Walking in the shadows of wild ideas

The parking lot for tourists is nearly empty when we arrive. We are alone on the pathway cutting through the Virginia woods this morning. We descend stairs and more stairs that drop sharply. This path and these stairs were not here 250 years ago when others wove their way through this forest. They were carved into the hillside by men and machines that followed many years later.

About a hundred steps down rests a giant gnarled tree trunk. The trunk is a marvel, pained and arthritic looking with exposed roots resembling claws. The aged and weathered bark ripples like thick strands of coarse hair.

The fallen tree is time’s reminder that there was life long before us. It is nature’s way of whispering, “It’s not all about you.”

I learned of this place reading Ron Chernow’s biography of Washington. Chernow says the story of Washington throwing a coin across the Potomac is merely a legend. However, Washington did throw a rock over the top of the Natural Bridge, a 215-foot limestone gorge carved out by Cedar Creek.

Washington had amazing arm strength. He also had powerful thighs, which made him an excellent horseman. Strange, the things you learn in a well-written book. Washington was never overly emotional, had unwavering determination and exercised granite self-control, particularly in public. His courage in battle was at times reckless.

Cedar Creek is moving swiftly this morning, spilling over rocks and gurgling as it passes on the other side of a stone wall. Nearly every surge forward in Washington’s life was linked to deep loss, usually the death of a loved one, his father, his older brother, his beloved step-daughter Patsy who died in her teens of an epileptic seizure.

Washington was not the flat cutout textbooks convey; he was complicated and occasionally deeply conflicted. He led the charge for freedom, but owned slaves. He was a walking contradiction, a man of considerable virtue willingly turning a blind eye to unconscionable coercion.

Saint and sinner all in the same package. The everlasting curse of humanity.

Along with others of his time, Washington committed to a crazy idea that had been tried only briefly in history. It was a vision for a nation not ruled by a single leader, a monarchy, a dynasty, or a chosen tribe, but by the people themselves. It would be a government of self-rule conceived in liberty.

The path takes a gentle turn. Around the bend, benches are lined in neat rows facing the Natural Bridge. You can sit and contemplate this magnificent wonder that soars gracefully framing a patch of sky.

Wild notions of freedom, liberty and self-governance would have had plenty of room to grow here. Boundless skies, the rush of water, the strength of the rocks and forests without end.

You can imagine the silhouette of a man of considerable height and strength launching a rock over the arch. It’s entirely believable.

What’s hard to believe is that fledging bands of poorly equipped farmers, craftsmen and merchants, freed African Americans and even some still enslaved, waged battle for self-government, freedom and liberty against the world’s greatest military and somehow won.

The vision is ours to keep and preserve now. Long live wild ideas of freedom and liberty.

Bless your hearts and bless our fast feet

We have returned home from a short trip to Savannah, Georgia, and would like to confess.

Our crime?

Walking fast.

I blame Southern Living magazine.

We booked a vacation apartment in a building more than 100 years old in the historic district. It had 12-foot ceilings, 9-foot deep windows with louvered shutters, and a balcony with a ceiling fan, and was bordered by huge magnolias. It was like stepping into my cache of Southern Living magazines stashed behind a chair in our front room.

Southern Living and I became one, if only for three days.

There was so much to take in—magnificent architecture, beautiful landscaping, live oaks, Spanish moss, historic monuments and grand mansions. I may have been overly excited, which causes me to move faster than normal, which is already fast. The husband runs nearly every day, which means fast is his default mode as well.

On Day One we took a two-hour self-guided walking tour and finished it in 45 minutes.

We bought a three-day parking pass that enabled us to park at any meter or in any parking garage, but never moved the car. Why drive when you walk fast?

On Day Two I sped read four plaques surrounding a historic mansion and began chit-chatting with other tourists about the history of the construction. Two blocks later we discovered they were trotting along behind us under the mistaken notion that I was a tour guide.

On Day Three we suddenly became aware that we were walking at quite a clip as we routinely outpaced horse-drawn trolleys and kept up with pedicabs.

We made a conscious effort to slow down as we started through another historic square. We even attempted to mosey. One does not walk in a straight line when moseying. One traces an elongated S, slowly weaving from side to side.

We failed at moseying, just like we failed at ambling and sauntering.

Northerners were not built for slow, easy strides, but for quick and jerky movements. We have been conditioned for speed by frigid cold, biting winds, large cities filled with heavy traffic, high-speed trains, and buses so long they have accordion middles so they can round corners. We move fast to survive.

If we couldn’t walk slow, maybe we could sit. We took a bench. For two minutes.

We decided if we were going to slow our pace, we should split up so we didn’t miss anything. The husband bolted for pictures of the house where “Forrest Gump” was filmed and I began photographing tables with white linens and centerpieces being set up for a special event near the famous cast-iron fountain at Forsyth Park.

It was a splendid trip. We are at home now, craving Leopold’s ice cream, cheese straws from The Olde Pink House and green beans cooked with bacon. Had we stayed one day longer we both may have converted to sweet tea.

It was nothing but excitement and the desire to take it all in that caused us to move with such impolite speed.

We do hope y’all understand.

Bless your hearts.

When life hands you lemons, call Legal-Ade

The sour incidents commenced full-bore about seven years ago. Prior to that time, they had been resolved quietly for the most part. No attorneys, no fines, nobody telling somebody to go suck a lemon. But then, they began drawing the ire of city officials. Police were dispatched.

The incidents occurred on warm summer days with cloudless skies—the sort of days that deliver a pressing heat that leaves you dry and parched, the same kind of blue-sky days that make you glad to be alive, thankful to be an American and breathe free.

Oh sure, the incidents could have been avoided. The offenders could have stayed inside, sat on sofas, watched television, binged on salty snacks and turned their fingers orange.

But they didn’t.


They set up lemonade stands.

In Midway, Georgia, three little girls opened a lemonade stand to earn money to go to a water park. Police said they needed a business license, a peddler’s permit and a food permit. So long, girls. Bye-bye water park.

Four-year-old Abigail Krstinger of Coralville, Iowa had her lemonade stand squeezed 30 minutes after it had opened. Busted.

Similar scenes played out in Overton, Texas; Batavia, New York; Dunedin, Florida; Troy, Illinois; Queens, New York; Reno, Nevada; Philadelphia; Miami Beach; St. Louis, Las Cruces, New Mexico and are still playing out today.

Some kids have been told they need permits ranging from $75 to $1500. Others have been told they need proof the lemonade was made in a commercial kitchen inspected by the health department.

Even the rich and famous have gotten into sticky situations. Jerry Seinfeld’s son’s lemonade stand was shut down in the Hamptons. He was raising money for charity.

There are marvelous lessons learned at a lemonade stand—how to organize and plan an event, how to hustle, how to greet customers, how to pitch a product, how to count change, how to figure profits against costs and how to keep ice from melting.

Lemonade stands aren’t usually big money makers, even when mom throws in the lemonade, plastic cups, ice and sign supplies at no cost. But they give kids their first taste of the American Dream. It’s their first experience linking work with financial reward.

It’s unthinkable that the red tape of bureaucracy can choke out young entrepreneurs’ first foray into business. The standard line is that shutting the stands down is for the public good.


Many of the lemonade stands are phoned in by cranky neighbors and sourpusses. In other cases, commercial vendors who feel threatened by kids selling lemonade for 25 cents a cup lodge complaints.

I guess they simply forgot what it’s like to be a kid, what it’s like to dream.

Now, Country Time Lemonade, in a genius marketing move, is offering Legal-Ade, support and financial reimbursement up to $300 to any child whose lemonade stand is threatened.

Today’s children and tomorrow’s entrepreneurs learn yet another lesson in business: When life hands you lemons, make lemonade. When your lemonade stand gets busted, make a call to Legal-Ade.

It’s the new American way.


The pocket dial, the purse dial and the toddler dial

The top two inadvertent cell phone calls are the pocket dial and the purse dial. I’d like to add a third – the I’m carrying-in-groceries-and-my-phone-is-under-my-chin dial. I’ve called a neighbor so many times while carrying in groceries it’s a wonder she doesn’t ask me to take her out of my phone—or stop going to the store so often.

Recently, we have been recipients of the toddler dial. In some ways, the toddler dial is a throwback to the old heavy-breathing land line calls.

I answer the phone and there’s nothing but heavy breathing on the other end, the sort of heavy breathing that happens when you’re a toddler with a cold and no ability or interest in blowing your own nose.

“Hello, Sweetie. Did you mean to call Grandma? Grandma loves when you call!”

Sweetie doesn’t have much to say. He’s just breathing.

“Hello? Sweetie? Say something.”

Sweetie giggles then burst into maniacal laughing.

Why not? The kid has got ‘em now—he’s in possession of his dad’s cell phone, pushing people on speed dial, listening to adults shout, “Hello? Hello? Hello?” Meanwhile, the grown-ups who birthed him, parent him and tell him when he has to go to bed, when he can get up, what he can eat and when he needs to go potty, don’t have a clue what he’s up to. Score one for the toddler.

Then comes a clunk, thud and muffled clatter as the phone hits the floor, most likely disappearing into a mound of plastic dinosaurs. Maybe they’ll find the phone when someone needs a T. rex.

Sweetie calls back and breathes some more.

“I like talking to you, Sweetie, but Grandma is busy,” I say. “Why don’t you take the phone to Daddy?”

Cute kid. I hang up.

Sweetie calls again.

One toddler dial is cute, two toddler dials are fine, but three toddler dials border on telemarketing.

“Take the phone to your daddy. NOW!”

The toddler dial is on a par with the mother of a toddler calling you about something and abruptly screaming, “Noooooo! I have to go!” and hanging up.

You hope it’s not a broken bone or involves a lot of bleeding. You don’t exactly go on about business as usual because you’re wondering if a little one is on the way to the ER. You’d call back but maybe the momma is still on the phone with 911. Maybe she’s driving the kid to the hospital herself.

She finally calls back and says it was “nothing.” Someone dumped one of those half-ton size bags of Veggie Straws on the floor. “Nothing” just took six months off my life.

I decide to call Sweetie back, hoping to speak to someone in charge. No answer. Clearly, Sweetie is still in charge and now screening calls from irritable Grandma.

Later that evening my daughter-in-law calls and says, “I see we missed a couple of calls from you earlier. Everything OK?”

“Great,” I say. “Just wanted to make sure all of you were still alive and breathing.”