Another Spring in DC

The beauty of spring in the Washington, D.C., area came later my third year here than it did the first two. But that just kept me in suspense a couple of extra weeks of waiting for all the colors to appear.

First the crocuses and daffodils come out in March. Then the famed cherry trees. And now the dogwoods and azaleas — and there are plenty of azaleas in Takoma Park, which is nicknamed Azalea City. DSC00612

My parents visited the last weekend in March, and I thought that would be prime cherry blossom time. But the trees were at least a couple of weeks later this year than last, with just buds out for Easter. DSC00596So Ted and I went walking around the Tidal Basin 1 1/2 weeks later, along with thousands of others strolling around, taking photos and picnicking. It’s quite the sight!

My parents were here at the beginning of the school trip season, when busses line up along the streets bordering the National Mall, with students pouring out for obligatory sightseeing. My niece Olivia will be among them next year.

DSC00543We took in the very sobering special exhibits at the Holocaust Museum, unable to get tickets to the permanent collection, and walked around the incredible displays at the Botanical Gardens, as well as stopped by the White House and Lincoln Memorial. I learned a lot more about the World War II Monument than ever before, when a National Park Servcie ranger explained the arrangement of the states’ names engraved on the massive columns. And visiting the Korean War Monument carried more meaning with my dad along, since he had served in South Korea just after the ending of that war.

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Tragedy in the Neighborhood

When I moved to the DC area more than 2 years ago, it was stressful looking for an apartment. It’s extremely expensive here and any apartments that I could find for less than $1000 a month — yes, that’s 1 1/2 times my rent in Albany — the reviews talked about cockroaches or carjackings across the street.

All I wanted was a little place to call my own in a neighborhood where I would feel safe walking to and from the bus or Metro. And I found it in a neighborhood of Takoma Park, a small city just over the DC border that is renowned for its demographics of aging hippies and where one of the big controversies of this past year was that the library violated the no-nukes policy by purchasing computers from a company that has some weapons investments.

Then I woke up last Sunday morning and found yet another email from the police chief’s communications assistant. I usually just delete them since they’re usually reports of routine burglaries, but the heading “homicide” prompted me to read it right away. And I raced up to my landlords’ door as soon as I read that two men were dead after an incident in the 7300 block of Flower Ave., where we live.

Brian and Hetty said they had been awakened about 2 a.m. by police asking whether they had seen or heard anything, but they were given no details. They wondered if it might have something to do with drug activity at a house a couple of doors down, or random shooting by a car passing through en route to adjoining DC.

I went outside and various neighbors started to gather on our driveway, talking about what they had seen or heard in the middle of the night. A couple of them had seen two bodies lying in the driveway of the house next door, which had been vacant until a recent conversion to condos, and the bodies had just been removed to the van still waiting on the street where police “caution” tape kept away traffic for several  hours.

The pieces of the story started to come out: it was a murder-suicide involving one of the guys who lived there and one of his friends. Only the next day, after an official autopsy and notification of relatives, did the full story become known: the two guys had gone bicyling; one of them had a flat tire and texted his wife that he would stay overnight with his friend and fix the tire in the morning; they were drinking; around 1:30 a.m. he came outside to get his bike and his friend, our neighbor, came out and shot him and then shot  himself while kneeling over the first guy’s body. Later reports revealed that he had suffered some trauma while in the military and had many “personal issues,” but was never considered violent.

We’ll never know the full story — what happened that caused the friend to leave the house and try to get home in the middle of the night? What triggered the ex-Marine to shoot his friend, who was also a co-worker at a school for disabled chlidren? This was a guy who was named “teacher of the year” in December.

What we do know is that the others in the condo building are shaken up, as are many others in the neighborhood. It’s not the case of a shooting that leaves  us all scared for our own safety, but it does leave us wondering about the fragility of human life and a society that doesn’t question why a guy with some mental health issues,  mild as they were thought to have been, could have access to a gun.  I know it gets me more passionate about gun violence prevention, knowing that if no gun had been involved we would have had two guys bruised and bloodied perhaps after a fistfight, but no widow nor a distraught fiance who had been away for the weekend.

I left town just a few hours after all this happened, and when I came back several days later, Brian told me how one of the women in the condo building was sobbing one day in Hetty’s arms. The parents of the shooter’s fiance came and cleared out all of the couple’s belongings, as she can’t bear to return here.

But there are bright spots, too, as this community’s neighborliness shines through. Brian, a social worker in the nearby hospital’s mental health unit, called the guy who owns the house and suggested that the tenants need trauma counseling after this experience, and the guy agreed to arrange for it. Brian and Hetty are having a traumatized couple next door over to dinner tonight and we’ll grieve and process it all together. A neighbor across the street brought flats of flowers over to the condo building and another neighobor is going to have a planting ceremony tomorrow morning.

Myself? I resolved to get to know my neighbors, to be part of this community rather than just a tenant in “Brian’s and Hetty’s house.” I’m starting by letting Ted go cross-country skiing without me this weekend, so I can be here for our memorial dinner and the flower planting.



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Participating in Inauguration Weekend Excitement

Ever since President Obama was re-elected, I’ve been looking forward to attending my first inauguration. It turned out to be as exciting as I expected — and much easier to enjoy than I had feared.

I decided early on to invite my oldest neices — Olivia, 13, and Rose, 11 — to visit me for the weekend. Logistics then became my main focus.

The stories of the 2009 inauguration were legion — more than a million people turned out and overwhelmed the transportation system. People with tickets got stuck in a tunnel or in line for security and never got to see the event. Others arrived before dawn to get spots within viewing distance of jumbo TV screens.

So I was going to be as prepared as possible, starting with trying to get tickets through legislators rather than take our chances on the National Mall with thousands of others.

DSC00433My sister Carolyn scored first, getting two tickets for my neices through her congresswoman, Rep. Nikki Tsongas. Then my friends Tim and Joyce came through with tickets from their congressman, Rep. Chris Gibson. Ted and I thought we’d have no chances in the Maryland lotteries, with all the people close by who would want to see the spectacle, but Ted got lucky and got a pair from Senator Ben Cardin.

Olivia and Rose arrived Friday night, and we jumped right in with inauguration activities the next morning, when we volunteered at my church’s food pantry to be part of the National Day of Service that Obama encouraged Americans to join in. They were a big help, bagging groceries for the families who arrived for assistance, stocking the shelves and breaking down huge bags of rice into small, family-sized packages. Rose even helped hand out bags of food to the families and learned some Spanish so that she could communicate with them.

We then rushed down to the legislative office buildings to get our tickets. Rep. Tsongas’ office was the most hospitable, with hot cider, cookies, cheese and fruit on hand. The girls even got to meet her when she came in as we were leaving, and she was quite interested in learning who they were and where they are from.

We went sightseeing from there, and signs of the inauguration were everywhere, with billboards indicating the entrances for the different-colored tickets and barricades being set up.

We didn’t see everything spring into action until inauguration morning, though. The logistics were amazing, with  most streets fenced off to keep everyone along prescribed paths to their destination, where lines for security greeted them. New pathways were later created to block off access to the parade route except for specific entryways.

Despite hearing that in 2009 people headed to the Mall before dawn,  we decided to take our chances a little later this year, and it worked out fine. We left the house about 8, boarded an uncrowded bus and then a Metro train by 8:40 and were at a station near the Mall by 9ish. Through security around 10 and in our places by 10:30 in the “gold” ticketed area, just in front of the free-for-all crowds spread out as far back as the Washington Monument.

DSC00434It was exciting being among all the crowds, some wearing Obama memorabilia they had purchased from vendors on their way. We could see the flag-draped Capitol but the people appeared only as dots until we looked at them through Ted’s binoculars or, of course, on the jumbo TV screen in front of us.

The cheers started as various dignitaries were announced — especially loud ones for Jimmy Carter and Bill and Hillary Clinton. Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor earned some cheeers as well when she was announced to administer the oath of office to VP Joe Biden.

The place erupted with cheers of “Obama!” “Obama!” when the president appeared, and plenty of whoops and loud “yes”es during his address. Ted and I were particularly happy to hear him talk about climate change early on in the speech.

We were tired and cold by that point and left a little early with lots of others, winding our way back to the Air and Space Museum to warm up, have something to eat and get the girls to a gift shop.

By the time we were thinking about trying to get to the parade, most of the routes there had been closed off, too crowded to accept more people. That was just as well, since we learned later that the parade didn’t get going until around 5, and that would’ve meant hours of standing around for the start. We did catch glimpses of some parade participants at their staging areas: the “cosmic Mars” float, the floats for Illinois and Hawaii, an equestrian team of boys from a boarding school in Indiana, a couple of marching bands. 

So we just walked around amid lots of other people, breaking off with very few others to the Jefferson Memorial. From there, we could see mobs at the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial, which was so fitting given that it was his holiday.  

A truly exciting day all around.


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First Snow in Maryland

After 2 years living in the D.C. Maryland suburbs, I finally saw a decent snowfall on Saturday. It was only about 2 inches or so, just enough to cover the ground. And we had to drive 45 minutes to experience it. But still…DSCN0858

We had returned from Boston the night before, and Ted had signed up to be a co-leader on a Sierra Club Potomac Region Outings trip to Sugarloaf Mountain. His co-leader Liz had expressed doubts because the forecast was calling for snow or rain. But we decided to go ahead anyway.

No one else met us at the rendezvous place at a Metro station, nor at the trailhead. And Liz opted out. So that left Ted and I to forge ahead on our own.

We didn’t see much snow at all until very close to the mountain parking lot, and then the flurries started in earnest. There was also a bit more than a dusting on the ground, and the covering grew thicker as we climbed.

A short while up, we came upon the mysterious tiny evergreen tree that gets decorated each December by some unknown (at least to us) holiday trimmers. We added a glass acorn ornament that we had  purchased in Salem, MA, the day before.

Further on, there was enough powder on top of an ice crust to build a tiny snowman and toss a few snowballs at one another.DSCN0860

When we got home, people had a hard time believing that we had actually been in snow. There was only a little bit of rain here.

The Weather Service tells us that Canaan Valley in West Virginia, about a 4-hour drive from here, got some significant snow over the past week. So we’re dreaming of cross-country skiing sometime this month.

Let the snow continue!


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Exciting Day of Action With Ted’s New Nonprofit

DSC00368What an exciting couple of hours outside of a PNC bank branch on busy Dupont Circle in the heart of D.C.!

Ted’s new climate change-focused nonprofit, Climate First!,DSC00381 was making its debut at a protest against the  Pennsylvania-based bank’s investment in mountaintop removal (MTR), an especially devastating practice of blowing up mountaintops to get at the coal underneath. Studies show higher incidences of birth defects and cancer rates in communities impacted by the toxins released into the air and water.

The protest was in conjunction with Earth Quaker Action Team (EQAT), which had organized similar actions at 14 sites in other parts of the Mid-Atlantic on the same day.

Ingrid from EQAT picked us up and we drove down to Dupont Circle with a trunk filled with signs, a couple of banners and dozens of mini informational flyers to hand out, unsure if anyone would be joining us despite Ted’s hours of promotion through email, Facebook postings and distribution of flyers.

Immediately we spotted a couple of young people, one of whom I had recruited through my interfaith coalition work. He’s an environmental advocacy intern with the Church of the Brethren, and even more importantly, an account holder at PNC Bank.

Within 10 minutes several other people trickled in, one a good friend of Ted’s who took a break from caring for his infant daughter; some who had learned about the action from the social justice activist group CREDO; one woman who lived in West Virginia and came to share the impact of MTR on the health of people of that state. I counted 20 people, and the 3 of us were absolutely thrilled!

DSC00364Ted stood up on a park bench within the circle and laid out the plan: he and the 2 PNC account holders in the group would walk across the street to the bank first and go in to talk with the bank manager. The rest of us were to follow once they were inside, and stand outside with  our signs and distribute the flyers to passersby.

But the bank was aware of our coming from all the promotion, and had locked the bank’s doors, so they couldn’t get in. But neither could any customers wanting to do business that day, and that left some really infuriated customers, banging on the door and waving their account cards at the staff inside.

We actually shut down the bank for at least 2 hours, a good hour of which we were outside holding our banners and signs for pedestrians, cyclists and drivers to see. Ted placed some yellow-and-black caution tape on the ground on 3 sides of the bank (it sits on a busy corner) and others of us picked up chalk to draw on the sidewalk messages like “PNC Funds Blowing Up Mountains” and “Green PNC Bank.” We sang songs and chanted.

Some of us took turns standing on a milk crate talking about why we were there, and it so reminded me of the soap-box speakers in London’s Hyde Park when I lived there in 1977-78. I got up and held up a jar filled with dirty water taken from a community near to MTR operations, and talked about how I work with the Sisters of Mercy, who have a deep concern for the environment and people impacted by Earth’s devastation. It was very cool, as my niece Olivia would surely say.

It actually was a lot of fun, we got plenty of attention to the issue, and many of us who had never done this kind of protest before felt empowered and ready to do similar actions again.

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Playing Tourist in D.C.

Like living anywhere, sometimes I get caught up in the day-to-day routine and forget that I’m living in this amazing metro area and need to take advantage of all it has to offer.

So over the course of a week, I ended up playing tourist and visiting a few sights that I had on my to-do list and hadn’t yet gotten to.

First adventure: taking my bike on the Metro for the first time. It was quite fun, cycling to the Takoma Metro, about a 15-minute ride away and then going up the elevator (you’re not supposed to carry bikes up the escalators) to the train platform. We got on a train bound for Glemont, a few stops away and the end of the Red Line, and from there cycled mostly on a bike path to Lake Needwood, a destination on my to-do list.

I had scouted out ahead of time the best route to get there: cycling on a busy road for maybe 1-2 miles and then picking up the Matt Henson trail, which is pretty rural and not well-traveled, with the path alternating between pavement and wooden boards. From there, we pcked up the last few miles of the Rock Creek trail, which runs for miles and miles from the heart of DC to the outer suburbs of Montgomery County, Maryland. We rode to its northern terminus, at Lake Needwood, which turned out to be a lovely park with walking trails, picnic benches and canoe rentals. We walked around the lake (about a half-hour) and by then it was starting to get dark so we pedaled as fast as we could to the nearest Metro station after stopping a couple of times for directions to make sure we were on the right route.

The next day I volunteered for the Arabian Sights Festival, a festival of movies from Arab countries, held at the National Geographic Society. I handed out comp and will-call tickets for a couple of hours and then watched a stirring film based on the true story of a woman in Cairo who is HIV positive and finally comes out on national TV in hopes of easing the stigma associated with AIDS and find a doctor who would perform surgery on her (she had been rejected by doctors because of the fear surrounding the illness).

The highlight of this touristy week was going to see War Horse at the Kennedy Center. I had only been to the performing arts center once since moving here, just about two years prior to this. This time we sat up in the first balcony and enjoyed the spectacle of amazing puppets mimicking the movements and whinnies of horses as well as a moving story of a boy and his horse.

Since then, I’ve been caught up again in the basics of daily living here and socializing with friends. But I’ll have to make a point of building in time for playing tourist more often.

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Getting Out the Vote for Obama in Virginia

I live in a very liberal town in a very liberal county in a very liberal state. So Obama’s win is assured here. But I also live near Virginia, a state that will be decisive in Tuesday’s election, since the count is very close there at the moment. So what’s a solid-blue-state gal supposed to do? Go to Virginia, of course.

Ted was approached last week by an Obama organizer outside the food co-op here in Takoma Park. He told her he was too busy for campaigning and went inside to shop, but he felt guilty about that and talked with her some more upon exiting. A few emails and phone calls later, we were both signed up for canvassing somewhere in Virginia on  Saturday.

We showed up at the appointed parking lot at 8 a.m., greeted by Congressman John Sarbanes from a nearby congressional district and lots of other volunteers. Some were heading to Virginia Beach for the weekend; we signed up for a day outing and were paired with two women, one of whom had a car. 

We set out for Springfield, VA, to a house that had Obama-Biden signs of varying sizes planted all over the yard, and bumper stickers plastered over both cars in the driveway.  Our favorite was: “We’re not perfect, but they’re nuts.”

We got a sense of the organizing skills required for this kind of work. The homeowners had set up stations throughout the living room and kitchen: first, sign in; second, get a little training about what canvassing in nearby neighborhoods would be like; then get packets with the street numbers and the names of the occupants of those homes that we were to visit. These targets are expected Obama supporters but they are not committed voters, often sitting out midterm elections and primary races, so the goal was to encourage them to vote and tell us their plan for getting to the polls that day.

With Obama buttons and stickers on our coats we got dropped off in the middle of a neighborhood and started walking the streets: Ted had a list of residents to visit on one long road, and I had a list of residents on side streets nearby.

It was disappointing that so many people weren’t home, and we just got to leave door hangers that promoted the Obama-Biden ticket and Tim Kaine for U.S. Senate. But I did have a few people answer the door: a teenager whose parents had left the country for quite awhile (or so he said); a young woman who wasn’t on my list but she assured me she was a straight Democratic-ticket voter;  an elderly woman who said she “can’t stand that Romney” (I said that was a little bit harsh but I appreciate her support). My favorite stop was at a townhouse where an elderly, disabled man who looked like he might originally be from Pakistan or Afghanistan proudly showed me his new voter registration card and inquired about where he could vote that day under early voting rules because he was’t sure he’d be up for it on Tuesday;  I was able to direct him to an early-voting site.

It was pretty cold, probably in the 40s, and I thankfully had gloves on. So I wasn’t too disappointed when we returned to the staging house after two hours and were told that a lot more volunteers had arrived for another shift, so we weren’t needed there any longer.

We were pumped up to help, though, so returned to Silver  Spring and to the Obama campaign offices there to make some phone calls. The small meeting rooms were jammed with volunteers working off the phone numbers and a script provided on computer screens; some were using paper information forms in the hallways. A kitchen had lunch food and snacks.

We used our own cell phones to reach people listed in the computer database; each screen came up with a person’s name and phone number, the script we were to use and blank spaces to input the respondents’ answers to certain questions: Are they going to vote for President Obama? Are they going to vote for Tim Kaine? If they’re undecided, or leaning toward Mitt Romney, what is the most important issue to them in making a decision? And if they name something, we were to talk with them a little bit about how Obama addresses that concern.

Hardly anyone I called in 1 1/2 hours was at home. I reached a few solid Obama supporters — one whose wife was out herself knocking on doors — and a couple of Romney voters and one who said it waas his right not to talk with me about it. I couldn’t tell if one guy was joking with me when he said he didn’t know that Tuesday was election day, but as I talked with him further it became clear that he might have some cognitive issues. 

It was interesting meeting some of the really dedicated campaign volunteers. Our driver in the morning had traveled to some poor rural areas of Pennsylvania four years ago to get out primary votes for Hillary Clinton. A woman sitting next to me in a phone-calling room had earlier in the day been calling people to support a marriage equality law in Maryland. One guy was going to Virginia on election day as a “protection” worker, which he explained means going to a voting site and making sure that poll workers don’t tell voters that they have to produce forms of ID that aren’t really required.

It was a fun experience, and gratifying to support get-out-the-vote (GOTV) efforts and exciting to be part of activities to sway voters in a key swing state.

I may return to the phone-calling offices on Sunday or Monday, since the office is just a few blocks from where I work.

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