubs, and dense clusters of conifers out here. They sound like guinea pigs, squeaking and grunting in the foliage. It's pretty rare to see them - they go running from any disturbance. This evening, I looked out my bedroom window to see maybe 30 quail picking through the fallen willow leaves and pine needles in my backyard, followed by a nosy squirrel whom they didn't seem to notice. Quail are so funny, with their colorful patches of feathers and their one curled feather on their forehead that quivers as they bob for seeds and berries and bugs. Even the females have a little tuft of feather on their heads. It's so regal.


"Stay in the North End," they said. "The North End is where everything is that you'll need. There's no reason to leave the North End." I've been fighting against this mindset that other educated, progressive Boiseans (Boiseites?) have regarding the old-home, kid-safe, coffee-shop-and-food-co-op neighborhood where apparently most of the liberals in Boise live. I grew up in a pretty diverse area in Chicago. My parents are working-middle class folks, and I always liked to think of myself as part of the proletariat in a way. I'm an educated professional, intellectually curious and well-rounded, but I never assumed badly of someone who works in retail or industry or who doesn't have a college degree. I worked in retail for many years with people who didn't go to college, and they mostly didn't seem like people I needed to avoid. Then again, I have always spent the majority of my time (outside of retail work) with people like me, by default, because after college, I have worked in all white-collar jobs. I never really noticed the difference between those who take a more nuanced approach to life and those who don't give much thought to intellectual pursuit until I moved to Washington, DC, a city rife with people ready to pick apart the world.

Anyway, this Boise Liberal attitude really left a bit of a distaste in my mouth. All of the other Boiseans I have run across have seemed really quite nice and normal, and we liberals can be a tad elitist at times.

Then I dived into the dating scene here, via a free online dating site. And now I understand why my cohorts here in Boise stick to the North End. There is a wider gulf here between those who are liberal and highly educated (often beyond a bachelor's degree) and those who are something else. Still lovely people all, but in a liberal-ish small city like Boise in a staunchly conservative state like Idaho, you just stick with what you know. Because it's easier than explaining yourself to those who don't get it, no matter what your political persuasion, level of education, religion, or job. It's live-and-let-live out here, and everyone stays on their side of the line.

Monday, October 10, 2011


The drive across the United States, from the East Coast to the Northwest, is a lesson in land use. Head out up I-270 from Washington, DC, and suburban Maryland rolls with the hills, part subdivision and part farmland. The trees change color in early fall as elevation climbs into Pennsylvania. The highway winds through the mountains, where the temperature drops and billboards implore travelers to support the coal mining industry, as if there was nothing damaging about blowing apart the earth and hauling out its inner contents, displacing entire towns and polluting the air and water along the way. As if the local economy struggling from the loss of mining was worse than the long-term multiple impacts of extractive industries.

Soon, the mountains give way to a familiar sight: the flat agricultural lands of the Midwest. There's not much here that existed 100 years ago. It has been plowed and plucked and mowed and developed over and again. You're never far away from an ear of corn, a bale of hay, or a tractor. The highway through Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois is a lesson in monotony. The giant aluminum siding cross at Effingham, Illinois, is the only distinguishing landmark for miles. But the sun setting over the Mississippi River approaching St. Louis is a thing of beauty. The Midwest is full of simple beauty, seemingly empty but at peace with it, knowing that important things are happening just beyond the view from the highway.

Missouri is a different story. It's a nice mix of farmland and foothills - more dramatic than other parts of the Midwest, because it has more to offer. It's multidimensional. And driving the cliffs along the Missouri River encourages vulnerability and the need to throw it all into the muddy water and leave it all behind. North along the river and through Nebraska is the last chance to enjoy the flat lands with the wide yellow sun, for just beyond the Wyoming border, the earth takes over. The Midwest looks wide and flat, but it's nothing compared to the wide open of the West. In the Midwest, one still feels under the watch of the sun and stars, and clouds float close overhead. In the West, storms arriving can be seen floating in mid-air, approaching but never actually coming close. The land out here is what it has been for thousands or millions of years. People out here don't use the land; the land permits them to reside where they dare, puncturing the upper crust in small splotches. Cows, goats, sheep, and horses graze in dispersed groups on hillsides, barely visible among the patches of sagebrush and the shadows cast by passing clouds. It's a humbling feeling to be out here, like we could disappear at any time and the earth would just swallow us up unnoticed.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Overtly personal

I grew up with a mother who likes to analyze everything, who processes her life by talking about every speck of it, and so I have also become a person who is deeply introspective and fairly self-aware. I have come to measure my life not in terms of my accomplishments, but rather in terms of how I've progressed internally. In Chicago, I fostered my love of music, got in touch with my inner environmentalist, and planted the foodie seed. In North Carolina, I embraced my inner hippie, lost the urgency to get married and have kids, and discovered the value of having friends who are more like me. In DC, I became the independent outdoorswoman I am today. I learned the difference between the fantasies I wanted for my life and the realities that are much more suited to who I am. I struggled with tasks and forced myself to dig into them instead of taking the easy way out, accepting that sometimes just-good-enough isn't good enough. I discovered that I could open up to someone and love so deeply, and then heal more completely when that love went away. I identified the issues that have been holding me back for so long, like my reliance on other peoples' ideas instead of forming my own, and I learned to tell a select few people some deeply personal things that I have only just begun to accept for myself. I discovered that we are all flawed, and that it's okay to be flawed, and that being open about your flaws will not make people automatically dislike you. In the past 3+ years, I have made great strides - I think I had to move past a lot of things in my mind before I could move to a new place on this planet.

But we are all a work in progress, and I always have to have a project. The new one that will follow me to Boise is not a unique one: I don't like my body. In my mind and deep under my layers of cellulite lies a person who is toned and muscular and strong. I feel it in my muscles and in my bones. But my genes work against me, those eastern European Jewish genes that panic at the mere suggestion that it might be cold outside or that I might have to subsist on rations, and so no matter how strictly I count calories, limit carbs, pile on the fresh fruits and veggies and low-fat protein, bike, run, swim, hike, lift weights, do yoga, and get a full 8 hours of sleep, I maintain a layer of padding all over, especially on my stomach and hips. No matter how much I tell my D-cup breasts to get smaller, they just hang there and get in the way, those uncomfortable globs of fat that draw unwanted attention, which I would happily reduce to half of their size or less. I don't snack or eat lots of unhealthy things or fill emotional holes with food, and I am active. I am a healthy person, strong and decently fit, but this body I have is not my own. I have a very womanly hourglass figure for which I get a fair amount of attention from men, but I have never, ever felt like a woman. In my mind, I am not woman, and not really man either, just someone with a strong, fit, capable body with little body fat and no curves. Some people can change their bodies in drastic ways, like training two hours every day (or longer) or hiring a good plastic surgeon. I could kill myself at the gym and restrict every ounce of food I eat like an Olympian, but even with less body fat and more muscles, I cannot escape the physiology, like my short stature, knock-knees and wide hips, that will always betray my gender, and I am limited in my physical abilities by my asthma. Part of it may be my desk-job lifestyle - I'm sure I would prefer a more physically active job, but while I have student loans and a yearning for intellectual stimulation, working full-time in a job that fulfills my need to constantly move my body is not a viable option, doing it part-time will not suffice, and I don't want to wear my body out prematurely.

My angst is not inspired by those beauty magazines, which I don't read, nor by the models, actresses, and the women in my life, all of whom I admire for their talents, personality, quirks, and unique beauty. I don't look in the mirror and say, "I am fat" or "I hate my body." I don't feel pressure to be skinny, I don't think that I am unlovable because of my body shape, I don't feel that I am less of a person for how I look, and I would certainly never take on anything so drastic that could damage my body. I know that I am not a large person and that my size and weight is considered average and healthy. It's not vanity, it's a genuine physical discomfort. I don't look outside the way I feel inside, and my efforts so far to shed the padding that makes life often physically uncomfortable have been mostly unsuccessful. I need to find a way to connect my inner self with my outer self, to accept what I am and find a way to move past this. Unlike the other obstacles I have surmounted, this is not just a struggle with my mind, that abstract and intangible entity; there is a physical dimension to this project, and I fear that like many other women, it may be something I work on my whole life. But I figured out ways to work through other issues, and I'll figure out this one too.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Moving away, not moving on

Two weeks from today, I will be on the road on the way to Boise, probably somewhere on I-70 in Pennsylvania. How did seven weeks turn into 14 days? And how did I accumulate so much stuff in my little bedroom? Reality of the move is setting in. After two years of being out West in my mind, I invested in my DC life over the past 9 months, and now I'm not ready to leave. Despite the noise and traffic and crowds of people, despite the annoying public transit commute and lack of parking, despite the high prices for just about everything and the difficult dating scene, I love it here. I love my friends, who are fun and funny, smart and varyingly intense, who work too much but know how to have a good time, and who have accepted me despite my stupid jokes, inappropriate conversations, occasional retreats into my introverted lair, life indirection, geeky pursuits, general lack of fashion sense, and overall casual awkwardness. I've been told that I'm easy to be around, so maybe that's why they continue to let me tag along.

I love that everything is at your fingertips here, including food, art, and music from just about every ethnicity or culture; movies, theater and dance productions big and small; celebration of LGBTQ culture; wonky political/scientific/global discussions; museums of all kinds; and colorful people. DC can exhibit that well-ingrained East Coast conformism, it's true, but there seem to be enough non-conformists that escape is possible. Speaking of escape, I love that in just a couple of hours, one can drive to the coast, the forests, the mountains, other big cities, and farmland. This is the place for explorers. If I were a big-city girl, I would happily plant roots and stay here forever.

But I don't have the mental or emotional energy for a place like DC. I seem to have inherited a touch of the anxiety disorder that plagues my family, and I'm sensitive to sounds and smells. Sensory overload is something I know well. Although I can ignore the daily noise and commotion of a big city, it wears on my soul. There are too many options in a city like this - how do I choose among all of the fabulous restaurants to find one place to eat?! How do I decide what to do on any given Saturday evening?! How do I connect with new people among all of those rushing to and fro? Cursed with a love of all of these things and a concurrent inability to choose among them, I have accepted that it is time to transition to a slower pace of life, rather than fork over cash every month for the anti-anxiety meds that would enable me to better cope with the constant assault of the cityscape. So I'm moving away, to a place still hopping but calmer, still interesting but not overwhelming. My heart will still be in DC, a place that draws ire from many Westerners. I fully became the person I am while living in DC, so I can never move on completely.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

First impressions

I've been in Boise for three days, looking for a place to live. I didn't really take to the city right away. It reminds me of a smaller Salt Lake City, but aside from the downtown area, there's not much going on. Plus, it just seems gritty, scrubby. My initial reaction was resistance - "I don't want to live here. What did I get myself into?" But a meeting with my new coworkers reminded me of what I'm getting myself into. Instead of struggling through economic theory and picking through farm-level data, I'll be nerding out on riparian habitat and stocking levels with a bunch of easygoing sciencey folks who joke around all the time. This sounds wonderful. So, determined to get to know (and eventually like) Boise, I went for a morning jog along the Boise River greenbelt. It was bugging me that I couldn't really pinpoint why I was resisting this place. It's not lush or diverse or exciting like DC, but it's also not noisy and crowded and expensive and dangerous like DC. Boise is different from the Midwest and East Coast - lots of people have tattoos, piercings, and funky hair. Bikes are ridden for transportation. Clothes are used as personal expression, not as a tool for fitting in or showing off. The fancy beers here have DC happy hour prices; the other beers are way cheaper. These are all good things. It's scary moving to a new place, but Boise seems nice, comfortable enough. So what was my problem?

Then it hit me while I was jogging. Everything in the Midwest and East Coast is lush and green. We're talking deep green, like you can smell and taste the chlorophyll while walking down the street. And the sun is yellow, like an egg yolk. It's so bright in the summer that you almost want to hide from it. As someone who is happiest wandering around a forest all day, this seems safe and normal. Plus, it's all I've known. But Boise is not lush. There are tons of trees (the city name is derived from "les bois", which means "the woods" in French) and the grass is green (although it's so dry in the summer that without watering, it turns into a brown mass), but the green isn't as deep and the sun is paler, though still warm. It's dustier here. But there's beauty in that. It's less intense. Even though it's been in the 90s since I got here, the warmth is comfortable. Nature doesn't knock you down in Boise, it just hangs out, like the foothills lurking on the northeast side of the city. I didn't take to Boise immediately because it wasn't begging me to like it. It didn't get in my face or show off for the masses. This city will let me figure it out on my own time, no rush. It's a relief after three years of bracing against the barrage of sights and sounds in the big city. So, okay. I'm moving to Boise.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

I'd rather be a talented musician than a fast runner

We are not athletes in my family. We never played on any teams or had piles of rackets and mitts and shin guards lying around. We like music and books and food and stimulating conversation and corny jokes. I suppose I'm the most physically active member of my family - even though I always hated gym class and have a mild case of asthma, I took dance and horseback riding lessons; I played softball for two summers (the highlight of my brief career being the one hit I got off a pitch instead of a toss-up; my own father later struck me out as home plate umpire) and played one game on a soccer team; I played beach volleyball in Chicago one summer and kickball on an intramural league one year in grad school. I go on long bike rides, hikes, runs (sometimes), and I swim laps. I do yoga, lift weights, work the elliptical machines, and perform any number of different kinds of crunches on a regular basis. I'm not very good or fast or skilled or strong at any of those things and the scale never seems to budge no matter how much I do any combination of them, but I do them because I enjoy them, they relieve my stress and anxious tendencies, and they give me something to do instead of being bored.

Hence the RunStock 5K I ran last night with my friend. It's not just a road race, it's a race around the Quantico Marine Corps Base, accompanied by random bands along the route and the School of Rock students performing at the finish line all evening. I had fun running the race, I shaved more than two minutes off my total time without training much beforehand, and I felt good for pushing myself. Races are a blast - there's something about running through the empty streets with a bunch of other random people that really gets my adrenaline pumping. I may have done well based on my personal achievement, but let's face it, I'm not an athlete. A woman carrying one small child on her shoulders and leading another child paced me during the first part of the run, when I was really pounding it out. They finished only slightly behind me. No, I am not a fast runner.

But I don't really care. After sprinting through the finish line and grabbing my mini bottle of water and my chocolate chip cookie (the only way to refuel after a race, in my opinion), I meandered over to the stage, where a small girl, perhaps 9 or 10 years old, with long straight hair, a flannel shirt, and denim shorts, was belting out a Joan Jet song while her slightly older band mates were accompanying her on guitar, drums, and keyboard as professionally as any cover band I've seen lately. These kids were rocking it! On stage! In front of a bunch of hot, sweaty strangers! How cool is that?! I didn't care that I had run 3.10685 miles in 34 minutes. I was so jealous of those kids on stage. Me, jealous of a girl singing a Green Day song about masturbation and smoking pot that was released when I was 14 years old. She was probably not even born yet.

School of Rock of Greater Washington DC states, "Since 1998 the School of Rock has been saving rock & roll, one kid at a time. We've helped thousands of kids learn how to rock, and develop a lifelong love of music." (I'll ignore the punctuation errors in those sentences because rock n' roll don't need no stinkin' grammar.) They provide a combination of private lessons, group rehearsals, and real live gigs to teach students (ages 5-17) about not just playing an instrument or singing but also performing on stage. There's even a summer camp for a more intense learning experience, and they have also added an indie band program for students who want to write and play their own music, not just cover the classics. It all sounds pretty rad to me. Can I go back to being a kid, just to participate in something like this?

I guess that says a lot about how my upbringing has influenced me: I'm okay with not being an athletic superstar, but it kind of kills me that I don't have the musical chops to master an instrument and perform for the masses. Guess I'll have to stick with belting out the tunes along to the radio and playing some serious air drums at my desk.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Musical interlude

Just in case that Rolling Stones/The Sundays song isn't planted firmly enough in your brain:

And a classic that should have been conjured up immediately:

Wild ponies

My office moved to a new building this week, so I got some much-needed time off. I used the past two days to check off a few things on my bucket list: go camping one more time, go to the beach, go to Assateague Island to see the wild horses. I stayed at a tent camp site in Assateague Island National Shoreline, a park that straddles the Maryland/Virginia border on the Delmarva peninsula. Camping is only allowed on the Maryland side, but one can walk along the beach all the way, and the scenic drive from Assateague to Chincoteague (on the Virginia side) takes about an hour through the countryside along the bay. The Chincoteague area includes a national wildlife refuge and NPS visitor center and some longer hiking trails. The road to Chincoteague passes by the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and NASA visitor center, where tall satellite dishes and other massive equipment stand at the ready. Assateague is the more commercialized area and receives more traffic and visitors. Chicoteague is quaint and quiet, although don't believe the signs - "historic" Main Street is dotted with the same schlocky stores meant to draw business from people who just want to sit on the beach and spend their cash.

Anyway, before this trip, when I thought of wild horses, I imagined the song "Wild Horses" by the Rolling Stones (although the version in my head is the one sung by The Sundays) accompanying some pintos frolicking on the beach, their manes and tails whipping around in the wind. You probably did too. But alas, my friend, these horses seem neither wild nor exotic. They look like regular horses, grazing along the side of the road and trudging through the salt marsh. Sure, they're beautiful, but they're even less scared of people than the white-tailed deer in Rock Creek Park. And their poop is everywhere. Other "wildlife" common throughout the island include some pushy gulls that laughed too much at me while I tried to pitch my tent, some cottontail rabbits who peek out from behind the brush, and a fawn that ventured up to a large group on the campground and took food from their hands while their Jack Russell terrier sniffed at its feet. But there are also some shore-specific creatures, like the Atlantic mole crabs, who skittered to rebury themselves after each wave washed them out of their hiding spots, the various other crabs that burrow into the sand, the evidence of which can be seen at dawn when their empty burrows dot the shore, a green heron watching carefully from the salt marsh, and the shorebirds that dig the crabs from the sand for a tasty crustacean meal. Red-winged blackbirds flit among the grasses and some falcons circle high above.

I had hoped for some peace and solitude on my two-day retreat, but alas, even at midnight with the bright almost-full moon reflecting off the water and at dawn with the orange ball of light rising in the pink sky from some clouds along the horizon, people were still up and about. I had my own little piece of dune, but solitude was nowhere to be found. Even so, it was freeing to direct my own vacation, to move in my own little space, to let the shore envelop me for just a few moments when I was there and nowhere else.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Finding your way

Last week, I ordered a road atlas of the United States and a road and recreation map of Idaho. They're big books with glossy covers, and each state page in the U.S. road atlas comes with one of those fancy code things that will give you extra information online when scanned with a smart phone. The perfect blend of old-school traveling and modern technology. I've been yearning for a GPS unit for a couple of years because they make going anywhere so much easier, but there's just something special about doing it manual-style. I like printing out my Google maps directions, or better yet, writing them down on a discarded envelope or scrap of paper. I learn so much more about a place when I drive in the wrong direction and have to backtrack, or when I try to figure out how to get somewhere using a new route and usually end up going in a circle or taking the much longer route. GPS units get you where you need to go, but they take the fun out of it (although admittedly, having Snoop Dogg tell me to take a sharp left makes it more interesting).

There's just something exciting about sitting down with a map, looking at the roads squiggling across the page, thinking about how to get to another part of the state or the country. Atlases have that grid that tells you how many miles it is from one city to numerous cities in the U.S. and Canada, plus a map with traveling times noted for segments between cities. One can turn to any page, say 93, and learn where Pierre, SD, is located in relation to Sioux City, for example. Some states take up two pages, like Montana, others four pages (Pennsylvania), and others less than a page with room to spare (Rhode Island). And each map shows you all of the little towns in between your starting point and your destination. Using an online mapping system is just not the same. This is hands-on, pull-to-the-side-of-the-road, find your next destination while sitting in a diner, kind of traveling. True, the atlas can't redirect me around traffic or warn me that the Chesapeake Bay Bridge toll is $12 each way (yikes!!!), but at least I'll know where I am, even without Internet access, and that's the first and most important step in any adventure.   

Thursday, August 04, 2011

LIfe is what happens when...

It's August. It's been hot and dry, more so this year than most others. The parched leaves are starting to float from the trees, the sun rises a little later and sets a little earlier, and the back-to-school sales are ramping up.

More than two years ago, I said, "August is when we start making plans." At the time, I was hoping to move 1,700 miles away to be closer to the one I loved. But as August came and went, the Universe and I had different ideas of what those plans would be, and everything changed. Last year, there were no plans to be had. The roulette wheel was still spinning, the marble still circling, not ready to drop into place. But this year, there are plans, and they include Boise, Idaho, and a job where my skills will be needed and used. This was not the number I had bet on. I was looking at pretty little 26, the California way of life, and 48, rainy Oregon with the cool coast. Or maybe 24 (New Mexico) or 30 (Colorado) in times past. Boise, good old 18, was an impulse bet, and Lord knows, those always seem to be the ones that win for me. Before researching the place, I knew only these things about Idaho:
  1. Napoleon Dynamite was filmed and set in Idaho. I liked that movie more than I thought I would, but it was still weird.
  2. During the weirdest car ride ever, I was the only passenger in a ten-passenger van on a five-hour drive from Salt Lake City to Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The driver was a very tanned man wearing diamond earrings, short shorts, and fake fingernails, who chewed tobacco and drank energy drinks the whole way. The route took us through southeastern Idaho, and as we neared the Wyoming border, the brown rolling hills gave way to the most incredible, beautiful forests and crystal clear rivers. I still regret not taking any photos.
  3. Last summer I met a woman my age who grew up in Boise. She told me that it's hot in the summer and cool in the winter with not a ton of snow. That was news to me.
  4. Many Idahoans hate wolves. A lot. The Governor wants to kill most of 'em dead. I understand both sides of the story, but since I'll be working on issues related to livestock grazing, I'll leave it at that.
  5. If you want outdoor adventure, Idaho has it: skiing (which I don't do), hiking, biking, fishing (that one random L.L. Bean fly fishing lesson just might pay off), rafting, kayaking, and more.  
  6. Idahoans grow lots of wheat and potatoes, and the rivers teem with salmon and trout. 
  7. Lots of people have lots of guns in Idaho. 
  8. Plenty of Idahoans really don't like the federal government. At all. (eep...)
  9. My mom makes the corny "Idaho? No, you da ho" pun every time someone says Idaho.
Since accepting the job and asking around, I have found that people who have lived in Boise have absolutely loved it. A DC friend introduced me to her friend in Boise, an Izilwane writer lives and works in Boise, and friends sometimes find themselves in Boise for work. So I won't be alone. After wanting to move West for more than two years, it feels weird not to have to want it anymore. I'm not quite ready to leave DC yet, so I'm gonna live the hell outta this town before I go. 'Cause Boise sure ain't DC. Which is kind of the point.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Don't go alone into the wild

Last night, I watched Into the Wild, a movie about a young man who ditches his worldly possessions and opts for utter freedom by hitchhiking around the country and eventually settling into an abandoned bus on a hilltop in Alaska. He intends to subsist off the land entirely by foraging for plants and killing his own meat (assisted by a bag of rice he could cook when nothing else was available).  He leaves home and ditches his family because of his emotional pain from his rough (yet socially advantaged) upbringing, and he wants to just be alone. He tells someone that experiencing nature in all its glory is the ultimate way to live, and that being with other people is unimportant. And yet, the bulk of the movie is about the bonds he formed with other people while hitchhiking around the country - people he came to think of as family.

The movie is based on a true story, originally written by Jon Krakauer. Christopher McCandless (aka Alexander Supertramp) really did this, and he eventually starved to death in his Magic Bus in Alaska, dreaming of returning to the family he tried to escape. This reminded me of the National Geographic series I blogged about here, in which a man attempted to live on his own in the Yukon Territory for 90 days. He made it to day 50 before calling for a plane to come get him and bring him home. He wasn't able to subsist by hunting or foraging because, just like in McCandless' experience in Alaska, there were fewer animals to eat than expected, and it was pretty difficult to figure out what plants were edible based on a guidebook or notes taken from an expert. He also really missed his friends and family, in a way he just couldn't shake.

The moral of the story here is that we are not capable of living on our skills and wits alone in the wild. It may be incredibly tempting to get away, to test yourself to see if you can survive in a situation in which you are utterly alone, to experience the full extent of what nature has to offer without the intrusion of civilization, and to just be on your own for a while to escape the stresses of interpersonal interactions. But don't do it. Even if you're a skilled hunter, trapper, fisher, or wild plant expert, it will be harder than you expect to feed yourself. Even if you figure out how to provide food and shelter for yourself in some blindingly beautiful location, one in which you gasp for breath each morning when you awaken, you will realize that no matter how much you struggle to deal with other people, you will discover crippling loneliness at some point. You will yearn for company to share the beautiful views with, and you will ache to tell someone every time you triumph or fail in your survival endeavors. Being alone sounds great until you are actually alone, and then you will hope for even the company of strangers. Don't be inspired by these fools who take to the wild alone. The only reasons that native societies ever survived are because they had ancient survival knowledge passed down to them and because they had other people to share the joys and burdens of said survival.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Musings on a summer Sunday

On immortality: The State We're In
If they ever find a safe way to enable people to live forever (or at least much, much longer) with a good quality of life, I'll be the first to sign up. I'm scared of what happens during and after we die, but what bothers me more than that is the fact that I'll miss all of the amazing things that will happen after I die. Which, God-willing, won't happen for at least fifty years. Speaking of which...

On religion: Canaan Baptist Church billboard message of the week: Honk if you love Jesus. Text while driving if you want to meet him.

On urban wildlife: Speaking of the church, a couple of pigeons have nested in its circular window near my bedroom window. Sometimes I can hear them cooing to each other in the morning. It sounds kind of naughty, like when you hear your neighbors being intimate, but it's also exciting to know another family is getting started.

On food: To make a kickin' pasta sauce, mix mashed sweet potato with roasted red pepper soup, heat, and serve. Works well on whole wheat pasta with cooked French lentils and sauteed spinach and mushrooms. Diced chicken sausage works well too, if you desire something meaty.

On education: Having a teacher who is actually engaged in students' learning takes a class from okay to great. I'm taking a field studies course, and knowing the professor actually cares whether we learn makes me want to work harder, and it will help the ten weeks pass quickly. Which they will anyway, because it's summer, and summer always goes too quickly.

On indoor gardening: It's not as easy as it seems. Broccoli needs the cooler temps of the indoors, but it gets super buggy. Pole beans grow really tall, and there's no good way to support four little plants - everything is either too big or too small. Someone must make trellises for indoor container gardening, right?

Monday, June 06, 2011

American Chestnut Land Trust

A few weeks ago, I headed out to the American Chestnut Land Trust for Vine Vindication Day. Sounds intriguing, right? It turned into a morning of chopping at bittersweet vines, an invasive plant that winds its way through wooded areas, covering and eventually smothering any trees in its path. The South has kudzu; southern Maryland has bittersweet. Both plants were brought in to provide ornamental decoration and have since taken over wherever they're found. In addition to cutting the vines down, we pounded cartridges of an herbicide into the thick stems or roots of the vines, close to the ground. This method kills just the targeted plant so it doesn't impact surrounding foliage.

The American Chestnut Land Trust (ACLT) manages between 3,000 and 4,000 acres, some of which is owned by the Nature Conservancy and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. The land was previously owned and farmed by both white and African-American farmers from 1886 through the 1930s. The American chestnut trees on this land survived the chestnut blight, and the land trust owners decided to honor these trees upon starting the trust in 1986 by naming the land trust after them.  The nearby Parkers Creek Preserve has been designated a Maryland Important Bird Area by the National Audubon Society, and the Calvert Cliffs, along the shore of the Chesapeake Bay, are home to the endangered tiger beetle, rare plants, and fossils from organisms that lived in the ocean along the bay from eight to eighteen million years ago. The ACLT maintains fifteen miles of hiking trails and offers guided canoe trips on a regular basis.

That warm Saturday morning, we made good progress in cutting back vines in one small section of forest, freeing some paw-paw trees in the process, but there is a lot of land and a lot of vines that will grow back under the hot sun and humid air. Sometimes it feels pointless to even try. As we drove the little truck along the trail back to the trailhead, I glanced at the small cleared section and sighed at the futility of it all. But then I walked along the shore with Liz Stoffel, the land manager. We watched tiger beetles skitter across the sand, listened to the waves quietly lapping, and watched the clear freshwater of Parkers Creek flow into the salty bay. Liz gave me a fossilized shark tooth that probably came from the cliffs just down the shore, and I thought about all the creatures that had come before the boats and homes arrived, and all the creatures that depend on this protected space to thrive. The trees we freed from the entangling vines help anchor the soil and the other plants to this fragile land. Cutting brush and killing vines helps ensure that this land remains protected, which is so important when all the land around it may someday be bought up and developed, thanks to the beautiful views that the land trust protects.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Humid thoughts of hazy days

I fully intend to post soon about the vine-cutting work I did for a land trust in southern Maryland last weekend, but summer has arrived early in all its humid glory, and with it, my yearning to do as little as possible. It's a neat land trust and worthy of some good words, but it will have to wait a few days, when cooler temps, or at least some ambition, arrive back at the homestead. 

In the meantime, I wandered over to the used bookstore today to acquire some fictional reading for these lazy days of summer. As a kid, during summer break, I would lie in bed or in the Papasan chair on the porch outside my parents' bedroom and read all evening and late into the night. I would begin reading after dinner, and suddenly it would be 10, 11, midnight. At the library, I would pick out stacks of books reinforced by plastic tape, which crinkled and cracked every time they were open, their spines bent back farther and farther with each read. Once in a while, we went to the bookstore to pick out a fresh novel, usually the latest one in the series I followed. I also plucked books from the shelf in my family room, though I never saw anyone else in the family reading them. My mom often gave me her books when she was done reading them, and as I finished each chapter, I imagined what she had been feeling as she read through those words.

These days, I opt for nonfiction much more often; when I do look to fictional tales, the classics often get passed over for something more timely. Some of my favorites have been written by the French, Mexicans, Africans, Iranians and other Middle Easterners, and Indians. If I can't visit these places, hampered by my limited funds, at least I can experience the world through their tales of family, work, politics, life, love, sadness, food. Some people read cheesy romance novels by the pool; I prefer the works of Parisians to transport me to that wonderful, flowery, romantic place, the top of my list for international travel.

Used-book stores are fantastic places. Bestsellers, classics, new books and old, all mingle on the shelves together. No strategic placement, nothing ordered based on sales data or rankings or anything like that. The books are there only because of the locals who bring them in to be resold for half their list price (or less). I pull out books at random, free to be less choosy because the financial investment is lower and thus less risky. The four books I chose today are by Balzac (my French fix, which I'm reading first), William Faulkner, Annie Proulx, and Kate Atkinson (the only one of the group of which I've never heard). I have officially renewed my seasonal membership in the Deadbeat Club.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Landmark Years and the Dallas Zoo

I visited the bestie down in Dallas this weekend to celebrate her 30th birthday. Whenever I tell someone I'm going to Dallas, they screw their face up in distaste and ask, "Why Dallas?" I'd probably do the same thing to anyone in my position - Dallas gets a bad rap, probably for some pretty good reasons - but I'd go anywhere to visit with my girl, and we actually find really cool stuff to do there. When I was there in October 2009, we went on a bike ride around the lake and hit up some art shows in people's homes along the way. This time, in addition to spending more than an hour in the used clothing store and shopping in some cool stores, we went to the Dallas Zoo.

According to my friend, the Dallas Zoo pales in comparison to the Fort Worth Zoo, but since we only had a couple hours on a Sunday afternoon and Fort Worth is a 45-minute drive from her place, we stuck with the hometown zoo. After using the women's restroom near the Large Mammal Building, which looked like its graffiti had been there since the '80s, we wondered what exactly our $15 admission was paying for. We wandered through most of the Zoo North section, where I impressed my friend with my knowledge of some of the animals (yes, I know my wood stork and my hooded merganser, thankyouverymuch), after which we realized that it was already practically closing time. But as I know from volunteering at the National Zoo, visitors usually get a little leeway to make their way back up to the entrance. So we made a break for the Wilds of Africa, which was an excellent choice. The new Giants of the Savanna exhibit features a sprawling savanna made to look like the Serengeti, sectioned off for each of the different species. We got up very close to the warthogs, penguins, lions, and giraffes - and I mean CLOSE! The viewing area for the giraffes is set at eye-level to the animals, and they can walk right up and let visitors touch them. I've never been that close to a giraffe. It was really cool. Their heads are much bigger than they look from afar. The whole exhibit was very well-done - the elephants have a ton of room to roam, and during the day, the giraffes can join them. It really feels like what I imagine Africa must be like.

Some parts of the zoo may definitely need some work, but I have to say, I almost liked it better than the National Zoo. Blasphemy, I know. I saw a whole lot of animals at the Dallas Zoo that I never even knew existed. The National Zoo has a fantastic conservation and education program, but I was familiar with a large percentage of the animals there already when I visited for the first time. The Dallas Zoo lets you get very close to the animals, and they exhibit some very different animals there. To combine the best of the two zoos would make for an amazing facility with the opportunity to reach a lot of people and do a great service for global biodiversity.

As for the landmark birthday my friend was celebrating, it made me think back to my 30th. A year and some later, the advice I would give to anyone turning 30 is to spend the first 8 or 10 months reflecting on what you always thought you would have accomplished by that point. Then, about 2 or 3 months before your 31st, throw it all out the window and say To hell with it all! Then do whatever you want because you realize that it was all a bunch of bull, that your life is actually better now for not having done those things, and that the pressure is off because you already screwed up anyway so you might as well have some fun. The 30s are the time in between acne and menopause (tell that to my skin...), when you finally lose that baby fat and have the money for some real clothes to flatter that new figure. It's a time of transition, of discovering new things about ourselves, letting go of some of the baggage we've been carrying and getting on with the next stage of our lives, and eating German chocolate cake for breakfast. It's a lesson about how we never stop learning. I hope that my friend's big year is full of positive transitions and exciting new projects.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

First Ascent

The first hike of the season was yesterday at Sky Meadows State Park in Virginia. It was a good day for a hike - cool with a warming sun. The plan was to hike the Potomac Overlook trail to the North Ridge trail to the South Ridge trail, but as should always happen on an outing like this (and in life, really) I took the advice of my inner compass and opted to hike farther down the gravelly Boston Mill Road and start with the South Ridge trail instead.

The South Ridge trail is two or three people wide in most places, and much of it winds through meadows or a mix of meadows and trees. At the overlooks, oversized benches offer respites from the continually uphill climb, where soaring long-winged raptors can be seen floating the thermals through the valley over cows in pastures and crop fields, and grasshoppers can be heard sproinging through the tall grass (one of my favorite sounds). The upper part of the South Ridge and the western part of the North Ridge are more wooded and the trail is rockier. The breeze rustled through the trees, the whooooosh amplified by the still-bare branches. The dogwoods were in full bloom, their flat white flowers fluttering, creating bright flags among the foliage. The redbuds bloomed too, their tiny pink flowers dotting the woodlands with color. Recent rains have left the forest floor muddy and small rivulets carved canyons into the trail. Pipevine, zebra, and eastern tiger swallowtail butterflies darted from flower to flower, lapping nectar and seeking mates. The electric blue of the pipevine is breathtaking, and the flash of unexpected orange dots under its wings delivers a second punch. Woodpeckers tap-tapped and unidentified chirps called from a hidden perch.

I started up the North Ridge trail past the rushing stream, but that inner compass pulled me back to the Gap Run trail, which winds along the stream downhill back to the gravel road. So much water rushed through the stream that it could be heard high up in the hills, echoing off the valley walls long before it became visible. It flushed down through the valley and splashed over, under, around and between rocks and logs, carving new paths that weren't there after the last rain. This is how it begins. Maybe some day this unnamed stream will be as mighty as the Potomac River, or perhaps it will trickle quietly from the earth, no starting or ending point in sight, just small clear pools between exposed tree roots. Yesterday, it overflowed its banks and spread out over the trail and in all directions. The saturated ground was squishy, the grass and fallen leaves doing little to provide stable footing. It is mostly peaceful here, except for the airplanes that occasionally fly overhead and the stream of people out for a Saturday hike.

Yesterday's hike was only three miles or so, but the steep hill climbs and the admiration and the peanut butter and jelly sandwich held me back. After almost three years here, it doesn't feel as special as it once did. Forests are everywhere here - people live right on the edges of them - and they generally look the same - same trees, same wildlife, same nearby road sounds. Humans have conquered this land, mostly. The trees seem to hold their breaths most days, standing guard against the next subdivision. There is little wildness here, just managed sanctuaries from civilization. The earth here is cognizant of human presence.

But don't be mistaken. Despite its commonality, the forest is a magical place. This land may now be a part of the human landscape, but we will never totally conquer it. Sometimes, it conquers us. We need it to remind us of our fragility, our innate hopelessness in our fight against mortality, so we can appreciate the fact that we are still here.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Celebrate the Earth

Today is John Muir Day. If you have watched any episodes of the Ken Burns national parks series or read Muir's writings, you have a sense of what a special man he was and how much we have to thank him for. Our country wouldn't be half of what it is today if Muir hadn't inspired Teddy Roosevelt and others of his time to set aside these wonderful lands for all of us to enjoy in perpetuity. This week, entrance to national parks is free, so take some time to visit a national park near you and give silent (or spoken) thanks to Muir for his contribution to humanity and to the planet.

Speaking of the planet, tomorrow is Earth Day. It's not just a day for the hippie crunchy people to give out reusable bags and teach people how to compost. It's a day to remember that we are but one of many living things on this floating orb in the middle of the universe and that we owe our lives to the air, water and food that Earth provides us. We should treat it better than we do. We should tell other people to treat it better. We should help other people tread more lightly, and we should take a moment to savor what we have, for we are squandering a little more every day. To whom much is given, much is expected. We have all been given the Earth to do with as we please. We should be doing much more to ensure we take only what we need and leave the rest for others. Better yet, we should put in more than we take, for the best gift we can give future generations is something greater than we could ever hope for ourselves.

Earth Day is for everyone. Find your own special way to celebrate.

Saturday, April 16, 2011


The jasmine plant on my bedroom window sill is blooming. It smells sticky sweet, like fried dough coated in floral-infused honey, or a marzipan candy. I imagine that I am in the courtyard of a small home in the Fertile Crescent on a warm night. I wear a wide, full flower behind my ear, and I am wrapped in soft cloth the color of eggshells, embroidered with iridescent olive green, rose, and gold thread. My companions and I lounge atop the cool sand on plush chairs beneath strings of lights as we sip sweetened mint tea or red wine and nosh on dried fruits, almonds and bread. Full trees within this walled arena rustle lightly in the soft breeze that offers brief relief from the dry desert heat.

Maybe it was never like this in this land, even before the days of sectarian violence and talks of nuclear weapons, but jasmine's intoxicating scent conjures up imaginary worlds where life is as succulent as the flowers and the sweetness lasts longer than the ephemeral blooms.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Like I need an excuse to cook...

In case you hadn't heard, we just narrowly averted a shutdown of the federal government, the first time it would have happened since 1995/96. As a gummint employee, I would have had a forced furlough, which means all the fun of free vacation days without the fun of getting paid for them. Given that the weather promises to be near 70 degrees and sunny this coming week, you can imagine that I had mixed feelings about the whole thing. I was envisioning sleeping until 8am (so late!), eating a leisurely breakfast, going for a swim in the local indoor pool without having to fight the weekend lane hogs, hiking in some state parks, reading a book, basking in the sun, and cooking some new recipes. This last activity has some practical implications as well as just being fun: I've been going to the gym during my lunch hour, and my post-workout lunch has been half of a turkey sandwich and a salad. But the traditional salad, greens with tomato, cucumber, maybe some crumbled cheese or sunflower seeds, is just getting old. It's spring, and I need some springy salads to repower me for the rest of the afternoon in my work cave.

Luckily, cooking is an activity that I don't need to be jobless to do - in fact, I can afford some nicer ingredients when getting a paycheck. Plus, all those warm sunny days likely mean that my kitchen will be largely ignored, not embraced. So I hit up a recently discovered website (food52) to find some yummy salad recipes. I love this website. They feature the most interesting, appealing, different, and simple recipes that look fresh and tasty, appropriate for a grown-up palate but not fancy or snooty. It could have something to do with the design, too. I'm a minimalist, and this site is just a white page with just the right amount of embellishment, plus the text and recipes whose photos speak for themselves. It kind of annoys me that they're regularly featured on HuffPost, only because I don't want hordes of people to be tromping all over the site. I want to keep it a little bit secret. (I guess the cat's out of that bag now, eh?)

Anyway, if all goes according to plan, I will be making a creamy cucumber salad, potato salad with fennel and shallot relish and bacon, radish and pecan grain salad, and shaved Brussels sprouts salad with red onion, lemon, and pecorino. There might be something with carrots in there too. I have most of the dressing/seasoning ingredients on hand, plus I get to try out some veggies I don't eat often (like radishes and Brussels sprouts, which I will generally eat if placed in front of me but don't exactly pine for). Plus, they're easy to make during the hot humid summer, when one can't possibly imagine using fire for any reason other than to toast marshmallows during a camping trip. Now to find some recipes that utilize the herbs from my windowbox garden - lemon thyme, basil, Italian parsley, and oregano.

I love spring.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Mucking around

Yesterday I headed out with some of fellow nature-lover meetup folks to get our hands dirty with some labor down at the Suitland bog in Suitland, Maryland. We started with an introduction about the bog from a park ranger from the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission as we walked from the parking lot down to the bog, which is fenced in from the surrounding residential areas. In the 1930s and '40s, botanists had amazing foresight to develop extensive collections of the bog's flora; in the 1960s, the area around the bog was mined for sand and gravel, which greatly affected the bog itself. In 1975, the M-NCPPC purchased the 20 acres where the bog is located, fenced it off a year later, and completed a botanical inventory and hydrology study in the following two years. In 1980, the Commission constructed a boardwalk and began interpretive programs and hikes to educate nearby residents about this fragile area. More than 40 species of plants recorded in the bog since 1901 have been designated by the Maryland Natural Heritage Program as rare, threatened, or endangered, and more than 20 of those plants remain today.

Technically, this bog is actually a fen - bogs are fed by rainwater, and fens like this one are fed from groundwater. A thin seep of water emerges from somewhere slightly upslope and there's a small area of standing water near the boardwalk. At this time of year, most of the plants are still dormant, although a few maples were starting to grow buds and the magnolia trees remain green year round. The big draw for this bog is the carnivorous plants. Massive tufts of purple-leaved northern pitcher plants grow throughout the bog. At one point in the bog's history, someone planted them there because they mistakenly thought they were native to the area. When they were brought in, common pitcher plant mosquitoes and midges stowed away on-board. They're the only two insects that aren't affected by the pitcher plant's digestive juices, and they actually help keep the plants healthy by disposing of the leftover insect bodies and other detritus. The thread-leaved  and spatulate-leaved sundews are native to the area, but we didn't see any.

We weren't there to just gaze at this rare wetland, we were there to work. Taking care to avoid the stands of poison sumac, which love wet or flooded areas like this, we cut and pulled small shoots of asters, maples, and greenbriers that threatened to take over by crowding or shading out other types of native plants that the rangers are trying to restore to the area. At some point, the pitcher plants will be pulled as well, but we didn't have enough time to really get in there and dig them out. The peak blooming times for the bog plants are May through August, which are also good times to see foxes, turtles, songbirds, and hawks that live in the area. I'm hoping to get back out there again sometime to do some more maintenance work, check out the bog in full bloom, and maybe even pick up the trash left by people who walk through the forest and meadow surrounding the bog.

Saturday, March 05, 2011


You wouldn't think that early March in the city would be a magical time. It's cool and wet and sometimes grey, and there's still road salt crusted on the curbs. But oh yes, it is magical indeed, because life is starting to emerge. Daffodils spill down the hill along Rock Creek Parkway. Small pink and yellow flowers bloom on trees behind the gas station on 14th Street and along the highway. Purple flowers carpet the yard outside a small house in Falls Church. White flowers poke out through the dead leaves in the park. In three weeks, the cherry blossoms will be out in full force and the city will be alive. Just three short weeks 'til spring.  Magic.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Taunting God

The church next door posts clever messages on the board out front every week or two, enticing people to come to church and strengthen their commitment to their faith. Today, the message read something like, "If you continue to use my name in vain, I will make your rush-hour commute even longer." I said out loud, laughingly, "God doesn't have the power to do that." Then I clasped my hand over my mouth and gasped a little, afraid that God had heard me doubt those powers and would decide to show me just how wrong I was.

I'm not a religious person. My belief in a higher power consists mostly of a sense of something much much larger than myself. "God" is the somewhat-tangible version of that, which I usually conjure up only when I'm feeling helpless and like to think that someone else out there has a hand in what happens in this world. It keeps me from feeling utterly alone. My rational brain says that "God" is what we make up to explain the things we otherwise can't explain, but my metaphysical brains says, "What if God really can affect even silly things like commutes? What if God can mess with us?" Since we can't know for sure, at least not in this life, I prefer not to take any chances. I'm sorry, God, for doubting you. For taking your name in vain. My rush-hour commute may be quick and easy these days, but there's plenty else in my life to mess with. Please don't. Thank you.

Friday, February 11, 2011

I get one every year

If I'm lucky. I'm talking about my birthday, which is today. I've reached the age where I avoid answering the question, "How old are you now?" because I'm still incredulous that I am this age. From now on, I will answer with the age I feel, rather than the actual number of years I've been on this planet. So today, I am 26.

In any case, it's been a great birthday. Last night I went to the Morcheeba concert at the 9:30 Club with two friends. It was a good show, but I guess I'm so used to high-energy shows that a band with a more chill vibe just doesn't make the cut. They put on a great show though. In my next life, I want to be a bad-ass black woman with a fro-hawk and buff arms, like Skye.  

Today, I went to the Baltimore aquarium and had lunch at a local cafe down the street. It was a sunny, not-too-cold day - really, one can't ask for much more on a February day north of the tropics. Last year it snowed a bajillion inches and the year before, it was 70 degrees and super windy. Today's weather was pleasant, unobtrusive. What a birthday should be. And I spent it in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, in the Amazon rainforest, and in Australia. Very cool. The night ended with some tasty Ethiopian food with a few friends. When they sang the happy birthday song to me in the small, crowded restaurant, the bartender turned down the traditional music/CNN playing on the speakers and instead blasted a recording of the happy birthday song. I'm sure my face was bright red. Tomorrow, I will be partying it up with some other friends in Annapolis. Every year, I swear that I will celebrate on one day only, dammit, but it still turns into a multi-day affair anyway. I'm okay with that.

The bigger news this year was Egypt's liberation following the stepping down of 30-year president Hosni Mubarak. I'm ashamed to admit that I didn't follow current events in that country because I figured they were one of the more progressive Middle Eastern countries and were therefore not a cause for concern. In any case, it's wonderful to hear that the Egyptian people have been heard, and I hope that the transition to a better and freer country is peaceful. It is worrisome that other countries like Iran are clamping down on their citizens in order to prevent the same thing from happening there. In other words, don't get your hopes up about the rest of the region following Egypt's lead. This may be the relative calm before the storm.

Sunday, January 30, 2011


Yesterday, I took my ten-dollar Groupon and headed over to the Newseum. And thank goodness for the Groupon, because in a town full of free museums, I wouldn't pay the $21.95 plus tax it normally costs to go otherwise. The Newseum is run by a non-profit organization, so I can see why they need to charge something for admission, but I find something wrong with the fact that a museum celebrating one of our basic freedoms costs so much to get into. Apparently the Newseum costs a ton for upkeep, so maybe they should work on reducing those costs so that they can reduce the cost to visitors.

Enough ranting. The Newseum is a really cool place. I already had a strong appreciation for journalism, thanks to my fine undergraduate journalism education, but I think the museum packs so much history and culture in that even the most curmudgeonly, anti-media person would find something there to appreciate. The admission ticket is good for two consecutive days, and it would really take that much time to really read and watch all of the content. It gives you a different perspective of the current events that have impacted our lives - I remember how I felt as a regular citizen during 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, but seeing how the media reported on what was happening was fascinating. For example, have you ever thought about how newspapers in New Orleans continued reporting and publishing without electricity, or even offices? They figured out a way to pick up and move the whole shop so that they could at least publish an online version. They managed to resume printing a dead-trees version within days (or a couple weeks) after the hurricane. The stories of reporters from both of those tragic events are so moving, and their perspectives make you think about them in ways you hadn't considered as a news consumer.

Here's a dilemma for you to ponder. Say you're a reporter, and you're covering some tragedy. It's your job to provide an objective report of what's happening in front of you. You know that stopping to help people will insert you into the story and keep you from reporting objectively. But these people need help. We're all human after all, and it's possible that no one else will come by later to help them. What do you do? The 9/11 and Katrina stories and the gallery of incredibly moving Pulitzer prize-winning photographs show how journalists dealt with that dilemma, sometimes with good outcomes and sometimes with lasting regret. 

Thankfully the Newseum isn't just about the tragedies; it also showcases the history of journalism in the U.S. and around the world and celebrates pop culture in the media as well (see: the Elvis exhibit). Martin Sheen tells the history of the freedom of the press in the U.S. (That man was born to be the voice of American history, wasn't he? I would believe anything he told me.) A giant map on the wall shows the levels of freedom the press enjoys in each country around the world. Guess what: the press in most countries are either partially free or not free. We may despise the things that people in the media say or do in this country, but the freedom to say or do those things is rare and precious. Just as we are free to say what we wish, we are also free to not listen to things we don't like or don't agree with - something that we should exercise more than we do.

Speaking of which, do you know the 5 basic freedoms in the U.S.? Most people can name freedom of speech and freedom of religion - do you know the other three?

Monday, January 17, 2011

Aural memories

I'm trying to recreate the music mixes that carried me through workouts past
I should have written them down
I should have backed them up
But I didn't
and now they're lost on an old iPod
So I create new playlists
dredge my memories
wrack my brain
trying to remember the songs that were connected
in what order.
But some songs appeared more than once
so I connect them to memories
like treadmill running and elliptical trudging at my old gym
or the 8K I ran through the streets of Chicago.
But that was many years ago
Many playlists ago
So I do my best. Maybe new memories will jog old ones
or maybe the songs will re-mingle and I'll have new connections to re-remember
when I have to start all over again.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Blow my mind

I have discovered the WNYC Radiolab podcasts. There have been other podcasts that have caught my attention for weeks on end, like WUNC's The Story, as well as everyone's favorites, This American Life, Science Friday, and Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me. They're fun and entertaining, but eventually I grew weary  of listening to people's tragic stories, Science Friday can be a little dry sometimes, and WWDTM's formulaic format gets old after a while. I still love This American Life, but it only plays once a week. Radiolab provides hours of entertainment and about subjects that I never gave much thought to. Jad and Robert dive deep into every subject they cover, wandering on tangents that are only loosely related to each other, incorporating sounds and ideas that round out each story. This isn't just people talking, this is a sonic journey. And it blows my mind.

Last week, I woke up early and went to the gym before work. At 6am, I hopped on the bus in the cold darkness and listened to the podcast that came out a full year ago about animal minds. As I walked four blocks from the bus stop to the gym, I listened to the hosts and guests tell the story of how a group of divers cut fishing nets away to free a trapped blue whale off the coast of San Francisco, and I teared up as they described how she swam up to each diver to thank him for helping her. It was amazing and moving, and the rest of the hour-long story was just as smart and moving.

Yesterday, I listened to the podcast about words while I walked to work under a vanilla sky, and as Jad and Robert talked to various people about language and about how acquiring language changes how we think and live, I realized that I was beginning to think about my world in a different way. This is not just about seeing something in a different light or learning something new. Radiolab creates a new world for me. I find myself utterly fascinated by ideas that never even occurred to me before.

Seriously, check it out. Go to the website and watch the videos and check out the extras. You won't be disappointed.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Ahoy, matey!

January 1st is a good marker for people to use to start anew, but without the concept of a calendar system, it's really just another day that happens to occur soon after the winter solstice. Life is cyclical, so lucky us, we get lots of opportunities to start over. Even so, leaving 2010 behind feels good. I can't help but think that 2011 will be so much better, and not only because my birthday this year falls on 2-11-2011, a nice neat number. I bought a Salvador Dali wall calendar for my bedroom and a calendar of tall ships for my office. I've been thinking about Dali a lot lately after having a few weird dreams set in landscapes that would make any Surrealist painter proud, so glancing at his artwork every day feels fitting. The calendar was made by a European company, so the week starts with Monday, not Sunday. It also denotes the holidays for a number of other countries, including Japan. Turns out that my birthday falls on Japan's National Foundation Day. As for the tall ships, I wanted something totally random to hang in my office cave, and I like tall ships, with all of their masts and sails.

It seems like every year, I spend time thinking about what I'm going to do in the coming year, how I'm going to improve myself, which interests I'm going to dive into. But not this year. I'm not making any resolutions or goals. This year, I don't care. At all. And that makes me very happy.
Today was a neat day at the zoo. I got to watch the rainbow boas being fed. They each get a dead rat that has been frozen, thawed, and warmed slightly. Not so exciting for us humans, but when the keeper wiggles it around a little, the boa (which eats only every few months) snatches it up, coils tightly around it, and slowly gulps it down through its long body. After a holiday season full of hearty food and a little too much beer, eating like a snake sounds about right these days.

After my shift, I wandered up to check out the lion cubs, who were all outside with their mothers on this cool, damp day. Good God, are they cute. Whoa. Serious kryptonite. Combine the curiosity of kittens with the rambunctiousness of puppies and the exotic draw of the African bush and you get seven African lion cubs in a park in the middle of a big city. Sorry, panda-lovers, these guys are way cuter than Tai Chan. Whoa.