Pundit stank. Really really stank, especially in one spot along the side of his neck. It was too cold to use the hose in the back yard and I dreaded the amount of fur that would end up in our bathroom if we washed him in the tub. I never in my life have taken any of my dogs to be professionally groomed. Well, our neighborhood has a laundromutt, a storefront space where you can give your own dog a bath. For $20, I had a half-hour’s use of a high metal sink with a strong hose, warm water, an assortment of shampoos including “coriander,” “mango,” and “extra-sensitive”, various brushes and scrubs, and towels. I managed to get both dogs washed in that time, Pundit with a double scrub on his stinky spot. And afterwards? Their fur was so soft and fragrant! My bathroom looked just as it had before. I left all the mess at the store, there was nothing for me to wipe down or put away or rinse. There may be something absurd about a society in which this is a viable business–but taking my dogs to the landromutt made my day–even if the dogs were less enthusiastic:
This spring, my girls’ dance troup, the Micro-Monteros, who dance with the Maru Montero Dance Company, have gotten to perform in a number of places, including the rooftop of Univision, right across the street from the Capitol. Looking forward to Cinco de Mayo tomorrow, I wanted to re-post our 2011 Cinco de Mayo photos from last year in celebration of the upcoming event this Saturday on the Mall, at the Sylvan Theater near the Washington Monument. My girls will be dancing at noon and 1:45 with the MicroMonteros–there will also be crafts and games and horses and all sorts of things.
Also last year, I wrote about why and how I’ve come to love the Zapateado dancing my girls perform with the Maru Montero Dance Company.
We’d love to see you there –
I love cherry blossom season in D.C., but after so many years of photographing the cherry blossoms, I’ve been trying to celebrate the season a little differently. Last year when the trees—not just cherry—were blossoming all over the city (several weeks later than this year), I put up one of my favorite posts, on how the blossoming trees cast their splendor over some of the most prosaic buildings of the city—a 7-11, a liquor store, a run-down elementary school, a construction trailer covered in graffiti. This year I thought I would celebrate something different—how for these few short weeks, the blossoming trees transform some of the many federal buildings in the city—and in transforming, reveal something new. These buildings, many of them marble, were built for permanence, meant to remain unchanged by time, to embody with their beauty—or at least their solidity (some are more beautiful than others)—a confidence in the federal government, an assurance that the institutions housed in these buildings are bigger and far more enduring than the people who walk in and out of them, doing their jobs or interacting with their government.
Many of the trees that adorn these buildings with their blossoms have probably been here as long as the buildings they enhance. In flowering each spring, they celebrate a different kind of endurance—a cyclical endurance, based on not on fixed, unchanging markers such as marble pillars or carvings, but on renewal after a dormancy, the beginning of new growth. While the blossoms are ephemeral, the trees, like the buildings, last—longer than the individual birds and bugs that move in and out of them daily, creating a springtime racket among the branches, in the shadow of these heavy buildings with their square corners and perfectly cylindrical pillars. The blossoms fringe the buildings like tulle skirts, or corsages, or bouquets—asking us at least for these days to celebrate with them the joy of impermanence, the gift of the fragile, the delicate, the passing that is also vital to our lives.
This two-week jump on the usual blossoming season has given a lot of us who live in D.C. pleasure tinged with unease. Maybe another message to take from these fleetingly beautiful days is that the fragility of these blossoms has value, and is worth protecting, before it is too late.
Thai Xing is the restaurant I choose when I want more than a delicious meal, when I want a haven. To me, it’s more akin to a garden than a typical restaurant. Taw Visittaboot, the creator of this experience, opened the restaurant in a row house tucked in the middle of a residential block of Florida Avenue—a busy, commercial avenue that traverses the city east to west with several blocks of old row houses that were once genteel and survived years of poverty to exist now in surprising counterpoint to the commercial sections on either side of them.
While there is a handmade wooden sign on the row house’s wall identifying Thai Xing, the sign is unlit, and nothing else marks the entrance to the restaurant, so that, even assuming you know the address, and even if you have been there before, finding the right door involves moments of hesitation, anxiety, faith. The first time I walked in I had a strong feeling that I might be walking into someone’s private house party next door to where I was supposed to be. And the most recent time I was there, once I’d located the right house, I walked down to the lower level, where I’ve always eaten before, to find it open but empty—everyone was up on the main level, where the restaurant has expanded to—but without any clear directions or markers as to where to go. The result? Once you have found the door, and opened it, and walked in among the candle-lit tables, the rich colors, the sketches and paintings, most of which I believe are Taw’s, the diners, and the spicy-sweet scent of the Thai dishes, you are hit with a sensation of relief and pleasure, as if you have stumbled upon a hidden oasis.
And then there is the food. There is no menu to order from, although you are asked whether you have any food restrictions when you make a reservation. Instead, all diners are served what Taw creates. The waitresses bring dish after dish to the table, most of them very spicy, each heart-warmingly delicious and existing in concert with the others. My favorites of my recent meal there were the cucumber soup and the squash curry. The cucumber soup, brought out early in the meal, was, unlike most of the dishes, not spicy. The thin, gentle broth had fragments of a leek-like vegetable, and in the middle, a cucumber log that, having cooked in the soup, was soft enough to easily slice with a spoon. (Have you ever had cooked cucumber before? I hadn’t.) The cooked cucumber was soft and watery, like the essence of cucumber—and stuffed within it was the surprise of minced pork. The plain broth, the refreshing, simple cucumber, and the complexly tangy pork existed in lovely contrast. And then there was the squash curry—the squash was meltingly tender but still in its skin, and the tactile scooping of the sweet flesh out of the skin, along with the sweet and spicy coconut-based curry with plenty of Thai basil lighty placed on it—it was perfection. I’ve loved Thai food for years. But every time I eat at Thai Xing I feel that all the other Thai dishes I’ve ever had have been but approximations of what Thai food is supposed to be. And that the dishes created by Taw are the real. It makes me happy to know that the restaurant exists as I go about my days, that it is only a reservation away.
Sometimes it’s when you least want a dog that you most need a dog. February is typically the hardest month for me to enjoy in D.C., even in an unseasonably mild winter like this one. It’s cold, the days are still short, and while you can hope for a crazy big snowstorm with snow days and sledding and snow forts and snow men, you’re more likely to get an icy mess that might, if it stays cold, turn the sidewalks into the corrugated, pitted menaces I remember from my childhood in this city, when I swear I spent weeks walking back and forth to school over rutted, treacherous ice flows. We had one of our more typical February weeks last week. A half a centimeter or so of snow dusted our landscape one morning, and then there was cold, and wind, and spitting rain. Most people stayed in when they could. And yet the dogs had to be walked. And so every day I headed outside, and not just to get to the car or metro or bus. And, thanks to the dogs, this is what the winter weather brought me: the sight of my old dog Pundit flipping onto his back at the first sight of that half-centimeter of snow and sliding down the hill in our front yard, just as he’s responded to every snowfall since we first moved into the house in 2000. A run with Cholula in the park so emptied of people by the spitting rain that we had our own quiet woods in the middle of the city. And this, glimpsed as I hurried the dogs home—the winter light catching one of my favorite architectural elements of the city—the turrets on the old row houses.
I loved magical books as a child—the Narnia books, Edgar Eager, Madeline L’Engle. I so wanted to open a door and step into something altogether different from the life I lived each day. There were years when I believed that it just might happen, that it was possible that given the right moment and the right door, I could step into a closet and find instead of the mundane clothes something else, altogether new.
Last week, very shortly after I posted about how I had to be dragged into being a good Samaritan and helping a woman get her dog in the car—after she had apparently been unsuccessful for AN HOUR AND A HALF!!!—my bike malfunctioned half way through my commute to a training I was expected to be at 15 minutes later. The 15 minutes that would easily have been enough to get there on my bicycle melted away at an alarming rate as I stood on the sidewalk, my bike upside down in front of me, ineffectually poking at levers and bolts.
The rear wheel had first rubbed increasingly on the brake and then, I guess when I turned it over to try to fix that, had slipped out of its place on the frame altogether. There was no way to ride—or even roll—the bike unless I could get the rear wheel back into position, and there was an attachment on the rear wheel for my son’s bike trailer that only my husband had ever attached and detached and that I could not figure out. (I know, I know, as a regular bike commuter I should know how to do these things.) In any case, I stood there helplessly in my button down shirt and slacks, my hands smudged with bike grease. Other bike commuters whizzed by me down the street without stopping (not that I expected them to stop—I surely wouldn’t have), my husband had lost his cell phone and was not at home, so I couldn’t call him to ask him to talk me through what to do, I hadn’t brought a lock with me since I was planning to leave the bike in a locked bike area in the building’s garage, and I was still a couple of miles from the training.
And then, a man with long dreadlocks walked over with two large dogs—Bosco and Valentino—a black lab and a white giant poodle. The dogs bounced around us as he took a look at my bike. He couldn’t figure out what to do either, so he said, “Do you want to leave your bike in my house? It’s right over there,” and waved at a group of small row houses behind him.
I demurred for about three seconds before taking him up on the offer. He, the dogs, and I crossed the street to his house, me carrying my upside down bike, the rear wheel resting out of its place in the frame. And when he opened the door to his small row house, I had that feeling, that I had been released from the expected and entered into a different way of being. The front room—the only room I saw—was small, with a simple hard wood floor, and held two bikes on a stand against one wall, paintings that were both bright and peaceful, a small chandelier with slender brass arms in the front window, a low table with a large glass bowl of colorful marbles on it, and little else. It was so simple, so lovely. The dogs meandered in and out as I settled my bike carefully along the free wall. The man gave me his card, and I said I’d call him later and abandoned my bike and ran over to the metro and made it to my training just a little late.
That evening I brought my son with me to pick up the bike, along with a bottle of wine. My son carried a couple of toy cars with him into the house, and when he showed them to our Good Samaritan, the man went into the back of his house and came out with a little VW bus, which he gave to my son. We had come to collect my bike, which this man had let me leave in his house all day—and he gave us something new to take home with us.
I’ve thought of this often in the days since. In fact, I find that just picturing that front room calms me, encourages me to trust that what I need is out there, and that somehow, unexpectedly, a door will open. There have been other remarkable Good Samaritan moments in my life—a guy who stopped and helped fix a flat tire along a highway, an employee of a rental car agency at an airport that, when due to a logistical mix-up we got stuck 80 miles from where we needed to be actually drove us there when his shift ended even though it was out of his way. And beyond that there have been those people who with a generous spirit have guided me through critical moments that changed the way I viewed myself and the world forever. My outdoor education teachers in high school, for example, who not only taught me specific skills for some of the most fantastic adventures of my life—white water kayaking, hiking, and backpacking—but also provided me the vision I needed to stop caring so much what my peers thought of my choices and to start looking for what was meaningful to me. On this Thanksgiving I’m feeling special gratitude for these Good Samaritans in the small sense and large, and hoping I can work to be more like them—more open to those who need something I have to offer, more willing to pass forward the generosity that has been shown to me.
Last weekend my cousin was in town, and we had dinner plans with my parents, but in spite of the fact that it had taken us a long time to get out of the house after all the afternoon naps, I wanted to take my cousin and the kids to the park for a brief walk along the creek in the early evening light with the leaves at peak color, and so I pulled into the parking lot planning to hustle everyone out and down along the path.
By the time I got the kids out of the car, my husband was holding onto a strange dog’s leash, deep in conversation with a woman I’d never seen before. The dog, a burly, broad shouldered, sway-backed lab mix with a brilliant blue black coat and a broad, snubbed forehead and snout, was wagging its tail as my husband coaxed it towards him. I did not immediately go over. I wanted to get our walk in and was hoping my husband would conclude whatever this was and come towards us. But he didn’t.
It turned out that the woman had turned to him in tears as soon as he got out of the car—offered to give him her dog—“DO YOU WANT THIS DOG?”—and told him she’d been trying unsuccessfully to get her dog back in the car after a walk—for an hour and a half!!!
Being the natural good Samaritan that he is, he was giving it a valiant try. He suggested that the woman get in the car and start it, thinking that the revving of the car engine would convince the dog it was time to go. The woman backed her car up slightly and my husband coaxed the dog towards the car and almost got it to jump in when the dog balked, utterly refusing to move forward. Clearly, at that moment, it had decided it would rather lead the nomadic life we were apparently offering it than get in the car with its owner.
The woman got out of her car and when my husband asked, assured us the dog would not bite—she said it had never bitten anyone before—and so my husband tugged harder, but the dog was big enough and low enough to the ground that when it set its shoulders and dug in, it couldn’t be dragged.
Reluctantly, after much badgering by my husband about how here was my chance to show off all my dog training practice for a practical result–more practical to his mind than finally getting Cholula to play tug of war –I left my cousin and kids and my plans for a quick walk along the creek and came over. (My husband claims I was as reluctant to offer up my dog training assistance as the dog was to get in the car.) The woman had some kibble she’d been trying to tempt the dog with, so I took a handful and got the dog to follow me as I backed up towards the car, doing my best to entice it with a prey-like manner as I waved the kibble for added motivation–and indeed, the dog came forward as I backed up as if indeed I was exerting a magnetic pull that might overcome the fear of the car until–just as for my husband—the dog got within a foot of the car and balked. This time, though, my husband lifted the dog up from behind just at that moment and shoved it into the car. Whereupon I reached in and gave it the kibble. It ate happily, as if all the trouble had been for nothing.
The woman was very grateful. I recommended she look up natural dog training on the Internet, and she drove off with her dog. I hope they are working things out. And we went up along the creek after all, a little ways.
When you spend a lot of time in the city, you have to find your oases. One of my favorites lies between a courthouse and the Canadian embassy, where on any given weekday, you’ll find people from all walks of life sitting, talking, smoking, worrying, mostly ignoring the two fountains that bubble quietly before them. Many times I’ve seen sparrows perching ankle deep on one of the lily pads flicking themselves with water, while pigeons bob their heads along the side for a drink. In the winter, when the fountains are drained, schools of carved fish go on full display. I love that the sculptor put creatures in the fountain that you can hardly see when the fountain is full, and that appear in their glory when the fountain is dry. I love the whimsy of the creatures, the perfection of the depth of the lilypads to the actual living birds, and the humbleness of the bubbling fountain in the center.
Recently, when I went to photograph the fountains for this blog post, I found them uncharacteristically empty in the middle of the summer. There was a parks maintenance person working nearby, and so I asked him why the fountains were drained. He said that there was a problem with the plumbing that needed to be fixed. I asked him when they would be fixed and he said he didn’t know. I pushed for an answer, trying to get a general time frame so I knew when to come back, and he finally said, “Listen, I have no idea. That is not in my jurisdiction.” I burst out laughing, which made him smile. SUCH a Washington answer.
Thank you, David Phillips.
Get your kids on whatever bikes they ride
And go on a hunt.
We had a two year old with us,
So we hunted for the baby ducks
At nearby Meridian Hill Park.
The kids flew down the sidewalk on their bikes,
Z swerving on her two-wheeler,
S’s training wheels rattling.
The older sisters waited for their little brother at the cross streets,
Flew along the smooth park paths,
Dumped their bikes and ran down the steps along the formal fountain.
S found the baby ducks first.
We watched them swim and dive with their parents,
Raced past the bathing sparrows and
up the long steps,
And biked back home.
And then I walked into the park with the 75 or so first graders. The lily pads lay thickly across the ponds, dotted with flowers on all sides. Dragoflies hummed in the air above the floating green circles, and the ponds were teeming with minnows and tadpoles. The kids walked slowly behind the knowledgeable and capable park ranger, crowding at the shores to see the insects and flowers and fish. We learned that the nuphar, a yellow flower protruding across the ponds from the protection of its pads, is one of the oldest plants, older than North America. What a gift, for young urban kids to walk in the presence of something so old, still growing among us.