Half-baked at the White House


The conveyor belt and metal detector were temporary, but the guard stood immovable. “You can either take it back to your car, or leave it with us,” he said. “And if you leave it with us, you don’t get it back.” He pointed to the sign that noted no insulated cups were allowed—even empty ones. So I turned in my potential weapon. Then I gripped my pink ticket for the White House Garden Tour and resisted the desire to tell the guy that no one in their right mind would try to park here.

I joined the crowd. I imagine us all imagining sun glancing off pink, purple, and yellow blooms, the diva perfume of lilac and the tender sweetness of daffodils.

But as I followed the masses down the path, I started to suspect mugs weren’t the only items banned from the grounds. Clouds layered themselves between me and the sun as I passed by a Rose Garden without roses and expanses of closed green buds. No perfume or sea of color here; just a half-baked project in a vacuum of chilly air.

As if to accentuate the theme, off to one side stood an area that looked like a patio trying to become a half basketball court. The green-tinted ground was fringed by rusting park benches and perhaps a bag or two of cement and paint to mark fresh foul lines.

By the time I got to a patch of grape hyacinth where only about half of the stems showed their violet bells, even the surge of the band from the White House porch could not cover up the off feeling.

“The White House Grounds are the oldest continually maintained landscape in the United States,” the glossy four-color program told us. Not to mention the most high-profile. The POTUS must have some of the country’s best horticulturalists working in his front yard. You’d think that after so long and with so much skill, the groundskeepers could time the spring tour for full beauty and put everything in place!

It made me think of the hand-scrawled Jimi Hendrix lyrics on display at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the sketches that Peanuts creator Charles Schulz scribbled on a yellow legal pad and that McSweeney’s scanned into a comics collection.

I know that spinning a song takes sheets full of notes and words that audiences will never hear; even a cartoonist who has been sketching the same characters for half a century must start each time with a pencil and a legal pad. But most of the time, I’d rather not see a reminder of that. I get tired just thinking about it.

Writing has its own arduous process. It takes a terrible first draft, a decent second draft, thinking, revision, thinking again, a few prayers, and then yet more revision. I had wanted a magnolia-scented tour, not a reminder of artistic angst.

But who knows? Maybe  during one late-night session on my laptop or a tense moment at my day job writing desk, the sights of that chilly day will come back to comfort me. As I dig at words that won’t quite fall into place, I’ll remember that the White House garden staff still toil and question themselves, even working the most majestic lawns in the country; even after two hundred springs.

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