7/29/2014

75+ Sensible Ways to Reduce Spending and Save Money


There are probably thousands of websites/blogposts/etc. out here in the cloud purporting to provide easy solutions for reducing your spending.  Some of them are helpful, but a lot of them are just plain silly.  Extreme couponing? Fine ... if your family doesn't mind tomato soup and Hamburger Helper every day for three months.  Turn your heat down to 63F in winter?  Why not just leave the windows open?   Make your own glue?  It costs, like, 25 cents on sale - what a ridiculous waste of time!

Reducing expenses is a worthy goal, but not at the cost of robbing your life of joy and comfort.  The following list suggests strategies that won't appreciably alter your standard of living, but that could conceivably lower your yearly expenses by thousands of dollars.

Utilities, Bills & Other monthly expenses
  1. Housing costs.  Potentially the #1 way to save money is to take a practical look at how much you're paying for housing.  If you own your house, you need to immediately refinance so that you are paying the lowest amount of interest possible.  If you rent, check to make sure you're paying a competitive rate.  If you own/rent a condo, pick one that doesn't charge exorbitant condo fees.  You need to not be afraid to move if you're living in an area that's too expensive, too far away from your job, or too expensive to maintain.
  2. Banking Costs.  Make sure you've got the right bank account for your needs.  That .1% your bank is paying you in interest every month is laughably little compared to the fees they may be charging you in exchange for their paltry "generosity." Oh, and opt out of "overdraft protection" - otherwise you'll pay steep fees every time you overdraw your account.
  3. Internet. Whatever you do, do NOT give up your internet.  Why? Reason #1: it's going to provide all sorts of entertainment for a single price. Reason #2: It's going to save you money when shopping for goods & services.  Reason #3: In this day and age, internet is a mandatory utility - right up there with plumbing and HVAC. However, you need to look at your contract & make sure you're not paying for more than you need. Sure, it's sweet to be able to load movies in 10 seconds, but if you can save $20/mo by waiting 60 seconds for your movie to load, 50 seconds of your life is a pretty small price to pay for the huge savings that will eventually accrue
  4. Call phone. Also not advocating that you give up your cell phone, but do seriously consider whether you need all the features you are paying for.  Messaging is a want, not a need.  (Call or send email instead!)  Streaming youtube videos while you're bored is a want, not a need.  (Carry a book with you for emergencies.)  GPS is a want, not a need.  (Mapquest and maps still work just fine for this.)  Stripped down phones are fine for most people. 
  5. Wired phone.  There are some good reasons for keeping your wired service, but if you're paying for any premium features you're a fool; these days no one should be paying extra fees for lines, international calls, or voice mail.
  6. Television/cable.  Now that all the major networks offer real-time news online, now that Netflix offers streaming movies for $7/mo, now that sites like Hulu offer current television shows for free, and now that you can find at least one Redbox in practically every strip mall, there's simply no reason you should be paying for premium channels. You might even come to realize you don't need television at all.
  7. Credit Cards.  This is one area where most websites give good advice.  That advice being: 1) pick cards offering special low rates for the first year, then when the year is up switch your balance to another card offering a low introductory rate; 2) pay off all but a couple of the cards but don't close the accounts because credit scores give you credit for maintaining an unused balance; and 3) never use them for daily expenses - only for large purchases that you'll genuinely need to pay off over several months.
  8. Cash Machines.  This is a no-brainer, but I can't believe how many people willingly pay to get access to their own money!  You should NEVER be paying withdrawal fees.  If, however, you need to withdraw $$ from an ATM that charges a fee, better to borrow a big sum all at once than make a strong of small withdrawals over several days. Why? Better one $3 fee on a $100 withdrawal than a $6 fee for two $50 withdrawals.
  9. Electricity.  Lots of great recommendations out there for saving energy; all I'm going to do is reiterate that you need to focus on the equipment/activities that are especially major drains on your electricity - to whit:
    1. HVAC.  Most thermostats are programmable. If you're keeping the house cool/hot while you're at work, you're wasting $$.  You also should be lowering the temp at least by a few degrees at night; blankets are a whole lot cheaper than energy.  Use fans/space heaters judiciously - they can save money if you only need one room heated/cooled at a time.  Finally, weatherize your home to the extent possible: plug window leaks, hang curtains that block drafts from entering the house, and keep your curtains drawn on especially hot/cold days.
    2. Appliances.  Make sure you're running full loads before starting your dishwasher, clothes washer, or dryer.
    3. Turn It Off.  Didn't your mom/dad always tell you to turn off lights, ceiling fans, computers, televisions, etc. when you're not actually using them?  That's because they're right.
  10. Water.  All of us, without exception, use more water than we need to.  While turning off the water while brushing your teeth may seem thrifty, tiny gestures like that aren't going to make noticeable differences in your water bill.  Instead, look at those activities in your house that consume huge quantities of water at once and figure out how to make them more efficient.  For example, if you're washing your car for purely aesthetic purposes, stop it. If you're running your dishwasher or laundry at less than capacity, cut it out.  And if your lawn needs frequent watering, then you're living somewhere where you probably shouldn't have one - consider replacing your water-sucking plantings with drought resistant alternatives.
  11. Life Insurance.  Way too many people erroneously suppose that this is a necessary expense.  Read carefully: the ONLY purpose of life insurance is to replace the income (or income equivalent) of a person in the event they pass.  That means you should NEVER be paying for life insurance on a dependent child or elderly relative, and you shouldn't be insuring someone for more than their monetary replacement value.  Repeat after me: life insurance is NOT an investment (whatever the insurance brokers would have you think), and it is definitely NOT a lottery/windfall!
  12. Retirement Savings.  If your employer offers to match your retirement savings in whole or part, take advantage of it! It's not often someone offers you free money.
  13. Health Insurance.  Take the time to consider your health care needs thoroughly and honestly, then pick a health plan that will meet those needs.  For some families (those with pre-existing, extensive medical requirements, for example) the best plan may be something with a higher monthly fee but lower deductibles.  For other families (those that are relatively healthy), it may be smarter to pick a plan with a higher deductible but lower monthly payments.
  14. Car.  Lots of advice out there on how not to spend more than you need to on a car.  I merely reiterate the three most obvious: 1) When choosing which model to buy, factor in life-cycle reliability, insurance, and mileage; 2) plan on keeping your car until it dies; and 3) pick whatever financing option that results in the lowest total added interest.
  15. Car Insurance.   First, pick a legitimate company, because the money you save on a dubious company you'll eventually end up paying in claim costs they refuse to cover.  Second, choose a policy with the highest deductible you can handle, because this will lower your monthly bill.  Third, take advantage of any discounts they offer: good drivers discounts, good student discounts, etc.
  16. Commuting costs.  Look honestly at your commute and trim expenses where you can.  Carpooling, buses, metro, & working from home may all be viable options.  You may also wish to examine how you run errands: a little efficiency may end up saving you lots of gas.
  17. Investments.  Many investors end up paying 2% to 3% off the top each year for investing costs. Lower-cost mutual funds and index funds can save you a lot of money over time.
  18. Household Maintenance.  You'd be surprised what you can do yourself!  The friendly folks at your local hardware store are almost always glad to help, or borrow "how to" books/DVD from the library, or check out "how to" videos on sites like This Old House.  If you must consult a professional, however, check for coupons/discounts first; these are often available through mailers, your local newspaper, the yellow pages, or online.  And pick a firm that has been personally recommended by someone you trust, because an inexpensive paint/repair job isn't inexpensive if you end up having to have it redone.
  19. Gym Membership.  If you're a professional athlete or live in an urban area where outside recreation opportunities are scarce, then I suppose gym membership may be necessary. But let's be frank: if you belong to a gym, it's probably either because you enjoy the social aspect or it helps keep you disciplined - neither of which  honestly justify a big monthly fee.  Consider substituting jogging, biking, climbing your own stairs, and/or renting exercise tapes from the library.  Alternatively, trade in your expensive monthly contract for a discount gym or rec facility.
  20. Dry cleaning.  A couple of tips to reduce dry cleaning expenses: 1) dry clean your items less frequently; most clothes can survive multiple wearings before needing cleaning; 2) comparison shop to make sure the dry cleaner you use offers competitive rates; and 3) clean non dry-clean-only objects at home.
  21. Monthly subscriptions.  Ditch any newspaper, magazine, or online subscriptions you're not actually using on a monthly basis.

Non-food shopping
  1. Electronics.   It's way too easy to see electronics as "toys" - a category where, conveniently, "return on investment" becomes a fungible concept.  But before you spend money on the latest new device, an upgrade for your phone, a faster data plan, or a new iphone case, ask yourself: "is this a NEED or a WANT?"  Making cuts in just this one category could potentially save your family thousands of dollars a year.
  2. Furniture/large purchases. Before you go shopping for furniture, etc., first check online to see what gently used items may be available at steep discounts from sites like Craig's List, or even FREE from sites such as Freecycle. If you need to buy expensive items new, however, ALWAYS wait for a sale (often associated with holidays).
  3. Comparison shopping.  Thanks to the dozens of websites that allow you to enter the product you're looking for and then return a list of retailers & the prices they are offering, comparison shopping has never been easier.   Don't buy anything major until you've checked to verify the range of prices available!
  4. Smaller purchases.  Again, you may be surprised what your neighbors are giving away via Freecycle - everything from living room sets to kitchen supplies, tools, toys, books, clothing and more.  Goodwill and thrift stores are also good places to check for ordinary household items.
  5. Shopping at department stores.  ABSOLUTELY use coupons for department store purchases! In fact, given the current ruthless state of competition between retailers, you shouldn't be buying anything from a department store unless you have a coupon AND it's on sale.  Patience, self-discipline and a little cunning could save you hundreds of $$s a month.
  6. Shopping at discount warehouse stores.  If you have a huge family, then these stores may be worth the yearly fee.  But if you're shopping for just 2-3 and you're watching for sales, chances are that you're barely saving enough to cover the yearly fee.
  7. Shopping online.   Hold out for free shipping, often offered right before Christmas.
  8. Cleaning products.  I think people who make all their own cleaning products are a little crazy. Who has that kind of time? But I applaud the general idea of not paying premium prices for little bottles of specialized cleaners.  No matter what your cleaning need, it can probably be met with a combination of much less expensive alternatives: bleach, dish soap, vinegar, baking soda and/or carbonated water.  (Google your specific cleaning need for scores of websites suggesting cheaper alternatives.)
  9. Cosmetics.  Study after study has shown almost no correlation between price and effectiveness when it comes to most cosmetics.  (I include in this category not just makeup but also shampoos/conditioners, body washes, mani/pedi supplies, etc.)  So experiment with less expensive brands until you find acceptable substitutes for what you're using now & make the switch.   Depending on your needs, this could save you a bucket-load of money in and of itself.
  10. Baby stuff.  It's human nature to want to go out & buy gobs of stuff for your baby-to-be (diaper genie! wipe warmer! snuggie!), but take it from parents that have already been there - a lot of the stuff the stores & books say you'll need, you really don't need.  Consider buying just the essentials and then waiting until after the baby is born to figure out what you really need. A couple of correllaries to this: 1) cloth diapers aren't appreciably less expensive than purchased because of the energy costs associated with laundering them; 2) NO ONE needs an expensive diaper bag! A backpack or gymbag is really all you need; and 3) chances are you have at least one acquaintance with children older than yours who would be delighted to pass on their baby accessories to you if you just ask.
  11. Toys.  Kids really don't need expensive toys to keep them entertained.  You'd be surprised how much fun they can get out of old cardboard boxes, excess office supplies, and old clothes they can repurpose as costumes.  More expensive items can often be picked up for a song at garage sales, offered at a steep discount by families whose kids have outgrown them. 
  12. Gas.  Obviously, try not to buy your gas at the most expensive station in town. But don't go crazy comparison shopping either.  If your tank holds 15 gallons & gas is 5 cents more expensive at the station closest to your house, we're only talking a difference of 75 cents, for gosh sakes. Do, however, make sure you're using the lowest octane your vehicle will accept.
  13. Eschew extended warranties.  Almost never justified.  Your chances of needing an extended warranty are extremely low, and even then there's an even chance your warranty won't actually cover what needs doing.  Almost always more cost-efficient to take your chances.
  14. Clothes.  Three tips: 1) buy out of season for the best prices; 2) shop clothing consolidators (stores that resell remainders from department stores) for good brands at great prices; 3) don't count out Goodwill stores - people donate high quality, expensive items all the time.  By the way, don't buy clothes you don't need!  If you've got more clothes than fit in your closet, then you shouldn't even be shopping.
  15. Shoes/Shoes/Accessories.  Again, these are too often "wants" rather than "needs."  Many people I know swear by the 14-day rule: if you really want something, wait 14 days before actually purchasing it, to give your emotions a chance to cool & your logic/reason a chance to assert itself as appropriate.  
  16. Customer Reward Programs. Almost every retailer offers some sort of reward program for frequent shoppers.  The rewards may take the form of money back (ex: Target), special savings coupons (ex: most department stores), and/or access to special sales.  If you're turning down free money, then you need more help than this list can give you.
Food Shopping
  1. Eschew restaurants.  They're horribly expensive & you aren't even getting entertainment for your $$ - at least if you spend $11 on a movie ticket (vs. a lasagna entre), you get a lasting memory.  Save restaurants for special occasions or when absolutely necessary & use the money you save to pay a little extra for stuff you can make at home.
  2. Eshcew snacks.  Cups of coffee, drive through sodas, and purchases from snack machines end up running to a shockingly large amount of money over the course of a month.  Substitute your own coffee/soda and bring snacks from home.
  3. Pick your grocery store carefully.  Make a list of items your family consumes in a typical month and then check out your local stores to see who offers these items at the lowest collective price. You may be surprised to find that different grocery stores have different strategies for what they most frequently put on sale. In my neighborhood, a store with relatively high prices nevertheless consistently discounts the items my family happens to use, so we save money even though we don't use a cut-rate grocer.
  4. Use coupons. Go ahead and use them, but only very sparingly.  The purpose of coupons is to make you buy something you wouldn't already buy - or, alternatively, to buy a larger quantity than you might ordinarily do.  Don't let them suck you in. Stick to coupons for items you need and that will genuinely reduce the cost to less than you would pay for a comparable item.
  5. Exploit Sales.  Do, however, monitor grocery store sales and pick your meals to take advantage of items on sale. The first page of the circular with almost always include some "loss leaders" - items the store is deliberately selling for less than their value just to get you into the store
  6. Eat what you buy.  Most households throw away 30% or more of the food they buy. An obvious way to cut waste is to do your shopping weekly and ONLY buy what you'll use that week. 
  7. Shop sensibly.  Resist impulse purchases by sticking to your list and NEVER shopping when you're hungry.  If you're plan is to visit 3-4 grocery stores a week in order to shop the sales, be sure you're factoring in gas costs and opportunity costs.
  8. Drink sensibly.  Stop spending money on expensive coffees, sodas and bottled water!  When possible, substitute tap water for other alternatives.  (If you don't care for the taste of tap water, cost-efficient alternatives include installing a filter, brewing it into tea/iced tea, or adding a shot of liquid or powdered flavoring.)  If you must have coffee, then brew your own at home rather than frequenting the local coffee house.  If you must have alcohol, then purchase your alcohol straight from the store, not from your local innkeeper (where markups can be as high as 2000%).  You may be shocked at how much $$ this may save your family over time.
  9. Add inexpensive meals to your rotation.  Soups, omelets, pancakes - all of these are examples of relatively inexpensive yet wholly satisfying meals.  Consider adding at least 1-2 less expensive meals to your rotation every week.
Personal Costs
  1. Medical costs.  Take advantage of advice nurses, minute clinics and other low-cost health care alternatives before heading to the emergency room or making an appt.  Make sure the providers you do visit are covered by your insurance plan.  Do make sure you take advantage of covered "wellness" doctors visits to prevent expensive complications later.  Finally, buy generic versions of medications. 
  2. Dental costs.  Brush & floss your teeth.  Dental work is about ten million times more expensive than a tooth brush and dental floss. 
  3. Hair cutting/styling.  Make sure your salon is charging a fair price for these services; if not, ask your friends for recommendations and consider switching.  Also consider whether you can cut down on your # of visits per year.
  4. Smoking/Drinking/Drugs.  Now may be the right time to finally give up those expensive indulgences that you know are bad for you anyway.
  5. Manis/pedis.  Do your own.
Entertainment
  1. Gifting.  Of course you shouldn't give up giving gifts. But a few thoughtful gifts will always make a bigger impact than a mound of expensive junk.  Make sure what you buy is worth the price, and consider substituting homemade items or services when practicable.
  2. Greeting cards & wrapping paper. Hallmark-type cards cost $3-$5 a pop these days! Make your own or send an e-card.  Wrapping paper is another place where it's easy to save money if you're creative: consider using newspaper, coloring book pages, comics pages, or kraft paper from grocery bags instead. 
  3. Books.  Have you bothered to visit your local library recently? Most of them carry a huge selection of not just books, but also a large selection of books on tape, periodicals, and ebooks.   Yet another free option is to download full-text copies of works that are no longer protected under copyright from one of the many websites that now exist for this purpose.
  4. Movies/TV.  So many options for replacing those expensive premium channel options!  For current movies, Redbox is an excellent, low-cost alternative. For older movies, try Netflix's less expensive streaming video subscription.  For TV, check out online sites like Hulu or visit a specific show's website, as many shows will stream for free for a week or two after they air.  Also, many people are not aware that there are TONS of documentaries available for free online.  If you must go to a theater, choose matinees and smuggle in your own food.
  5. Concerts/Performances/Shows.  Check your local newpaper for free/low cost events around your community and take advantage of them - that's what they're there for!  If you've got your heart set on a pricy show/concert, buy tickets for a less expensive matinee or check to see if they open their dress rehearsals to the public. 
  6. Socializing.  Consider low-cost alternatives for getting together with friends.  Alternatives include pot-luck/progressive dinners, game nights, sports viewing parties, and/or gatherings at local free concerts/events.
  7. Travel. 
    1. Travel during the offseason.  Because *everything's* cheaper in the off-season: air fares, hotel costs, attractions, car rentals, etc.
    2. Comparison shop for rates.  Dozens of online sites allow you to compare rates & book the cheapest.
    3. Look for discounts
      1. Child/student/senior/AAA discounts.  Ask if you think you might qualify for any of these.
      2. Coupons.  Hotel and venue coupons can be found online, in stores, or in those coupon books that you can pick up at visitors centers along major interstates. 
      3. Combination cards.  Some large cities offer "passports" - for one fee you get admission to a number of different attractions.
    4. Car rentals.  Never pay for the extra insurance. 
    5. Limit your food expenses.  This is easier than ever to do now that most hotels offer complimentary breakfast.  Consider limiting yourself to one restaurant a day and picking up your other meals at the local grocery store.  A bag or cooler full of snacks can also end up saving a surprising amount of money over the course of an extended vacation.
  8. Sports.  Here's one of the few areas where you may actually have to consider whether a life style change is advisable.  The money you spend on sports equipment, facility rentals, and transportation can quickly become exorbitant.  Options include picking less expensive sports (ex: jogging) that might also meet your exercising/recreating/socializing/de-stressing purposes, cutting back on your equipment purchases, picking less expensive facilities/leagues, and/or cutting back on the frequency with which you play.
  9. Hobbies/crafts/collections.  These are, by definition, "wants" rather than "needs," so prime targets for cutting back.  Don't give them up, but do try to evaluate all new purchases practically and unemotionally.  Yes, that new tool/game/motor is AWESOME, but do you really need it? If so, can you get it on sale or substitute something less expensive?
Other
  1. Education.  Any number of studies have shown that there is little correlation between the expense of the college you attend and the salary you eventually earn. So for gosh sakes pick up your foundational classes at your local community college, which typically cost  50% less than the cost of a 4yr institution, and then - if necessary - transfer to the most affordable in-state college that meets your basic needs. 
  2. Employee Perks.  Check to see if your employer, union or any other professional affiliations entitle you to discounts or reductions.  If you're a teacher, for instance, almost all businesses offer some sort of discount; if they don't actively advertise the discount, then ask for it. 
  3. Holiday Spending.   By all means decorate your house, but utilize what you have (combined with a little creativity) rather than buying more.  By all means prepare that special meal, but eschew the temptation to invest in special holiday dishware/accessories that you'll only use once a year.  By all means entertain and give gifts, but be deliberate, organized, creative, and frugal in how you go about it.  (See "Socializing" and "Gifting" for more detailed recommendations.)
  4. Online Merchant Sites.  Retailers often offer special internet deals for customers who sign up to receive their emails.  Create a free throw-away email account (don't use your main account or you'll be flooded with junk!) & start registering with your favorite merchants now.
  5. Fake Retail Holidays.  Retailers have invested millions of $$s into convincing us that presents are de rigour for mothers/fathers day (most parents will be happy with breakfast in bed and a day off), that you need to buy an expensive costume for Halloween (often the best/funniest costumes are the ones you invent yourself), and that kids need all-new wardrobes before each new school year (only if they've changed sizes; and that doesn't require an all-new wardrobe, just a couple of strategic purchases). 
  6. Donations. Consider donating time rather than $$.
  7. Taxes.  Do your own taxes - either on your own or buy a tax program on sale, unless you have especially complicated curcumstances that justify hiring a tax consultant.
  8. Fines & Fees.  Be fine-conscious: don't speed, don't park in no-parking zones, don't bounce checks, pay your credit cards on time, and don't return your books late.

7/26/2014

101+ Things to Do In Reston


Wrote the following article in celebration of a wonderful community celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.  If you're not a Reston resident you'll want to give this a miss; if you live here, however, I think you'll agree there are few places as unique as our community.  How many other small towns can offer 101 different activities & entertainments?* 

(*That's not even counting activities/classes offered by Reston merchants, enough to populate a second 101 Great Things list!)

 
EVENTS
  1. Reston Festival @ Reston Town Center. I realize we didn’t have a festival in 2013, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed that this event returns soon because it’s always been one of my favorite Reston traditions – a lovely opportunity to browse local businesses, support local craftsmen and artisans, showcase local entertainers, take in a few carnival rides, and gorge on local foods. Mind you, that’s just the stuff they list in the brochure: for me, the real highlights of the festival include chatting with neighbors, reminiscing about festivals past (remember when festivals were hosted at Lake Anne?), and admiring the vast array of dogs on display.
  2. Taste of Reston @ Reston Town Center. You don’t have to be a foodie to look forward to this event – you just have to have taste buds, a pocket full of tasting tickets, and a beautiful afternoon! It takes literally hours for my husband and I to taste our way up and then down the length of Market Street, patronizing the 25+ food tents lining both sides of the road. I love the cooking demonstrations, the entertainment, the ambiance, but most of all the opportunity to sample foods representing every imaginable country, food group and price range – from Peruvian grilled chicken and gazpacho to buffalo bites, from wild boar shawarma to perogies and mac & cheese, from prosciutto-wrapped truffle fries to fried oreos. Not for nothing is Taste of Reston annually voted "Best Food Festival in Northern Virginia" by Virginia Living Magazine.
  3. Great Grapes Wine Festival @ Reston Town Center. Once upon a time hubby and I used to drive all the way out to the Plains for Vintage Virginia, arguably the state’s preeminent wine festival. Then Great Grapes started sponsoring events at the Reston Town Center and we haven’t been back since! While this semi-annual wine fest isn’t as large as some, I guarantee it will take you most of the afternoon to work your way through the 100+ tastings being offered by 20+ Virginia wineries plus a score of booths selling wine-related crafts and accessories. Be sure to bring a backpack (for toting all the wine you’ll buy), a pencil & small pad (for writing down memorable vintages you intend to buy later), and a blanket (for relaxing in front of the main stage while all that wine digests). Events like this make me especially grateful for the fact that Reston’s a pedestrian community: after 100+ tastings, I appreciate the option of walking home!
  4. Annual Reston Homes Tour. One thing that sets Reston apart is the unique architecture of our buildings and neighborhoods. You can argue that this is a good or bad thing (honestly, what was our fascination with concrete back in the 70s?) – but before you start formulating your opinion, take advantage of this annual opportunity to peep inside some of Reston’s most iconic homes and structures. Besides, ticket sales benefits a great cause, the Reston Museum.  
  5. Northern Virginia Fine Arts Festival @ Reston Town Center. This is one of those events that makes people in D.C. wish they lived here. Produced annually by the Greater Reston Arts Center (GRACE), the show features over 100 booths offering original works of art for sale – everything from pottery to paintings, furniture to photography, silversmithing to stained glass – at surprisingly affordable prices. Plus they throw in food and entertainment! Every year I pick up a little something: given the festival is now in its 23rd year (or something like that), my walls and shelves are starting to grow crowded!
  6. Oktoberfest @ Reston Town Center. This event has grown from a rather modest affair hosted by Clyde's Restaurant to a multiday street festival featuring food, entertainment, vendor booths, carnival rides, and – never fear! – a large biergarten. I love the ambiance, especially when night descends and everything turns a nostalgic sepia in the glow of the streetlights.
  7. Pet Fiesta @Reston Town Center. Bring your pet and enjoy a day of fun and pampering at the annual pet fiesta. This all-day event includes silly pet contests, pet fashion shows, tons of vendors, and rescue groups offering to introduce you to the next member of your family.
  8. Washington West Film Festival @ Bowtie Cinema, Reston Towne Center. This is a competition for independent filmmakers, some local, others from around the nation. Categories include dramatic films, short films and documentaries. Usually held in October, the event attracts dozens of filmmakers and celebrities – yes, actual celebrities! Who knew we had our own mini-Sundance, right here in Reston?
  9. Reston Multicultural Festival @ Lake Anne Plaza. Once a year Reston pauses to celebrate our diversity at an event we call the Reston Multicultural Festival. Citizens representing over 100 nationalities live side by side in our community, a fact that becomes abundantly clear when you attend this one day celebration that incorporates food, arts/crafts, live performances and storytelling/lectures. I especially love that everyone’s encouraged to attend in their native dress: for one day a year, I feel like I’m living at the United Nations!
  10. Ukelele Festival @Lake Anne Plaza. My parents never miss this joyful celebration of the guitar’s neglected but worthy cousin! The event features performances by internationally and local renown ukulele musicians, music demonstrations, public jam sessions, vendors, and other family friendly activities. Mock if you will, but only if you can tell me with a straight face that Israel Kamakawiwo'ole’s version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow doesn’t make you smile like an idiot. Because you know it does.
  11. Jazz & Blues Festival @Reston Town Center. This event, typically held in August, showcase a variety of talented regional and national jazz & blues performers. Bring a comfortable chair and plan on spending the day!
  12. BBQ Brawl @ Lake Anne Plaza. New this year, I certainly hope BBQ Brawl becomes a annual event! Sponsored by Northern Virginia Magazine, the event pits local BBQ legends against each other, against a background of live entertainment, vendor booths, and family fun. Stpp already - you had me at BBQ!
  13. Summer Film Festival @Lake Anne Plaza. Is it the stars? The crickets? The drive-in ambiance? I’m not sure why watching movies out of doors on a sultry summer night feels so magical, but it does. That’s why my husband and I look forward to Lake Anne’s outdoor film festival every summer (May through September or so). Grab a group of friends or that special someone, pack a picnic, and enjoy!
  14. Open House at the U.S. Geological Survey. Reston is fortunate to house the headquarters of the U.S. Geological Survey. Why fortunate? Well, besides the jobs and the fact that we can be pretty sure of plenty of advanced warning should an earthquake threaten, USGS hosts an "open house" event every three years (economy permitting) that is not to be missed. The event includes activities designed to appeal to all ages, everything from panning for gold to donning the protective suits worn by volcanologists in the field. Fun, fun, fun!
  15.  Annual Mini-Makers Faire.  This is a relatively new event, inspired by the recent national "maker faire" craze.  Our version is hosted at South Lakes HS and Hughes MS and features makers of all ages, representing fields such as arts, crafts, engineering, and science, sharing with adults and children the things they've made.  Most of the exhibitors offer interactive activities.  Seriously, if you haven't ever been to a maker faire, you owe it to yourself to check this one out - it's like nothing else!
  16. Open House @ Reston Fire Station. This one is primarily marketed for the kids, but I know more than a few adults (including several girlfriends of mine with a bit of a "thing" for firefighters) that look forward to this annual opportunity to tour our local fire station, climb all over the equipment, and talk to firefighters about their experiences.
  17. Used book sales @ Reston Library. As if the Reston Library wasn’t awesome enough, twice a year the Friends of the Reston Library throw the mother of all used book sales. I’m something of a connoisseur of used book sales and can authoritatively state that the Reston Library used book sale can’t be beaten for quality of inventory (a tribute to the fact that Reston residents are a literate bunch who consume massive quantities of high quality literature & nonfiction), quantity of inventory (a tribute to the fact that Reston residents are also ridiculously generous – they donate literally 100s of thousands of books each year!), or price (except for a few special items, the most you’ll pay is $2). Not for nothing, the Friends also host a variety of "mini" sales through the year: a children’s book sale, a romance book sale, a holiday book/puzzle sale.
  18. Parades. Nothing celebrates "community" like a parade! For our family, spring officially begins the day of the Reston Little League parade (because I can’t seem to get enough of cute kids in matching uniforms), autumn isn’t official until the South Lakes H.S. homecoming parade (tissue paper floats, convertibles filled with waving homecoming queens, and a marching band!), and Christmas season doesn’t begin until the holiday parade at Reston Town Center, a spectacle that truly has it all, from ballerinas to balloons and the triumphant arrival Mr. and Mrs. Claus in a beautiful horse-drawn sled.
  19. Harvest festivals at local elementary schools. As far as I know, every elementary school in Reston sponsors some sort of annual fair, festival or carnival. It’s what they have in common that makes them so great: cakewalks and pet shows, game booths and crafts, silent auctions and used book sales. Often the silent auctions alone make a visit worthwhile – they’re a great place to pick up gifts for yourself and others – but go anyway because these events are the biggest fundraisers of the year for the PTAs that sponsor them.  
PLACES
  1. Reston Museum. You know you’ve made it when you live in a community that has its own museum! The perfect anecdote to complacency, a few hours in the Reston Museum will remind you of just how extraordinary Reston is, and what a remarkably eventful history we’ve had. (Nudist colonies, Ebola, Carnegie Hall, Virginia Gentleman whiskey, and Saudi Arabian sheiks? Reston’s had a busy 50 years!)
  2. Lake Fairfax. The only county park located in Reston, Lake Fairfax Park offers not just fishing and camping (discussed separately) but also a variety of camps, nature activities, playgrounds, trails, individual picnic tables, larger covered picnic facilities, and boat rentals. Plus they have a carousel and a train ride for the little ones! When our babies were still babies we used to spend whole days at Lake Fairfax; we never had to worry about running out of things to do.
  3.  The Water Mine. With water jets and wading pools for the little ones, water slides for the teens, and a "lazy river" feature for us older folk, the Water Mine is the perfect destination for the whole family.
  4. The Reston Zoo. The Reston Zoo offers wagon rides, feeding stations, and a pet-a-pet enclosure. Generations of Reston children have had their first introduction to exotic wildlife here, but what I never get tired of is the novelty of driving by fields full of zebras, antelope, bison, ostrich, and camels every time I go to the grocery store!
  5. Reston Town Center. This little bastion of urban in the middle of our suburban community offers cool architecture, an art gallery, eclectic shopping opportunities, dozens of restaurants, outdoor festivals/performances, classes, and awesome people-watching. I especially enjoy settling down with a good book at one of the tables by the fountain, punctuated by between-chapter pauses to enjoy the combined noise of wind rustling through the limbs overhead, the tumbling water, and the delighted shrieks of children daring each other to get wet.
  6. Lake Anne Plaza. No matter the season or the time of day (morning = coffee at the coffee shop; afternoon = enjoying the breeze off the lake; dinner = pitchers of sangria at a lakeside table), Lake Anne is a great destination in and of itself, the "heart of Reston," if you will. While you’re there, be sure to read the commemorative bricks embedded in the plaza, get your picture taken with the bronze statue of Robert Simon (Reston’s founder), enjoy the lovely landscaping along the boardwalk, climb the tower at the end of the boardwalk for a great view – and don’t neglect the swing at the end of the canal, one of my favorite "secret places" in Reston.
  7. Reston Metro Station. Breaking news: hop a train at Reston’s new Silver Line station and find yourself connected to at least 101+ additional entertainment options in Virginia, D.C. and beyond! Can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to the convenience of strolling to the station on one of Reston’s many bike trails and hopping a train bound for the Smithsonian, Nationals Stadium, or the National Book Festival on the Mall.
  8. Lake Anne Used Book Store. A Reston institution, the Reston used book store is packed with a constantly refreshed supply of gently used titles and owners/customers more than happy to "talk books" at the drop of a hat. I swear all that lovely old book smell makes me woozy! By the way, they also host scheduled events there: book talks, author meet-and-greets, and read-alouds.
  9. Reston Library. Speaking of books, one of my top 10 Reston destinations is the Reston Library. Besides offering access to an enormous collection of texts, their tables are a quiet place to get work done, their collection of audiobooks makes long car trips speed by, their free online databases are a terrific source for research, and they sponsor a variety of programs for adults, teens and children including book discussion groups, author appearances, ESL classes … even exercise and ballet classes for the little ones!
 
Performances.

  1. Reston Chorale. How cool is it that we have our own chorale? Almost as cool as attending one of their public performances. Their repertoire incorporates everything from classical to modern works. (Disclosure: auditioning to become a member of Reston Chorale occupies a top spot on my own personal bucket list!)
  2. Reston Community Orchestra. Our so called "community" orchestra features over 50 musicians, rivaling the size of many city orchestras. The RCO supports many local community events (ex: Multicultural Festival) as well as staging a number of free concerts throughout the year. Like the chorale, their repertoire ranges from classical to modern works; they’ve even commissioned and performed original works.  
  3. Reston Community Players. I never attend one of RCP’s performances without walking away amazed at the quality of the performances and production values of this locally-grown theater company. I realize we’re fortunate enough to live a short drive from some of the best theaters in the country – Kennedy Center, the Shakespeare Theater Company, etc. – but thanks to RCP, Restonians needn’t travel into the city to catch a great show.
  4. Performances @ Reston Community Center CentreStage. Every year RCC does an amazing job of luring nationally-renowned performers to our local stage, representing every imaginable category of performance art: dance, concerts, vocalists, theater, humor/improv, performance art, storytelling, children’s shows … and even a few events that defy categorization, but that never seem to have any trouble selling out.
  5. Summer Concert Series @ Reston Town Center. Every summer the folks who run Reston Town Center put together a wonderful Saturday Night concert series featuring a broad range of artists and genres: from classical to Caribbean, from cool Celtic to Latin heat, from big band to pop. Bring your own blanket/chairs or do what hubby & I do – settle down at one of those outside tables at Clydes with family/friends and enjoy the tunes while working your way through a delicious meal.
  6. Take a Break concerts at Lake Anne. Meanwhile, Lake Anne plays host to their own summer concert series, liberally sprinkled with performances by local performers. Relaxing beneath the stars on a warm summer night as the cool wind off the lake combines with the sounds of smooth jazz, I guarantee you’ll feel the stress literally ooze out of you!
  7. School plays, musicals, and concerts. It’s worth mentioning that our local elementary schools, middle school, and high school stage theater, vocal, and instrumental performances throughout the year. South Lakes H.S. in particular regularly features the talents of extraordinarily gifted actors and musicians. I can only conclude that folks who dismiss these productions as "amateur" clearly haven’t bothered to attend any of them!
  8. Singstrong. Speaking of South Lakes H.S., you may or may not know that the school annually plays host to Singstrong, an event which gathers professional a cappella performance groups from all over the nation for a weekend of workshops, competition, and performance. A truly unique event!

Sports & Recreation.
 
  1. 55 miles of bike paths. Reston Association chooses call them bike paths, but we all know what they really are: "therapy" paths and "commune with nature" paths and "exercise" paths and "time to walk the dog" paths and "my kids need to run off all this extra energy!" paths and "look, a squirrel!" paths and "finally, some quality time with my loved one" paths. 55 miles of them. That’s a lot of therapy.
  2. W&OD trail. Let’s just acknowledge how lucky we are that this former railroad right-of-way runs right through the heart of Reston. Our community paths are great, but thanks to W&OD we’re just a bike ride away from D.C. to the East and wine country to the west.
  3. Horse riding & bridle paths. Ever wonder about those unpaved paths meandering through the woods behind your house? Those are bridle paths, established back in the day when the Pony Barn was an actual pony barn rather than an oddly-named picnic facility and playground. 45 years ago, back when I was in elementary school, riding horses to your friends’ houses was the thing to do.Since then many of the paths have been subsumed by woods, but not all of them. If you have access to a horse, by all means slip your feet in the stirrups and enjoy a ride; alternatively, feel free to stroll the paths on foot – just be careful where you step!
  4. Hanging out at the pool. Of course you may choose to patronize the pool within walking distance of your house (because everyone has at least one pool within walking distance of their house – that’s one of the things that makes Reston awesome), but why limit yourself? With 15 total pools to choose from, each offering a customized selection of watery diversions (fountains, jets, monster water slides, hot tubs, diving boards, etc.), why not make a vow to visit them all?
  5. Tennis, anyone? For every swimming pool in Reston, there are at least 2 tennis courts. And that’s not even mentioning the extensive infrastructure that supports the sport here in Reston, to include lessons by professionally ranked instructors, camps, and tournaments.
  6. Skatequest. Though I look a little like Scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz every time I don ice skates, that doesn’t prevent me from appreciating the fact that we have our very own ice rink here in Reston. In addition to open skate nights, Skatequest offers lessons, hosts local ice hockey teams, and knows how to throw a good children’s birthday party.
  7. Ice skating @ Reston Town Center. When I do don skates, I usually do it at the ice skating rink that the Reston Town Center sets up during the winter months … if only because the typically large population of 2-3 year olds repeatedly falling onto their well-padded bottoms (often to their great delight) makes me feel slightly less self-conscious about my own ineptitude. Plus, afterwards you can curl up around a cup of hot chocolate from Starbucks and watch the child phenoms on center ice do spins and jumps.
  8. Hang 10! If skateboarding is your thing, you’ll want to check out the brand new skate park at Lake Fairfax. The facility offers a variety of ramps and obstacles, ideal for perfecting your tricks. FYI, the skate park also welcomes BMX bike riders, and has lights for practicing at night, which is completely cool.
  9. It’s fun to play at the YMCA! What an asset YMCA has been to our community! In addition to offering first-class fitness facilities, the Y also offers tons of programming for teens and sponsors great summer programs and community fitness events. Personally, I enjoy working out at the Y because you find a nice cross-section of "real folk" there – so much less threatening than working out next to those intimidating, zero-body-fat, "after"-photo deities that inhabit private gyms.
  10. Little League games. Why travel to D.C. to see the Washington Nationals play when you can get your baseball on here in Reston? Our community hosts half a dozen lovely ballfields, including a beautiful, brand new lighted ball field at Brown’s Chapel for night games. (I don’t know why, but there’s something magical about baseball at night, isn’t there?)
  11. High school football. Starting in August or so you can catch home football games at South Lakes H.S. Doesn’t matter if you have a child at the school or whether you’re an alumnus – high school football games are a place for everyone in the community to come together to enjoy a little cheering, a little concession-stand food, a little football, and a lot of nostalgia.
  12. Pickup Games. As if all those tennis courts, pools, and tot lots weren’t enough, Reston also maintains a score or so of volleyball pits, basketball courts, and parks with smooth green fields perfect for pickup games with friends and neighbors.
  13. Participate in a marathon/triathlon – or cheer on everyone else! Reston hosts over a dozen marathons/triathlons every year, to include the Reston Triathlon, the Reston Sprint Triathlon, theYMCA youth marathon, the Be Amyzing Triathlon, and the Runners Marathon. I’m no runner myself, but love lining the route and cheering the participants on.
  14. Get Your Golf On. Reston hosts not one but two complete 18-hole golf courses (at least for now), one public and one private. Having lived alongside one of them for several years, I can testify to the fact that they are immaculately maintained.
  15. Boating on Lake Audubon/Lake Thoreau/Lake Anne. Our whole family celebrated the day one of our members bought a house along Lake Thoreau, because now our extended clan gets to enjoy all the pleasures of lake living. Sometimes we gather for special occasions (our family’s annual Mother’s Day Mimosa Cruise is a highlight of the year); sometimes we’re looking for a little cool relief on a hot summer afternoon (towing strings of delighted children on floaties in our wake); sometimes we covet the singular peace and quiet of evening cruises beneath the moon, with only the hum of cicadas and the occasional splashing of passing ducks for company. Fortunately, you don’t actually have to live by a lake to enjoy these boons, as there are public boat launches at both Lake Audubon and Thoreau; just BYOB (bring your own boat) and chillax!
  16. Paddleboat Your Way Around Lake Anne. Pick a beautiful afternoon, rent a paddleboat at the Lake Anne coffee house, and spend a few hours leisurely paddling your way across the Lake, taking time to gawk at the unique architecture of the houses lining the banks, the fountain, and the gorgeous Van Gogh bridge.
  17. Fishing. All our lakes are stocked with fish, but I’m reliably informed the best fishing is at Lake Fairfax, which they regularly stock with largemouth bass. There are public docks at Lake Thoreau and Lake Audubon as well. You know you’re a long-time Reston resident if you still remember bluegill fishing competitions at Lake Anne!
  18. Camp overnight at Lake Fairfax. Another activity we used to look forward to when our children were little was camping at Lake Fairfax. "Real" woods, but also close enough to home that we could drive back if things got scary for the little ones. Pair a day at the Water Mine with an evening of camping for a whole weekend o’ fun!
  19. Got Tot Lot? If you live in Reston you’re never more than a short walk away from a tot lot, those ubiquitous mini-playgrounds embedded in neighborhoods and along bike paths. I think all of them have swings and hanging bars; the one nearest us also has a basketball court. As a kid I loved the swingsets – how many years did I invest in my futile quest to swing so high that I finally went right over the top? As a teen, they were a place to meet up with friends and hang out on hot summer nights. As a young parent, they made for a perfect outing: just long enough a walk that the kids were genuinely tired when we returned. And now that I’m aging? Oddly, I find myself wondering if, now that I’ve got some weight on me, maybe I really could swing right over the top if I really tried ….

Nature.
 
  1. Get Gardening. One thing Reston doesn’t have is a lot of flat, rich, well-aerated soil, which (in combination with a large and ravenous population of deer and squirrels) makes yard gardening problematic. One option is to rent space at one of four Reston Community Gardens which, combined, account for some 270 acres of land. (They’re built on mandatory gas pipe easements; isn’t that a lovely example of dual use?) These facilities are beautifully and rigorously overseen to ensure that plots are well-maintained and predators (dastardly groundhogs!) dispatched; you can even arrange for a "garden babysitter" to tend your plot while you’re out of town. Maybe it’s the Indiana in me, but vegetables you’ve grown yourself from seed really do taste better.
  2. Explore the Reston Garden Club Nature Path. The Reston Garden Club does good works all over Reston, but I’m especially fond of the nature trail they maintain off of Soapstone Drive between Glade Dr. and Lawyers Rd. The trees/bushes are all identified by means of their botanically correct names and there are benches offering lovely, soothing vistas to enjoy. When I was younger I signed up for a tour of the path led by one of the Garden Club docents, which increased my store of local botanical knowledge by multiples.
  3. Leave it to Beavers. Though the beaver team that created the habitat at the intersection of Glade Dr. and Twin Branches Rd. has since been "relocated", the fruits of their labor remain and provide a wonderful living laboratory for studying how nature adjusts to sudden, drastic change. After years of inundation, the habitat is now in the "rebounding" phase, the swamp gradually draining via self-carved channels, trees re-rooting on islands of sediment. Fascinating to watch!
  4. Hang out at the Reston Nature House. I LOVE the Reston Nature House! I love the arts & crafts-inspired design; I love the discovery/museum area inside; I love all the naturalists who work there; I love the activity room, which my family has rented for any number of events; most of all, I love the paths that twist through the Walker Nature Center past dozens of distinct little ecosystems, each crowded with birds and squirrels, fox, deer, owls, turtles, raccoons, skunks, spiders, potato bugs and earthworms. The perfect place to wander on a brilliant spring day … or a sticky summer day … or a brisk fall day … or a grey, snowy day ….
  5. Go creeking. I’m not entirely sure "creeking" (wading through creek waters) is a real thing, but I spent countless hours engaged in this activity as a child growing up in Reston, and my own children intuitively picked up where I left off. Not only is creeking a great way to cool off on a hot day, but it’s also a wonderful opportunity to get close and personal with freshwater ecosystems: a chance to explore how waterbugs walk on water, observe whether guppies prefer shade or sun, and discover which rocks are most likely to conceal crayfish.
  6. Reston Rocks. Alas, Reston doesn’t have much in the way to offer a geologist (besides the U.S. Geological Survey, that is) – some schist, some phyllite, a whole lot of quartz. But where there is schist and phyllite there’s also clay, which you’ll find in abundance exposed along the banks of the many creeks that snake through the area. While I’m obviously not endorsing adding to our area’s erosion woes, I will say admit to having regaled my mom with more than one Mother’s Day pinch pot over the years, crafted with love out of native Reston clay.
  7. Geocaching. This is probably the right place to mention that geocachers have scattered Reston with all sorts of little surprises. All you need is access to the web, a handheld GPS device, a nice afternoon, and a pen.
  8. Collect blackberries. There used to be hundreds of blackberry bushes in Reston! As a child we’d collect buckets of the fruit and present them triumphantly to our mothers, demanding that they be transformed into pies. These days it’s harder to find blackberry bushes than it used to be, but still possible – the trick is to pick them before the squirrels and deer get them!
  9. Hunting for tadpoles. Because you’re never too old to be fascinated by how tadpoles gradually transform into frogs, and Reston is blessed with dozens of swampy areas that annually fill with frog eggs. While I’m on the topic of frogs, I’ll mention another of my favorite things to do in Reston: listening for the first sound of peeper frogs in mid-March or so. Reliably arriving a week or two before the pear and cherry trees begin flowering, they are the first reliable heralds of spring.
  10. Nature programs and walks. The naturalists at Walker Nature Center sponsor nature events for all ages, from "Amphibian Idol" for the little ones to identifying bird calls for adults. But you don’t need a naturalist to enjoy the nature in Reston - just pull on a pair of tennis shoes and head out your back door.
  11.  Go on a Photo Safari. Hard to believe that 50yrs ago large portions of Reston were cleared down to mud to make way for houses and roads. First the trees returned; now, 50 years later, our wildlife communities are finally rebounding: not only have deer and fox returned, but rumor has it there’s a wild turkey living in the woods around the U.S. Geological Survey. Making now the perfect opportunity to practice your nature photography skills.
  12. Birdwatching. Speaking of rebounding nature, Reston’s aviary community has also been steadily growing. At least 182 species of birds now call Reston home, including hawks, marlins, kestrals, turkey, quail, herons, owls, woodpeckers, mockingbirds, nuthatches, goatsuckers and chickadees. The colorful names alone are enough to make me want to grab a pair of binoculars and set my alarm for 5am! (Contact the folks at Walker Nature Center for a complete list.)
  13. Bat-watching & owl counting. Reston becomes a magical place at night. Trees erupt with bats that dart and dance in pursuit of mosquitoes. Owls hoot. Frogs peep. Fox begin that creepy barking/howling thing they do. Don’t let the waning sun chase you indoors – take a dusky walk around one of our lakes or just sit out on the back porch of your house and enjoy the nightly nocturnal entertainment.
  14. Picnicking in the park. Reston offers a bunch of great picnic facilities. You’ll find covered picnic facilities at Hunters Woods, North Hills, the Pony Barn, Temporary Road, Lake Anne, and Lake Fairfax, as well as scattered picnic tables at various athletic facilities, parks, and tot lots. Great for family/group/team/class gatherings!
  15. Campfires @ the Soapstone fire ring. Some 40 years ago, in Reston’s wild, less-regulated past, at least one family in every neighborhood had an open fire ring in their backyard, where the neighborhood would periodically gather to toast hotdogs, char marshmallows, and gossip. While RA has since clamped down on backyard pits, they’ve (partially) compensated for the deprivation by providing a wholly lovely campfire facility off of Soapstone Drive. Scarcely a weekend passes when the facility isn’t put to use by boy scout packs, girl scout troops, families or birthday parties. There’s something magical about sitting around a fire watching the flames leap and listening to the logs pop, whether it’s a balmy summer night or a brisk October afternoon.

Seasonal & Holidays.
 
  1. Eggnormous Egg Hunt @Brown’s Chapel Park. Come for the egg hunt, the carnival games, the moon bounce, the kid-focused entertainment, or just for the excuse to enjoy strolling out-of-doors after a long, long winter.
  2. The Van Gogh Bridge @ Lake Anne Village Center. The bridge is lovely all year, but truly spectacular for a few weeks every spring when the surrounding cherry trees and azaleas erupt in color. Possibly the most romantic spot in Reston, judging by the number of couples who have become engaged there. (Including my husband and I!)
  3. Firefly Heaven. This is the name my family and I long-ago assigned to a particular stretch of meadow accessible via the walking trail that intersects with Purple Beech Drive. Firefly sightings have become scarce in some parts of Reston, but at Firefly Heaven you can still find hundreds of the flying insects darting and through the grasses and weaving overhead through the branches of trees. I dare you not to feel 10 years old again as you gaze about you in silent, delighted awe at the annual summer spectacle. 
  4.  Taste Summer. Honeysuckle is technically an invasive species here in Reston; all I can say is that it invaded a long time ago, because some of my earliest memories are of picking the buttery, trumpet-shaped flowers , biting off their tips, and letting the droplets of sweet sap melt on my tongue. If summer had a taste, honeysuckle is what it would taste like.
  5. Fourth of July on Lake Audubon. Reston’s abundant trees and hills make enjoying the abundant Independence Day fireworks shows in the area a hardship. However, if you’re lucky enough to own a boat, you’ll find the best view in town is from the waters of Lake Audubon. Over the years I’ve watched the celebration grow from a few hardy souls in canoes to a day-long floating party, complete with live music, food, backyard fireworks displays (some legal, some not quite so legal!) and fellowship. Or, visit Lake Fairfax and enjoy their fireworks display.
  6. Get Thee to the Pool! For those sultry summer nights when no amount of air conditioning will suffice, RA offers a variety of cool, pool-based community social events, including community cookouts, ice cream socials, and – my favorite – "dive-in movies," which you can watch from the comfort of a deck chair or from the middle of the pool, ensconced in your own comfy inflated inner tube.
  7. Playing in the concrete fountain at Lake Anne. I realize that Reston offers a variety of watery diversions suitable for staving off humid summer afternoons, but the granddaddy of them all is the cement fountain that has served as the heart of Lake Anne Plaza for the past 40+ years. My mom took me there to play when I was a kid; years later, I felt the warm glow of nostalgia suffuse me as I watched my own children rediscovering the joy of running through jets of water on a hot afternoon. Speaking of rites of passage – while you’re there, don’t neglect to allow your little ones to injure themselves on the concrete Mayan pyramid that passes itself off as a children’s plaything at the plaza entrance. I realize the ‘70s were a confused decade, but really – who thought a concrete pyramid with multiple sharp edges was a great idea for kids?
  8. Leaf-Peeping. Sure, all these lovely trees and woodlands can be an inconvenience, especially during hurricane season and ice storms. But a single gorgeous Reston autumn is enough to make the risk feel miniscule compared to the reward: trees ablaze with color, brown leaves being herded like sheep across roadways by the brisk autumn wind, feet crunching through drifts and piles crisp foliage as you climb out of the car after a long day at work. Heaven!
  9. Halloween Trail at Walker Nature Center. Every Halloween the folks at the Walker Nature Center assemble an after-dark walk through the woods, offering gentle thrills and chills suitable for Reston’s youngest generation. What’s cool is that the attraction is staffed entirely by local residents volunteering their time so that the Nature Center can augment their annual funding and the little ones can enjoy a leisurely ramble through the dark woods interacting with a variety of wood nymphs, fairy spirits, bats and owls.
  10. Christmas festivities @ Reston Town Center. Say what you will, the Reston Town Center knows how to celebrate Christmas! The festivities begin the Friday after Thanksgiving with a morning parade followed at dusk by a mass community sing-along, climaxing in the lighting of the center’s enormous Christmas tree. The festivities continue through the rest of the month with a variety of events, including horse-drawn carriage rides past the lighted storefronts at night. But what I love most is the lights – lights everywhere, strung in the trees and outlining the buildings. At a time when most indoor malls and merchant associations have reduced Christmas decorating to a few wreaths and banners, I love that Reston Town Center still believes in putting on a show.
  11.  Gingerbread Xmas display at Hyatt. You don’t have to be a kid to be enthralled by the gingerbread display at the Hyatt. Every year the Hyatt chefs outdo themselves creating a magical gingerbread city animated by lights and a model train.
  12. Handel Messiah sing-along. Thank you, Mrs. Lunsford, for insisting that we learn how to read music in high school chorus! Because one of my most meaningful holiday traditions is the privilege of singing along with the members of the Reston Chorale as they perform this breathtaking work.
  13. Christmas lights. Drive through older neighborhoods to enjoy more tradition displays, or head out to North Reston to gape at some of the professionally decorated mansions along Fieldview Drive.
  14. Jingle on the Lake (Lake Anne).   Every year community organizers and plaza retailers host a variety of festive activities ranging from strolling carolers to a petting zoo, music, wine tastings, children's crafts, cookie & ornament decorating, a holiday arts & crafts market, and the highlight of the event, Santa's arrival on a lake barge.
  15. German Christkindlmarket. It's hardly a well-kept secret that the German Armed Forces Command (the Bundeswehr) maintains an office right here in Reston.  I'm not entirely sure what they get up to the rest of the year, but every December the Bundeswehr hosts an annual traditional German outdoor Christmas carnival. The free Christkindlmarket has games, handmade crafts and gifts to purchase, and of course, German food and beer.  (Because what holiday isn't improved by German food and beer?)  Best of all, proceeds from food and gift sales are donated to Cornerstones and other local charities.
  16. Sledding down Mount Reston. Okay, so it’s not precisely a mountain, but every "true" Restonian knows that the best sledding hill in town is located just behind the Unitarian Church off of Wiehle Avenue. Though I’m nominating my own yard a close second for thrills – if you pick up enough speed on the steep slope that constitutes our front lawn, your reward is sailing into the icy creek at the base of the hill!
 
Other.
 
  1. Galleries & Art Installations. One of Robert Simon’s enduring legacies is ensuring that Reston continues to nurture and promote the arts. There are galleries at Reston Town Center and Lake Anne Plaza (the Lake Anne facility includes studio space; if you’re lucky, you can watch the artists actually at work), but you’ll also find the work of Reston artists on display at the Reston Community Center, the Walker Nature Center, and other local venues.
  2. Get crafty @ the Reston Community Center. Or if you’d rather create your own crafts, the Reston Community Center has you covered! For a nominal fee you can enjoy unlimited use of their fully furnished woodshop, ceramics studio (including kiln), or stained glass lab. The last time I checked, they even staffed the rooms 1-2x month with professionals in case you need a little help making your vision happen.
  3. Reston Farm Market. Reston hosts not one but two farm markets … talk about a surfeit of riches! I alternate between the Wednesday farmers market that sets up just off of Reston Avenue (offering the usual fresh fruits and vegetables + locally raised meats and prepared foods such as Cornish pasties, breads, and pies) and the larger Saturday farmers market at Lake Anne Plaza, which includes all of the above plus booths selling jewelry, homemade crafts, and gifts.
  4. Join a club. Reston has a club for pretty much every possible interest and passion. We have sports clubs (Reston Runners, Reston Bike Club, Reston Soccer Association, Reston Tennis Association, Reston Youth Association, Reston Swim Team Association), hobby/special interest clubs (Reston Garden Club, Reston Book Club, Reston Photographic Society, Reston VIP Toastmasters Club, Reston Writers Roundup), business clubs (Reston Chamber of Commerce, Reston Young Professionals), political clubs (Republican Club of Greater Reston), community clubs (Greater Reston Newcomers & Neighbors Club, Reston Citizens Association, Reston Historic Trust), women's clubs (Woman’s Club of Greater Reston, Moms Club of Reston, AAUW Reston, League of Women Voters), activist/advocacy clubs (Initiative for Public Arts/Reston, Rescue Reston, Reston Accessibility Committee, Sustainable Reston) and several score of service clubs (Rotary Club of Reston, Reston Lion's Club, Reston Jaycees), which I'll discuss in more detail under "Volunteering". 
  5. Take classes @ the Reston Community Center. Do yourself a favor – don’t just flip through your next issue of Reston Magazine; actually take the time to appreciate the incredible diversity of classes offered through the Reston Community Center. RCC offers more classes than some community colleges: everything from yoga to chess, Photoshop to country dancing – with such a variety, you’re bound to find something of interest.
  6. Reston Presents lecture series. This is one of our RCC’s more unique offerings, made possible by the diverse cultural and professional backgrounds of the people who live in Reston. Every year the series organizers recruit a new group of Reston residents volunteer to talk about their areas of specialty, everything from global religions to cooking Spanish food to espionage.
  7. Get involved in local politics. For a relatively quiet community, Reston residents always seem to find plenty of issues worthy of debate. Even as I write this, debate swirls over the fate of a local golf course, Silver Line development, cellphone towers, and a proposed rec center. If there’s a local issue that stirs your blood, consider becoming active on one of Reston Association’s many committees, look into serving on the Reston Citizen’s Association, or affiliate yourself with an informal citizen’s action committee. (One easy way to identify these groups is to monitor the editorial page of local publications.)
  8. Enjoy events sponsored by local churches. We’ve got churches representing a host of different denominations, each offering their own unique programming – everything from service projects to living nativities at Christmas. Washington Plaza Baptist Church has been around for at least 35 years, as has United Christian Parish, or try one of Reston’s more recent arrivals.
  9. Enjoy events sponsored by local businesses. As this list proves, the Reston community offers plenty in the way of entertainment! But you’re a fool not to take advantage of the great entertainment and educational opportunities offered by our Reston merchants – everything from wine tastings to movie festivals, pet adoptions, crafting classes, bike repair workshops, live music, poetry readings, cooking classes, home repair classes, gardening clinics, cake decorating tutorials, makeovers, and more.
  10. Enjoy events sponsored by companies headquartered in Reston. Ever wondered about the identity of all those businesses secreted behind tree-shrouded parking lots? Turns out Reston hosts some fascinating organizations, including the U.S. Geological Survey (of course) but also Northern Virginia Community College (my son has taken a few classes at their Reston campus), the National Wildlife Federation, Google, the Audubon Society of Northern Virginia, the National Dance Association, the American Institute of Aeronautics & Astronautics, the American Society of News Editors and – by the way – almost a dozen teaching/education associations. Some of these organizations offer cool outreach events that are well worth attending.
  11. Scouting/venturing. You have a choice of boy scout/girl scout troops in the area, ranging from small/mellow to large/active. I’ve been extremely impressed by the professionalism and dedication of the volunteers supporting these organizations in the Reston area, and some of the activities the kids become involved in (camping, rock-climbing, community service projects) are amazing!
  12. Eat your way across the world. One of Reston’s most abundant resources in restaurants, international restaurants in particular. While I won’t mention any by name here (both because I don’t want to date the article and because I don’t want to offend anyone by leaving them off), you won’t have to look beyond the borders of Reston to enjoy authentic cuisine from around the world: Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Spanish, Italian, Greek, Mexican, French, Indian, Middle Eastern, Peruvian, Mediterranean, Afghan … basically, anything you could possibly have a taste for!  97. Go on a pub crawl. Perhaps our claim as the one-time home of a Virginia Gentleman distillery explains the ever-growing number of fine wine & craft beer establishments moving into our area? Again, will avoid mentioning specific vendors; however, there are now so many of them you could devote a couple months of weekend evenings to visiting them all.
  13. Enjoy al fresco dining. While Reston winters and summers are best spent indoors, our springs and falls are fabulous, and one of the best ways to enjoy them is by kicking back at an outdoor table at one of our many Reston restaurants, a glass of something in cool in one hand, a boon companion by your side. Many of the eateries in this area offer at least some outdoor dining option.
  14. Garage sales/community yard sale. RA sponsors at least one community yard sale every year; for a small fee you can rent table space and enjoy the foot traffic that this large event (approx. 100 tables) inevitably attracts. But don’t let the convenience of Craigslist deter you from enjoying the variety of individual family and community yard sales to be found throughout Reston – I’ve found that the diversity of this area results in all sorts of marvelously eclectic yard sale finds!
  15. Party with the ‘hood. Some of my favorite childhood memories are of all the neighbors gathered together at the local cul-de-sac for an afternoon/evening of food, gossip and games/events (ex: volleyball, kickball, bike decorating contests, a children's parade). These days people are so busy it can be hard to get to know your neighbors: all the more reason to pick a day, create a flyer, drop off copies around the ‘hood, and either start or perpetuate this timeless tradition.
  16. Volunteer. I’m pretty sure my next project will be "101 Ways to Volunteer in Reston" because I’m pretty sure there are many more than 101 separate, specific opportunities in this community for doing good and helping others. Why? Because that’s perhaps the #1 thing that most of us love about Reston – that as a community we’ve dedicated ourselves to fostering diversity, stamping out intolerance, and creating opportunities for all our citizens to realize their dreams. So go ahead: join one of our many civic organizations dedicated to providing services to those in need (Cornerstone/Reston Interfaith, FISH, American Association of University Women Reston/Herndon branch); raise funds for a worthy cause by participating in any one of the dozens of marathons, silent auctions, and/or benefits staged in Reston every year; or give the gift of time to any one of the multitude of community organizations that rely on the support of volunteers to help them fulfill their mission (schools, youth sports organizations, Reston Hospital, Embry Rucker Shelter, Friends of the Reston Library, Weed Warriors). What are you waiting for … yet more proof that, at its core, the passions, talents, and dedication of people are what make Reston so extraordinary?

7/19/2014

Book Look - Lawrence in Arabia, by Scott Anderson


My history geek son tells me that historians continue to debate whether history creates great men* (*great as in "significant, for good or evil) or great men create history. The story of T.E. Lawrence would seem forcefully to make the case that otherwise ordinary individuals, discovering themselves in the right place at the right time, can irrevocably alter the course of history.

Not to imply that T.E. Lawrence was all that ordinary. You encounter his type every now and again in history and politics - extremely introverted but also extremely idealistic, to the point that they will force themselves to intercede in affairs if they feel that they're the only ones capable of doing what needs to be done.  In this case, Lawrence's unique skill set (one of the few Europeans actually to have explored the Middle East + able to speak the language + possessed of an understanding of native culture/customs/politics + placed in a wartime intelligence office that gave him access to the top decision-makers in the theater) uniquely enabled him to (1) understand at first-hand how European ignorance/arrogance was costing the allies in WWII the opportunity to dominate and close down the Middle Eastern front and (2) figure out how his intercession might prevent this from happening.

Lawrence's idealistic notion was, of course, offering the Arabs self-rule and a territory of their own in exchange for their help in fighting the Turks (German allies). Which deal Lawrence was instrumental in convincing the Arabs to accept, except that the Brits almost immediately reneged on their promise, kowtowing to a variety of external pressures which Anderson does a terrific job of exploring in depth and which include Turks desperate to preserve their crumbling region of influence; France, lobbying to maintain its colonial possession Syria; oil companies jockeying to lock in the rights to develop oil reserves in the region; and Zionists lobbying for a homeland.

Having introduced and explained these interests, the rest of the book recounts how interactions between these forces ends up creating military and political chaos - a chaos which, you don't need me telling you, continues to roil and destabilize the region to this day.

Almost no one in this appalling, non-fiction tale of incompetence, treachery, butchery, and self-aggrandizement comes out smelling of roses (thus the book's subtitle, "War, Deceit, Imperial Folly & the Making of the Modern Middle East"), but I definitely emerged with a new respect for Lawrence.  Though he made some fateful errors - overestimating the military abilities of the Arabs being among the chief of these - Anderson makes a fairly convincing case that Lawrence acted out of motives of pure idealism: he genuinely believed that releasing the Arabs from the oppressive colonial oversight of the Brits was the just and honorable thing to do. In furtherance of that cause he was not above employing some less than honorable tactics - a favorite was pretending not to receive cables from superiors requiring him to desist - but these come off as small foibles compared to the huge acts of deception being practiced by his military and political superiors.

Kudos to Anderson for his deft handling of dozens of simultaneous narrative strands.  In lesser hands this could have been a mess; instead, Anderson weaves them into a cohesive story.  He accomplishes this by focusing on three other relatively ordinary men who also found themselves in propitious places at propitious times: a minor German nobleman who became an influential intelligence officer;  a Jewish agriculturist/Zionist; and an enterprising Standard Oil representative. Between them, these four unlikely individuals ended up having a huge impact on the course of the war ...

... further proof that, at least in some instances, chance (fate?) seems to have a way of singling out ordinary people and granting them extraordinary influence over the outcome of major historical events.  In T.E. Lawrence the Arabs found a flawed but essentially honorable leader; which makes it all the more tragic that the allied powers bungled this opportunity so badly that we are still dealing with the consequences of their ineptitude and duplicity today.