Where Have I Been?

Make that: Where have I BEEN? Amazing how easy it was for me to get out of the habit of blogging when nearly three weeks of travel are thrown into the mix. I know, I know, for some bloggers that would be an opportunity to post copiously from far and wide, but I am clearly not one of those bloggers. However, when both of my two readers (OK, there are probably more than that, but you know who you are, R and V!) send me concerned emails wondering where have I been and why haven’t I been blogging, it’s time to get back on the horse. My daughter was home from college for a week, and then we all took off to visit family for both Christmas (New York):

 and New Year’s (Ohio).

 We celebrated one very big birthday (my sister’s):

Who really appreciated the sentiment expressed on her cake (“Don’t Ask”):

And made the astonishing discovery that all three of us have the identical black down coat – and on a frigid night in New York City, naturally we all wore it:

And we saw a few movies; Avatar (yes, in a 3-D theater – worth the extra few bucks for that experience), Up In The Air (never saw it coming, George), and It’s Complicated (I’d watch Meryl Streep doing her laundry, if it came to that). Since returning home to my “normal” life, I’ve also seen A Single Man and The Young Victoria, and this totals up to more movies – in a movie theater, with popcorn and all – in the space of a month than I saw in all of 2009. This makes me a good representative of the average American who has been seeking out little entertaining respites from all the bad news in the world.

You’ve undoubtedly noticed a distinct lack of knitting content in the entry above. And here’s the reason: I’ve been knitting like a demon (and have the sore hands to prove it), but it has all been secret knitting. Three projects the details of which I cannot share until their publications come out for the world to see. What I can show is that my long-suffering February Lady Sweater now has most of one sleeve. I’m tellin’ ya, that sweater may actually be completed in February, and no one will be happier than I.

I also attended a full-day machine-knitting workshop so I could begin to learn the electronic component of the knitting machine that is supposed to save my hands. It was great, but a bit too much information. By the time we broke for lunch, I was already on information overload, even though the information we’d been given was just the tip of the iceberg. But one of my classmates is far more competent than I with computer-aided design, and she gives tutorials… my savior!

This past week, I’ve also been plunged into the edits for my forthcoming book, Brave New Knits. It feels great to be moving forward with the project, and I’m getting excited all over again as I review the projects.

And then there’s the earthquake in Haiti. My heart breaks for every one of them. Knowing that all I can do from here is give money to one of the many relief agencies that have rushed to assist that island country, I made a donation through Yarn Harlot’s Knitters Without Borders, which gives the money to Doctors Without Borders and has done an amazing  job of raising both awareness of the needs and raising generous donations from always-generous knitters. It’s little enough to give when I sit here warm and well-fed, well-sheltered, and with all my loved ones safe.

Jetlag, Sweet Jetlag

It’s so good to be back home, even though I woke up super-early this morning because of the afore-mentioned jetlag. Even though I spent close to a week in NYC going to bed fairly late at night and wakening late-ish the next morning, my body acclimated nonetheless to east coast time (darn it!). And by the time my internal clock readjusts to Pacific time, I’ll be packing up to visit family for the holiday. No rest for the weary. But my daughter will be making her first visit home from college in just a few days, and I cannot wait to see her.

While attending to my recuperating sister, I made a lot of progress on a big secret project, and none whatsoever on my February Lady Sweater (unless you consider taking it out of its project bag to stroke the fabric and look longingly at the sleeves-in-waiting progress), so I have no photos to share this time. Also got tapped for another secret project, so the FLS may have to stay on the back burner until after New Years. Curses! I am so looking forward to wearing it!

The Red Scarf Project

Others have written more eloquently than I possibly could about the Orphan Foundation of America’s Red Scarf Project, and its urgent need for more scarves to include in holiday care packages that will be sent to kids who have aged out of the foster care system. This project grabbed my heart; with a daughter of my own in college, it is painful to think about what her life would be like with no parents or family to guide her into her adult years. So a contribution to the Red Scarf Project seemed like a small gesture in light of the enormity of the need. Although my charitable giving this season already includes a donation to Heifer International to purchase a lamb for a family in South America that will raise it for its wool, I wanted to do something positive for an organization in need right here in the U.S.

I went to the gift shelf where I keep scarves, mitts, and hats that are destined to be gifts for others, and came up with three scarves that fit the criteria for the Red Scarf Project. But three already completed scarves seemed almost unfairly easy – no immediate sweat equity from me required. So I made an additional fresh one using a wool and cashmere blend from Colour Mart. Although the scarf felt a bit rough to the touch during the knitting, once I had washed it, it grew gloriously soft and drapey – and a generous 68″  long to wrap someone up snugly this winter.

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The tuck stitch looks fetching on both front and back, and I hope it will make one of the OFA’s care package recipients feel just that much more appreciated.

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I sent off the box with all four scarves yesterday. Now that I know about this project, I’ll get an earlier start next year!

Soldiering On

My February Lady Sweater just might be done by February if I keep working at this pace. Now that I’ve completed the body and picked up the sleeve stitches, I’ve allowed myself to do a little button-dreaming. And that is infinitely more complicated now that I’ve discovered Green Ray Productions’ Button Division. Jodi’s site on Etsy has turned into a sneaky, addictive little habit;

Bad mood? I know! Let’s check out Jodi’s latest fabulous buttons!

No chocolate in the house? No problem; some of Jodi’s buttons will be an equally wonderful treat!

You get the idea. So I have some pretty amazing options in my button box. Playing with those possibilities is not only a seemingly harmless but insidious form of procrastination, but a continuing source of inspiration and encouragement to complete the darned sweater so I can sew on the buttons already. 

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 See what I mean? 

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On the machine knitting front, I’ve mastered striping! My favorite orange-striped, V-neck Noro sweater that I adore is being reincarnated in the colors of an oil slick on a windy day; sludge greens, overcast sky grays, and oily, oozing purples and blues. My, doesn’t that sound attractive? And yet, it is – at least to me, and I hope, to my daughter, who professes a love of these colors and is the intended recipient of this particular garment for Hannukah.

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All the pieces are done, so I am using precious spare moments to weave in the ends and will soon block and assemble it.

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Nobody was more surprised than I to return from my mom’s 80th birthday weekend celebration to the sight of paperwhites already in full bloom in the late November garden. Just when all the leaves are down from the trees back east and the earth seems barren and cold as it awaits the full force of winter, it was disconcerting – if pleasant – to come home to mild temperatures and a garden full of subtle but definite signs of life.

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Sure, mornings here are in the low 40’s and the winter rains have begun, but by midday outside it is back in the low 60’s and complaints seem, at the very  least, ungrateful. Although I admit to having become one of those thin-blooded Californians by now, even I can appreciate how balmy it is here compared to other parts of the country. Balmy enough for the crocuses to think, “Spring!!!” and begin to stir.

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Balmy and with enough sunshine for the citrus to start coloring up. The Meyer Lemon and Mandarin crops looks promising this year, as do the limes and navel oranges. Once I’ve made my requisite dozens of jars of marmalades, I suspect there will be plenty more to sell to a couple of local restaurants’ pastry chefs as I did last year.

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Among my winter garden favorites are the violets that form a fragrant and lovely ground cover under our ancient pear tree. Every year they are more prolific and dense than the year before. From the sweet, heart-shaped leaves to the heady scent of the flowers, they never fail to charm me.

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Turkey, Anyone?

Happy Thanksgiving to all who celebrate the holiday!!

My contribution to the dinner we’ll attend at the home of friends tomorrow:

Pumpkin cheesecake with bourbon-caramel sauce (no photo, regrettably)

Steamed green beans with lemon zest and those crunchy little fried onions that Trader Joe’s carries at this time of year

Mmmm… I’ll cook a little turkey for us on Friday, mostly for the left-overs. We have a family tradition of making “turkey carcass soup” (I know that sounds disgustingly carnivorous but, well, that’s what it IS) after the holiday, as well as turkey chili and, if there’s still any turkey left beyond that, I’ll make a turkey curry (this year’s will be Mark Bittman’s NY Times version from today’s paper, with baby spinach.). Of course, when I say I’m cooking a “little” turkey, that’s understating the size of the bird, which weighs 14 pounds. It was the smallest I could find already brined, which saved me some work and ensures the availability of those all-important leftovers.

I already made our stuffing (cornbread with sausage and fennel, for anybody wondering), and am prepping the mashed sweet potatoes tonight. So when Friday rolls around, I’ll be ready with only the bird itself remaining to prepare.

A Whole Lotta Knittin’ Goin’ On

Despite an annoying lack of cooperation from my cranky, stiff, crampy, in-need-of-R-and-R fingers, there are a few projects in the works – more than I usually work on simultaneously given my inborn tendency, supposedly the fatal flaw of all Geminis, to get quickly bored and just cavalierly toss the incomplete projects into the “mañana” pile, never to be seen again not always to finish what I start. This scarf is nearly done – just half of the second ruffled edge remains, and then off it goes to my friend Diane in Washington in time for the holidays. This yarn, Classic Elite’s Cashsoft Baby DK, is absolute heaven to work with – soft, soft, soft. And the color, palest celadon, is gorgeous – much more calm and subtle than those I normally choose, making this project a restful and enjoyable departure.

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Yes, I succumbed to Lemming Syndrome, and am knitting myself a February Lady Sweater along with every other knitter on the planet! I finally decided that since the rest of the knitting world seems to have made this baby, there must be a good reason for its enduring popularity. Sure enough, it is quick (for anybody without my hand and finger issues, that is), has an easy-to-memorize lace pattern, and when working with the right yarn, it feels so good to see it taking shape exactly according to plan. Fleece Artist’s hand-dyed, 100% merino Organic Wool is a joy to knit with; squishy and blissfully soft. And you know me – the brighter the color, the happier I am; it’s the magpie in me for sure. This deep, juicy berry shade caught my attention at Santa Barbara’s darling shop Loop and Leaf, so much so that two skeins leapt into my tote bag and demanded to come home with me.  

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I knew as soon as I saw it that it was destined to be my February Lady Sweater.

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I’m still getting comfortable with the new knitting machine, and this cardigan is my first experiment. It is double-breasted and will have elbow-length sleeves, as well as a drapey, swirly collar, and possibly pockets once I figure out the best kind to use. The back, fronts, and sleeves knit up breathtakingly fast – within three days, I was done. Stockinette goes pretty quickly anyway, but this was unlike anything I’ve evern seen. That yarn went through the carriage like the proverbial hot knife through buttah, and before I knew it even the back was done, shaping, decreases, and all. Amazing! 

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Set-in sleeve shaping: easy-peasy!

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Nifty technique for turned hem: slows me down a tidge, but the end result is so worth it.

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So yes, a whole lotta knittin’ goin’ on, just in case you suspected otherwise!

Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?

Last weekend I was in New York, where we had an 80th birthday celebration for my mom. Family and friends gathered at a charming restaurant near my parents’ home, and there everyone sipped hot cider (well, not me – I was busy taking photos) and visited until lunch was served. I got to help Mom get ready for the big day; due to her memory impairment, it’s not so easy for her to put together a festive ensemble (though who among us, regardless of memory issues, has not experienced similar difficulties?). She looked pretty swell!

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My sisters – who do these things especially well – coordinated all the details, and everything went without a hitch. It’s not often you can get all three of us girls into a single photo, but here we are with Mom:

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Rather than try to fit 80 candles on top of that delicious-looking cake, we went for the “Less is more” approach with the numbers “8,” “0,” and a few stars for good measure. Good thing Mom did NOT have to blow out 80 candles; as it happened, she had a dizzy spell after blowing out the ones you see here… and that’s all I’m going to say about it. Except that the title of this post may suggest what came next. No, not an assassination – just an unanticipated, hasty end to the festivities. But Mom is fine now, and, in fact, has forgotten all about it – her birthday, the cake, etc. So it’s a really good thing we have photos, and that everybody else will remember the occasion for her. Happy birthday, Mom!

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Here’s the toast I made in her honor:

When we were little, we loved to watch Mom get dressed up for an evening out with Dad. She was a beauty then, and she still has style and grace to spare. With her artist’s eye and sensibility, she has always believed that “less is more” except where her affection is concerned, and that is when “more” has always been better.

She appreciates all forms of beauty, whether inside a muesum or outside in nature, and has taught others to appreciate it as well. A free spirit, she has always experimented with her creativity, willingly tries new things, and greets life with open curiosity, with a “yes” or a “why not?”

Early on, she shared her love of reading and language with her daughters, beginning with our family tradition of Saturday morning trips to the public library, and continuing with crossword puzzles and competitive games of Scrabble.

Mom has always been a loving mother and a wonderful grandmother as well. From hand-painted birthday cards to her eagerly awaited “face cookies,” she has always known how to make each of her three grandchildren feel special and loved.

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Here’s to you on your 80th birthday, Mom. We love you.

Remontant Irises

Perhaps you remember seeing these irises last week, enjoying their second bloom cycle in a single year:

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Well, I don’t mean to go on about it (despite my iris aficionado bona fides), but here’s another one that opened up this week:

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And just for good measure here’s another shot of the pink dogwood in full autumn glory:

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Winter Squash

This is as festive as it got chez moi this Halloween season. We used to have very few trick-or-treaters, just a handful of little kids with their parents hovering protectively at the front gate. Suddenly in the last year or so, our neighborhood seems to have been discovered, and this year we had a steady stream of children and teenagers (Though my husband insists that when a boy is old enough to shave and his voice has changed, he’s probably too old for trick-or-treating) ringing the doorbell. I was amazed at how polite they were; perhaps only one or two did not say thank you after choosing their candy. (“Oh, come on… take some more,” I kept urging them, jiggling the bowl encouragingly, not wanting to be left with anything that I’d feel duty-bound to eat myself after the fact.)

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One tiny girl, presented with the bowl of candy and told to help herself, carefully picked up, inspected, and then put back nearly every fun-size bar in the bowl before making her choices. I mean, she took so long that her gaggle of little friends started rolling their eyes and noodging her to get going. Because, you know, the neighbors down the street would surely run out of the good stuff right before they arrived if they didn’t get a move on that very minute. She was so cute, I just stood there watching her deliberate rather than grab a handful of candy, fling it into her plastic pumpkin tote bag, and send her on her way.

But I wondered later what her indecisiveness portends for her as an adult. Will she always be so paralyzed when confronted with many choices? I could imagine her shopping for shoes twenty years from now, with multiple pairs in every style arrayed before her, and the salesperson near tears as she hemmed and hawed over which ones to buy. Or lipstick. Just imagine the awful potential… that child may someday own enough lipsticks to open her own make-up salon, simply because she couldn’t choose just one. Fascinating. Has there ever been a study on how children choose Halloween candy? I bet Nestles would pony up for that one.

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While the Japanese maple above leaves me distinctly underwhelmed by its fall foliage, the dogwood below (Dramatic leaf color! Shiny red berries!) does not disappoint.

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Ghost In The Machine

As hand-saving devices go, this knitting machine just may turn out to be my new best friend. The learning curve is steep, to be sure, but for basic design exercises it will have its place. And being able to design on it will save my hands for the hand-knitting I have been able to do only for very short periods of time. I have not even begun to explore the electronic component of the machine yet, but that will open up whole new worlds of possibility from felting to Fair Isle. And because so much of its operation is manual (but without the damaging stress on individual fingers) and somewhat resembles weaving, I still have the creative interaction with the yarn and the fabric that a totally mechanized piece of equipment would not permit. So we’ll see how it goes… I am cautiously optimistic.

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Tonight’s full “beaver” moon was quite spectacular from just outside the back door. I photographed it both with and without the flash, quite taken by the ghostly specter it presented one way, and its bright suspension in the late afternoon sky. So, okay, being back on Standard Time isn’t all bad if it allows me to capture such moments of humble drama.

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Have You Any Wool?

Well, we all know I’ve got plenty. But that didn’t stop me from venturing north with a friend on the last day of October to the Yolo Wool Mill near Sacramento, for their annual sheep shearing festival. I had never seen mill equipment in action, let alone yarn in so many of its formative stages, so the carding and spinning operation tour appealed to my nerd side.

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It was fascinating – and these were old machines from New England that had been shipped out to California when the owner decided to get into the wool milling business many years ago. Can you imagine the detective work that would be required to figure out what went wrong if this machine suddenly stopped in mid-cycle?

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This wool waiting to be spun was gossamer soft, plush and airy.

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This odd couple met us upon our arrival; at first I thought the rabbit must be terrified of the dog, who kept nosing at its cage. But as it turned out, far from cringing in fear, the rabbit pressed its own nose right up against the mesh cage with equal enthusiasm. The two turned out to be buddies, strangely enough. But the rabbit could not be counted on not to run away, unlike the dog, which explains why one is caged and the other not.

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Not surprisingly, there were flocks of sheep pastured all around the mill and farm. These two darling little guys lay patiently as children petted them. Not a lot of yarn for sale at the little booths that were set up on the grounds, which was a bit disappointing.

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My favorite sight occurred on our way back home, when we took a wrong turn and wound up on a dead-end road traversing a marshy wetland. Suddenly, there rose up from the reeds and cattails this majestic bird – wingspan approximately four feet. The air was so still, and had that particular brackish smell of still water mixed with dried grasses. I don’t know if this was a heron or some other variety, but he was stunning.

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In Every End, A Beginning

One of the eternally perplexing mysteries of California to this East Coast native is the change of seasons. I simply have to give up my inclination to measure it out by the calendar, because after nine years here I know, at least, that the calendar has nothing to do with the seasons as I know them. The waning of long, white-bright summer days into short, brilliant autumn days, that in turn give way early to indigo evenings, is a pattern that has become part of my DNA. So I can’t help being disappointed by the absence of traditional fall foliage, although I’ve learned to enjoy the occasional perfect red or golden tree that I see in my travels.

This coral bark maple outside our front door is a showstopper, especially against the vivid blue of the fall sky. Almost overnight, its leaves go from a flash of chartreuse to the color and texture of dry straw, so I always pause to appreciate its brief show.

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No more artichokes until next spring, but those that are allowed to bloom on the stalk are spectacular in their own way. Enormous. Sculptural. Inedible but glorious.

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Highly edible, however, are the delicate lettuces in the vegetable garden, where already I cannot seem to pick them fast enough.

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In addition to the last of the figs, the citrus trees are loaded with unripe fruit. Our lime tree is already starting to drop the early ones, and I try not to let a single one go to waste. Often I just squeeze them and pour the juice into ice cube trays for later use. A couple of those cubes with a splash of Sour Cherry Syrup and seltzer makes a divinely refreshing drink.

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By rights, the dahlias should be done by now. The first hard freeze will definitely turn the remaining stems into limp and slimy straws. But not yet. Nope. For now, there are still fat buds on those stems…

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… as well as the occasional ripe bloom that invites the local moth population to settle down for a visit.

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What really makes me catch my breath are sights like this remontant iris. Although I’d read that certain iris varieties MAY bloom twice in a single season if the conditions are exactly right, I never expect mine to perform as advertised. As with many other things in life, there’s no guarantee from the iris catalogue company that a second bloom cycle will occur. Cynic that I am, I wonder how often, then, could it really happen? So this is a rare treat, and one I won’t take for granted.

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What surprises me the most about Fall is how much rebirth surrounds me. Back east, it was the rare, robust rose that could survive and continue blooming into late October, yet the ones in my garden show no intention of fading away.

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If anything, those last blooms of autumn have an intensity and lushness that suggests they know on some cellular level that their days are numbered.

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No, that’s not my age or my house number. Rather, it was the temperature inside my house when I awoke this morning. Fortunately for me, I had gone to bed wearing pajamas and gym socks. Only around midnight, when I just couldn’t seem to muster enough body heat to fall asleep, did I roll reluctantly out of bed to don a sweatshirt as well. But I did not – no, I did NOT – turn on the heat. The thought never even occurred to me, even after the cat had insinuated herself under the covers to lie pressed against my side in an effort to warm herself. It was only October 28th, after all.

 You see, when we first moved to California we made a rule that has stuck with us even nine years later when our blood has thinned out and we have pathetically low somewhat reduced tolerance for the early morning chill and the raw rainy days of Bay area winters. Even now that we have become self-professed “delicate California flowers,” our rule prevails. That rule is: we don’t turn on the heat before November first.

Despite the cooling off, or perhaps because of it, the camellias are starting to bloom in the garden:

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All I have to add is this: thank goodness Sunday is November first!

Our Nation’s Capitol

I have not been a tourist in Washington, DC in many years. Although I lived in and around that city for a total of seventeen years in the ’80s and ’90s, I have not had reason to return until recently, when a dear friend had one of those big birthdays that deserve to be celebrated. This has been a banner year for our friendship, in that we’ve seen each other three times, after many years when all we managed to do was exchange letters, emails, and the occasional phone call.

The first time we got together this year was after she had a brain tumor removed. Florence Nightingale that I am, I went to help out for a week. Then, this spring, I was stranded overnight in DC due to bad weather (thanks so very much, Continental Airlines!) on my way up to a tiny regional airport in NY… the perfect excuse to couch-surf in her cozy apartment and share an impromptu visit. But this time, we were able to walk everywhere, playing tourist in the cool but humid October days.  Ate some fabulous meals, chiefly at the Old Ebbitt Grill (where, among other delicacies, I had some wondrously fresh raw oysters) and Sequoia down at the Washington harbour – the latter of which was the site of the Big Birthday Dinner:

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These chandeliers at Sequoia had to be twenty feet tall, managing to be both sculptural and illuminating:

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The leaves were changing dramatically enough to thrill my autumn-color-starved eyes:

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The White House is more barricaded than ever but just as lovely and impressive once you slip your camera between the iron fence rails for an unimpeded photo opportunity:

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We also toured the National Holocaust Museum, which I found extremely difficult to see, yet unforgettably moving. While certainly not a cheerful way to spend two hours, the Holocaust remains arguably the most compelling historical event of the 20th century. An entire museum dedicated to preserving its memory is not too much to ask. Even the busloads of schoolkids touring it with us seemed to take it seriously. The United States behaved shamefully during the war, I am sorry to say; our government’s leaders knew full well what was happening to the European Jews, yet did almost nothing to help them until it was too late.

An antidote was to be found at the public garden at Dumbarton Oaks. It was a breathtaking place to spend an afternoon, tramping through the wild yet manicured grounds. We had the place practically to ourselves – and around every corner was another wonder of casually calculated “natural” beauty:

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By the end of the weekend, I was ready to move back.