Saturday, September 14, 2019


My love for Soot, a dog, grew deeper as we aged, more gentle, more forgiving, and seemingly more understanding. English boxers grow not much more than ten. When I turned sixty, Soot was eleven. I remember Soot as a rambunctious puppy. Before that, I remember my son Avery’s carefully scripted presentations that laid-out his case to select and care for a dog. He did a wonderful job. Soot came from Minstrel Boxers, in Easton, Maryland. Katherine Nevius heads Minstrel. She raises champions and is a mainstay of the boxer community. We gained Soot on “breeder’s terms,” which meant that Katherine had the right to breed Soot and select pups for her ownership and care. Because Soot showed mild overbite and skittish disposition, Katherine chose not to breed Soot, and Soot became fully ours — Avery’s — at age three.

Soot’s registered name is “Minstrel Coal Dust,” Soot for short, because her color is more black than standard. We kept the name when she joined our family. I like “Soot” because it is humble, simple, and earthy — as a dog should be, a thing of nature — albeit high-bred.

As a pup Soot was vastly energetic, running chaotically and without discipline, so most often she was on-leash in our leafy, suburban neighborhood. On divorce, Carolyn moved to a one-bedroom apartment in Silver Spring. Avery hesitantly approached me and asked if I would take and care for Soot. (He was in college and could not.) I was delighted by the gift. I paid the balance for our Arlington, Virginia, home and made it my own. A year or so after, I decided to move into the city, a better location for a single man. Soot came along. I was born in DC and grew-up in Chevy Chase. I shopped many houses, from resplendent colonials on the Carter Barron “Gold Coast,” Barnaby Woods, and Cleveland Park, to old row houses on Capitol Hill, Glover Park, Adams Morgan, Foxhal, and the southwest waterfront. I sought an easy commute to work, walking distance to the subway, and something “fun” — near nightlife and restaurants.

I was a “young man in an old body” and sought a vibrant life after a not-so-fun 32-year relationship. I did not consider Georgetown because I thought it was too expensive. When my friend called and told me of a Georgetown house around the corner from hers coming to market, I asked, “How big?” It was about 1,350 square feet. I said I was not interested. Moving from my Arlington place, with about 2,500 square feet (not counting an attic and basement littered with stuff), I said I needed at least 2,000. A few days later my agent went to the realtor’s open house. She telephoned: “Jim, this is your place.” On Saturday I went and looked. It was charming, an 1895 four-level row house that was gently cared for by two aging men. (They were selling because the older had Parkinson’s and could not negotiate the stairs.) The place was like a well-kept ship, with cabinets and cupboards for everything, and twisty stairs rising from top-to-bottom. (I installed sailboat grab rails aside the stair.) In back was a walled garden, a place for Soot’s ministrations along with a specimen maple as old as the house, huge, rising from hosta, vining hydrangea, clematis, fern, and ivy. One of the difficulties in buying a place were my conflicting vectors for close-to-work, near transit, and near parks where I could walk and run Soot. I liked Capitol Hill and Adams Morgan, but the parks were small or distant. Georgetown had it all — a couple blocks from the beautiful Rose Park, where dogs run free; and near the C&O Canal, Potomac River, Dumbarton Oaks, Montrose, and Rock Creek parks. It was just a mile from Foggy Bottom Metro, close to bike paths and buses, and five miles to work. The home was steps from restaurants, bars, and music, including Blues Alley and the Kennedy Center. Price was an ass-tightener: $1.2 million. I wrote a full-price contract, and the place was mine. I sold the Arlington house to a builder who bulldozed the family home and built a multi-million dollar McMansion.

I painted my new place, selected furniture from Arlington, and moved-in with help from my Italian lawyer-professor-friend-lover. The place enchanted. Big parties ensued. Soot loved the place. Of the three bedrooms, one was hers (alternatively, a guest room); the others became my den and the master bedroom, at the top of the house, surrounded by windows, an aerie. Karen called it the “GT Love Shack.” Such fun.

Then age seven, Soot and I would walk to Rose Park, where she’d be freed from leash and gambol with other dogs. She loved to find concavities and writhe in the deeper grass, scratching her back and covering scent. Initially, Soot was more urgent and pulling as we walked the few city blocks — Olive, N and 29th — to the parks, but I trained her and we became familiar. Soon she heeled and walked untethered at my side. Now, age eleven, Soot has less energy — and usually trails behind. I stop at every corner, and we cross together when no cars are near. She wins praise from many: “So well behaved!” I love this girl. We journey together — from Chapel Hill to visit Avery, to New York, Maine, and Canada. Sometimes she joins me for classes at Hopkins or Princeton. Soot is easy, gentle, and beautiful. While not the planet’s brightest creature, I impute great intellect and empathy upon her. Such is the habit of a single male, a dog’s best friend.

At Soot’s Camp, my pup eats full, large meals — sometimes grilled steak — and she poops in tall grasses, sallies about the pond, and snores and farts before the wood stove, atop her wool mat.

Life is lovely.

Saturday, September 7, 2019


My family kept places on the water. Dad taught me to sail. Kathy and I learned to swim well, doing flip turns against slippery planks fastened to the river pier. We became good fishers and crabbers, mostly at the docks and waters of Round Bay on the Severn River. Our place was 101 Edgehill in Sherwood Forest. The cottage sat rickety atop a cliff overlooking the main pier, a sand beach, and a small harbor aside Brewer Pond, a wildlife sanctuary. My parents bought the place when Kathy and I were in third- or fourth-grade, and they sold it when it came time to pay our college tuitions. As kids, we also spent time at Boundary Point, our maternal grandparent’s place on the eastern shore on the Tred Avon, which flows into the Choptank thence the Chesapeake Bay. Boundary Point had a dock, a narrow sand beach, and a saltwater swimming pool; the five-acre parcel was carved out of soy bean and corn fields, dotted with loblolly pine, grapevine, willow, and cattail. Whitetail deer filtered in from the woods to browse grasses and lick a salt block out front. Zinnia, marigold, mint, and pyracantha circled the home. After dinner — often striped bass with back fin, local corn, tomato, and cantaloupe — my grandmother Mom Gibbons and I would walk to the swale and toss food scraps to ducks and crabs. “Here ducky, ducky, ducky, quack-quack,” she’d call, her heavy arms and my skinny sticks lobbing bits of melon and corn onto still water. Mallards and mergansers glided in, bills dabbling soft bits, web feet churning up soft mud. We’d linger and watch crabs scuttle to grab the remains. Minnows, grass shrimp, and water scorpion scavenged motes. Dinner was complete. Mom and I held hands, and we walked back to the house, sometimes alarming a cottontail. My grandfather kept a fisherman’s work boat with an inboard motor, epoxy gray deck and floorboards, and white hull, cuddy cabin, and roof. A captain’s chair swiveled atop a metal post amidst a cluster of throttle and gear levers, gauges, buttons, compass, and horn. Red and green lights showed port and starboard; a white running light rose on a small mast amidships. We chuffed downriver, docked, and ate at a crab shack on the Oxford pier. Sometimes we’d pass fare more elegant at the Robert Morris. It was a lovely, watery-warm, and gentle life.

Later, after Kathy and I finished college, my parents had a five-acre plot on Cod Creek, a body that branches into the Potomac at its mouth with the western Chesapeake. The house was a three-bedroom rambler with a screen porch that overlooked water, dock, sand beach, and marsh. Dad built a tractor shed at the edge of the woods, which he later took as his writing den. Bald eagles, turkey, osprey, coons, deer and turtles habited Cod Creek — along with many thousand creatures neath water. Over the years, my family covered both sides of the Bay and many tributaries and refuges. These were fingers into adventures, real and imagined, times and dreams without finish.

Soot’s Pond itself is a first trickle of Goose Creek, which wanders east to the Potomac River, thence to the Chesapeake and Atlantic. As a teenager, I paddled lower Goose Creek, fished, and camped on the river. Mom and Dad loved the water. They grew up on the Jersey Shore. When he worked for the Newark News, Dad and his buddies owned a power boat named the “Alibi,” which speaks for itself, as in — “The boat broke down and I’ll be home late,” or “We caught more fish than expected,” or “I’m sleeping in the cuddy tonight.” Mom’s family had a cottage on the Metedeconk, aside Barnegat Bay in Ocean County. Mom, her mother and sister would summer there, while Mom’s father H.R. commuted from Chatham and New York City. When I was a kid, family vacations usually found us at raw and rugged places along the east coast, from Bar Harbor to Ocracoke. We often summered in a cottage beside the cliffs of Block Island, where Dad loved to surf-fish. At Black Rock, Mom caught a 42-pound striped bass on 12-pound test line, her cheap rod and push-button reel. It was a record.

Dad was larger than life. He was frequently on television. They made a play about his role in the Pentagon Papers. Sometimes people would stop and ask him for his autograph. It was tough to walk through an airport without a person recognizing Dad, and vice versa. He swelled in this context, and I had trouble relating to him, though I worked earnestly to understand his world. Dinner time was often a recitation of Dad’s daily interviewing on Capitol Hill or at the Pentagon; a phone call with Senator this or that, or a General or cabinet Secretary; or another headline-yielding exploration. He’d pause and ask Mom about her day. “Lesson-plans and two-variable equations,” she’d report, “X-times-Y.” Kathy or I would describe a geography project or the cafeteria lunch. I spoke of my second-base infield position where I’d knock down hits and tag outs; but I was embarrassed that I always struck out, and I said nothing of my batting. Dad’s follow-ups were mostly brief. He disliked math, was bad at it; and he tended to make fun of classroom education. His was a world of experience and grit, battlefield trenches, mud soldiers, and ship bellies, among those who suffered and made a difference. We felt what we did was small; indeed, we were lesser than Dad.

Stripped naked of this, on the water in a small boat with a rising breeze, Dad and I found new geography, a place of tenderness and mutuality, a place we cherished, which I loved deeply. At Sherwood Forest, Dad gave me several sailing books which I read over-and-over, Aymar’s Start ‘Em Sailing, Manry’s Tinkerbell, and Royce’s Sailing Illustrated. Sherwood Forest had a junior sailing club that raced Penguins, an 11-foot five-inch dinghy class designed by Philip Rhodes in 1938. We scanned the papers for a wooden Penguin and brought one home on a rickety trailer. We paid $400 for the boat and $125 for the trailer. Dad and I stripped and polished the brightwork, and sanded and varnished the spars, gunwales, and ribbing. We pulled and sanded the centerboard, which would swell and get stuck in its well when wet. We replaced the wood centerboard with a composite. (I delighted in using the old board to skim atop shallow water along the beach.) Growing up, probably like any child, I felt over-powered by my parents and the adult world, and I sought a place I could own and care for by myself — whether that was a hutch under the attic eaves in DC, a private collection of baseball cards rubber-banded aside my bunk bed, or my boat — the Penguin. I savored every inch of “Cheetah,” the name we gave her. (“Cheetah” was a derivative of my and Kathy’s nicknames, “Che-Che” and “Tahzee,” the best our baby tongues could muster for one another — and not coincidently the world’s fastest land animal.) I coiled every sheet and line, waxed the chines, and carefully pulled Cheetah onto rollers out of the water so she would dry and get lighter before race day. Dad taught me to race, the secret of approaching the start line, turning about with one minute to go, clocking 25 seconds headed away on a stop watch, and turning about again to sail back, luff briefly upwind, and cross the start line beating at full speed, unshadowed by the fleet. Dad’s math skills and geometry were weak, but his essentials were strong. As I got better, Dad bought feathery green and red tell-tales that hung on Cheetah’s starboard and port stays. The feathers showed the direction of the wind and helped me to position the sail so that it spilled little propulsive air as the boat beat close-hauled to the wind, reached midway, or ran downwind. We learned to put our feet under straps and hiked out over the water to keep the boat as flat as possible, so the sail caught more air and beat faster. I loved doing this, a tiny stick extending from the tiller so I could hang out far. Sometimes a hard breeze hit and we were nearly knocked flat. One time Dad and I sailed from Round Bay up the Severn into the Chesapeake, around the Naval Academy, and docked in City Slip, the center of old town Annapolis. On our sail, we lacked a horn or whistle, so to open the low bridge over the Severn we cut back and forth while Dad waived his arms. He blew a lowing “train-whistle” through his cupped hands. The keeper eventually opened the bridge and we tacked up Spa Creek into the harbor. I was at the helm, and I felt king of the world. We grabbed cold-cut sandwiches, chips, and drinks from Rookie’s butcher shop, ate heartily, and sailed back. Dad gave me a few swigs from his beer. He said, “That-a-boy.” “I’m going to take a nap,” and he lay his frame over Cheetah’s mid-thwart, his head and feet dangling over water, long nose pointed to the sun. When the wind burst and Cheetah heeled sharply, Dad’s feet plunged into the Severn. He said, “Oooo … that’s my alarm!” and hiked over the windward side to make Cheetah more stable. I smiled endlessly on these journeys. At night I lay reading my sailing books, made lists, and packed my bags with pemmican, canteens, and compass. Like Manry, I dreamt of sailing my small boat across the Atlantic. I sketched my tiny, hooded focsle, provision bins, lifelines, lights, and radio. I plotted wind and currents. I gained Mom and Dad’s trust and they let me take Cheetah out by myself and for longer expeditions. I have good geometry and navigation skills, and I was able to sail Cheetah with her sail flat, without luff and speedy. I won the Round Bay junior sailing championship every summer. Kids complained about my unfairly "fast boat.” We traded. I beat everyone again. It was not the boat. I never took Cheetah to the ocean or attempted a crossing more ambitious than the coves about Round Bay. But later when I was 23 my skill showed-up for the Great Ocean Race, where I crewed for Team IBM.

One time I was sailing Cheetah downwind in a run but I incorrectly had the sail close-hauled. The boom beat from side-to-side as she jibed with wind blowing-in from the rear. I looked back at the dock and saw Dad waving his arms, his hands raising over his head and pushing forward. I thought this meant for me to keep going toward the duck blind, my turn-around point. It did not. He meant that I should let the sail out, so the boat would stop jibing and run with the wind. I did not. A heavy gust hit, and pushed Cheetah’s bow starboard, while the port chine and centerboard bit the salt water. Cheetah fully caught the wind, and went up high, sharply high; I was standing on the centerboard trunk and she went flat on the water. I fell in, in between the sunk port gunwale and the now floating boom. I paddled about, mostly calm. Dad was always there for me. He asked our friend Toby for a lift in Toby’s mahogany speedboat, and soon they were alongside. Dad jumped into the water and guided me to the Chris Craft, and I clambered aboard. We tied a line between the two boats and gently hauled the mostly submerged Penguin back to the pier and beach. Dad and I bailed and cleaned Cheetah. I coiled her ropes and fluffed the drying tell-tales. I took her sail home and hosed it with fresh water. That evening, Dad drew pictures on paper of the wind angle that caused my capsize, and he pulled out two rulers and an ice cube to demonstrate the angular physics of wind, sail, chine, and centerboard. Dad’s math was not that bad. His love was great.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

R&R -- and Less

Markham, Virginia -- Soot’s Camp, Saturday, May 25, 2019. This was a hard week. Saturday I slept in. When I woke, about 7:30, I flipped on National Public Radio and cogitated. I sorted through familiar thoughts -- pulling the bowstring taut to launch what's next, my cares and obligations, those about me whom I love. Work is incessant. More effort lies ahead -- on Wednesday, an executive asked for increased velocity for a project I lead, citing her Senate testimony and newspaper headlines.

The reward for good work is more work. I do good work. But it can pile up.

I walk outside, replenish Soot’s water, and fill her food bowl with kibble and meat. I pour olive oil over top. She likes this. At nearly 11 years old, Soot is slim and fit, though she has slowed. On hikes after a first mile of dancing off the front, she falls in behind and we trudge on. I love Soot.

She connects me to my young son and she is a friend, a gentle soul at the end of each day.

Soot tromps down the deck stairs, sniffs the long grass, and rolls about, twisting her back like a flat “S” against earth and bramble. The birds are active, flitting from trees to bird feeders and bushes that ring the deck. They sing and chirp, accenting blue sky and sunlight. A train whistle alarms in the distance; a shallow echo rises up-valley towards Soot’s Camp. Baby bluebirds clamor when their parent returns with a mouthful of grubs. Cool air flows over Soot's pond, rockface, and field. It perks my skin. I could get a blanket to cover my legs and lap, but I do not. Before long, the sun will be on the deck and things will warm. I’ll get some blue jeans and head to the garden store. First, I make a pot of coffee. I drink it black, with sugar in the first cup.

Last week my lawnmower died. I about broke even on the tool, considering the cost of a $350 mower against a season of lawn cutting service. The mower had a great engine, a Honda, that started with one pull, but its air filter flew off, the blade ground to a stop, and the whole damn machine became frozen. Nothing would move. I went online, read reviews and ordered a new mower, a Craftsman. I’ll pick it up and cut grass this afternoon.


Cutting lawn at Soot’s Camp gives me a sense of order. That said, I’ve let more lawn become field than before and have planted grasses to attract deer -- red clover, chicory, rye, rape and radish. The grasses grow long and flower. In evening I see many deer when driving nearby lanes, but I see few on my property. I think hunting on the adjacent lots has kept the deer at bay. (There is a bow-and-arrow stand in a field about 100 yards off, on the other side of an antebellum wall. I’m tempted to knock the stand over but I do not.) Aside deer, nature has steadily increased at Soot's Camp -- more birds, nesting creatures, coons, turtle, frog, snake, field mice, chipmunk and fish -- bass, cat, crappie -- and bursting greenery, sedge, willow, duck weed, honeysuckle, lilies, and on.

While two of the three eight-foot weeping willows I planted last month went brown, all are now freshly fringed with the beautiful yellow-green fronds of niobe golden. In not too much time, with roots continuously moist aside pond and creek, they should grow quite large, maybe to forty feet. Like other bits at Soot’s Camp, the willows tie me back to past joy -- here, the willow grove before my grandparents' house on the Tred Avon in Easton where my sister Kathy and I would cavort barefoot entwined by leafy tendrils. Kathy and I were very young then.

I love nature. Sitting on the cabin deck, secluded with my interests and concerns, I wish to blend in, be absorbed and embraced by what surrounds me -- sights, smells, moisture, coolness and heat, echoes, gentle breeze. A healthcare friend, a past lover, told me I am on the autism spectrum. This may be true. I find comfort in being clamped, burrowing in small boxes (as I did when a child), and cocooning in bed — best, when enfolded in my lover’s arms, her breasts flattening against me. Autism or no, this is how I am wired.


Wiring difficulties? I could compete for the United States in the Olympics of neuroplasticity -- brain reprogramming, new conduits, training -- rewiring that enabled me to live, to flourish. (I was struck by a drunk driver when 17, suffered brain injury, was not expected to live, endured craniectomy, coma, paralysis, aphasia, and such.)


My generally unbounded faith in humanity took a step backward today. I bought a lawn mower at Lowes, hauled it in my BMW “farm vehicle" and assembled it at Soot's Camp. When I discovered that the mower ran on clear gas (not a 4-cycle mix), I drove down the road to get some unleaded, leaving my shiny new toy in the drive tucked behind forsythia and holly. When I returned, the mower was gone: Theft!

I checked to make sure the mower hadn't rolled down the hill and sunk into the pond or become lost in the brush. It hadn't. I called the Fauquier police, an officer came to our cabin, he investigated, and we filed a report.

The officer was a good man. He walked the property, and took down make, model, and serial number for the mower. We chatted about law enforcement work, his, Karen's and mine. Out of Warrenton, the officer noted he drove past my cabin several times a day. Having met us and learning the cabin was a weekend retreat, he said he would keep an eye out.


My grace appeared and we leveled our concern about humanity (and the desperado who boosted my mower) with a bottle of Markham's finest, a Phillip Carter claret. I offered a humorous toast: “May the mower cut off every toe or pinky for its new owner.” We giggled. That night, I ordered a new machine online. My friend Steve wrote: “I try to put a positive spin on this kinda stuff. Had my car broken into on multiple occasions over the years -- one time while it was parked in my driveway. Cash and radio stolen. I kinda visualized the thief as Jean Valjean. Made me feel a little better about the inconvenience.” I am sympathetic: Cosette's song stirs me, as does a ramrod-straight man caring for a vulnerable child (as I do). Another friend, a Uganda NGO chief, suggested that I turn the other cheek and set out my chain saw for claim. I will not: drug-induced thievery, which this probably was, is not rational. I'd rather give cash to the rehab shelter.

Karen, the officer, and I speculated that the theft was a quick heist “of convenience,” maybe by a substance abuser, a heroin addict. In the grand scheme the theft was little; only my second in 40 years. My faith in humanity’s goodness will resume its inch-wise progress.

I ordered a game camera to set-up monitoring for future adverse events -- or maybe to snapshot a few wandering deer or a timid bear when the camp is still. I picked-up the mower and cut the grass on Monday, Memorial Day, a day I'm drawn to George and Mud Soldiers.

The mowing went well.