Fall Whisks Its Frisky Optimism, Despite Distractions

Fall, brisk, as normal as average but a little bit better, came to town, getting weather folks to shut up about storm fronts and severe weather warnings. The weather was acting like autumn weather does, full of change, a frisky optimism. That’s what it felt like in Washington: it was a fall signal without the dying leaves doing their much-heralded twirls to the ground. It was more like a beginning or, at least, a respite.

Because in Washington in the Year of Our Great Divide, 2012, it remains an election year marching irresolutely toward a resolution in November, a spell of good weather like this seemed over a weekend like a return to normalcy where we bless the average, everyday offerings of urban living. After all, there was baseball, the Nationals, and a star quarterback on the Washington Redskins who seemed to be fulfilling his promise right before our eyes.

And, as one local writer somewhat irreligiously put it to us, a panda cub had been born onto us. This event which had occurred the previous weekend put a certain buoyancy in the air, because we vividly remembered the female panda’s last cub, the remarkable Tai Shan who had left us for a preserve in China not that long ago, and who was still tremendously missed. With the announcement of the unexpected birth, instant memories of Tai Shan and his star power, and the thousands of stuffed panda toys that were sold upon his arrival came to mind. The newcomer, who appeared to be healthy, had no name yet, per Chinese tradition. Everyone referred to him as butter stick, which was about the size and description that fit the tiny cub, often referred to, rarely seen.

All this non-political news made the fall weekend special, the kind where you could start your Friday sitting at a Starbucks, or your local café, drink latte or regular, and watch the family of man drive by, run by and bike by, more often than not. You took a taste of normal into your life—the yard sale signs, the sales at Safeway—not so much at Whole Foods. On the other hand, it was between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. So, Jewish food with its potato latkes, dumplings and soups appeared in the delis to our delight.

In the neighborhoods of our cities, there was no lacking for things to do: in Dupont Circle, they held a street fair on 17th Street which meant traffic troubles but brought out man and beast and fried chicken smells and local artisans and artists, a pause in the day of running from dry cleaner, to hardware store to grocery store. The new performance arts season with concerts, and plays and operas and dancing in abundance. Our park, by Adams Mill Road, along with the dog park, the soccer field and the basketball courts were busy.

Elsewhere, you could go to the National Mall and get your fill of books and writers, authors and bloggers and poets in the willing flesh for the annual National Book Festival. You could come to city’s annual Latino festival, with a festive parade of nations which opened your eyes wide to the diversity of the Hispanic world. This city, in weather like this, revealed itself in the way a body does to singer John Mayer -- as a wonderland.

On Sunday, we bought sweet nothings at Heller’s Bakery and exercised our walking feet all over Mount Pleasant. I spent some time on the phone later with my son, who lives in Las Vegas, and we talked about things and memories we hadn’t talked of in some time, for no reason except that it seemed right. I think the weather made you feel safe to do things like that. And yet, sunlight, and a breezy wind which might incline you to dance or sing can be deceiving.

If you turned on your television, computer or whatever screen which feeds you like a succubus with information, those uninvited guests in your living room, your house or your phone were never far away. I mean, of course, those fine ladies and gentlemen running for elected office, who approved those ads not done by SuperPACs or other interests groups. I especially mean Governor Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama, who drop by with the regularly of an uncle looking for a free meal. On NBC News's "Meet the Press" Sunday, something of a food fight threatened to break out among the round table participants as Republican strategist Bay Buchanan got into an argument with Morning Joe's Joe Scarborough, a conservative himself.

Later in the evening, CBS News's "60 Minutes" had lengthy interviews with Romney and Obama (separately), which were revealing for not really revealing anything. Have to wait for the debates.

By then, the balloon of optimism in the air had burst. The Redskins, on a track to give up, oh, I don’t know, one thousand points this year, gave up another 30-plus and lost again to Cincinnati 38-31, and the Nationals, although still with a magic number of six, and owning a clinched playoff sport, managed to lose two of three to Milwaukee.

And the panda cub died. I was following scores on the net when I saw it, short and terse: “Panda Cub at the National Zoo Dies.”

“Oh, no,” I yelled aloud, and I’m sure it was part of a collective sigh. No one knows exactly what happened. Today, it was learned that the cub had a liver problem. The mother behaved perfectly as she is wont to do as a mother. The cub with no name was gone. “It was devastating,” the director of the National Zoo said.

It was the week of anticipation, free and clear, that made this news so hard to bear. It’s not that we knew the little cub intimately or had even had a glimpse of him. We knew it already. He would have been the second coming of Tai Shan, the panda rock star spreading magnetism and stardust around like he had done with such ease.

It’s hard because pandas are endangered, because the mother had a number of failed pregnancies and because Pandas have difficulty breeding and reproducing. It’s hard because they are also, no other word for it, enchanting. We all remember the triumphant Tai Shan making his debut in front of a hardened press corps at the National Zoo, a group of journalists who were turned into instant blubber. He was a performer whether trying to navigate a tree branch in front of a crowd or diving into his birthday cake. He was a boost, a gift, a boon for the National Zoo in monetary ways, but also a boost for all of us in this city, and everyone who visited the city. The last time I saw him, he was clambering up a hill, his bottom fur sporting pink frosting after he sat in his birthday cake.

That’s what was dancing before our eyes when the announcement of the new cub came. And that’s what disappeared like a stone when the news of his passing came.

Fall, though remained, the air still bright as the next Sunday, the next good news. In my front yard, a black squirrel who lived among the three houses around us, suddenly turned around, looked at me and stood up. Not once, but three times. I mention this because it was a rare thing. Squirrels in this neighborhood run from people unlike the squirrels on Capitol Hill, who have picked up the habit of begging for nuts and treats the way the politicians they live among troll for votes.

At a time like this, you take comfort in what presents itself, however modest.

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Mon, 28 Jul 2014 14:26:19 -0400

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