When You Reach Me

The next book selected for my holiday reading season is Rebecca Stead’s Newberry award-winningWhen You Reach Me. Though I don’t often read young adult fiction, the magical nostalgia of this novel drew me in. The book hinges on the favored middle school tale of A Wrinkle in Time, but in this case the sixth-grade protagonist navigates the streets of 1970s New York, not a different time dimension. Her experience is equally unnerving and full of interesting characters, from the laughing man on the corner to the classmates that waver before her eyes. The shift occurs in her own perception of situations and people, and it’s that shift and belief that allows her to comprehend the end, where one life begins as another one reaches its extraordinary end.

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I Was Told There’d Be Cake

With the family gatherings required by the holidays now past or postponed due to weather, I’ve turned toward my second winter break past time – catching up on the reading that I’ve meant to do the rest of the year. Sloane Crosley’s I Was Told There’d Be Cake arrived at the top of my stack, as the most recent book club selection and an appropriate subject given the healthy dose of eating in recent weeks. As the title suggests, the book of essays meets the basic requirements of light reading, but leaves something to be desired. It’s not overly sweet, but peppered with sarcasm and wit.

Crosley approaches most essays from the stance of telling family secrets, usually her own, but they turn out to be no more sinister than a few dozen plastic ponies hidden under the kitchen sink. The eccentric collection of stories occupies a similar space, ranging from summer camp to first apartments, all complete with crazy characters. She handles small problems in unusual ways, with potentially catastrophic consequences, but when the inevitable doesn’t occur, the end becomes endearing.

The personal essays remain relatable, and therein lies their strength. They make no claims to be for everyone. But for a twenty-something writer who is finding her voice, they provide a taste for more to come.

The Great Indoors

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We become homebodies this time of year, taking a break from the walks to and from work and the weekend hikes to spend time with family and friends. Of course, the after Christmas storm in the Washington DC metro-area contributed to this indoor inclination. Even the dog barely ventures outside, but when she does, she’s wearing her Lands End pet squall jacket that appeared under the tree just in time. In the morning slush, she gave a pitiful look that might translate into doggie-boots next year. For now, the coat is enough of a super hero, a cape that makes her conquer her fear of cold rain.

Our other recent adventures have included a night-time trek through Zoo Lights, where the entire stretch of the main path of the zoo becomes a bright display of wrapped trees and timed effects. The trail ends at its normal kid-friendly petting zoo, where the barn animals contently start through the slated gates of their stalls. They are the only animals on display at this time of day, but the admission remains free, so it’s a nice holiday diversion from the lights of the city. The zoo strategically opens some indoor exhibits to provide stops for warmth and nourishment, and one of the favorite stops for our party of six came in the unexpected display of lego trains and buildings, most of which the men already owned at one age or another. Some of which remain on display in my apartment today.

Our shopping excursions took us through the territory of Bass Pro Shop in Hanover County, Virginia, so we couldn’t resist a quick diversion to the great outdoor store. Again, our attention centered on a side attraction, this time in the form of a giant salt-water aquarium that serves as the bar backdrop in the adjoining Islamorda restaurant. We enjoyed Sunday brunch while staring at species of fish, some of which we have at home in a smaller form in our own 40-gallon tank.

Reclaiming Fall

D.C. weathered recent storms to emerge this weekend with two beautiful fall days.  Enough trees clung on to now fall onto the sidewalk and provide the crunchy fodder that defines this season.  Fortunately a few blocks in our part of the city retained their color into November.  For an added dose of orange, we traveled to Clemson, S.C. two weeks ago for a weekend wedding. There, the trees and the botanical garden retained their greenery, and the south welcomed us with warm breezes, sweet tea, and pumpkin pastries.  It comes as no surprise that Clemson has been voted the best tailgate in the South by the definitive source, Southern Living.

This weekend past we stayed closer to our (still) new home, taking in a quarter of a Georgetown football game and finding the remaining bits of fall and river debris at Carderock and one of our favorite hiking grounds, the Billy Goat Trails.  There, leaves still cling to the tress, along with moss and debris from the river that recently crested well above its normal banks.

A Persimmon in the City

Persimmons on the sidewalk

We stumbled upon these gems the other afternoon which walking through the streets of Georgetown – persimmons fallen fresh from the tree.  I’m accustomed to finding these tree fruits on the farm, still attached to the tree, because those that fall to the ground are eaten by the cattle before we can find them.  Even then, we have to be careful about when we harvest them.  Persimmons play trick or treat in the fall, completely bitter until they are sweetened by a frost.  It’s unseasonably warm in the district this year, so I don’t dare taste one yet.  Instead, I keep waiting for that first frost, that chill that will turn everything to gold.

Trail Mix

Appalachian Trail at Sky Meadows

We ventured further outside of the city and our normal routes this weekend in search of fall in all its glory – turning leaves, pumpkin patches, apples still on the tree.  Our destination came recommended by the Washingtonian as a great day trip and one to bring the dog.  After an hour on 66, we pulled onto Route 17 and into Sky Meadows State Park, where a friendly park ranger welcomed us at the gate with a trail map, a list of family activities, and a package of Milkbone trail mix for our dog.  I instantly knew we were in the right place.  We weren’t alone. The parking lot was almost full, though we easily pulled into the grassy overfill area, close enough to easily justify the $4 fee.

Sky Meadows

The Pumpkin Patch at Sky Meadows

Fall on the farm included a hay bale maze, demonstrations, a horse-drawn cart that trotted into the pumpkin patch, and an old-time band dressed for the part.  We stopped briefly to observe the activities and study the trail map before selecting the North Ridge path that would take us to the Appalachian Trail.  We encountered plenty of other hikers at the beginning, but when the field erupted into jagged rocks and rooted trails, we found fewer and fewer people joining us. Eventually, we could travel a mile with only the occasional passersby.  The North Ridge trail leading in and the Ambassador Whitehouse trail taking us back both provided a hilly challenge, but the Appalachian Trail opened up to relatively smooth walking and expansive views of the Shenandoah mountains and valleys.   We also spotted the obligatory wildlife in the form of a 6 foot black snake sunning on a rock on the path.

A black snake crosses our path

The resulting 4.3 mile hike easily filled a Sunday afternoon and took us far enough away from the city to see only the green and gold of early fall, instead of the concrete gray of the weekdays.

Homecoming

We experienced homecoming weekend in a different sense, traveling to Richmond for a parents’ birthday celebration, then further south to Williamsburg.  Going south in general makes me feel more at home, and I welcome the inclusion of sweet tea on the menu again.  While we were away, Georgetown celebrated its traditional homecoming weekend, with the football game taking center stage.  At William and Mary, the football game and coinciding parents weekend drew the crowds to the outlet malls, so after window shopping at our favorite stores we turned back toward the starting point, deciding to avoid the masses that would inevitably invade Colonial Williamsburg.  So after looking forward to a weekend of fall flavors, including the wonderful gingerbread cakes that defined my childhood trips, to the area, we went home empty handed.  I can almost taste the nostalgia.

 

 

 

 

The Art of Looking Up

These perfect end-of-summer weekends require outdoor activities, so this weekend we made a return trip to the National Cathedral (its doors are wide open on Sundays) and signed up for a gargoyle tour.  The tour started on the seventh floor, itself replete with views of the city from all angles and nearby framed and labeled images so you can identify common sights.  From the small auditorium, we learned the difference between a gargoyle and grotesque, identified the architectural details we would need to know outside, and viewed several of the 112 gargoyles from their most advantageous angles.

View from the 7th Story

The gargoyles appear on three of the four sides of the Cathedral, the newer sides.  They date from the fundraising stage, where patrons of a certain amount could commission a gargoyle, and several commissioned pairs – such as the good and evil grandsons.  Others depict typically businessmen, from the lawyer to the dentist.  The politician is present, as is the elephant and donkey.  Others immortalize the real-live stone carvers in caricatures, and one gable remains a blank slate, or stone in this case, still in block form as a memorial to the one person who died during construction of the structure.  The elaborate carvings range from the traditional dragons and mythical creatures to the common lizard, snake, and frog.  The scariest shows a skeletal creature being devoured by a serpent, its coils visible from the underside.   The cutest takes the shape of a dog, modeled after its real-life counterpart and curled tightly on the edge as if scared of heights.  The most unique, and possible most elusive to find, is Darth Vader.

We signed up for the tour upon reading this unique detail, but even after adjusting my binoculars, I still couldn’t be sure that I had focused in on this unique character.  Fortunately, the lower gargoyles are easy to spot from the grounds, even with the chain-link fence still in place from last year’s earthquake.  The damage from this event remains visible – from a twisted turret to a headless gargoyle.  That was part of the tour too.

Tug O’ War between Summer and Fall

Fall arrived this morning, with weather cool enough to open the windows and turn of the AC.  But summer still tugs at the days, and technical we still have at least two weeks until the start of the new season.  We’ve already embraced weekend football games (on TV due to yesterday’s storms), morning runs through the trails, and of course, pumpkin spice lattes from Starbucks.  I wish I could find an at-home brew that comes close to that taste!

My husband keeps remind me that all those pumpkin-flavored things that I love this time of year aren’t really made from pumpkin at all, but it’s the spices that define their deliciousness.  That’s why I could make pumpkin cookies from a mix last weekend – just as good as if the base at come from a can.  Pumpkin is one of those foods that provides texture and a great base, but it’s the spices that matter.  So I’m happy to discover the following ideas for recreating the coffee creation for crisp fall mornings.

Now if I can convince the dog to go for a morning run without trying to pull me back to bed.

Dog Days of Summer

The dcist reported this week that some city pools will open their gates later this month for the Fourth Annual Doggie Day Swim.  Dogs can dive in on October 8, or if baseball is more their style, Nationals Park sells outfield seats for $8 for Sept 22.  Unfortunately, the first option is a little too active for my dog, and the second is too much of a spectator sport.  She considers herself part of the tennis-ball set.  Plus, let’s not forget the challenge of getting a dog to either of these events. The natural method is to walk, but both the pools and the ballpark are several miles away.  So we would resort to driving our car across the city and paying for parking, or taking a dog-friendly cab, another expensive prospect.

These dog days of summer should include a take your dog on public transit day.  It’s a natural accompaniment to the already popular take your dog to work day that occurs earlier in the summer.  And our dog would fully endorse this day.  She already looks longingly at the metrobus every time it pulls up to a stop along our walk, and she’s lunged for the doors a few times, hoping to catch a ride.  We think her affinity for public transportation stems from the afternoons that she’s met one of us at the bus stop.  The bus brings us home, so it must go some where equally awesome. In this case, I know she would enjoy the ride more than the destination.