US from Space

I grew up in an environment that valued what is now referred to as “green living.” My parents weren’t tree huggers, but immigrants who had grown up on a very small island.

In the summer, my father would only run the air conditioning on the most brutally hot and humid of days. Half of the backyard was devoted to growing an assortment of fruit and vegetables that included tomatoes, lettuce, squash, cucumbers, peppermint, strawberries, Asian pears, and grapes. We did not eat out. Ever. McDonald’s was a rare and exotic treat.

Leftovers were fed to our German Shepherd or used as compost for the garden.

Every bag we brought home was reused to collect trash. We turned off lights and electrical appliances when we weren’t using them. If the shower ran for more than 10 minutes, my dad would bang on the door and yell at us to turn off the water. My mom spent endless hours cutting patterns and sewing clothes at night. We planted trees, bushes and flowers all over our yard.

In the winter, trees were chopped down for firewood. Instead of running the furnace, we’d light a fire in the wood stove which was miraculously sufficient to overheat the entire 1900 square foot house.

Books were borrowed not bought. Money was saved not spent.

And though I never really felt like I went without, I went bananas when I entered college. Finally I could crank the air conditioning as low and as long as I wanted. To study, I’d turn on every light in the room. The radio, television and hairdryer would be used simultaneously, each drowning the other out. And if I had time, I could stand beneath the shower for an hour if I wanted to.

Fast forward 15 years and you’d think I never learned my father’s lessons of “save today for tomorrow.” The bad habits I picked up in college are still with me today. Bad habits I wasn’t conscious of until my mother stayed with me for one week this past June.

My bare kitchen cabinets and empty refrigerator made her shudder. “What will we eat?” she’d ask. And I’d drag her down the block to Cosi or to one of Dupont’s fine eateries. “Where do you you keep these bags?” she’d ask, holding out three or four rumpled CVS plastic bags. I’d point to a trashcan wrapped with a super duty Glad bag.  And when she reached out to turn off the thermostat on our way out, I nearly had a stroke. “Are you crazy? You can’t turn that off. It’s June. In DC. We’ll suffocate when we get back.”

She just shook her head and frowned.

I think of all this now because I just read about Raina Kelly’s Freegan experiment. I wonder how well I’d do if I tried to live carbon neutral?


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On the road again


I didn’t sleep well. I knew I wanted to leave the house at 4:00 a.m. and my mind waited at the edge of dreams. When the cellphone alarm went off at 3:45, I felt as though I’d just climbed into bed.

I dressed quickly and tiptoed down the carpeted stairs. I shoved the balled up nightclothes into a duffle bag and looked over at my mom as she flipped over on the couch.

“Are you sure you want to leave this early?” she asked, her voice full of sleep.

“I want to beat traffic. I don’t want to be driving all day like last time,” I said and ducked into the dark bathroom to brush my teeth.

I heard someone on the stairs, heavy and slow steps. My dad. Inexplicably I felt my throat tighten and said a silent prayer that I would not start crying.

I thought ahead to the route I’d take and planned when I’d stop to fill the gas tank and grab a tall coffee.  Anything to  avoid thoughts of my leaving them all here.

I hugged my dad. Thanked him for the presents he’d given me. Promised to drive slow.

My mom followed me outside. She stood quietly as I maneuvered the last two bags into the trunk. The stars winked from the night sky. I’d forgotten how many there are.  I noticed Orion and Cassiopeia.

Finally, I took a shaky breath and gave her a big hug. She shoved $30 into my pocket.

“For gas or for food or in case of an emergency,”  she said. I felt bad because I knew she needed the money more than I did. But I also knew there was no arguing with her.

“I love you mom.”

“Drive safe. Call me at 9 and let me know where you are,” she said.

She watched from the driveway as I got into the driver’s seat and gave a small nod when I pulled on the seat belt. The headlights shone on her, bundled in a white quilted coat and my brother’s ratty sneakers. I waved as I pulled away, and from the rearview mirror watched her finally turn towards the house after I pulled out of their main street.

I’m still not sure why I felt so sad when I left this morning. I haven’t felt a teary farewell in years, but today I cried til I sped onto the interstate. And then something else set in and I braced myself for the ride home.

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Dread filled my heart as I packed my bags and prepared for the drive north. I couldn’t help thinking I’d be better off staying in DC. I resented the feelings of obligation and guilt that served as my motivation.

And had I listened to my selfish heart I would have missed out on one of the best weeks of the year. Sure I spent too much money and didn’t get a chance to visit with everyone, but I had a blast.

My niece is amazing. She is 18 months old and the most adorable little girl on Earth.  My grandmother is 82 and in perfect health.  I don’t show her enough love or appreciation.

And then there was the quality time I managed to spend with my dad and mom and with my brothers.

There were no fights this year, no arguments, no yelling or banging or complaining. All my worry and dread was for nothing.

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Seven Swans a Swimming


Every December I travel “home for the holidays” and this year I’m feeling like Scrooge.

I’ve missed other family events, been absent for other holidays, but in my entire life, I have always been present at Christmas.

This year I just don’t feel like going.

Instead of focusing on the positive — as I normally do — I keep thinking of the five nights I’ll be sleeping on a couch, living out of a suitcase and making time to visit with all my relatives, wasting hours circling parking lots and garages for a space, the annual arguments, all the effort.

All the effort.

Then I’ll have two days to myself to do laundry and clean before going back to work.

On Saturday I realized how desperate I was. I woke up thinking maybe, just maybe, the east coast would get hit with a freak blizzard and I’d have an excuse for not traveling. It was about 60 outside and sunny… but I had a smidgen of hope.

But today’s temperature hit a high of 70 — very unusual for December — and the extended forecast pretty much melted away any prospect of Mother Nature stepping in to provide me with an excuse for missing the family activities.

On the one hand, I don’t want to miss my dad’s birthday and am dying to hug my niece. On the other hand, if I don’t make the trip every six months, I’d never see my family. The last time any of them traveled south to see me was before 9-11.

I’m such a coward.

What does it say about me that I’d rather use my vacation time to travel to the yucatan of Mexico or Buenos Aires than spend time with family?

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The theme for this year’s gift swapping was framed photographs.

Among other things, I gave framed pictures of my niece to my parents, my grandmother, my brothers, and to some of my cousins. Meanwhile, my brother gave me a gorgeous studio shot of the baby in a beautiful frame. My cousin filled an antique frame with a sepia portrait of my niece. And my godmother restored two black and white photos of my grandparents.

I’ve been taking pictures for as long as I can remember. My first camera was a Yogi Bear Instamat. I’m a firm believer in capturing those Kodak moments, evidenced by the stacks of photo albums piled in an enormous chest at the back of my parents’ shed.

Christmas tree

A picture captures a memory. Funny that I don’t feel the same way about home videos as I do about a set of photographs.

And I love looking through other people’s snapshots. Or walking through photo exhibits in galleries and museums. Or buying someone else’s black and white night shot of a momument I’ve already photographed.

What is it about pictures?

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Idle hands are the devil’s tools


The phone has been ringing off the hook all day. My poor mom is convinced that these are the end of times.

Today has been especially stressful.

The first phone call came in at 8:00 a.m. I just assumed it was some family emergency. She never, ever phones me that early unless there’s some sort of bad news.

“I don’t have to work today,” she says.

“Well, ummmmmmmm, that’s good ma,” I say, as I stuff reports and steno pads into my big black bag.

“Don’t you want to know why I don’t have to work today?”

Uh oh – did she get laid off? Was the car totalled? Did she win last night’s lottery?

“Ummmm… is everything okay?” I ask.

“A ten-foot wall of water is coming our way. So they figured it would be best if everyone stayed home,” she replied. My mom was refering to the wooden Whittenton Pond Dam . Because of all the extra rainfall in the northeast, the poor dam is about to burst.

“Well mom, I hope you enjoy your day off. I’ve got to run,” I said. “Love you.”

Not three hours later I get another hysterical phone call.

“Have you heard about Baltimore?” she asked in greeting.

“No mom, what’s going on in Baltimore?” I ask as I type “Baltimore” into the Google search.

“There’s a terrorist threat. They’re closing everything,” she replies as I pull up the first story about the tunnel closings. “You’re not safe.”

“Mom, I live in DC, not Baltimore.”

“You go there for baseball games.”


“Close enough. If it’s a nuclear weapon, ABC said forty minutes was close enough.”

I sigh. There is no arguing with a mother’s logic.

“Mom, I’ve got to go. I have an important lunch appointment.”

“Okay, call me tonight.”

I sigh repeatedly.

An hour later. It’s her again.

“Why don’t you come up to Massachusetts for a visit?” she asks. “You can leave right now.”

“Mom – you need to turn off CNN and step away from the television. Listen to yourself. Get a grip. You want me to leave my perfectly safe city, to travel towards a terrorist threat, in traffic backed up all the way to Maine, so I can finally pull into the driveway only to find the entire neighborhood drowned in ten feet of water.”


“Goodbye mom.”

“Don’t forget to call me tonight………”

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Golden oldies


My grandfather would pick up my brother and I from school and drive us to the mall until my mom got home from work.

The routine was always the same. He’d have a Hershey bar for each of us – plain for my brother, with almonds for me. Then he’d park beside the Sears entrance. We’d spend about 30 minutes playing games on the computers in the tech department, while he stood and watched and laughed.

Then we’d stop at Papa Gino’s for a slice of cheese pizza, before continuing on to the bookstore. My brother would position himself in the animal/wildlife/nature section. My grandfather flipped through enormous books illustrating World War II. And I would head towards the young adult books, eager to know if the next installment of Sweet Valley High or the Sweet Dreams series had arrived.

An hour later, the afternoon culminated at the video arcade. He’d give us each one dollar to play. My brother would bounce from one machine to the next, eager to master them all. But I would always steer toward Galaga.

I loved the premise. I was the hero-fighter defending Earth from the evil aliens coming to destroy her. I loved watching as the bug-things marched down the screen towards my ship, my fingers working double time to obliviate them all. I was greedy with my extra lives, watching as I earned extra ships to maintain the fight.

Although my actions would prove the contrary, I was always more of a reader.

We begged Santa for Atari and dad brought home a Gemini system he found on sale for $50 less. We eventually got used to playing the four games that came with the system. My favorite was Mousetrap.

A few years later the Atari 2600 replaced the Gemini system. By this point my baby brother was old enough to partake in video-game pleasure. And I was far too interested in MTv and the cable movie channels to make a fuss about game-time.

Many years later, a boyfriend presented me with a Gameboy and Tetris when I left for college. It was the perfect gift and I still play that game occasionally.

My brothers own Nintendo systems and Sega systems and virtual computer systems. They play football games and adventure simulations where the graphics are so real they resemble real-time sports coverage or Hollywood blockbusters.

My heart belongs to the classics… Galaga, Defender, Mousetrap, Pac-man, Pong and Donkey Kong.

And I bring all this up because this weekend America’s Video Game Expo will be at the Washington Convention Center from 10am – 5pm. So if you’re in town, think about stopping by and playing a game or two.

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5:00 a.m.


I pulled out of my parents’ driveway at 5:00 a.m. after four days of familial bliss. Seven hours later I was in DC.

There’s never enough time. Though one thing I’ve learned this last decade is that quality beats quantity every time.

I used to run around like a mad woman, trying to squeeze in visits to all 8 aunts and uncles, and 13 cousins, and grandparents, and mom, dad, and brothers… not to mention high school friends. I’d meet an aunt for coffee, leave 20 minutes later to have coffee with another aunt, leave 20 minutes later to meet a high school friend for lunch before picking up my grandmother to accompany me on errands. It was insane.

I’d manage to see everyone – just…. but I’d be exhausted and get shit for spending more time with one than another.

I spent two days cuddling with my beautiful niece… treated mom to dinner twice… hung out with one of my cousins for hours and hours… spent a night eating malasadas and flipping through old photo albums with one of my aunts… passed a beautiful day with my dad… went to a birthday lunch for my godmother… and saw my brothers in passing.

And saw fireworks.

But didn’t get to the beach. No time. I’ll fit in some fun in the sun next time.

How did you celebrate Independence Day?