On a recent Saturday afternoon, while at the Georgetown waterfront with friends, I randomly encountered a fellow Antarctica marathoner, Bill Connor. Bill had just relocated to Washington from Hawaii as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Marine Corps and was also there enjoying the rowing races. Both of us were wearing our "last marathon" shirts and immediately began to relive our glorious adventure to Antarctica.
In 2011, I decided to become a member of the "7 Continents Club”—a group of people who have completed marathons on each continent. The most difficult is the Antarctica Marathon, held on March 9 this year. It was my 17th marathon in six years, including races in Boston, New York, Washington, Mumbai, Rio de Janeiro, Dubai, the Canary Islands, Dublin, Cork City, and Sydney. Approximately 440 runners have completed all seven continents, according to the Boston-based company Marathon Tours that organizes the Antarctica race—that’s fewer than have climbed Mount Everest.
My journey to Antarctica started in Buenos Aires, with the wedding of a close family friend alongside my oldest son, business meetings, asados (barbecues), training sessions with a local Buenos Aires running group (Gracias, Juan Guadalupe and Santiago!), and gatherings with the other Antarctica marathon runners. Besides Bill and myself, local Washingtonians included Mike Locke, an economist from U Street; Amir Arasta, a chiropractor from Adams Morgan; Connie Corbett, a marketing specialist from Germantown; and Yvette Ju, a physician from Olney.
More than 20 countries were represented in our group. There was the Canadian "iron couple" (they’ve completed 220 Ironmen between them), a Polish entrepreneur (who voiced strong opinions about Putin), "Marathon Man" from Australia (who completed 160 marathons on seven continents in just a year), our Mexican videographer, a Long Island mother of six, and a Norwegian businesswoman. There was also a Columbian healthcare businessman, a rugby player from New Zealand, a Chinese engineer, an Australian Olympic rower who won the women’s race, two moms from Texas, and doctors from India, Panama, California, and Indiana. It was an eclectic group to say the least.
We took a three-hour flight from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia—the largest city in the southernmost portion of our hemisphere—the city "at the bottom of the world." This area of Patagonia is scenic, with glaciers and mountains along a majestic harbor; it looks like Switzerland. After visiting the famous "prison museum" and eating delicious crab (better than Maryland's), we boarded our ship. The "Ioffe," named after a prominent Russian physicist, was to be our home for the two-day voyage over Drake's passage—one of the roughest crossings in the world.
Dreading the two-day trip more than the marathon itself, many of us wore motion-sickness patches. While the vast majority of runners experienced only fatigue with the patch, some still became ill and were confined to their cabins during the rough voyage. Fortunately, our emergency-room doctor, Alan, made regular "house calls" on all the decks. We had a friendly Russian crew that provided hearty meals, and we joked about heading directly to Russia after the race because of the Putin-Obama standoff. Presentations on marathon logistics, early explorers, ice melting/climate change, and wildlife helped pass the time.
Our first excursion after arriving in Antarctica was to Robert Island. We all boarded zodiacs—large motorized rafts—to traverse the choppy sea. Our "wetskins" (cold weather gear and boots), kept us from getting soaked during our trip to see elephant seals, fur seals, and chinstrap penguins. Thousands of penguins greeted us as we headed to shore, as the runners took more photos than DC tourists at Cherry Blossom time. It was a winter wilderness—a way to imagine earth before man arrived, as if we had been transported to another planet by the aptly named "First Expedition" group.
In my marathon running, I have always lived by the African proverb: "If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together." Fortunately, I met Suze, a petroleum engineer who lives in Houston but is originally from Bethesda and works on offshore oil platforms. She, annoyingly, had no motion sickness or fatigue. Suze and I have approximately the same marathon pace, so we decided to run together.
The race was held on King George Island (named after King George III). The island is protected as an Antarctic Specialty Managed Area under the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty. Simply stated, no Power Bar wrappers whatsoever would be allowed on land during the race, and only one makeshift "port-a-potty" could be used. This was my first, and most likely last, marathon that involved leaving a ship on a zodiac to get to the course. We ran through several countries—that is, research stations near the race course belonging to Russia, Uruguay, China, and Chile. While this was billed as a marathon, we soon learned that it was more of an eco-challenge, adventure race, and Tough Mudder combined.
We raced on steep icy hills, across lengthy rock paths, through ankle-deep mud, and over streams that became rivers as the day wore on. An aggressive bird, the brown skua, tried to attack one runner's thick blond hair, while another made off with a water bottle. The temperature was near freezing but was much colder with the wind chill. At times we experienced freezing rain and sleet, so ski googles and ski masks came in handy. The only obstacles missing were a volcanic eruption and an earthquake! My polar vortex training in Washington proved invaluable.
An extraordinary group of runners from South Africa participated. Particularly memorable was the first blind runner to ever finish an Antarctica Marathon. Hein, blind since birth, was assisted by his guide, Nick ,who was helping him for the first time ever. (Hein's regular marathon sponsor, Mike, was injured.) Hein was raising funds for VisionTrust, which works to make the world more accessible to the disabled.
Another inspirational new friend was Sophia, a Vietnamese scientist from California, who had begun running marathons after 3 children and major weight gain. She was one of the best runners on board and is a member of Marathon Maniacs Sophia has run 89 marathons in four years. And then there was Richard, running in shorts with his daughter, Kathleen, from Arlington. Richard is in his 60s and has run hundreds of marathons; he’s on his fourth circle around the globe running marathons on all seven continents!
Some scientists from the research stations participated in the race, and the Chinese were particularly friendly supporters, providing snacks and water. We couldn't say the same about a van full of Russians who rudely leaned on their horn as we ran down a gravel road during the race.
Suze and I ran the marathon from start to finish. We enjoyed our conversation, took photos, and cheered on the runners as we passed each other going back and forth from the central transition area. With approximately six miles to go, Jay, an entrepreneur from North Dakota joined us. Then with four miles to go, Dave, a Canadian who lives in Bali, made our trio a quartet. Dave, Jay, and I were all on track to complete our 7 continents, so I urged us all to hold hands with a quarter of a mile to go, as I saw Dave start to falter.
As we crossed the finish line, Dave collapsed on his back in muddy water. Dr. Alan and another doctor from San Francisco were right there, fortunately, and we all carried Dave into the medical tent. Within hours, Dave was walking on board the ship although somewhat dazed. My nickname for him became "Lazarus" which everyone would call him for the remainder of the trip. It is worth noting that we were the only four people to finish the race together. Two runners who did not finish the race on land subsequently ran a full marathon on the ship's deck.
During the next two days in Antarctica, we were able to experience ocean kayaking, glacier hiking, snowball fights, a polar plunge, a "beach" party in the ship's bar, and a wedding officiated by the Russian captain. We saw many seals, whales, and penguins swimming through the icy waters. From the zodiacs we watched an avalanche, glaciers breaking into the sea, seals resting on icebergs, and arctic birds nesting on the side of a cliff. This all gave new meaning to the word "breathtaking."
Our journey back to Argentina from Antarctica was much smoother than the outbound voyage. We had all experienced the trip of a lifetime while developing lifelong friends. We had completed a marathon in Antarctica! I don't think any of us Washingtonians would ever complain about the weather or conditions on the day of the Marine Corps marathon ever again.
Joe Findaro is a lawyer/lobbyist in Washington, DC with Akerman LLP and a father of three who lives in Vienna. He will be moving to Georgetown this fall. His next marathon is in Chicago.
I thought I was unconventional, cutting edge, a rebel. Boy was I wrong.
When I came out of the closet and then had children with my partner, I worried about the stigma. But I did sort of feel like I was avant-garde—or at least like I had an atypical family composition. When I started talking about my lifelong struggle with depression and hospitalizations, I thought for sure I’d be shunned and thought incompetent or at least weird. And I really thought my Adult Protective Services (APS) job—where I investigate and manage cases dealing with vulnerable adults who have been abused, neglected, or exploited—was off the beaten path.
But thanks to the progressive tendencies of the Maryland community in which I live, my identity as a lesbian/APS social worker/mom with mental illness has become so dreadfully…normal.
I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m happy that same-sex marriage is both accepted and legal. I can now pay taxes in a normal way, and my wife (thank you, SCOTUS) can make medical decisions for me. There’s far less stigma and more acceptance of depression, which seems to be a popular thing to have these days. The number of people with the same debilitating illness I have means that I can speak more openly about it. And TV shows like Hoarders and news stories about older folks getting taken advantage of have made even my APS job more familiar.
So my life is conventional. Regular. Boring. And my biggest excitement is the occasional opportunity to communicate with real, live adults over a quick dinner outside of work and away from my children. Although I have not resorted to being a soccer mom (my kids don’t like soccer) or wearing an appliqued kitten in a basket on a soft, pink sweatshirt, I am an average mom around here.
I’m the new Stepford wife—the suburban, liberal, sometimes crazy, lesbian kind. So what am I to do for a mid-life crisis? Do I have to become a straight, conservative PTA mom to rebel?
I'm on a serious search for something new, something different, something rebellious, and something meaningful and exciting to do with my life—inexpensive or free, please. So I've checked out my options and come up with some possibilities.
Option 1: Monster-Truck Driver. I can hear the crowd roar as I'm high in the air, revving my engine at the top of the vehicular food chain—intimidated by nothing. I maneuver my stick, in control of a huge beast that can crush piddly full-size SUVs. Vroom Vroom. But it does all sound a bit phallic—now I see why it is predominately a male sport. I, of course, would paint a rainbow with Rosie the Riveter proudly We-Can-Do-It’ing on the side of the truck, and name my truck something like, “Kick Ass Amazon Estrogen Warrior.”
I start watching monster truck videos. The appeal is waning. I think driving over cars might feel even worse than driving over incredibly big potholes and speed bumps. My butt hurts just thinking about it, and I know I’d definitely need to sit on a pillow—maybe one of those post-hemorrhoid-surgery doughnuts could be Velcroed to the seat. I’d put a macho flannel pillowcase with big trucks on it, but somehow I think no cover could make a hemorrhoid pillow macho enough for a monster-truck driver.
I wonder if I could get a monster truck with sliding side doors like my minivan and car seats, so my kids could easily ride along. I also wonder what my neighbors will say if I parked it in front of the house. I’m not quite sure how I'd manage drive-thrus or get in and out of the truck. A blow-up ladder? A Hoyer lift? A trampoline?
I check the DMV website to find out how to obtain a CDL license, hoping that the ability to spell CDL is all that's required. I also check out the Monster Truck Racing Association website. I scope out the tan, lithe, manly men on the site, and I realize that there's a small possibility I won't fit in. And apparently they do not give a membership discount to social workers.
Option 2: High-Octane Crafter. I do not have enough time, events in my life, sense of paper placement, or highlights in my hair, to be a good scrapbooker. So I look into new types of funky crafts. A kind of craft not to be found at a conventional craft store. Because I am no longer conventional, dammit.
Glassblowing classes at Glen Echo look fun. With long metal poles, fire, and artistry, it seems to be sort of a Cirque-Du-Soleil-meets-visual-art thing. But as I look through the pictures of people blowing glass, I notice that none of them look intrinsically happy. And that is really what I am searching for. That, and a cool uniform.
So I check out metal sculpting and welding—where fire and cool apparel meet. I could look like a Monty Python knight while brandishing a fire weapon and producing art. I could be a new anti-super hero artist chick: Who is that woman behind the mask? It is the mistress, Rodin-Katz, sculptor of evil, creator of all things non-mundane. With her powerful hands, she crushes scrap-bookers and PTA flyers into usable pieces of metal for the greater good.
But it turns out all local metal sculpting classes require enrolling in a whole course of study at a community college. So Rodin-Katz will have to rise another day. Despite knowing this, I have vivid dreams at night of welders doing interpretative modern dance and synchronized swimming wearing rustproofed welding masks. Obscure rebellion clearly lives on in my unconscious.
Option 3: Start a New Career—Law School. I swear there are more lawyers around here than streets, but I convince myself I would be different from them. I convince myself that I would be a tattooed, cool public defender or legal-aid attorney. But then I remember: Oh yeah, I despise public speaking. My voice shakes so severely that, after every oral report or presentation I've ever given, someone next to me puts her hand on my shoulder and flashes a patronizing smile saying: “You did just fine.”
Although they say to envision everyone in the audience naked, I think that's rude, so I imagine everyone in layers and parkas so they don’t feel so cold. Even with a room full of down-clad, wool-socked and -sweatered audience members, I still sound like a blithering idiot. This public speaking thing may be a deal-breaker for lawyering and law school. Then there are the years of no income and the additional student-loan debt to think about.
Option 4: Learn and work abroad. I dream about applying for a Fulbright scholarship and taking either one kid or the whole family abroad with me. Then I remember how exhausting it is just taking a kid on the metro somewhere local. Two seconds after we find seats, I hear the inevitable: "I have to go potty. I don’t want to go to DC." Then louder: "Why does that scary man look so fat and ugly?" And (louder still):"Do all girls have vaginas? Do I still have the chicken pox? I think I just peed."
What makes me think I could help a child or two adjust to a whole new culture? Or even make it through a multi-hour flight? How could we break up our family for any length of time? And as much as school is appealing, do I really need to add homework to my list of responsibilities? (Remember, Liat, that sigh of relief you took after graduate school, when you were no longer obligated to do homework? You’re too old to do that shit again.)
Option 5: Get a Tattoo. This is a great idea—artistic expression, honoring my body as a canvas, and a definite rebel factor. Except I keep thinking of all those relatives of mine who were forced to have numbers tattooed on their arms. Would a tattoo be a big slap in the face to their memories? And with my luck, I’d probably have a misspelled word forever on my body (Like “Liar” instead of “Liat”). And because of Jewish law, I wouldn't be able to be buried in a Jewish cemetery. Though, would I notice? The last straw: A conventional-looking me with a rebellious tattoo might just be, well, stupid.
Option 6: Volunteer. I make a couple of calls looking into volunteering to roam the city streets at night to provide support and resources to “sex workers.” (The term “sex workers” sounds so much less rebellious than prostitutes—almost like an office job. Postal workers only more sane.) The cover of darkness thing makes the volunteering sound so cool. The social worker in me says “sex workers” are troubled souls with unresolved abuse issues in need of resources that will help them leave the life.
But part of me is jealous, and I romanticize a clearly difficult existence—I tell myself they are leading the ultimate rebellious life. They are providing a fantasy for men that want them. I fear that helping sex workers on the street in DC might be too enticing. I can see my first conversation with a fictional prostitute I've named Ruby Starlet: "You make how much per hour?" Ruby probably doesn't have dental insurance, but I am a night owl in need of more money, so maybe I could do this. Unfortunately I look terrible in hot pink spandex, and I fall over in high heels.
Option 7: Change my appearance through a new wardrobe. Nothing seems flattering when I feel fat. And a regular fashion makeover won’t do if I want to be unconventional. So I move beyond the standard of beauty for women into a wardrobe of rebellious self-expression, and this one requires no particular pant size. I plan my wardrobe carefully. I'll wear the pink spandex from the sex-worker idea as a tasteful scarf. And I'll work with my young girls to create a spectacular dress from rhinestone-studded tricolored rotini. I'll call it "Pastabulous." In an ode to the plaguing social ill of bulimia, I will fashion overalls from an air-sickness bag. And in an attempt to signify the struggle of the working class and my own struggles, I'll stitch a skirt of overdue bills, to be accented with a Prozac necklace. Such a fine wardrobe, except that it's all too ridiculous, even for me. Noodles will have to stay on the dinner menu.
The option I finally choose is Option 8: Write about my options in life, wax poetic about my dreams in therapy, be happy with what I've got, and get a new kitten. Her name is Carly, and she came to us from the shelter with ringworm, which she gladly shared. As a result my whole family now has matching round tattoos. Perhaps I’m a rebel after all.
The moderator gives us a nod, and we walk in unison along the edge of the deep end. “Aaaaaand stop!” comes a call from the rear. We pivot to face the pool and bend and stretch into formation, surrounding our seven-person clump with a sunburst of jazz hands. I feel hundreds of eyes watching us as we wait for the music, smiling in our silver-and-pink swimsuits and glittery eyeliner.
A whistle blows, and “Boogie Shoes” by KC and the Sunshine Band explodes from the loudspeakers. We silently count the beats in our heads. I dive on my turn, my teammates fast on my heels, and feel a twinge of pride as my skin breaks the cool surface of the water. My fear of plunging in head-first is one I've been working hard to overcome.
The mention of synchronized swimming often calls to mind Hollywood images of the demure toe-pointing and toothpaste smile of Esther Williams or of wiry Olympic athletes with gelled hair and unfortunate eye makeup. For me, as I dive into the water at my second national synchronized-swimming competition, I think of how the sport has challenged my inhibitions and introduced me to a side of myself that I was surprised to meet.
Although I've always loved being in the water, before I signed up for a synchronized-swimming class in Rockville, I had never learned to dive—which seemed telling of a larger resistance in my life to letting loose, taking risks, and plunging in. As a thirty-something with no big plans for personal transformation on my horizon, I figured it was all downhill from there. An internal ticking clock reminded me constantly that I was “too old for short shorts,” as my mother would say. I had grown most comfortable in swimsuits of the skirted variety and had started to wonder if my coworker was right when she said there are no good surprises after 30.
Each week, though, when I slipped into the water for class, I felt stronger and sexier—a chimeric morphing of a mermaid and Michael Phelps. The day I swam the length of the pool underwater on a single breath, I felt like I could accomplish anything. After a semester, my classmates encouraged me to join the DC-area synchronized swimming team. I looked for excuses: I wasn’t good enough. I was too busy. Worst of all, I would have to perform in a swimsuit! But a nagging part of me wanted to know if I could make it. So after weeks of deliberation, I went to a practice.
At the pool, I was greeted by a group of energetic, latex-capped women aged 24 to 72. I joined them in the deep end and, at their urging, demonstrated what I had learned—a basic scull, a back layout, a splashy, sinking attempt at raising one pointed leg toward the ceiling. Despite being years ahead of me in their skills, the women on the team graciously offered pointers and encouraged me to keep practicing. Afterwards, everyone headed to the communal shower, and I slunk off to change by myself.
I came back the next week and then the next, the camaraderie and the challenge satisfying needs so submerged I hadn’t even realized they were there. At times, I thought the sport would defeat me—if not with its dizzying upside-down spins then surely the dangerously long stretches between gasps of air. For months I left the four-hour practices with quivering legs and an appetite previously seen only on Animal Planet.
Yet as I pushed my body to its limits, it responded by becoming harder and leaner; my lungs stretched to meet the new demands. As my body changed, something inside me shifted as well. I took to wearing audaciously short shorts. Thanks to my teammates, I learned to dive and conquered my fear of the communal shower. I even bid a public farewell to my skirted granny suit at a nude beach.
But what matters more than feeling good in my skin is that I discovered a side of myself I didn't know was there—a side that is strong and capable of taking a chance and diving in. Instead of being on the cusp of inevitable decline, I realize I am in charge of my own journey. There are good surprises after thirty.
Vicki Valosik is a Silver Spring-based writer, program officer, and aquaphile. She has written previously for Washingtonian, as well as for TheAtlantic.com, American Scholar, Philadelphia Inquirer, Washington Post Magazine, and Huffington Post, among others. Find her on Twitter or at vickivalosik.net.
Last spring, a small observance of Earth Day—that annual declaration and celebration of the sanctity of the Earth—took place at a senior-living community in Tenleytown, Northwest DC, where I live. Our little environmental teach-in was a success, with three invited speakers and good crowds that captured the spirit of the first Earth Day 43 years earlier. As the one who suggested the commemoration, I took satisfaction in revisiting a journey begun when I played a part in that initial launch—before mental illness derailed my career and my life.
I clearly remember the words a US senator said to me in early September 1969: “See what you can do about environmental teach-ins on college campuses around the country...all on the same day next spring.” My boss was Gaylord Nelson, a Wisconsin democrat and a powerful figure in Congress. From his suite in the Russell Senate Office Building, there was a view of that corridor of world power, Pennsylvania Avenue. I was Nelson’s legislative director, managing all things related to the environment, on which he was building a national reputation.
I would lead the organization of what became Earth Day. Some 20-million people turned out for the first observance the following spring—April 22, 1970—in a massive, peaceful protest against the pollution of our planet. For me, it was a fateful assignment, an opportunity to reach a pinnacle in my young career in Washington and to prove to myself and the world that I was special. I had hungered to do that since childhood, when my parents never gave me much of a sense of self worth.
Environmentalism, though, inspired me. It was no accident that I was in charge of environmental matters for Senator Nelson’s office. I had become interested years earlier, when I saw the bulldozing of the woods and rivers near my home in Georgia. As a reporter in 1967, I started the first environment beat for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. A series I wrote about environmental degradation in Minnesota was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Earth Day would be a culmination of my past work and an achievement of greater magnitude.
The senator’s directive in hand, I bolted into a four-month sprint of feverish, 18-hour workdays. I tapped inner resources of energy and creativity that I didn't know I had. In the headiest moments, I felt as if I had been hit by a lightning bolt of genius. My strategies, plans, and decisions seemed golden. I had no fear, and I thought anything was possible. It was time: I would convince everyone that I counted, that I was destined for greatness.
Beginning in September, I was everywhere. Before the convenience of the internet, I was recruiting and organizing a committee to steer the teach-in, setting up a tax-exempt organization, raising seed funds, and helping to recruit a staff director for the day when the rapidly growing project would be too unwieldy to be run out of the senator's office. Telephones rang constantly, inquiring visitors poured in. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to know about the teach-in. I remember a secretary looking at me in open-mouthed wonder as I talked back and forth between two telephone receivers.
My most important contribution, however, was to articulate a coherent vision for Senator Nelson’s inspired idea—that the nation, length and breadth, could be committed to environmental protection. Now was the time for action, we believed, and our mass environmental teach-ins would get the ball rolling.
I crafted a pitch to entice the environmental reporters of the nation’s news media to rally around the idea. Almost in concert, the three most important outlets of the day—Time, Newsweek, and The New York Times—picked up the story. Their articles, supplemented by other coverage across the US, established the viability of what soon was to be called Earth Day. The project was launched. I was 31.
In my euphoria during the Earth Day launch, I was blind to the possibility of any obstacles. No problem was unsolvable; nothing could slow me down. But on December 4, 1969, four words interrupted my speeding life and, along with certain genetic predispositions, changed it forever. “John, I feel faint,” my mother said, raising her hand to her forehead. Mother, in the passenger seat of the car I was driving, was having a heart attack. The thin walls of her ailing heart were giving way.
Not knowing CPR, I did the only thing I could, which was to get her to the hospital. Her doctor later told me her heart was too far gone. Aware that I had witnessed Mother’s traumatic death, he said: “You should see a psychiatrist after this.”
I reached home late and wrote a poem through tears: "Momma died tonight./Momma died and took my soul away./Momma./Oh, Momma./Momma died tonight."
That was all the time I could spare to grieve. The next day, I was back in the senator's office. Earth Day deadlines were rushing toward me, and I attacked the project with more energy than ever. A psychiatrist suggested later that, perhaps, after being unable to save my mother, I became doubly committed to saving Mother Earth.
Though I didn't realize it, my work performance declined rapidly after that day. The magic was gone. A fatal obstacle had been met. By Mother’s sputtering heart, I was brought down into the real world—and in the shadows of my mind, a genetic-borne illness was awakened.
In the years since I wrote the poem, people have asked me what “Momma Died Tonight” was about. It wasn't about my real mother—who didn't particularly love or support me and who physically and emotionally abused me at times—it was about the mother I longed for, one who gave me consistent caring and affection. That fantasy mother was the unreal love of my life, and when my actual mother died, my hope that she might become the caring, loving woman I imagined died, too.
That may help explain why December 4 put the brakes on my four-month Earth Day joyride and started a 40-year hell. I was becoming ill, no longer capable of being the star performer to whom my peers had become accustomed. Yet I denied the sad changes taking root in my brain.
The Downward Slide
The first unmistakable sign that my magic touch had faded was the poor “State of the Environment” speech I wrote for Senator Nelson in January 1970. It was billed as a national speech by a Democratic standard bearer for environmental protection, so expectations in Washington were high. Nelson’s political goal was to preempt President Nixon’s looming State of the Union address—expected to focus, opportunistically, on the environment because of the country's burgeoning concern about the issue. But our speech was a miss. The news media yawned, then paid rapt attention when President Nixon claimed the issue a few weeks later. Before the year was out, Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency by executive order.
Instead of seeing the greater good in the outcome, I felt responsible for a fumbled political opportunity. Shortly afterward, another speech I drafted unleashed the ire of the senator's axe man, an administrative assistant whose job it was to criticize, bully, and even tyrannize staffers with whom the senator was unhappy. The AA showed up at my desk one day, my draft in hand, “This is no good,” he said, launching a scathing critique. I was floored.
Burned by his criticism, I responded in a manner that has caused me harrowing difficulties over the years—though it has ultimately helped me survive as well. I rebelled, stubbornly, not by improving my performance, but by engaging in hand-to-hand office combat. I launched a barrage of internal memoranda attacking the senator and his AA for using the senatorial offices in the Capitol and his Wisconsin staff for campaign duties—a common ethical transgression among senators back then and an obvious target for an angry young man.
After my uprising, I was relegated to writing mundane press releases about the teach-in drive, while Senator Nelson gave a new star, Denis Hayes, the job of managing the rollout. (By that time, the Earth Day project had grown too big for the senator’s office; Hayes operated from a downtown office financed by contributions from the United Auto Workers.) The AA later moved me to a no-duties staff position on a Senate subcommittee on poverty. Late in 1974, I was simply let go, my contribution to Earth Day forgotten, bereft of others’ sympathy or curiosity about whether something internally might be wrong. Fired.
After the first day, the hotel clerk made me ask for my room key in French. When I first arrived, he had produced a cream-colored envelope. “A letter for you, Madame. The gentleman brought it this morning.”
The gentleman was artist Arthur Hall Smith. Arthur died last year, a month short of his 84th birthday. He moved to Paris a decade before I traveled there to interview him in 2007. His paintings and drawings are so well regarded that the Corcoran Gallery of Art held a 10-year retrospective of his work the year Jack Kennedy became president.
I’ve been thinking about Arthur more than usual lately, partly because of the exhibition Arthur Hall Smith: In Memoriam, which opened yesterday and runs through April 4 on the campus of GW. But also because I finally completed my doctorate, in which Arthur played an integral role.
When Diane Apostolos-Cappadona, one of my professors at Georgetown, learned that I planned to write about museum founder Duncan Phillips and painter Mark Rothko, she thought it imperative that I interview her dear friend Arthur, who knew both subjects. Hired by Phillips in 1959 to work at the Phillips Collection, Arthur remained at the museum for 14 years as a curatorial assistant, tour guide, lecturer and, on occasion, handyman. There, in January 1961, he witnessed Rothko’s first visit to the Rothko Room.
“I will impose my taste on you,” Arthur said to me during our interview. “In my opinion, Green and Maroon is the greatest Rothko [that Phillips purchased]. It is more subtle and also more complicated." I agreed with Arthur that day about the standout among the four paintings in the Rothko Room at the Phillips Collection—and most often, I still do. There are times, however, when Orange and Red on Red astounds me.
Even before he graduated from high school in Norfolk, Virginia, Arthur aspired to an artist’s life in Paris. In 1951, when he was 21 years old, Arthur was awarded a Fulbright scholarship that allowed him to study art at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts (School of Fine Arts) across the Seine from the Louvre. He pointed it out to me on one of our bus rides.
It had been arranged that we would break our interview into two sessions on different days. My husband, fiction writer Richard Birken, had regaled me with tales of gazing at the Eiffel Tower from a sleeping bag during his undergraduate years, but this was my first time in Paris. I planned to spend my other days sight-seeing. But I didn’t know in advance that Arthur would take it upon himself to play tour guide. He carved out time for me every other day during my week in his adopted city.
Arthur served in the Army during the Korean War. While we waited for le Metro long past the evening rush one night, he expounded on how one should never force an artist to drive a tank. Tears filled my eyes, not because of the sadness of war he relayed, but because he made me laugh so hard. The train platform became a stage for the story of his unsuccessful tank maneuvers.
After Korea, Arthur returned to the States to study under abstract painter Mark Tobey at the University of Washington in Seattle. From there, he came to DC, where he worked in federal jobs until his interview with Phillips.
Many people in the Washington area remember Arthur as a caring professor at George Washington University, where he taught art for 25 years. “The inspiration he gave to his many students is legendary,” art historian Barbara Stephanic told me, for example. During his GW years, Arthur would return to Paris each summer to paint at the studio where I interviewed him. After retiring from the university, he lived and worked year-round on the fourth floor of a Paris building with elements dating back to the 15th century. On the rue Visconti, where neighbors knew him as “le Professeur,” galleries of African and South American antiquities line the street.
It was a mild November the year Arthur led me to Notre Dame, Sainte Chappelle, and cafés known only to Parisians. The Beaujolais Nouveau debuted that week. He would write me later that he would think of me in following years when France uncorked its young wine.
My favorite letter from Arthur refers to his continuing excitement as an artist despite entering his 80th year: “Among my birthday presents was a whole set of new paints manufactured in Australia of all places, which are water soluble but handle like oil. Can’t wait to try them out. The lure of the unexpected faced with a new media that has to be mastered, like having to ‘break’ a horse.”
His mastery of several media—including oil, ink, acrylic wash, and crayon—is evident at the exhibit on GW’s campus. Organized by Jeffery and Barbara Stephanic and John Morrell, the show features 52 works spanning more than six decades. For The Canals of Chartres: Moon After Rain (1984) and Brick Kiln, Maine (1980), Arthur used a “brutalized lines” technique he taught his students. (One of his instruments was the hard brush from an ink eraser.) Descent of the Dove (1963) and Dove Ascending (2006) showcase his interest in spiritual subjects. A lithograph from his Lazarus series is also on display.
Perhaps most striking to me: Several of the paintings in the exhibit call to mind pieces of floating paper. They make me think of the cream-colored envelope that contained my first letter from Arthur, the one that began “Welcome to Paris.”
Arthur Hall Smith: In Memoriam runs March 13 through April 4 at the Luther W. Brady Art Gallery, 805 21 St., NW. It is open to the public Tuesday through Friday, 10 AM to 5 PM.
Pamela Carter-Birken is a freelance writer who covers the arts and humanities. She lives in Arlington.
Last summer, my husband and I went on a private sail on Chesapeake Bay—just the two of us. We had no idea that it would be our last.
Between us, Bruce and I have gathered over 90 years of boating experience in all kinds of water and weather conditions, including “blue water” or ocean sailing. We love the exhilaration of brisk winds on sunlit days and are fascinated by the many places to explore and anchor on the Bay. From Baltimore to Solomons Island to Norfolk, there are few places we’ve missed.
Our favorite anchorage is on Dividing Creek on the Upper Wye River near St. Michaels on the Eastern Shore, and it was there that we made an annual pilgrimage. One year, we stayed at anchor for four nights watching the blue herons stalk their prey and the bald eagles guard their nests. We relished the peace of early morning, when the water is like glass broken only by the slap of a jumping fish or the gentle putt-putt of a waterman’s boat.
Gradually, we became more cautious and listened carefully to the marine forecast before setting out. Sometimes we raised only the foresail, leaving the mainsail down. Even in our 70s we knew we could handle any kind of trouble that arose.
One day last summer, we found a window of quiet weather in an otherwise stormy week and set out from Rock Hall. We glided across the Bay and slipped into the narrow mouth of the Magothy River. Behind the protection of Gibson Island we dropped anchor and settled into a quiet evening of reading, conversation, and a leisurely dinner.
It was morning when the trouble began. I knew that I no longer had the strength to haul up the anchor with its 20 feet of heavy chain, so this pleasure fell to Bruce. After breakfast and with a deep sigh, he was ready for the challenge. “We who are about to die salute you!” he declared and up to the bow he went. With much effort and a few breaks to catch his breath, he got the anchor out of the bay muck and up to the water line. Now what? The anchor refused to right itself so that it could be hauled on board. Bruce was sweating, covered with mud, and bleeding from several abrasions on his forearms. I joined him on the bow to help. As we struggled, the weight of the anchor propelled him forward directly onto me, re-injuring the broken ribs I had sustained a couple of months before. In the meantime we were drifting towards shore and in danger of going aground. Clutching my painful side, I steered us to deeper water while Bruce tried again. No luck. As I watched the scene unfold, I couldn’t help thinking: Please, what are we doing here?
Finally, we gave up and left the anchor dangling off the bow—not a recommended practice, as it could swing into the bow and cause serious damage in rough weather. Fortunately, the trip back was benign. We hadn’t damaged the boat and we had sustained no serious injuries, but it could have been otherwise. We were shaken.
I had been wondering for some time how much longer we could continue to sail, given our ages. How would I ever be able to retrieve him if he fell overboard? Though we do possess these 90 years of combined experience, we lack the strength, agility, and stamina we once had. Apparently, Bruce had been having some of these thoughts, too. As we sat in the cockpit having a beer, he looked at me. There was a long pause. “I don’t think we can continue to sail alone,” he said quietly. I nodded my head in agreement, saddened, but relieved that we had faced reality.
We’ll sail again with friends, but we’ll forever miss the tranquil mornings on “our” Dividing Creek.
Vicky Wood is a retired teacher and freelance writer who lives in Bethesda.
Nathan found me online, where I’d been waiting for a man with perfect spelling and great taste. He was Ivy League and used the phrase bee-loud glade to describe his backyard in Georgetown.
In his emails, he seemed serious but often wrote things like this: “I really like fun. I want to be part of a fun couple.” And, hey, I’m from Baltimore. No one likes fun more than us.
“Shall we meet at the zoo, then?” he asked on the phone. “Let’s say the Elephant House?”
“Maryland Zoo or Washington Zoo?” I asked.
He snickered. There is no other word.
“The National Zoo,” he corrected me. The more we talked, the more I began to think that Nathan believed my city was really a sound stage for The Wire. And there was a part of me that wavered on that. I’m from a place that conjures up formstone and Natty Boh, while the District is all “Hail to the Chief” and gleaming white marble. Of course we’d meet there, I started thinking.
It had snowed, and traffic was snarled, yet I managed to miss the Connecticut Avenue exit. When I walked in, the smell of the Elephant House made me gag a little. Nathan’s eyebrows formed a serious, knitted line.
“Aren’t the elephants fun?” he asked. A wan smile from me. “Is this your first time at our zoo?”
“How about our Capitol? Our Smiths?”
Move over, Pierre L’Enfant. Nathan talked about his adopted city with Chamber of Commerce enthusiasm and, for the first hour, I was willing to give it to him. After all, I knew the Belvedere Hotel couldn’t keep up with the Willard any more than Fort McHenry and the Lincoln Memorial should be allowed in the same sentence. When I attempted a little Baltimore aside about the Cone Sisters, he nodded quickly and moved on to the majesty of the National Gallery.
I was surprised—but kind of relieved—when my Baltimore inferiority complex began to disappear on our walk to lunch. It happened somewhere between Nathan’s connection to the Corcoran (emotional) and his affection for the gelato on Wisconsin (sinful). My inner voice kept saying, “Hey, Nathan, over here. I’m from somewhere, too.”
When we were seated at the restaurant, he began looking over the wine list. He called for the sommelier. More wine list. More brow. The waiter stood, pencil poised, for a long time. “Excellent choice!” he sang out when the word finally came down. It seemed like a lot of work just to get buzzed after a long day at the zoo, as we might say in Baltimore.
To keep myself from making inappropriate comments about drunken crab feasts I’d hosted, I mounted my last defense—pretending to listen. By the time I merged onto the Beltway on my way home, I’d already started thinking of him in the past tense. There would be no more literary emails, and I would miss the Nathan I’d come to know in Times New Roman.
When I got home, there was a message in my inbox from a man who lives in Logan Circle. He seems to know his way around the Reading Room at the Folger, but there was no mention of elephants or fun. Worth a shot. Maybe I’ll suggest an afternoon in Fells Point.
Linda DeMers Hummel is a freelance writer who lives in Baltimore.
At 13,000 feet, I lumber hunchbacked to the hatch, balance in its slender metal frame, and jump.
Growing up, my parents only ever asked that I try new things, give them a chance, and do my best. If I failed, I failed. No biggie. When, as a child, I was disqualified from the breaststroke competition during a swim meet, my parents asked if I knew what “DQ” stood for. Of course I did, I told them. No, they replied, "DQ" stood for “Dairy Queen,” and off we went to get ice cream. Failing need not be fatal, they taught.
So, it was neither a dare nor a death wish that led me to disembark a perfectly good plane mid-flight above southern Pennsylvania. It was just a decision I'd made that, every year, I should try to see the world around me with new eyes courtesy of a new experience. Skydiving seemed a good place to start.
At 12,000 feet, I began the routine I had been taught: Check the altimeter on my left wrist. Check my position over the landing zone. Check for correction signals from the instructor gripping the straps on the jumpsuit fabric around my forearm and thigh. Wait for the instructor's thumbs-up. Exhale. Repeat.
The price of my decision to jump solo—without an instructor connected to me for the entire jump—was that I had to attend a pre-dawn orientation before my first jump to learn the mechanics of balancing and moving myself through space.
“Blue skies,” the jump instructors greeted me as I arrived, their warm and relaxed demeanor a sharp contrast with my own road-worn, over-caffeinated, bleary-eyed, jittery self. My nerves were so taut that you could tune a guitar on them.
The meaning of the greeting was not clear to me, but the words and the tone they were spoken in calmed me and readied me to focus. The instructors would be jumping with me, but at the appointed time, they would let go.
Each new jump came with a new skill to be accomplished during free fall. I made mistakes: On my first jump, I accidentally threw my rip cord into the air after pulling it, despite being forewarned not to. It would chew up the tractors when the farmers working the fields below ran over it, I was told.
I had difficulty remembering that in skydiving parlance, “flare” is not akin to jazz hands but rather a landing command to tug the chute and tuck the legs to slow down to an easy galloping stop.
But I kept my balance in flight and completed each task, and I soon graduated from jumping with two instructors to jumping with one.
At 11,000 feet, I recheck my position. I am falling well, directly over the landing zone, a regional airport surrounded by green farmland—cornfields. It is time to execute this jump’s skills.
My jaw and stomach clench, I angle my arms diagonally, smoothly turning myself to the left and then to the right. I push back my shoulder blades, stretching my legs long, and come face to face with my instructor. We grin stupidly at each other, our cheeks flapping. I tuck my legs into my stomach and roll over.
I exhale, exhilarated and relieved. I return to my balancing point, feeling almost still. I relish the moment. I did what I set out to do and am now way past ready to land.
At 10,000 feet, I get a thumbs-up from the one instructor falling beside me, confirming I am well-positioned. I wave her off, opening up air space around me to pull the ripcord and deploy my parachute.
Again and again, I pull. With all my might, I pull, trying not to lose my balanced position. The worst thing would be to start to tumble. But the cord won’t budge.
I look to where my instructor had been. She has not pulled her parachute either. She is falling with me, but farther off. I can’t make out what she is signaling. A sinking feeling inside whispers: It doesn’t matter. Then her shoot deploys, and she disappears above me.
This is not happening. Except it really, really is. I don’t look at my altimeter again. I look into the blue sky around me. And I look down, transfixed by the fast-approaching geometry that I know to be the black roof of a barn, a green lawn, a yellow cornfield.
I think of the kids that sit on the far edges of the landing field watching as the parachutes of the others I jumped with blossom like flowers falling from the sky.
I think of Wile E. Coyote, suspended briefly in the air, having chased the Road Runner off a cliff. He pulls out a sign. “Oops.”
I think back to the moment in the plane when the hatch was thrown open on my first jump and the air rushed in like a Mack truck. I hadn’t been prepared for the enormity of that moment, but I had tucked away my alarm, put my thoughts on mute, hunched over to the hatch, stepped into it, gripped the plane’s shell tightly in my hands, one palm flat on the inside panel, the other palm flat against the outside panel, and then let go. That was the hardest moment—until now.
I stop tugging on the rip cord. I tuck away my thoughts, find my mental balancing point, and let go.
My breath is knocked out of me when my reserve parachute pops, catapulting me upright and back to my senses.
I had completely forgotten to pull my reserve chute. Luckily, it automatically deploys at a certain altitude. The force with which I was yanked upright left me with the sense that the reserve chute had given me a dummy slap: “You idiot. I’m your Plan B. I was here all along.”
I exhale, mortified, relieved, and really scared.
I see Wile E. Coyote scrambling in the air as if searching for a ladder we know isn't there, holding a sign: “Ouch!” This is going to hurt.
How to navigate? Where to land? The drop zone is not in sight. Barn? Grass? Corn field? I think of “amber waves of grain” and aim for a corn field. But a word to the wise, corn doesn’t bend like waves. I bend. But at least I'm on the ground. Phew.
I get up and walk out of the cornfield with an index finger that will heal in six weeks angled in a new direction. I walk out of that corn field with a renewed appreciation for and love of corn. And I walk out of that cornfield with an internal compass that, like my finger, now points in a slightly different direction. I walk out with a mantra strung across my heart like prayer flags that flap in the wind. This one simply says, “Blue skies.”
Author’s note: The events written about happened several years ago; the altitudes may not be exact, and certain details are abridged for space. The parachute I jumped with and instructors were not in any way at fault; I was simply unable to pull my cord on the jump described.
Christine Pulfrey is a writer and editor who works for a Washington-area information service. She lives in Adams Morgan.
My husband Clyde and I spent Christmas in Washington, DC. We treated ourselves to a stay at the renowned Hay Adams Hotel, just up the street from the White House. Our suite's balcony overlooked a Washington landmark, St. John’s Church, the Church of Presidents.
While we were there, I would wake up in the night, go out on the balcony, and look at the church. Bright lights illuminated the exterior of the church, and Christmas wreaths with red bows hung on each side of the double doors. I saw a homeless man wrapped in blankets sleeping on the porch of the church every night.
The last few nights of our visit, the weather was below freezing. I found it unbelievable: Here was a man in such need, and the administrators of the church appeared to have ignored him. At the very least, couldn’t they have invited him in to sleep in the foyer? Parishioners who were attending the Christmas sing-along service passed him by as if he were invisible. It seemed so hypocritical.
On Christmas morning, I got up early, just as the sun was coming up. I opened the door of the room to collect the newspaper and, hanging on the doorknob, was a Christmas gift from the hotel: a velvet bag the color of wine. It was covered in jewels of various colors—fake jewels, of course, but it was pretty. A thin, silk, braided rope gathered and closed the bag at the top. Opening it, I saw that it was filled with gold coins, actually chocolate candies wrapped in gold foil. I liked this gift; it would be a great place to carry my jewelry when I traveled, I thought.
Back in the room, I walked onto the balcony and looked down at the church. The homeless man was still there on the porch.
I had heard on the news the night before that it would be 23 degrees in Washington on Christmas morning. So I went back inside, dressed, careful not to wake Clyde, picked up the red wool cap I’d gotten him for Christmas, grabbed all the cash I had in my wallet—$80—stuffed it in the cap, and took the elevator down to the lobby.
Stepping out of the elevator, I was enveloped by the smell of steaming hot chocolate coming from the silver service. I was tempted to stop and have a quick cup, but instead, I wished the doorman who saw me out a “Merry Christmas” and crossed the street to the church.
The homeless man saw me coming. He looked confused and a little nervous.
He was dressed in layered rags. It was hard to judge his age, late 40's maybe, and when he stood up, I could see he was tall and thin. I walked up close to him, like you would if you were going to shake somebody's hand. Smiling into his face, I handed him the bejeweled bag of chocolates and said, "Good morning! I just wanted to wish you Merry Christmas!"
His voice cracked—not from emotion, but from weariness and exposure—as he answered, "Okay."
Then I opened the top of the red cap just enough so that he could see the cash tucked inside and gave it to him. "I thought you could use this cap," I said. He was looking into the cap. He hesitated, looked up at me: " Okay," he said again, through crooked, mangled teeth.
He sounded confused, not aloof or rude, just confused, submissive, and still dulled by sleep. It wasn't the effusive "Thank you! God bless you! You are a wonderful person!" that I realize now I half expected. It was as if I’d wound up a toy, expecting it to dance for me, but it hadn't worked. It didn't move.
"Merry Christmas!" I said again.
"Alrighty then!" I said, turning and walking down the steps and back across the street to my fancy, warm hotel, feeling all good about myself and thinking that that had been the proper way to start Christmas day. Indeed, as they say, there is no such thing as an unselfish act.
After availing myself of the hot chocolate, I returned to our room. Clyde was still asleep. I went to the balcony and looked down at the church. What did I expect to see? The man jumping for glee because an angel of mercy had come down from the sky to help him? He had to have seen me up there on my balcony at some point, hadn’t he? Did I expect to see him packing up his stuff and heading off to have a nice hot breakfast?
He was sitting very still on the floor of the porch, all bundled up, staring at his lap. “Maybe he doesn't know it's Christmas,” I thought.
But he was wearing the red cap.
Kay Smith is a retired mother of two adult children. She lives in Southern California and is a member of the Los Angeles Poets and Writers Collective. She spent Christmas in Washington visiting her daughter.
I hate those annual bouts of hacking and sneezing. Yet, recent experience compels me to grudgingly acknowledge that the common cold might have a few benefits.
You know how it goes with a cold. At first, you're Roadrunner. You make plans with the family to go skiing or hiking, to take the subway into the city to wander through the museums despite not feeling too well. You get things done: carting your children to the activity of the season, paying bills, shopping, cooking, cleaning, repairing, maintaining. You are a master juggler. Sometimes you wish things would slow down, but there isn’t anything you want to give up. Okay, you could do without housework, home repair, and 40-hour work weeks, but you like to eat, and you like some semblance of order. In the end, you keep everything on the calendar and on the list of Things to Do.
Then one day you wake up listless and lethargic. Over the course of the day you wind down like a toy soldier with a dying battery. You know you're coming down with a cold—the cold that your six-year-old brought home along with the list of things he needs by Monday for the science experiment; the cold that your husband is still fighting. You try to keep going. You slog through the days with your foggy brain, your running nose, your aching body, your sore throat, and your nearly empty gas tank accomplishing less and less. Laundry mounts, home repair projects stall, toys and newspapers litter the living room floor, dinner becomes take out, and some of the balls you have been juggling tumble to the ground.
Your body is a tyrant. Eventually, you can go no farther. Your nose is red and raw, and a tissue box has become a fifth appendage. You cannot utter two sentences without hacking, the same hacks that make sleep impossible. You have entered the stage of perfect misery. With the food supply nearing empty, no energy to grocery shop, and a budget that cannot stretch to one more night of take out, you're wondering what to serve for dinner when your eight-year-old and six-year-old appear with trays of graham crackers, peanut butter, and bananas. These are the same children that just hours earlier, knowing your miserable state, had relentlessly begged and pleaded to go to the zoo. Their earnest faces convey their empathy and their sincere apology for nagging. As you dine on trays in the living room, crumbs all over the couch and floor, you wonder why you do not have graham crackers, peanut butter, and bananas for dinner more often. You top off the evening by playing the computer games your children have begged you to try for months.
A few days later you are surprised by a spark of energy. You consider the to-do list. But since you have been genuinely sick, you send the guilt demons packing and sink into a chair to watch a movie or a football game. At some point, you can no longer tolerate the disorder. You summon the calendar and the to-do list—but you also mark a week in March to not go anywhere, not do anything, and just see what new moves you and your family might imagine. This is the thing about the common cold: In altering the routine choreography of daily life and relationships, it allows a space to imagine new steps and new moves. Other life events certainly have the same potential, but there is nothing that so reliably settles into almost every household every year.
Terry Northcutt is a psychologist. She often muses about the creativity and gentle humor people bring to bear on the ordinary and sometimes uncomfortable events in their lives from Upper Marlboro, Maryland.