Birthday Tree

Some years ago I stood on the muddy banks of the Schuykill River in southwest Philadelphia and gazed, not at the industrial ruins across the water, but up at the long, verdant slope behind me. Here were the remains of a cider press, and, just beyond them, the scruffy plantings of shrubs, trees and flowering plants that had been gathered 300 years ago to become John Bartram’s Garden, the oldest botanical garden in the United States.

Created in 1728 by an American born Quaker and self-taught botanist, the fifty acre farm was an incubator for what were then considered exotic “New World” plants. Bartram and his sons regularly explored the American colonies, bringing back seeds and cuttings fof the interesting and unusual for many international patrons. Among Bartram’s patrons was King George III, and Benjamin Franklin, who would eventually help take the colonies away from the king.

Franklin often visited the garden when he was in Philadelphia, arriving by boat close to where I stood. He would have long conversations with Bartram about the natural wonders Bartram discovered.

Among those found by Bartram and his sons was one of several “curious shrubs” growing on the banks of Georgia’s Altamaha River. With its ruddy red branches, delicate white blossoms with golden centers, the specimen was uniquely beautiful. Bartram planted it in his garden and named it Franklinia Altamaha in honor of his good friend.

During subsequent southern trips, Bartram’s sons failed to find the tree growing in the wild. Additional searches by botonists who literally followed in their footsteps also had no results. Franklinia no longer existed in the wild.

The trees in Bartram’s garden thrived and remain there to this day. While Franklinia is not popular among American “garden variety” plantings, it is prized by collectors, specialty gardeners and those who like to feel that by keeping a green thing alive, they are maintaining one more natural wonder for future generations to admire.

About a year ago, a neighbor told me that, for the past 25 years, he bought and planted a different tree for his birthday. I told him the story of Franklinia. He looked at his oaks, pines, cedars, maples and cherry trees and frowned. “Don’t have that one. They’re supposed to be tough to grow.”

Last year my wife Jan got me a green Japanese maple for my birthday. I was nervous about it because, my mother was the gardener in our family. I used to have a black them but I had learned a tiny bit from Jan and had graduated to the put-it-in-the-ground-and-see-what-happens school of horticulture.

So, thanks to my Jan’s care, the tree thrived. When this year’s birthday came around, I told her the Franklinia story. I e-mailed Bartram’s Garden to find out if they shipped Franklinia saplings. Bartram’s had sold out. Our local garden supply shops didn’t have it, and didn’t want to order it. “That plant is too fussy.”

Jan made some calls and found a nursery in New Jersey that could ship us a tree in a pot. My birthday came and went and then, the tree arrived in a box.

It was in perfect health. We’re going to put it in a large pot outside and we’ll give it as much love, and fussin’, as we can.

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Oh Deer

I was out with the dog, thinking of what I would do when the dog was done with her doo, when I spied two big white-tailed deer looking at me.

I could tell they were looking at me because, after the dog made her environmental contribution, one deer tensed as I reached into my pants pocket to pull out a biodegradable poo bag.

The dog glanced up at me and then caught the deer’s scent. She turned, glared and bent one foreleg, as if to say, I may be small and terminally cute, but nobody watches me poo without my knowing it.

I held the dog back because I had heard from a local naturalist that a deer will attack and stomp a dog to death if it feels threatened. This naturalist, whose full-time job is to take groups of all ages, abilities and disabilities on tours of the wilder parts of our county, told me the key to appreciating nature is to look, listen, smell (especially in the springtime) take pictures but and don’t even try to get close. Animals can carry ticks, fleas and bugs that can give you anything from Lyme Disease to Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.

So much for that kid-type attitude, encouraged by so many children’s books and Disney films, that animals are just like us except they’re…animals. But, as I admired these deer from afar, I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if my grown-up life were just a little bit more like my childhood, when everything was alive, everything could talk and nobody asked questions about where the hamburger came from.

If I was a regular kid-type kid, I would want to talk to those deer. The first thing I would do is wave. Then I’d slowly approach and tell the deer I’m not the neighbor who lives across the street and likes to hunt.

The deer doesn’t believe me. Right off the bat, the deer asks me. “Why do you think you’re doing us a favor by killing as many of us as possible?”

“I don’t. But those that do say they want to thin the herd so there are just enough of you to eat whatever you find in the forests and not be tempted to mess up our gardens and eat all our vegetables.”

“I wouldn’t eat your vegetables if they weren’t so good. You should take it as a compliment.” The deer looks at my pocket. “You packing? You carrying anything that needs a permit?’

I shake my head. I see a worried expression cross the deer’s muzzle.

“I’m still not understanding this hunting thing. Why is it that you like having us around and then one week comes around where you’re our worst enemy?”

“Human beings can be nice neighbors,” I say, somewhat embarrassed. “We can do nice things for each other. But then we become offended, greedy, nasty, reckless or just plain inconsiderate, and that starts us hunting.”

“Us?” the deer says, offended.

“Ourselves. We hunt each other.”

The deer tells me I should learn how to hide. “Wear camo. Move silently and fast.”

“We can do that, but, most of the time, it isn’t anything that shoots that destroys us. It’s the words.”

The deer looks at me oddly. “What did I say about moving silently? You can’t go fast if you’re talking. Move fast enough and you don’t have to listen. Just go! It works for us. It should work for you. One of these days we’ll figure this hunting season out and we will be somewhere else when the shooting starts.”

I can’t help but add, “we also have people who just go crazy and start shooting.”

“At us?”

“At everybody.”

The deer shakes his head. “We don’t do that. Life is too precious.”

I become silent and then, as it happens with any encounter with the town’s wilder inhabitants, the deer suddenly run away, back to the no-human’s land of meandering creeks and towering trees that developers didn’t cut down.

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Guys and Ties

The only guys I see wearing neckties right now are politicians, newscasters and newsroom talking heads who hope we won’t notice that they have nothing to say.

I have two tie racks in my closet. I pass them as I reach for the shirts, sweaters, hoodies, jeans and other covid body decor. I know where all ties on those racks come from, starting with the solid black, a souvenir from a trip to China. Some are hand-me-downs. After my uncle died, my aunt gave a bunch to me and said “he wanted you to have these.” Others were acquired from vintage clothing shops, from department stores that have gone out of business, and discount dungeons.

I have expensive ties, too. When a guy goes into a clothing shop to buy a suit, alarms go off. You’re suddenly surrounded by shoes and belts and ties and shirts as white as the beach at high noon. They’re WAY overpriced, but they look cool together so you buy them anyway. To me, the pricey ties are no better than the cheap ones I bought on the Internet, but my wife says she can tell the difference.

What is it with guys and clothes? My father once took my brother and I to a warehouse in Northeast Philadelphia because he thought he’d get a better price on sportcoats and slacks in a building that didn’t have a carpet, three-panel mirror and a place to change in. We wriggled into all kinds of stuff behind racks of plastic-shrouded garments. My father paid for it all, including a tangle of neckties that made people blink.

Could the salesman tell that my father was color blind? Several years later I challenged my wife to search the closet and put together an ensemble for me that would include one of the North Philly Specials. She did. It worked.

Some of my ties are gifts. Guys get ties when people think we have everything. Gift ties tend to have muted colors, polite stripes, subdued patterns, and little motifs that are supposed to suggest a hobby (bicycles, guitars), an interest (a sports team logo, cars, dollar signs) or a career.

One tie I found in a used clothing store that I did not purchase had little hearts on it. These were not the cute red or pink symmetrical symbols of Valentines Day, but the real, lub-dub hearts, with a snarl of thick organic plumbing on top like the wrong kind of pasta.

I guess you would give that tie to a cardiologist. What, I wonder, would you give to a plastic surgeon, or a gastroenterologist?

One of my gift ties consists of randomly printed words. Because it is easy nowadays for people to take offense at just about anything, I have read every single word on that tie to make sure no inadvertant up-down-across–diagonal combinations would blow anybody up. So far, so good, but you never know. Wearing the wrong tie can be more than a fashion sin.

Remember power ties, those arrogant, out-of-my-way-or-I’ll-eat-your-lunch chestplates worn on chilly, air-conditioned battlefields where the goal was to make the other guy sweat?

I have only a few left. I used to wear them at lunches with editors, publishers, administrators, business types and anyone else whose superiority I had reason to doubt. Because the power food served at power lunches can drip and splatter, most of my power ties have perished heroically as they took the bullets that would have killed my shirts.

I said good-bye to those ties because, with ties, things don’t always come out in the wash. You take them to the dry cleaner. You get them back wrapped in plastic. You take the plastic off and notice that the stains are now tiny, ghostly shadows. A power tie with an ectoplasmic blotch is sad. The only thing sadder is a tie that’s badly knotted.

How many mornings have I spent in front of a mirror tying and retying the damned thing because one end was too long or the knot was lopsided or the pucker wouldn’t come out in the center?

Of course, it was a relief when the lockdown descended last year to stuff the uniforms of business, presentability, formality, pedegree, authority, propriety and hierarchy way back in the closet, and just grab a sweatshirt, T-shirt, hoodie or a pair of jeans that, as the isolation continued, began to feel tight.

I fought against my expanding waistline. I ran a mile or more each day. I watched more closely what went into my mouth. I did other exercises. I lost 20 pounds.

And then, one night, I absentmindedly buttoned up my no-iron shirt and stuffed the tails into my looser jeans. I ran my fingers through the tie rack and found one that contrasted favorably with the shirt. I swore I’d put the tie back on the rack if it gave me any trouble with the knot. The knot came out okay.

I added a sportcoat. My wife saw me and told me to wait. She ran up staris and came down a few minutes later dressed like a goddess.

I don’t remember what we ate and drank. I know things felt different, as if those slightly dressy duds that werr so useless during the pandemic suddenly transported us back to a time when things were better.

I began to dress with ties and, wouldn’t you know, I had one of those mornings (or was it an afternoon?) of tying and retying and retying some more.

Neckties can be like spoiled children. If you don’t care enough about them, they let the world know.

But when the knot and the length come as they should, the colors match (or sometimes didn’t–I have a few screaming orange ties that are the equivalent of a morning hangover cure when worn with a dark shirt) and the jacket hangs just so, you begin to understand why uncles leave ties for their nephews.

Ties are really about the future. No matter how wide, short, thin, pointed, blunt or eye-searingly loud they may be, you can trust that a day will come when that tie–yes, even THAT tie–will be the right one for you to wear.

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He’s Writing Poetry Again

Turn off the laptop! Don’t go on-line!

Pick up a pencil and pound out a rhyme!

Mix those metaphors. Count out the beat.

Pile up similes. Enjamb your feet!

Hurl forth words like stones from a sling.

Demand importance from a trivial thing!

Harvest cliches that stick like burrs

And trust the dust inspiration stirs.

Now lift that veil, raise the shroud

Say on a page what you can’t say aloud

To your friends and co-workers who simply don’t get it.

You know when you’re famous one day they’ll regret it!

While you trust the dust inspiration stirs

And harvest cliches that stick like burrs.

Don’t give up! Break every rule!

Go cruisin’ for a bruisin’ on the ship of fools!

Cling to your hope. It won’t last long.

Later or sooner, you’ll hear a new song.

That sounds so much better than your loved labors lost

And sends you brooding about the awful cost

Of slicing, dicing and caking the icing

Half-baked food for the soul.

Oh come on, you say. It can’t be that bad.

A rhyme in the bush is still more than you had.

Writing is always worth doing

Even if there’s more cowing than mooing.

You never know where your words may lead

Or who listens as you read

Your rhymes to four walls, three or two.

It’s about pleasing one person, and that’s you.

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Winter’s Bounty

We had so much wild, dead, ugly stuff to cut down that I had to go out and buy more of those big paper bags that are supposed to be kind to landfills.

At first, I didn’t find any bags. This was winter, with cold, brutal winds blowing big, spinning mini-tornadoes of leaves that had once looked so bright and colorful on tress. Most of what remained planted around our house had to be pruned, trimmed or pulled out before the snow came.

The largest single thing we had to take down were the tomato plants. What had started as seeds in raised beds had become a fragrant, tangled, snarled green wall at least two feet taller than I was. I watched my wife disappear behind it, the pruning shears going snick, snick, snick.

And then we discovered that what we thought was a mass of useless warm weather vegetation, was still bearing fruit. Nestled among the leads were long strands of tomatoes, most of them green, but round and ripe enough to pluck away.

As I took off one strand, and then another, I remembered a warning I had heard while watching a gardening show on TV: when harvesting, bring a bucket or a basket, because your hands will be full before you know it.

Our buckets had been put away for the winter. I found a small container. Within a minute, my wife and I filled it with bright green fruit. I emptied it on a small table top that was soon covered with several hundred under ripe tomatoes.

I wished I hadn’t put those buckets away. We used our hands to carry the tomatoes in. Then we put them in a cool, dark place to ripen. Would they taste as good as summer or autumn tomatoes?

I had to smile at how summer’s gift became winter’s bounty, not just in tomatoes, but in two important truths:

Whatever appears old, overgrown, or to have outlived its purpose, may hide surprisest may have some surprises and

Don’t be so quick to pack away your buckets. You never know when you’ll need something big to bring good things home.

 

 

 

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Twenty Push-Ups

Sit-ups are worse: the position is uncomfortable, unusual. You’re on the floor, on your back, going just a little bit up and back, and if you hunch over or strain or let your feet fly up, you’ll hurt your back.

Push-ups give you a pumped-up sense of accomplishment while you get to know the floor below your eyes a little more intimately than you’d like. That patch of carpet, tile, wood or dirt intrudes and recedes as you go up and down, breathing in and out, but before you feel absolutely ridiculous, your pectorals firm up. It’s not quite the same as devouring too much pizza, sawing through a 32 ounce porterhouse or feeling your brain freeze as you lick the last spoonful of that super-premium ice cream pint.

No, when you do twenty push-ups, you feel like you’ve done something.

A writer I once knew–a product of Ivy League schools who ran marathons and resembled a Nietzschiean ubermench–once wrote an entire article in a highly respected newspaper about how doing push-ups made him feel “manly.”

I envied him, not because of his educational pedigree (I went to a small but significant liberal arts school in the middle of rain-soaked Ohio cornfields), or his ability to finish a marathon (the most I’d gone was about fourteen miles, when I was living at the Jersey shore and put some terrific music on my Sony Walkman, set out on a blissfully balmy day and trotted so far from my home that the only way to go back before sundown and some fool in a pick-up truck on a typically badly lit beach island causeway turned me into roadkill, was to run all the way back) or the way he would turn the heads of so many female journalists when he strode through a newsrooms.

I was jealous because he was a staff writer, that is, a full-time newspaper employee with benefits and privileges and a little head-shot above whatever he wrote, while I was a self-employed freelancer, which meant I couldn’t just dash-off a blithe-and-easy first-person piece about the blood-pumping joys of a single exercise that I had hated for most of my fat-kid existence. If I wanted to write for that newspaper, or any of the other 40 or so publications that printed my work, I had to come up with ideas that were more difficult or more interesting than what the staffers churned out, sell them to jaded editors, do the work and hope the publications paid me on time, if at all.

I also had a secret: push-ups were once MY thing! Me–a former fat kid who lost his flab by running and refusing to eat carbs for seven months–used to do as much as a hundred a time. I even won a few bets with them.

It started where many obsessions do, in college. For most of a semester I wore a cast on my arm after wrist surgery to fix an injury I had several years previously. When the cast came off, I had to prove to myself that my wrist was okay. It had stiffened up somewhat–I’d never be able to bend it in every way that I liked.

So went down on my knees, planted both hands flat on the grimy, gray tile dormitory floor and could barely do one.

I eventually worked my way up to well over 100, got bored with it and stopped doing them.

Some months ago, as part of an effort to say “no” to the aches, pains and despair that can

I went down and could barely lift myself off the floor. The next day I did two push-ups.

Lesson learned, and easily forgotten: most achievement consists of little things done regulary that accummulate to reveal unexpected strength.

Many years later, after I had let go of the reasonably good physical condition I had built up over the years, I gained weight, became more than usually grumpy, and then suffered two heart attacks.

That was five years ago. At the beginning of this year, I decided to do something about it. I went for a run every day. Now I can do eight miles at a stretch. I began to watch what I ate and lost 22 pounds. I’m hoping to shed more weight in the future.

I asked the cardiologist why, if I could run so many miles, I would quickly tire if I dug a few holes with a shovel in the garden. He said I needed isometric exercise and suggested push-ups.

You know that first one was even harder than the one I did a half century ago when my cast came off.

On the next day, the two I did after that were even harder.

You can guess the rest: I’ve finally been able to do do twenty push-ups. I don’t feel “manly.”

I just feel good.

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Sock It To Me?

I put on two different socks and waited for the world to change.

I didn’t mean to wear them. I was putting my laundry away and just grabbed them. At the time, I thought they were identical. A few minutes later, when putting on my shoes, I discovered the ugly truth.

I sat there contemplating: what is the truth in this situation? Where are the facts? What is my personal connection to the historical use of hosiery?

If I looked at my socks as articles of clothing that provide warmth, insulate my skin from possibly abrassive seams and surfaces within my shoe, and serve as an interior foot covering when moving above carpetted floors, then it really shouldn’t matter if one has an obvious and dramatically different pattern than the other. From a utilitarian point of view, these two socks were providing the maximum good with the maximum benefit.

So why is it that wearing two different socks is considered egregious–a custom “outside the herd” of people form whom a matched pair is a statement of uniformity, symmetry and the rudimentary economic sufficiency to own identical pairs?

I put on my shoes and walked the dog, carefully observing, between long glimpses of seasonal splendor, and the dog’s occasional need to stop, sniff and make environmental contributions, if anyone noticed.

A police siren wailed in the distance. I reflected that when I first moved to this suburban paradise, such sounds were rare. Having seen forests removed, roads widened and blocks of apartments “on a Parisian street theme” rise from unanticipated heights, I now hear sirens at least once a day.

Do more people bring more problems? In the best of all possible worlds, would we never hear a siren because no one with authority would need to hurry to save a life or catch a law breaker.

My socks weren’t breaking a law but I recalled that one of the reasons English peasants revolted during the 13th century were laws that forbade them to wear kinds and colors of clothing. High taxes may have been more of a motivation for them to march on London, where they demanded to meet the king so they could tell young Richard II how bad things were.

Richard fearlessly rode into the thousands gathred at Smithfield, appeared to listen and then abruptly left when his soldiers could surround them and cut them down.

Socks had something to do with that, but not much.

The dog did what the dog must. We walked our customary path and returned home, where I reflected on a belief common among those in my generation who found that after embracing a “counterculture,” their world didn’t really change that much (unless they were willing to cut their hair, go back to school, get a degree in law or finance and work for the very people they protested against), so they decided to look inward and change themselves, having the faith that “incremental” changes–like that joyous, endorphin rush you get in a long run or a short yoga position–would eventually achieve what public protests, blue denim, Richard Nixon saying “Sock it to me?” on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, and natural foods did not.

Did wearing two different socks count as an incremental change?

I looked at my socks and waited.

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If You Knew Then What You Know Now

If you’re just a little bit older than you were a few minutes ago, and you have a moment between the planned and unplanned chaos that these current events deliver every day, you may look back on who you were a few minutes ago and say, “If only I knew then what I know now.”

Right away, your mind goes back years to that moment in…high school, perhaps, when a ball was coming your way and you looked up from the playing field, extended your arms and…

Entire movies have been made about this scenario. What if you hadn’t dropped it? What if you were in a different part of the field, but close enough so when the ball drops you can pick it up and run for the goal?

Or what if every single awkward, embarrassing, stupid, or heart-achingly painful thing could be seem in a slightly brighter light?

Or, better yet, what if you could visit yourself, that slightly younger person who, despite every good intention (and maybe a few that weren’t so good), missed the mark more times than they found it, and say, “Hey, it’s okay. I’ve seen the future–I am the future–and it’s all going to be okay.”

You’ll look at yourself in disbelief, absolutely certain that you’ve been cursed, like that Ancient Mariner poem that you didn’t read but said you did and now the teacher passed out a test that is asking questions about albatrosses and you know if you don’t get a good grade on this one you’ll mess up that quarter, bring your grade down and won’t won’t get into that college that your parents thought was just perfect on the campus tour (when all you were thinking about is, do the student tour guides learn how to talk and walk backwards in one of these overly impressive buildings, or was that a skill they were born with?).

“Hey. It’s okay. You’ll go to a different college where, instead of being surrounded by talking, walking backwards snarks, you’ll find the friends and teachers who show you that you already have all the skills you need to do great things in this world.”

That time you had so little money you had to chose between taking the bus home, or spending what was left in your pocket on something cheap to fill your empty stomach, and you held on to your money and your feet ached after walked those long miles home.

“You’ll make so much money that when you see someone panhandling, you’ll offer to buy that person lunch. You won’t just take busses–you’ll drive a sportscar and you’ll get into such good physical condition that you’ll run that distance three times, maybe four–and you’ll feel great when you’re done.”

Remember how really, really, really mad you were when you rushed back to your sportscar and saw the parking ticket flapping on the windshield?

“Pay the ticket. Be grateful you’re not the person whose job it is to write it. Some things are not worth getting upset about.”

That person you really loved who broke up with you and you can’t stop thinking about?

“This is just one of life’s crazy ways of showing both of you how much you care for each other. And you do. You see each other again someday.”

The job you wanted but didn’t get?

“The next job you won’t get either. But the one after that? You’ll end up owning the company.”

The child who drove his first car into a tree?

“He’s not hurt. He’ll become a safer driver than you are.”

That time when the person you voted for wasn’t elected? “You’ll vote another time and someone you chose will get the job.”

And when terrible things are happening next door, down the street, a few blocks away, in the hospital emergency room, or in places that are supposed to be beautiful examples of nature’s bounty–

“Be kind, grateful, generous and forgiving. These things by themselves won’t fix everything that’s wrong the world, but they will help you become the kind of person who just might.”

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I Wave at Everybody

I know it sounds foolish, or like that Lyle Lovett song, “I Love Everybody.” We know that Lyle Lovett can’t possibly love everybody. Everybody can’t possibly love him. When I saw him in concert with his Large Band he played a very long show (but didn’t perform “I Love Everybody”) and, at the end, as I looked around, I saw that some of the people trudging out of the theater toward their cars didn’t love that.

I know that if I waved to Lyle Lovett from where I was in the theater he wouldn’t see me or wave back. But, if we were passing each other on the street, or if we were both driving Jeeps (my son, who owns one, says Jeep owners must wave at each other as they pass each other–typically two fingers extended from the steering wheel, and when he left his Jeep with us for a while and told me to drive it occasionally so the battery wouldn’t die, I did the two finger thing with other Jeep drivers and they did it back to me), and he wasn’t lost in the kind of thoughts you’d expect a reasonably well known singer/songwriter to have, he might wave back.

To be sure, there are risks in waving at people beyond not getting a wave back. We can all imagine people exist who are definitely NOT worth waving at. We can see them now, coming toward us, eyes on the cell phone, lips pulled back in a snarl, arms stiff from anger, legs pushing the feet down flat on the sidewalk, brain cooking up more snarky nastiness to send to a place that only exists in the minds of people who spend too much time on the Internet.

You can see them coming toward us wearing a T-shirt that says something that bothers us. The hair is too short or too long and may not have been washed this morning. The clothing doesn’t match or could be just a bit inappropriate for the setting. Who wears THAT to a supermarket?

Or, in these times of the plague, they’re not wearing a mask and they’re giving you that disdainful sneer that says you’re an idiot for wearing one, or the mask they’re wearing is printed with something that bothers us, or the mask isn’t on properly, exposing a nose that could blow out stuff that might kill us, someone we love, someone who made music we like but hasn’t had a hit record in a while (not Lyle Lovett but the great John Prine whose equally sardonic, bittersweet songs created a place for Lyle and so many others for whom gentle laughter is a saving grace). That same junk can end the life of someone who said something, posted something or texted something that made a big fuss on the media and now people we don’t know think that this person should suffer.

What about those hyper-aggressive, toxic testosterone types who see every human contact as a friend-or-foe threat? What if you wave and they stop, pivot toward you, drop into a fighting stance and demand to know why the %$#@&* you’re in their space or making their space your space, and waving at them?

In some places, with some people, the slightest demonstration of public civility, respect or ordinary courtesy can be perilous. Some find it downright disturbing. What right do I have to wave at them? What right do I have to wave at all? Where in United States Constitution is it written that we are free to make this simple, harmless public gesture? First amendment free speech? Hardly. My empty hand doesn’t say a word.

But the gesture can create a feeling of commonality, a connection, a relationship where none existed. The absolute worst thing that could happen is this person who doesn’t watch the same cable news channel we watch, doesn’t believe the conspiracy theories we do, claims to worship the same God but doesn’t worship in the way we do and may even like kale smoothies–waves back.

That’s what’s been happening to me as I go for a run or walk the dog. People I don’t know, people I don’t even remember seeing before, are waving back. Sometimes they do it so fast that I don’t respond quick enough and I feel terrible about what that person must think of me, the waver who doesn’t wave back.

But then, it’s over. The other person has passed me.

So far, nobody has waved too much to me. I can imagine what that is: I give the little salute and that person’s arm starts whirling like a propeller and I ask myself is this person mocking me or, protecting themselves from a spiral column of nasty little bugs?

A few times the wave-returner makes a comment about the weather. I used to get mad at people who talked about the weather because a writer I once knew told me that you never start a story by talking about the weather–you cut to the chase, toss out the hook that drags the reader in, begin in media res.

Now I know that talking about the weather is one of the big nothings of socializing, which, when you think about it, is filled with inconsequential comments, subvocal grunts, minor postural changes, empty gestures and the subtle heroism in stifiling a belch.  It’s not so much that we having nothing to say–even if we’re shy, we have too much we could unload on those who might listen. But, instead, we permit ourselves to inhabit a place where the fate of the free world does not depend on what we say and do.

Talking about the weather is a little bit like asking, “How are you?” You’re briefly recognizing that person, even if you know nothing about them and probably don’t want to know much. “Fine, thank you,” also used to bother me as a reply, because, how can we be fine when people elsewhere are suffering and all this horrible stuff is happening around us?

To quote John Prine: “It’s a half an inch of water and you think you’re going to drown. That’s the way that world goes round.”

REM: “It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.”

Me? I’m thinking about my open hand. It’s empty, but when I wave it, something always fills the space.

 

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The Rain God

When you’re a kid your parents give you chores and tell you that they want you to learn responsibility. They never suspect that you know the truth: the only reason they want you to do this stuff is that they’d rather not.

On hot, steamy, bug-filled New Jersey summer mornings I had to untangle the hose (which always found a way of tangling itself up), turn on the spigot, drag the hose across our suburban quarter acre and squirt water at anything that was green.

This wasn’t as easy as it sounds. I was a fat kid with seasonal allergies that made me a sneezing wreck for most the warmer months. I’d honk so fast and loud that people in air conditioned cars would give me that I’m-so-glad-I’m-not-you look. When my nose wasn’t clogged I’d pale at the sticky-icky-sweet smell of fermenting crab apples that fell off the trees and were chopped up by the lawn mowers to rot in the sun. The neighbors would let their dogs poop on the lawn, so I’d have to blast that, and the flies, away by putting my thumb on the end of the hose, which would squirt some back at me, so, at the end of a few long minutes, I’d be as soggy as my handkerchief.

Worst of all, instead of having so many trees and shrubs because my mother liked plants and had hired a landscaper to make flower circles and wavy borders of mulch so she could have more plants per square foot than the Jersey Pine Barrens, the neighbor next door had a big, aquamarine above-ground swimming pool rising like a natural gas storage tower. While sneezing and snuffling across our botanical garden, I’d turn and see this aluminum pond and maybe hear a sound of delight or catch the sunlight on a splash. You put water into things like THAT, I grumbled, not on plants.

My soaking duties so pleased my parents that my summer duties were increased to mowing the lawn, which I found even more despicable. Our power mower was loud and hot and stank of burnt chlorophyll. It also had one of those pull chords that aroused the motor to an angry snarl when yanked by the guy who sells it to your father, but just chutters impotently when the sun is burning a hole in your head, the neighbors’ kids are laughing in their pool, and I’m about to leave the thing in the middle of the driveway and run into the house and hide near an air conditioner when…I give it one, last, cynical pull, and the motor doesn’t start as much as it laughs at me, as if it could have come to life at the beginning but wanted to play dead just to piss me off.

What I didn’t understand at the time was that gardens in the suburbs aren’t merely stupid things to have so that you can teach your kids responsibility. They have meaning, context and personality. They show you care enough about where you live to moderate the bland conformity and harsh edges of the developer’s original plan, with blurs of green, moments of visual drama and beautiful flashes of seasonal color.

And, if you happen to become a person who puts plants into the ground with the expectation that they’ll grow, a garden provides metaphors that teach patience, dedication and subtle wonder.

Before that happens you have to grow a few years, lose that fat you acquired from finishing everything your mother put on your plate, and let your immune system discover that airborne pollen wasn’t out to get you. It helps if you find yourself in the gardens of Versailles on a Sunday when they turn the fountains on, and, when living in Washington D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood and wondering if anyone would publish your dreams, you discover a visit to the landscaped groves of Dumbarton Oaks can make you forget the rejections, and you find a sense of peace and gentility in places  like Longwood in Pennsylvania, Kew in London, Tivoli outside Rome, the Luxembourg and Jardin des Plantes in Paris, the Morris Arboretum in Chestnut Hill, Leaming’s Run in New Jersey, Bartram’s in Philadelphia, and Gethsemane in Jerusalem, where, in a town where so many people are sure that God is with them and not all those other people, you notice how nice it is to be left alone.

But you’re not alone in these gardens. You’re with someone who, like you, likes gardens but, unlike, actually wants to put things in the ground and watch them grow.

So you’re married to this person and you watch her visit nurseries and garden supply stores and you have to open the car’s sun roof so that the newest tree can fit in, pile up around it so many big bags of mulch and garden soil to the car, piling them so high that the frame of the car hangs down on the tires and the people in cars give you another, distinct but sufficiently similar I’m-glad-I’m-not-you look.

And when a living thing she’s planted doesn’t make it, you feel a little bit sad. You want to replace it with something so you make a run to the nursery and you come back with all this strange stuff, and soil and mulch, and you stick it in the ground and find yourself standing in front of it all with a hose in your hand shooting water at it all.

That’s when, on hot summer days, you imagine the plants are talking to you, asking, pleading, demanding that you train the spray on them so, rather than turning brown and scraggly, they can be green and colorful and shoot off so many blooms and blossoms like a slow-motion fireworks display.

You see, in one small growing thing, the person you were when you were many years ago when you were just one more kid living in a scuzzy urban apartment, writing stories that you absolutely sure should be published, and, it seemed, that success was like rain that fell on so many others who didn’t have the talent or didn’t work as hard, and you wished some of that sweet water would come your way.

The kid with the hose has become the man with the hose that he has to unkink occasionally. Some of the back spray hits me in places I’d rather not be soaked. Bugs swirl about and the sun scorches my skin.

But this time, I’m not sneezing and complaining about what my parents want me to do. I’m a rain god by whose whim life-affirming success showers down on the deserving, the beautiful, the merely pleasing, the parched and needy, or, as it also happens, whatever else is in the way.

From the corner of my eye, I see an air conditioned car slow down. The driver gives me a look that says, if he didn’t have to drive this car to run this errand or go to this job, he just might want to stand still on a summer day and help living things grow.

 

 

 

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