I am a native in this world And think in it as a native thinks

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Urban poetry

I love the curves on this bench on New Jersey Avenue.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Astronomy Tuesday

With the colors enhanced beyond what human eyes could see, Mercury looks like a strange gemstone in a black sky.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Welcome to the working week

A picture from the train on my way back to New York last week. It's a dreary morning, but fortunately not that dreary.

"Dreary" is one of those very useful words where sound and meaning are a perfect match. It always makes me think of Tennyson:

    She only said, 'The day is dreary,
      He cometh not,' she said
    She said, 'I am aweary, aweary,
      I would that I were dead I were in bed!'

Sunday, January 26, 2014

We now resume our regularly scheduled Sunday bird blogging

Here's a young robin, barely out of the nest, as a reminder that spring always does come eventually. (And a reminder to myself that in six months I'll be whining about how hot it is.)

Sunday non-bird blogging

Reptile Blogging!

Snow yesterday, snow tomorrow, and a toasty 17 degrees under sunny skies this morning -- this blissed out iguana basking in the sun looks very good to me.

Saturday, January 25, 2014


It doesn't get more starkly geometrical than this: the East wing of the National Gallery. It was closed for renovations, so the outside was all I saw.

Below is a closeup of the textures on the Henry Moore bronze outside, full of odd color in the evening light.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Urban poetry

This is the ceiling at Union Station, obviously taken on a sunny day earlier this week.

I lost track of how many flights United cancelled, and then rebooked, and then cancelled again yesterday, but it was at least six. Fortunately I booked a seat on the last Acela out of town before Amtrak closed down as well, and made it back to New York last night.

Getting from Penn Station to my apartment turned out to be much more difficult. It was snowing heavily and very windy and the streets were almost empty. The suitcase on wheels is a wonderful invention but I can report that it's worse than useless in six inches of snow. I made it seven blocks in half an hour. Then I spotted an off-duty cab, and persuaded the driver to take me the rest of the way home for twenty dollars.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014


Elisa, Ben, Paul and Mia Kleven after the arguments.

We had originally planned to follow tradition and take photos on the steps, but the weather made that impossible. Even here, under the portico, the wind and snow made 90 percent of my pictures more comical than memorable.

Mr Chief Justice, and may it please the Court

The two cases in the morning turned out to be completely unexciting. The first dealt with home health care workers in Illinois and collective bargaining; I hadn't read anything about the case and never did figure out from the arguments presented what the issues were.

The second case involved the copyright to the screenplay for Raging Bull, which sounded as though it could be interesting, but turned out to involve lengthy discussions about statutes of limitations versus laches. If I'd had any interest in learning more about laches I would have gone to law school, so I quit trying to follow the argument and spent my time just watching the justices, which was far more entertaining.

Clarence Thomas, for example. He's famous for not asking questions during oral argument, but that doesn't mean he doesn't talk. He had a long conversation with Justice Scalia at one point during the second argument, but his real pal seemed to be Justice Breyer, who sits on his other side. Several times during the day they whispered to each other, and seemed to be cracking jokes as they both laughed. Their chairs recline fairly far back, and both Thomas and Scalia spent a lot of time leaning so far back you could only see the tops of their heads. They also fidgeted the most, and at one point rocked back and forth together for a couple of minutes, like synchronized rocking chairs.

I thought it was interesting that while Chief Justice Roberts seems very calm and magisterial, and the three women on the court all sat up straight all the time, Thomas, Scalia, Alito, Breyer and Kennedy could not sit still. They were constantly rocking and spinning their chairs like hyperactive schoolboys.

Justice Ginsburg seemed very frail. Although her questions were sharp, she spoke very slowly and at times I had trouble understanding her. She has said she has no plans to resign until at least 2016, and she well may be a lot tougher than she appeared, but I was surprised by how fragile she looked.

Finally, after a short lunch break in which I gulped down a yogurt in the surprisingly small and unimpressive cafeteria, Navarette v. California.

This is a Fourth Amendment case, about whether an anonymous tip about reckless driving is enough to justify the police stopping a car if they have followed the car for several miles without observing any threat to public safety. (It almost goes without saying that the truck in question turned out to contain several very large bags of marijuana.)

It was suddenly a very different court. The justices were obviously enjoying the discussion -- even Clarence Thomas sat up straight and watched the lawyers for minutes at a time. Scalia had been the biggest surprise to me in the morning arguments; his questions are often quite entertaining, and he clearly loved this argument. Most of the questions the justices threw at Paul involved how serious the threat would have to be before such a stop was justified -- what if the report was that a little girl had been thrown into the trunk? What if the car contained terrorists with a nuclear weapon on their way to blow up Los Angeles? Basically unanswerable hypotheticals, each one more awful than the previous one, and Paul did an excellent job of steering the discussion back, though Kennedy made a snide joke at his expense. "You get an A for consistency but I'm not sure about common sense."

But I don't think I'm overly biased to say that I thought the arguments presented on the other side, by both the state of California and the Federal Government, were awful. Both of them focused on drunk driving, and seemed to say that it's such a threat to public safety that anything the police want to do to prevent it is by definition reasonable. But this was about reckless driving, not necessarily drunk driving. Practically the same thing, according to them. And what does "reckless" mean? Justice Sotomayor said that her mother thinks she's a reckless driver if she goes one mile an hour above fifty. Everyone knows what "reckless" means, they insisted. What about a false report, someone who just wants to get back at the driver for some reason. Extremely unlikely, they said.

There was one point during Paul's argument when Breyer asked him a couple of questions and obviously really liked his answers. Afterwards I asked him to remind me what Breyer had asked him, and he couldn't remember. You need to have a very deep knowledge of the law and the ability to think very quickly on your feet to go up against Nino and his cohorts; it was almost dizzying how quickly the hour was over.

I'm not doing the arguments justice, but I don't pretend to possess legal expertise, and I'm afraid if I try to explain any more I'll end up getting it all wrong. It was a thrilling experience, and I'd give the win to Paul even if he weren't my friend for going on way too many years to admit to. The picture shows him being interviewed afterwards.

First, some background

The court heard three cases today; my friend Paul Kleven was arguing the last case, at 1 pm. I had a reserved seat for that argument, but I wanted to listen to the 10 am and 11 am cases as well. I had never realized -- I suppose I never really thought about it -- that oral arguments are open to the public. You just show up and stand in line, and if there's a seat available you can stay as long as the court's in session.

It hadn't started snowing yet, but it was windy and cold when I got to the court around 8:30, and there was no one in line in the plaza. The policeman I asked for directions told me to talk to officers on the other side of the stairs, and those officers just waved me to the side door. After going through security, I  wandered around large marble hallways without a clue as to where I should go (though I did run into Paul and had a chance to talk briefly with him while he waited in the line for Bar members) before finally being told that I needed to go back outside and get in line as I'd originally tried to do.

Now there was a line outside, and orange numbered tickets were being distributed. I realized afterwards that I must have arrived just as the early arrivals were being escorted inside so the plaza was empty and the police assumed I was a straggler. I wasn't the only one who mistakenly went in without a ticket -- a couple came out a few minutes after I got in line. They'd made it all the way to the courtroom door, and had already left their outerwear in the lockers, so they had to wait in line with no coats. (They were not happy.)

Eventually we were let back inside. I went through security again, stood in a line, went up some stairs, put everything in a locker, stood in another line, went through another security check, stood in another line, and was finally escorted into the courtroom, where the first argument was just beginning.

The courtroom itself seems surprisingly small at first, the size of a movie theatre in an art house multiplex, especially compared to the huge, very grand marble foyer just outside. There's an ornate ceiling of carved white flowers with red and blue backgrounds, and just below a very beautiful marble frieze of allegorical figures and (I looked it up later) famous lawgivers including Moses, Mohammed and Confucius. Below the frieze, there are Ionic columns and red draperies with gold trim. It's all very solemn and classical, except for a very ugly clock right over the Chief Justice's head and even uglier Venetian blinds on the ceiling-high windows on either side of the courtroom -- just so you remember that, Greek columns and fancy curtains aside, this is still a government building.

And now for something completely different

The Capitol again, but as we rarely see it: in the middle of a snowstorm.

It was announced early this morning that the Federal government would be closed for the day because of the weather. I hoped that didn't include the Supreme Court, a branch of the Federal government the last time I checked, but I couldn't find information anywhere on line, so I called their general information number.

"Supreme Court!" said the cheerful young man answering the phone, in a chipper tone that would have worked just as well for Dairy Queen or Old Navy.

Yes, he assured me, they were open. Considering the advanced ages of most of the justices, I have to give them a lot of credit for going to work on a day when the rest of the city was a tomb before the first snowflake fell.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Hazards of the cultural life

I spent the afternoon at the National Gallery, mostly at a wonderful exhibit of Byzantine art. (No photography allowed, unfortunately.)

All those sad-eyed saints (plus a crowd of art lovers including four or five priests) accidentally got quite an eyeful when I took my sweatshirt off because I was warm and the t-shirt I was wearing underneath came with it. I was mortified. Mortified! But the only possible thing to do was to pretend I for some reason really wanted to be half naked in public and put my shirt on again as quickly as I could. Then I stared intently at the mosaic in front of me until all witnesses had moved on to the next room.

Here's the evening sky over the mall as I was leaving.

What the world doesn't need...

…is another stock photo of the US Capitol building. But it was so beautiful I had to capture it anyway. So sue me.

Today it was sunny and warm; tomorrow more snow.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

In which both my patience and my energy run out

There were nine of us, family and friends, some of whom had never been to Washington before. I have a cold, and the chilly walk across town to the hotel where everyone was staying knocked me out, so I was glad that the plan for the day was a ride on a hop-on, hop-off sightseeing bus.

It was soothing -- and warm -- to spend a few hours watching the city go by, seeing where Grover Cleveland spent his summers and where Jack Kennedy proposed to Jacqueline Bouvier. We finally got off at the Lincoln Memorial and walked through the Vietnam Memorial afterwards.

The wall of names always brings tears to my eyes, so much promise wasted, so many vows of Never again, completely forgotten a few decades later when we blundered into Iraq and started compiling a new list of names for some future wall. I don't feel a personal loss here, though my father did fight in Vietnam, and left some essential part of himself there, but there are always visitors for whom one of the names is very personal, not a carving in stone but a scar, and the line shuffling along the wall is usually quiet, almost solemn, with respect.

But today we were accompanied by a group of high school beauty queens, all wearing sashes identifying them as Miss High School Arkansas or Miss High School Tennessee, and they were posing for pictures by the wall like models showing off a new Cadillac at an auto show. Their lack of awareness was breathtaking, and some of the other visitors, those who were visiting particular names, were angry. I just had to leave. 

My energy, what little I had, had all leaked away by that point anyway, so I took a cab back to the hotel and my warm bed and here I intend to remain.


Speaking of larger than life.

I've been to the Lincoln Memorial many times, and no matter how crowded and crazy it is, there's always a moment when it's just me and Mr. Lincoln. The genius of this memorial is that the greatness of the man is there, is palpable, but it doesn't diminish us, the visitors, at all. He still seems so human, almost approachable, with his skinny legs and huge hands, and the sadness of that weary face.

To Equal Justice

Also at the Japanese American memorial.


These beautiful cranes are part of the Japanese American memorial.

So much of Washington is larger than life -- big buildings, even bigger history -- but it's also full of exquisite small details, like these birds, in a memorial park on an otherwise ordinary city block.

Sunday bird blogging

One of the many starlings hanging out at the refreshment stand near the Lincoln Memorial.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Two buildings

I was barely outside and it was too cold to take many pictures, but the light was irresistible. These are reflections on a building on New Jersey Avenue, and some beautiful detailing on a brick building near Union Station.


It was clear and sunny when I landed in Washington, as you can tell from this picture of the Capitol in the golden light of dusk. And cold -- mid thirties which is chilly anywhere, but in Washington feels like the South Pole.

I think that whole built-on-top-of-a-swamp issue that makes the city so unbearable in the summer also makes it feel so much colder in the winter than the temperatures would indicate. It's supposed to be warmer tomorrow and Monday and I almost left my down coat at home, thinking I could compensate with layers.

What can I say? I'm sick and not thinking clearly. I have been to Washington in the winter many times, and I have never not been chilled to the bone. So I brought the coat. And a scarf. And gloves. All of which I put on within one block of my hotel when I went out this afternoon in search of a drugstore.

More snowy highways

Another look at the snowy road this morning.

Through the wind, through the rain, through the snow

A quote from the Boss seems appropriate, since this was the approach to the New Jersey Turnpike this morning: fist-sized globs of snow, with a little sleet rattling against the windows for percussion.

Fortunately the roads weren't as slippery as they looked and I got to Newark Airport with a few dents in my palms from clenching my fists but otherwise unharmed. I'm flying to Washington this afternoon, for a long weekend culminating in a visit to the Supreme Court Tuesday.

About which, more later.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Urban poetry

In New Orleans, last month.

Love the yellow bike!

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Astronomy Tuesday

I know this is very similar to last week's picture, but how can I resist something called the Seagull Nebula?

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Sunday bird blogging

As bird photographs go, not my best, but for some reason this past week has me thinking of penguins. 

Even equatorial penguins, so here are three of them swimming in the Galapagos.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

My empire of dirt

Temporary Thaw Theodore is here, same gray skies but rain all day instead of snow.

It was a tough tough week, for many reasons I won't go into, and sleeping through the morning, something I very rarely do, left me groggy and grumpy and not up to dealing with the few chores I could still get done before dark. I was tiptoeing around the edge of a very bad mood, tempted to say What the hell and just wallow in it. (Soundtrack: this brilliant performance by Johnny Cash from the last album released before his death, his honest ragged voice expressing levels of pain Trent Reznor could only hint at.)

Then my toilet clogged up. It was quite the mess, and running out in the rain to buy a new plunger, fixing the clog, and then cleaning up the bathroom and myself, somehow left me laughing at how self-indulgently whiny I'd been earlier. Nothing grounds you like raw sewage!

And having a working toilet again as I settle into my Saturday evening somehow makes me feel that other things may work themselves out as well, an optimism that has no basis in fact but feels more comfortable than this afternoon's angst.


The overlapping shadows of city lights on my bedroom ceiling. They're always different, so I hardly ever manage to capture the best examples but I love this one.

A bit of unlikely beauty in a cold, gray week.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Blue is the new black

Not poetry exactly, but definitely urban.

New Yorkers are notorious for always wearing black, but this week we're accessorizing with ice-blue lips and fingers.

It's winter; it happens almost every year around this time.

Yeah, it's really, really cold, and Monday the temperature plunged fifty degrees in a matter of a few hours, but when did we start naming every single weather phenomenon? Last week it was Winter Storm Ion, and now we've been sucked into something called the Arctic Vortex. This weekend the temperatures will be climbing back into the fifties; I'm planning to call it Temporary Thaw Theodore.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Astronomy Tuesday

The universe and the light of the stars come through me.
I am the crescent moon put up
over the gate to the festival.
                                     -- Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks  
Baby stars incubating in the Orion nebula, as photographed recently by the Hubble. 

My naked eyes aren't quite up to seeing this nebula, but I've seen it through binoculars, and so I think of it as "my favorite." Recognizing things, knowing where they are, inspires a kind of sense of possession -- "That's mine," I think, even though it's obviously not. 

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Sunday bird blogging

There's cozy warm, and then there's steamy jungle hot, where your lenses fog up the minute you leave the air conditioning and your own perspiration soaks you to the skin.

Like Panama, for example, where I found this strange creature. I didn't post it at the time because I had no idea what it was; I went through my field guide a couple of times and didn't see anything that resembled this. Finally I just Googled bird Panama long tail, and found it right away: a squirrel cuckoo.

And I went back to the field guide and saw why I'd passed it by -- the drawing in the book shows the bird from the front, which is much more colorful, while I only saw them from the back. It was the description of their behavior which clinched the ID, though; they're called squirrel cuckoos not just because of the long tails but because they move through trees like squirrels. There were several of them in the bushes at my hotel, running along the branches and eating the flowers, and they did look just like squirrels.

Typical behavior for a species never helps me much with mystery birds in Central Park, where I can basically divide the birds into two categories: 1. Those that hop on the ground. 2. Those that don't.

Saturday, January 4, 2014


I like the way perspective nests the beams on these private docks in Slidell, making squares inside squares. 

I took this picture on Christmas morning, when the temperature was what now seems like a cozy 30 degrees or so.

Friday, January 3, 2014

This is starting to look familiar

Ninth Avenue in the snow this morning, when it was a bitter, blizzardy, wind-that-cuts-to-the-bone 10 degrees Fahrenheit (that's -12 for those of you on Celsius planet) in New York.

It took me almost an hour to go the mile to work; I started out walking but quickly gave up and got on a crosstown bus, which didn't move any faster than I could have walked but was at least warm. I started walking again after waiting maybe two minutes for the uptown bus, but grabbed a cab someone else was getting out of mere moments before my nose froze off.

Then this evening, more or less the same in reverse, except that it was an only slightly less bone-chilling 14 degrees. I'm warm now. I've decided I really like being warm, and maybe my next big trip won't be to Antarctica after all.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Adventures in birding

Happy New Year to everyone! At least for one day we can imagine that the new year will be free of the cruelties and delusions that were so rampant in the past, that one flip of the calendar page will somehow correct human nature, and everything will be sunshine and unicorns forever and ever.

But there is always kindness and generosity, sometimes quite unexpected, so here's a story about something that happened in Louisiana. A few days before Christmas, it was still too muddy to take the nature walk we'd planned on, but the sun was out and I needed some fresh air, so I took a walk around the neighborhood. 

There was no one else out and only a few cars, but I saw a few birds, and the trees were interesting, and I took a lot of pictures. A woman in a zippy little Porsche slowed down when she saw me and then stopped. "Are you looking for birds?"

She said that she lived up the road and there were a lot of birds by her pond and I was welcome to look at them. "I'll be coming and going doing errands but just come on by."

So I did. The house was at the other end of the road. There were pillared gates, then a long driveway, leading to a house with a pool and a large pond on the side. I was watching woodpeckers by the driveway when she shouted at me to come around back and see the bayou. They had a private dock and a boathouse by the water, another pond, a huge meadow, a gazebo. I've never seen a house with grounds like this. Even in the movies, I'd never seen grounds like that.

Her husband came out and introduced himself. We talked about birds a little, what they had there, and they invited me to come back early in the morning when the birds were more active. Then they went back to their chores and I walked around and took some pictures.

And I did go back the following morning, with Judy, when the frost on the ground leached cold up my legs through the soles of my shoes. The birds were fairly elusive in those damn tall Louisiana pines, and the promised herons on the bayou never showed up, but it was still magical. And I was so grateful that they shared it with me, a stranger they basically picked up by the side of the road, because one birder recognized another.

May your 2014 be filled with random acts of kindness like this one.

Blog Archive