Roses and Me

My mother visited me last night in a dream. I told her that I was sorry that I may have killed two roses bushes when I pruned them too severely.

She told me what mothers always tell their kids: don’t worry, that you learn as you go and that even if I made a mistake, some mistakes are worth making. She added that I was fortunate that I didn’t have to chase away the neighborhood dogs who killed the two bushes she had planted at the end of our suburban driveway.

I smiled at that. Unlike most on our street, I didn’t grow up with a dog. Those that trotted by our house dutifully paused to sniff the rose bushes, and other plants my mother arranged around our house. Perhaps they lifted their hind legs out of respect.

When my mother saw one about to tinkle, she rushed out of the house. Before she reached the stricken plants, the dog walkers had pulled their beasts away, but the damage was done. The roses at the foot of our driveway died.

Those in the back survived. She planted about a dozen in a square of soil, each about a foot from the other. I had just enough room to move my toy trucks through what my imagination turned into giant Sequoias. I had to be careful: thorns could snag my clothing and scratch my skin. I couldn’t understand what she saw in these ugly, nasty little things, covered in shiny green leaves, until the weather warmed and they began to bloom.

Then the Japanese beetles would descend and my mother dumped a white powder on the leaves that killed maybe two beetles. She also forbade me to play near the plants because this powder was poisonous and the beetles had to die. Those that didn’t ate holes in the leaves and attacked the blossoms. By August, it was all rather awful.

Because of this, and seasonal hay fever that turned my nose into a sneezing mess, I grew up with no affection for horticulture. My mother, on the other hand, found salvation in it. She was entirely self-taught and filled every room in the house with plants. After she died, my wife took some of those plants to our house, where they continue to grow.

For many years I believed I assumed that whatever genetic proclivity my mother had for helping things grow had skipped me. I thought I had a black thumb and harbored a general loathing of the outdoors. My allergies gradually faded as I grew older, giving me the ability to fire up the lawnmower and give a haircut to the tiny patch of grass in front of my suburban house.

I also developed a taste for landscaped gardens. On a rather extravagant date, my high school sweatheart (who became my wife) and I went to Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, PA. When my son was a baby I strolled him through the Azalea Garden behind the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and deeper into Fairmount Park. I was lucky enough to be on the grounds of Versailles on the rare day when the fountains were turned on. When I spent some time living in New York City, I walked through Central Park as many times as possible, getting to know all the bridges and overlooks.

Best of all was Dumbarton Oaks, a landscaped garden at the top of a hill in Washington D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood. Go there and you’ll enjoy how the neoclassical elements close to the grand house slowly unravel into a fantastic wilderness that, like most gardens, looks so much better than the real thing. I later discovered it was an important work of Beatrice Ferrand, America’s first female landscape architect.

But I resisted any attempt to put living things in the ground. A neighbor stared at the back of my house and agreed to help me trim the shrubs. He drove his car to a woodsy area and loaded the trunk with plants he said “were fun because they’re free.” A single leave of English Ivy clinging to one of the root balls soon spread itself all over the front, and back, of the house. I was curious: why was it called English Ivy? Did it have something to do with British imperial history?

Maybe.

Shortly before my mother died, I found out that someone in the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (of which she was a proud member and patron) named a rose after her. I tried to find out what it was. I even called and e-mailed the society. They never responded.

What was it about roses that made my wife–and my mother–so interested? I really didn’t know, and didn’t care to know, until my wife and I drove back from a long, early springtime day in Washington, D.C. and, to my surprise, she steered into a garden center. A few minutes later we came back with a David Austen rose called Princess Alexandra of Kent.

I didn’t know roses had names and I had never heard of David Austen. All I knew was that my wife liked roses and, having bought her cut flowers frequently, I was happy to see her enthralled with this big, potted snarl of dark green leaves with tiny green buds on the top that were about to bloom.

David Austen roses were special, my wife assured me. Austen was the world’s most famous breeder of English roses in the world. So, for birthdays, anniversaries and for no other reason than to make her happy, I bought her more.

I know the English have their ivy, but I didn’t know the difference between an English rose and any other country’s. When we went to Paris, we visited Malmaison, the rather small villa on the outside of Paris that Napoleon Bonaparte shared with his first wife, Josephine Beaharnais. Though Napoleon had tried (and failed) to breed roses, Josephine succeeded and acquired a collection, of which one, called Souvenir of Malmaison, is named in her honor (legend says it came from her original collection). I saw some roses at Malmaison that, I guess, were French. Later I learned that Souvenir of Malmaison is one of the fussiest roses ever.

Alas, Princess Alexandra of Kent died in our garden (I found her a replacement). Another rose called “hot chocolate” is thriving. Crown Princess Margaretta didn’t do well at first, but now it is proudly climbing our fence. Falstaff, a rose I bought to honor the famous Shakespearian blowhard, also struggled, but is now taller than I am. Among our other Austens are Gentle Hermoine, Port Sunlight, Lady of Shallott, Princess Anne, Windermere (a town we visited in England’s Lake District), the Lady Gardener (in honor of my wife), Empress Josephine and another one whose name I’ve forgotten. We also bought roses from other breeders, some we found at a discount at Home Depot and Lowes. They have names like Old Timer (I guess that’s me), Twilight Zone, Bliss, Ebb Tide, Mr. Lincoln, Maggie (my wife’s nickname), Moonstone, Electron (my wife is a scientist specializing in physics), and Ringo Starr.

Some of our roses don’t have names. They are red, white, pink, coral and orange. Last year, as they bloomed, the air filled with fragrance of extraordinary beauty–that did not bother my allergies.

And the Japanese beetles left as alone.

One has a special name. Called Peace, it was bred to commemorate the end of World War Two. This one also struggled for a while and, yes, I made the joke about giving peace a chance and…

A few days ago I noticed the first red shoots emerging from the root. Yesterday some green leaves popped out. I should have told my mother about this one in my dream but I was disappointed about the two roses that we lost.

Or did we?

We have a section of our garden, way in the back, where we put things that we want to come back. We have good soil back there. We water regularly and add fertilizer. I planted the gnarled roots of those two, stood back and thought about how springtime can be such a surprise: we forget about so much of the stuff we experience, and then, we don’t expect it, they come back. When the air is cool, the sunlight bright and a fresh wind blows through what little hair you have left on your head, to hope for things, no matter how seemingly impossible, irrational or just plain foolish, can bring a different kind of peace.

I pruned those roses so severely because a sudden frost had turned what was green a dark, dingy brown. I remembered how beautiful those roses were last year, and wanted to cut off the dead shoots to make way for the new.

And if nothing new emerges, I will embrace my mother’s advice: some mistakes are worth making.

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Old Clothes, New Voice

Way back at the far end of the closet is a long-sleeved, sky-blue poplin shirt with long, pointed collars that my mother bought me when she knew I was going to Miami.

We were in a BJ’s so she could buy a week’s supply of yogurt cups and a die-cast model car for my son. When I told her I would be spending some time in South Florida, she headed toward the piles of men’s clothing.

I was old enough not to need some of the stuff, but wise enough to let her do her thing. She wanted to believe that, among all my fashionably faded polo shirts, denim trousers, beat-up sneakers and zipped hoodies, I would need a shirt for that rare dress-up occasion. She handed me the shirt and she reached across a pile of sweaters–“this for when it’s air conditioned.”

My parents used to go to South Florida every winter. People were crazy down there about air conditioning, she told me, especially when they don’t have a view of the ocean. I should take Vitamin C every day with Tropicana (pronounced “trop uh can no”) orange juice, and wear a sweater at night because sometimes they have winter nights that can be as cold outside as it is inside.

I balked at the white polyester pants and we meandered toward the check-out line.

I actually did have a dress-up occasion in Cocoanut Grove one night. Out came the shirt and sweater and I looked just like all those guys who were so much older than me, with their dark tans, white shoes and pastel blue pants that rode up over their ankles so everyone could see they were wearing white socks. I ordered another rum punch. The drink arrived with a tiny yellow parasol stuck in the orange slice floating atop the ice in the glass. I took a sip and I fit right in.

My mother passed more than a decade ago. My son graduated college, got a job and, as far as I know, got rid of all the die-cast model cars my mother bought for him. My yellow sweater and blue shirt remained with some of the other stuff she bought for me. I may have worn the shirt once when I was teaching. The polyester blend fabric did not wrinkle, though it would cook me in the classroom.

I don’t know if I wore the sweater. The combination seemed odd to me until a few days ago, when I saw Ukrainian people flying their flag as Russian troops bombed their cities and towns.

I took the shirt out again. Somehow, the bright azure blue was a perfect match with the yellow sweater. I could put it on a show my support for these brave people.

For a moment I had a lack of nerve. What would I do if I walked into a supermarket and one of the neighborhood crazies started in on me about what right I had to make a statement about “someone else’s war”?

I reached for a red pullover and then, I paused and looked back on my history of mistakes, inept decisions and all those things that did not turn out the way they should–and I asked myself when was the last time anyone confronted me about the color of my clothing? Not once.

Those incredible Ukrainian people were fighting for their lives. My family descends from eastern European people who endured centuries in which their farms and towns became battlefields, as one dubious leader after another answered the call of destiny, or the “will of the people,” the need for “living room,” and so many other awful reasons to destroy the lives of hundreds of thousands. What did these people do to deserve this? They were in the way.

And now some of those people were saying that they weren’t in anyone’s way: they will fight to be just where they are.

I put on the yellow sweater and marveled how old clothes can speak with a new voice.

And I thanked my mother for having enough faith in her son that, sooner or later, I’d wear the right ensemble and fit right in.

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Hallucinating Rolls-Royce

I was out in my suburban paradise on a day when I couldn’t the pollution, hear the trucks on the highway just past the trees, or think of a place I’d rather be, when I rounded a curving street of tidy lawns and split-roofed pallazos, and saw the car.

Dark blue paint. Two pairs of horizontal headlights and, in the middle, a garbage can perched at the edge of the curb blocking my view of the front grill and its famous winged female hood ornament.

My brain connected the dots and I almost skidded to a halt as I asked myself, “What is a Rolls-Royce doing in MY neighborhood?”

Okay, I don’t OWN the neighborhood but my wife and I live in a house here. We park our cars here, walk our dogs here (and pick up the poop!). We pay our taxes, our bills, the mortgage and Home Owners Association dues. We pay a neighbor’s son to mow the lawn and, because I’ve had two heart attacks, shovel the snow.

So we’re invested here. This is home, where most of the vehicles that transport human beings to work, school, supermarkets, bars, doctors, lawyers, malls and Big Cities just far enough away to make you break out in a sweat when while searching for a parking space, and walk quickly on the sidewalk to wherever you’re going because you don’t know anyone and would rather be back home watching Amazon Prime while waiting for a package to be delivered–are sport-utility-types, with a scattering of pick-up trucks. Here and there is a Lexus, Mercedes, BNW or Audi, or a tiny hatchback or hybrid small enough to hide under the autumn leaves that no one ever rakes up.

But no Bentleys, Aston-Martins, McLarens, Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Maybachs and Rolls-Royces.

So why was one casting a shadow on curb?

Could it be that the owner had a flat tire and if I help him fix it, I’ll be rewarded with a pile of cash that will solve the dilemma of relentlessly escalating HOA fees forever!

Alas, I’m not much for turning lug nuts these days. And doesn’t Rolls-Royce provide their own roadside assistance program?

Maybe this belongs to some utter fraud–like the guy who used to advertise get-rich-quick real estate schemes on late-night TV infomercials–who is hoping to lure someone to part with hard-earned pay?

Is it owned by one of the professional sports players that is pulling a surprise visit on some sick child whose only wish was to have their autograph? Football types are supposed to live in somewhere around here because their training center is nearby. But the only time you see, or hear about them is when they get into fights at the local bars.

What is it about some brands of cars, clothing and jewelry that signifies “otherness,” that says to people like me (and maybe you) that whoever owns and flaunts them is NOT like you, NOT from your neighborhood and NOT likely to shop in our favorite supermarkets?

I was hoping for an answer to the question when I continued toward the car and saw that, though my brain had connected the dots, the picture was not what I had imagined. In the same way you can fool yourself into believing a pencil can become flexible by wiggling it slowly, you can mislead your assumptions about things, and the people who own them.

The car parked was a Chrysler 300, whose front was designed to suggest a Bentley (or an older Rolls-Royce) but was just another sedan. In the same way that department store labels copy runway fashions, automobile manufactures will “quote” characteristics from status-loaded signifiers to confer value and prestige. It’s the reason that houses in my neighborhood have windows with shutters that will never close, “sport” utility vehicles have nothing to do with sports, and everybody wears blue denim.

And it just may be the reason that, having connected the dots, I wanted so quickly to suspect that an “other” had entered my suburban paradise, for good or ill.

It was just a car that I hadn’t seen on this street. I walked past it and was about to glance at the license plate to determine if, in fact, this car was from an other state when–

I kept going.

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Running in New Shoes

When you run every day, you think you’ve seen, heard, smelled, felt and thought it all.

Until you put on a new pair of shoes. The fit around your feet may remind you of the first time you put on a decent pair. That ineffably pliable, bouncy snugness suddenly suggested possibilities. I can GO places. I can DO things.

Then you congratulate yourself that this isn’t the first time, when, shortly after you imagined you could fly effortlessly over asphalt, you found your muscles stiff and cranky on a cold morning. Or you were out in balmy sunlight and just before you reached the halfway mark you felt a drop, and another drop, and then two drops at once.

Less than a minute later you discovered the true meaning of “water resistant.” Icy cold invaded your clothing and shoes that were spotlessly bright and so light on your feet, become cold, squishy, mud-splattered, wet.

And then the daily miracle arrived. You grew accustomed to the splat-splat of your feet on the ground. You stopped caring that water trickled down your spine. As thunder growled above, you realized that, no matter much you had to go before you finish, running in the chilling rain was just as much a gift as the flawless weather that preceded it.

You tie your new shoes tightly because you have had too many moments when you’re zooming along and then everything became loose. Laces flopped around your ankles and the shoe almost falls off before you have to stop and lace them up again.

New shoes take you back to injuries. You survived the heel spur, sprained your ankle, and the occasional spills. But when you needed knee surgery and got thta pair of crutches, the surgeon said maybe you should not run again because your knee is not what it used to be.

A few months later, you got angry with doctors telling you what you can’t do. Life is about what you CAN do, right? You bought a new pair of running shoes and soon you were out running, thinking of anything but not running again.

You insert your feet, stand in the new running shoes and notice your feet aren’t tilting to the sides–what the physical therapists call pronation–because you haven’t worn down the edges yet.

Then you’re off. Your arms, legs and your clothing feel awkward. The music in your ears isn’t quite right. Your breathing rhythm is off.

Someone walks a dog ahead of you. To pass them, you’ll run on the grass between the path and the street. You pray that you don’t step in dog poop because the soles of your shoes have so many molded cuts, grooves and little swirls and you don’t want to pick poop out of them with a twig when you finish.

Like that glossy vehicle your father drove so proudly off the dealer’s lot–with you in the front seat, the window down, your head hanging out like a dog that would never, ever poop near a path that people run upon–you want your shoes to stay new forever.

You pass trees that have scattered blossoms on the path, then leaves in shades of gold and brown. You smell rose blossoms in the spring, honeysuckle in summer, garden mulch in the fall, the scented steam from clothes drier sheets in winter. You go to that part of the path that is so often in shadow that the snow never quites melt and you have to watch out for the ice.

You go to the dip in the path where, after a storm, a puddle sprawls insidiously, waiting for you to put your foot down and make a big splash. When was the last time you made a splash? When you were a child at the local swimming pool? Did it impress anyone? Did it win you friends?

When you were younger you hated repeating anything. When you showed up for your second aikido lesson, and your third, and fourth, you were quietly annoyed that you had to do the same things again and again and again. When you moved away from the aikido school (that you discovered while running in another direction) you began to take karate (which was so different, at first) and that you had to do different things again and again until you became so very, very bored.

And here you are, running the path again, silently pleased that the initial awkwardness has faded. You settle into something like the flow you experienced when you were in a randori, when the entire martial arts school was rushing toward you and you didn’t have time to think that some were black belts who could throw you across the room. Those moves you had practiced over and over came out. You watched from somewhere deep inside yourself as you deflected, parried, slipped out of the way and threw a few black belts across the room.

How many years running this path, has it taken before you understand that instead of getting better at doing some things, you go deeper. You notice more. Your appreciate more. The trees have differing shapes, eccentricities. They bloom at different times. The leaves that flutter down in autumn are of more varied shades than gold and brown.

How often did you have to do the same thing over and over again before you recognized that it was never the same, that there is no such thing as repetition: each movement, each moment, good or bad, correct or mistaken, comforting or painful, is unique, meaningful, of infinite depth and value if only you notice?

Before you answer, you remind yourself that today, you’re running in new shoes and that makes everything new again.

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Green Lights

Every so often I drive down a broad, traffic-snarled boulevard encrusted with stop lights and–

Every light turns green just when I need it to do so.

I never tap the brakes. I never have to slow down and stop and think about why anyone would want to put a stop light here, or watch other people strut slowly and righteously through the cross walk.

No–I just zoom on through, sometimes surrounded by other cars, other times alone, my emotions rising with what appears to be good fortune as I wonder if this is what it’s truly like to Go With The Flow.

As I approach the flow, I ask myself what did I do to deserve this sudden and thoroughly unforeseen grace. Is this a reward, a karmic pay-off, like a lottery win or a jackpot pay-out, for aspiring to be a nice guy, a decent person? Could this have something to do with the money I dropped into the Salvation Army kettle last Christmas? Or maybe it’s happening because I selflessly hauled the neighbor’s garbage can back to the curb after the wind blew it halfway down the block?

A red light ahead changes at just the right moment so I can continue to glide forward, and a flash of doubt sends a shiver of fear through my seat-belted gut: what if all this good luck is merely a wind-up to something bad? Is this the calm before the storm, a universal pendulum swinging, the yin/yang of action and reaction, good following bad, bad following worse, worse following even worse than you can imagine leading inexorably to the slippery slope that ends in the worst?

In the distance, a green light stays green as I approach and pass through the interesection and I realize that there is a God Who wants me to experience this, not as a series of inexplicably linked events, but as revelation. I am being reminded that, beyond whatever skill I have at nudging the gas pedal, is a realm of supernatural magnificence whose ways and means I will never comprehend but are so far out there that I can only be grateful when a crumb of that golden goodness falls my way.

I feel humble, but humility soon leads to a strange kind of grief. What about the poor shlubs behind me, and way out in front, who must stop at red lights? Why do they have to suffer so I can get my heavenly green light? Do they somehow deserve tormented by tedious delays? Or is their agony part of a cosmic plan that will eventually come to pass when I’m dead, buried and the part of me that is conscious enough to suffer is either dancing on pinheads or providing fuel for a demonic barbecue?

Another green light lets me pass and I realize that, like so many nerdy superheroes-to-be, I just may be The Chosen One who, by a peculiar dysfunction of science, nature or technology gone bonkers, is developing an ability to not merely glide through green lit intersections but, perhaps, change red to green with a squint of my inner psychic eye!

There, up ahead, is an angry firery traffic light waiting to cut me down to size. Perhaps the work of the scheming, evil Dr. Stasis who wants to throw civilization into permanent chaos the world by making all traffic lights turn red at the same time, and stay red forever and ever!

I train my eye on the red light and say, “Change,” and–

It stays red until the very last minute and then it goes green!

What is it about the way I told it to change that made the light take so long to follow my psychic command? Ahh, I get it now: I may be the Chosen One, but I have to become good at whatever I’m chosen to be. I have to find a mentor, a guru with kind eyes and a big beard who is going to teach me all this stuff I don’t want to learn so I can get mad, stomp out into the cold cruel world and fight Dr. Stasis without full knowledge of my special power, which, as everyone knows, is being nice, humble, modest and willing to be kind to people of any and every ethnic type, demographic, political persuasion, gender and position on every “hot button” social issue that keeps our massive media in business.

Easy…if you’re a superhero.

At that point, I take the last turn, roll up into my driveway and turn off the car. I stare through the windshield at a garage that isn’t a Bat Cave. I look at a house that is not a mansion of some super rich guy whose wealth and tech savvy has given him the toys with which he can save the world.

I open the door and stand on my own two feet.

My last thought as I leave and press the button that makes the car chirp as it locks itself is–

Maybe I’ll take a different way home next time.

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I Read the Book, I Saw the Movie, I Paid my Dues: Why am I Not a Psychic?

My wife and I recently sat through two and a half hours of the new-and-improved Dune Part 1, and, having seen all the other Dunes (and having read a few of the books in the series), we found it really good visually, and nowhere as campy, gross or unnervingly strange as David Lynch’s 1984 film, which we watched again because it was free on our streaming service.

The new Dune’s Baron is not as ludicrously disgusting as Lynch’s–when he emerges from a tub of black goo (referencing Marlon Brando’s debauched Kurtz in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now) he’s just big, fat and dismissively mean. His spaceships look like vast turds, while the nice-folk, waterworldly Atriedies ships could be badly wrapped upright pianos.

The ornithopters–Frank Herbert’s vehicular cross between helicopters and birds–are beautifully articulated and convincingly real, unlike Lynch’s winged golden milk cartons. And  there’s none of the icky homophobia that was in Herbert’s book. It’s easy to see the source of George Lucas’s Star Wars desert landscape, Jedi mind tricks and “chosen one” plot. The early box office reports look pretty good for a theatrically released film in a world still in the grip of a pandemic, so we can probably expect a second part in a few years.

With two nights of science fiction “chosen one” plots, as well as the monotonous, occasionally campy and deathlessly dialogued but visually nifty Foundation, I, again, wondered why I have never really felt anything psychic. Hey, I’ve tried and I even had one or two moments when I thought but–

No spoiler alert necessary. I have read so many writers, and have seen so many films and TV shows, that paranormal mental abilities are almost normal. So many I read as a teenager–many of whom inspired me to write–wrote about psychic talents as if they were inevitable aspects of the human condition. Part of this had to do with John Campbell, an influencial science fiction editor who believed that human beings would have to evolve so we won’t destroy ourselves with nuclear weapons. Many of the writers he nurtured–including Isaac Asimov (Foundation), Herbert and Robert Heinlein wrote novels and stories on this theme.

But the idea that some people were more sensitive to the supernatural is much, much older. In classical times famous Oracle of Delphi inhaled noxious gas seeping from a crack in a cave and delivered enigmatic answers to important questions whose ironic consequences impressed many fantasy writers, including William Shakespeare, whose witches in MacBeth (created to please the Scottish King James I, who had written a book about darkly enchanting females) predict what sounds like success for the title character, but are really about his doom.

And who can forget the creepy soothsayer who plucks at the robe of Julius Caesar and warns him to “Beware the Ides of March”?

The possibility that some may know the future remains compelling. Newspapers that are supposed to be nothing but the facts contain horoscopes. If you happen to consult yours daily, or before a big purchase, a date, a job interview or any other potential life changing event, you should know that I once saw the editor in charge of putting the horoscopes in each issue do something careless on a computer keyboard and screw up their order completely. For at least three weeks, the horoscopes the newspaper ran were out of whatever order the ‘scoper had put them in.

Not one reader wrote, or contacted the newspaper, to complain.

As an enterprising journalist, I decided to take my palm to three different psychic palm readers, and compare their stories. I did not identify myself as a journalist. I just showed up, paid the fee and listened.

I was told by one that dark presences hovered around me, and that I could only rid myself of them if I paid for more sessions involving encantations and special candles.

I was told by another that something very good was about to happen, but that it would only reveal itself if I paid for more sessions.

I was told by the third that I had been hurt a long time ago by someone I loved.

They only agreed on one thing: that I was overworked and underpaid. Heck, I was a journalist! I could have told them that!

Dune posits the existence of a substance called “spice” that alters human genetics to develop special powers. Among those is the use of your voice to blow stuff up or make people do stupid things. I don’t have to tell you that the first never worked. As for making people do stupid things, I assure you I covered politics and I am still amazed at those who won some elections.

How about ghosts?

I did so many profiles of houses for the newspaper’s real estate section and I never failed to ask the owners of any home that was more than 25 years old if they had a ghost. Most said they didn’t. One resident of a house that had sections dating back to back to the Sixteenth Century confessed of seven ghosts, and gave me the telephone number of a psychic who had seen them all.

Before I called the psychic I visited every part of the house that was supposed to be haunted. I waited for windows and doors to move, or open and shut by themselves. They didn’t. I tried to find areas of cold, or sections where the air was thick and oppressive.

I found none. What about a vague shadow in my peripheral vision? No again. A sheet fluttering in a breeze? A tapping, rapping at the chamber door? No, no and more no’s.

The psychic assured me that not only did she find ghosts, but they were among the most obvious she had ever encountered. She would be visiting the house, she promised me, during the week before Halloween, where she would be giving ghost tours. I could come along, if wanted.

I told her my Halloween week schedule had been filled.

Among the most sensational of the Star Wars Jedi mind tricks is telekinesis–moving objects with your mind. This has always appealed to me because I own a very comfortable chair and one of the characteristics of a very comfortable chair is not wanting to leave it. Oh, how I’ve wanted to point at that glass of wine, loaf of bread, slice of cheese–or be able to levitate the remote when it’s fallen the couch.

A mere unevolved mortal, I had to leave my comfortable chair.

That leaves telepathy: reading minds, sending and receiving thoughts, inspecting another’s dreams, remote viewing (getting images of what is happening hundreds of miles away), sifting the answers on the pop quiz your high school teacher inflicts in order to punish those who didn’t do the homework and, most insidious of all, discovering what a person is really thinking about you when they seem so interested in everything you say.

Once or twice I could guess another person’s thoughts, but that happened while in a conversation with that person. So the range of possible subjects that person may be thinking about was relatively narrow.

Paul Atredies, Luke Skywalker and too many fantasy heroes get some kind of training in the martial arts. I’ve had many decades of it. I can’t walk up walls, fly over rooftops, break a stack of boards or kick out the windshielf of the bad guy’s SUV

What I have learned is to trust the “vibes”–the quick, immanent, frequently inexplicable notions you get about a person, place or thing, so I can theoretically sense agression coming toward me, and act accordingly.

Upon examination, vibes (and “gut” feelings) can be explained by decision science: we notice far too many things than what our consciousness processes. Much of what affects our snap judgements is emotional and risk-averse. Some of it has to do with an inability to understand math. And most of it is literally prejudice. About the best I can say about the first impressions I’ve had is that they’re not as meaningful, truthful or fair as the second, third or fourth.

Before I close, I want to remind those who are still fans of pyschic behavior that the United States Department of Defense actually spent a portion of its vast budget to study psychic phenomena with the hope of using it against real and imagined enemies. The results, satirized in the film The Men Who Stare at Goats, were profoundly negative.

So why is it that so much pop culture melodrama speaks to our hope, and fear of psychic power? Is the truth “out there” waiting for the right person to discover? Or is it “in here,” where we admit that, as much as we are raised to consider ourselves no better or worse than anyone else, we ocassionally wish we were blessed with a special talent, characteristic, ability or comfy chair that might distinguish us from the rest?

I’m still waiting for an answer.

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Some Words from William James

While visiting Boston a few years ago I approached the bronze memorial to Robert Gould Shaw, the American Civil War hero who died with his 54th Massachusetts regiment of African American soliders in an assault on Fort Wagner, near Charleston, South Carolina.

I stood at the head of line of a high school debate team at a national competition at Harvard. We were taking a half-day break to get a glimpse of Boston and had wandered without quite knowing where we were going to the Common, Boston’s vast, landscaped public park.

The Shaw memorial stands on the edge of Boston Common in front of the State House. I tried to tell the kids the importance of what we saw, but the best I could do was ask them to see the movie Glory, which commemorates the valor of Shaw and his men. Though the film was made before the kids were born, some were impressed when I told them Denzel Washington won his first Academy Award for his performance in the film. Most wanted to move on.

What I did not know at the time was that, way back in 1897 when the memorial was unveiled, William James, whose name is on one of the Harvard buildings these kids passed during the competition, gave the dedicatory speech. A professor of pyschology and philosophy, James was Harvard’s, and possibly the entire city’s, most popular teacher. His classes typically overflowed with students, and when he went on the road to lecture, his talks filled every auditorium, regardless of the topic or the audience it attracted.

The previous century may have been the high water mark of the lecture as an art form. For James, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, it was a lucrative mix of popular entertainment (Twain and Wild were famously funny) and uplifiting information.

For the dedication of the monument, James had been selected over Harvard’s president, Charles Eliot. Some at the school were miffed because, unlike most of the school’s professors, James had no doctorate (though he acquired several honorary degrees from universities throughout the world). A generalist who came late to academia, having studied art, botany and physiology before finding his calling behind podium, James often criticized how institutions of higher learning insisted on degrees as qualifications. What was more important, he argued, was an openess to new ideas, an eagerness to measure those ideas with personal experience, an admission that no single point of view could be correct, and a commitment to education that helped students (as well as the academy’s greater community) understand themselves and live better lives. He believed (without reading Immanuel Kant) that rationality had its limits–that some things could happen by courageously willing them into existence.

He also defended religious belief. He dignified the importance of individual religious experiences, even if they could be explained as something other than miraculous. Instead of mocking faith as a kind of superstition, James asked, in effect, if so many people want to believe in a God that listens to prayers and has created a universe that makes moral sense, what positive value does this have for individuals and the society in which they live?

And how can anyone be so sure that a supernatural realm does NOT exist? Science and rationality cannot confirm it.

William was the brother of novelist Henry James, whose writings I came to love in college. Henry, whose novels became several costume drama films toward the end of the last century, is an acquired taste. His prose is ornate, verbose, densely complicated. As a storyteller, he was obsessed with gossip and the collision between European aristocracy and America’s merely wealthy. He also wrote one of the best known literary ghost stories, The Turn of the Screw, in which the ghosts are ambiguous but, like the shade of Hamlet’s father, had an important effect on the living.

Both brothers shared a fascination with what was offically known as “psychic research.” Spiritualism, ghosts and other phenomena we now associate with Halloween and horror films was, for a while, considered an area for legitimate scientific inquiry.

As a scientist, James was taken in by a Boston medium when in mourning for his son Herman, who only lived two years. When in her trance, Lenora Piper told him things that he decided she could not possibly know. James never considered that the servants in his household knew the servants in Piper’s. He so wanted to believe in spiritualism that, even when he and his colleagues unmasked frauds, he insisted that more should be learned about it. When one of his closest friends died, he waited patiently for a word from beyond the grave.

None came.

When reading Linda Simon’s Genuine Reality: A Life of William James, I couldn’t help but feel that, unlike so many other philosophers, whose arduously derived truths and positions have faded from contemporary discussion, James still had something to say about what it is to be an American and come to terms with living in what is still a “new” world. His uniquely American philosophy (pluralism, pragmatism and radical empiricism) requires some explanation, but his attitude about embracing our differences, mutual self respect, the value of experience over specialized knowledge, and how contradictory beliefs and creeds may complicate, but ultimately strengthen our own.

When he dedicated the Shaw monument in 1897, he warned that

“The deadliest enemies of nations are not their foreign foes: they always dwell within their borders. And from these internal enemies civilization is always in need of being saved. The nation blest above all nations is she whom the civic genius of the people does the saving day by day, by acts without external picturesqueness; by speaking, writing, voting reasonably; by smiting corruption swiftly; by good temper between parties; by the people knowing true men when they see them, and preferring them as leaders to rabid partisans or empty quacks.

In order for our country to survive the wounds of the Civil War (which persist to this day), James said we must show “trained and disciplined good temper towards the opposite party when it fairly wins its innings” and “fierce and merciless resentment towards every man or set of men who break the public peace.”

We can go places with these thoughts. We can argue that the American Revolution of 1776 broke the public peace. We can assert that, in terms of total American lives lost on American soil, the worst event in our history was caused by foriegn foes who used our commercial aircraft against us on September 11, 2001. The total loss was a few hundred lives higher than the attack on Pearl Harbor–another act of foriegn foes who, in a fashion James would find consistent with his idea of truth as a process rather than an definitive end, are now our allies.

We can also say that despite regular and highly publicized efforts to smite corruption, it has yet to leave our society or our government.

But I see those acts of civic genius “without external picturesqueness” every day. I witness the acts of many who behave reasonably. And I definitely prefer good temper between parties–political and otherwise, as well as leaders who are not rabid partisans or empty quacks.

I wish I had known more about James and his speech when I stood in front of the Shaw memorial with my debating kids. At the very least, it would have been a teachable moment. At best, it may have inspired others to see the movie, or, perhaps, find out a little bit more about James and Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose names adorn Harvard halls.

Now I hear James’ words, not calling to me from beyond the grave, but stating proudly from the pages of history, that, as much as our daily news reports suggest the end of the world is near, we can “will” a better future into existence.

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Dirt Truth

After a while the soil sticks to your clothes and your skin, but you’re oddly proud. You’ve been thrusting your hands in mulch and fertilizer, flicking away the occasional slug, bug and–though you’ve been told they’re good for the plants–worm. You pack the soil around the base of a green thing, careful of the thorns. Every so often you stand back and gaze at what you’ve done, confident that by putting thing in the ground, you’ve made the world a better place.

How much better? Voltaire infamously ended Candide with a shrug: though ours is certainly not the best of all possible worlds, about the best thing you can do when bad things happen is go home and tend your garden–if you have one.

My mother had one. After a summer rainfall her rose garden smelled of coffee because she read somewhere that used Chock-Full-‘o-Nuts (the HEAVENLY Coffee, for those who remember the slogan) was a great soil enhancer. Our suburban house was on a corner bounded by three streets, so we had a little bit more than the typical quarter-acre and my mother planted it up, with a big circle of flowering annuals and perennials, a row of evergreens in the back and a few ornamental fruit trees whose rotting fruit stank up the yowling lawn mower that yours truly had to push once a week (sometimes twice in the spring and fall) while sneezing my guts out because I was allergic to just about everything that bloomed.

She even had a compost heap in distant corner by the neighbor’s fence where I dumped grass clippings, withered pieces of plants, vegetable fragments that weren’t good enough for the salad bowl and whole chunks of hedges that fell to the trimmer’s electric scream. After a while the pile would lose its fresh-cut chlorophyll aroma and become a darkening, malignant mound that gave off steam on cold winter afternoons, which, I was told, meant that all this organic matter that normal people put in the trash (except for the coffee grounds) was transforming itself into stuff she could scatter over the flower beds and around the trees next spring–with ground-up stuff that smelled like the wrong end of a cow from bags marked humus (not to be confused with the Middle Eastern bean dip).

Did the flowers bloom? I guess they did. Another of my sneezy outdoorsy jobs was watering them, after which I had to hose myself down because, as much as my mother loved fertile, loamy, fragrant dirt, she wouldn’t have it inside, unless it was in a pot nurturing a houseplant.

My mother became a member of the Pennsylvania horticultural society, attended the annual Philadelphia Flower Show religiously and filled nearly every horizontal surface of her house with plants. Some of those plants are in my house today.

And they’re doing just fine.

I did not inherit my mother’s green thumb. For many years I hated going outdoors because of my allergies. As I grew older, my allergies ebbed. I could survive the few weeks in the spring and fall with over-the-counter remedies.

Then I married my high school sweetheart, who, despite allergies, loves plants that bloom, especially roses. After buying a few supermarket bouquets, I went with her to a garden store where she took home a pot of a thorny bush called Princess Alexandra of Kent. This, she told me, was a David Austen rose, from the famed English rose breeder.

She bought bags of soil and asked my help putting it in the ground. Some of the dirt creeped under my fingernails.

The Princess, as we called her, did well for a while but, for reasons we still can’t figure out, perished. She was replaced with a Crown Princess Margreta and a Falstaff (both Austen roses). Both had slow starts. Margreta almost perished but Jan nursed her back to life.

And I bought more roses. We planted one spectacular bush called Tequila that became the marvel of the neighborhood. That led to more Austens (Windermere, the Lady Gardner, Port Sunlight and a few more Crown Princesses so we could grow them up our fence), a tree rose, a mini rose with small pink blossoms, a dwarf rose (a little larger than a mini) with orange blossoms, roses without names, roses found on a discount shelf at Home Depot, roses with such names as Paradise, Super Hero, Old Timer, Twilight Zone, Ebb Tide, Empress Josephine, Maggie, and Ringo Starr. Did you know Ringo had a rose named after him? We haven’t bought the Paul McCartney yet, but…

One rose whose name we forgot is now the Kai rose, for our grandchild.

I discovered I’m a sucker for plants with great names. In our garden is something called a Starship, a Turtle Head, a King Tut, and a Bengal Tiger. These aren’t roses. In fact, I’m not sure what they are, or what they’ll look like when they bloom.

But they’re growing and, a few days ago, when I was digging holes in the front, some people stopped and told me how nice the garden was. I invited their kids to smell the roses. “Always smell the roses,” I said, quoting a golfer who was actually misquoted (he never said anything about roses but, I guess when you’re a good golfer, people think you say marvelous things).

I stuck my nose in one of the roses and, though I’d smelled them many times, I felt like my grandchild when he ate ice cream for the first time. He said, “wow” but wow wasn’t enough.

After putting the gardening tools away, and watering the what I’d planted, I came into the house, cleaned myself up and watched the TV news. I saw terrible things happening elsewhere. If it isn’t violence, it’s horrifyingly bad weather.

We don’t get any violence on our street and, for reasons I don’t understand, the floods, tornados, hurricanes, earthquakes and forest fires have not found us. Several years ago a few feet of snow came down from the heavens. My back ached as I shoveled (a similar ache to how I feel after lifiting up big bags of ORGANIC garden soil) and I had that heartbreaking moment when I had cleared the driveway and the municipal snow plow truck roared by and put a new wall of white where I had briefly glimpsed the open road.

But I dug us out and we were okay.

I look at the news on TV, online and in the newspaper that arrives every morning, and I wonder, how are my wife and I so lucky?

Then we go outside and tend our garden.

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After the Dragonfly

Running slowly, under a balmy, cloudless late-summer sky, my eyes fell on the grassy border between the wooshing traffic and my plodding feet and saw a tiny black dragonfly following me.

I looked again. It was definitely following me, buzzing fast enough over the recently mowed grass to match my plodding pace. For a moment I admired its shimmering wings and effortless grace.

Could this be my mother-in-law?

Some time ago my wife told me that, long before she passed, her mother warned her that if she could reincarnate herself, she’d come back as a dragonfly. My wife said she asked her mother why, and her mother, an Australian native known for long silences and longer distance stares that presumably connected her to her homeland, did not reply.

I’ve met people who believe in reincarnation. Some claimed they could “regress” into their past lives, in which they turned into the wide-eyed actors you see on DNA ancestry commericals, delighted to know that they were descended from severely interesting people, some of whom were royalty, heroes, famous, admirable. No one was a peasant pulling up potatoes or doing what almost everybody else was doing all the way down the evolutionary tree: hoping to outrun disease, famine and marauding armies in a desperate scramble to survive.

Reincarnation came up in a college religion class, in which my professor cleverly noted that, because more people are alive now than ever before, if every soul is unique and immortal, there simply aren’t enough to go around, unless there is a vast bank of souls somewhere all of whom have nothing to do until they’re born. Add to that the ethical judgement built into some religions: your new life depends on how nice you were in your previous existence.

If you believe that, you know that some people–I’m not saying who–deserve to come back as a bacterium.

So the dragonfly probably wasn’t my mother-in-law.

But (you think these things when you’re running and a dragonfly continues to follow you after you’ve explained it all away as a bug’s attraction to some aromatic element in your soap, shampoo, deodorant or what you ate for breakfast) how can you be so sure? Just because something doesn’t make sense now, with what you might know about the “real” world, doesn’t mean it may not make sense, somehow, with added knowledge.

The reason I was running was not to get additions–of anything. I wanted some portion of those extra pounds to leave me, the sooner, the better.

Though it would have been a treat, the dragonfly did not pause and speak to me in a noticeably Australian accent. Nor did it pause and stare off at the Melbourne streetcar line where she met my father-in-law, or back at the house I share with her daughter.

After about a hundred feet of close pursuit, the bug veered away.

I was left with a feeling that, no matter what we believe about life, death, souls and efficacy of exercise on a summer day, I was not alone.

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The Other Mainstream Media

As a former member of “the media,” I still consume the news.

It wasn’t always that way. As a child, I devoured science fiction and fantasy, quickly exhausting the local library’s supply and then going on to raid the town bookstore’s wizard-and-space-ship encrusted paperbacks.

This horrified my parents, who considered themselves tethered to reality by numerous newspapers, news magazines, news radio on the car, and evening news broadcasts on TV.

Though I would eventually write news, features and arts reviews for more than 40 publications, I looked down on all journalism. Who reads yesterday’s newspaper when you can be thrilled by Jules Verne’s and H.G. Wells’ tales of submarines and time machines?

I took science fiction and fantasy so seriously that I began to write it. I sent my work to science fiction and fantasy magazines. To this day, I don’t know why every story was rejected. I worked long and hard on them.

After college I moved to Washington D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood, where I pocketed minimal wages working in restaurants, retail shops and at the popcorn counter at a local movie theater. I wanted to be published, just to prove to myself that what I pounded out on a portable typewriter early mornings and late at night might be worth reading.

I “broke into print” with an assignment from a local “shopper” (a free publication supported by advertisements) to interview homeless people. The editor hated them and wanted me to urge residents not to put spare change in their hands. I felt differently after sitting with them, speaking with them, making dinners for them in my tiny apartment and giving away some of my clothes.

Each of the dozen or so I spoke with had a different story to tell. The stories had only one thing in common, that, when you get to know a person, no matter if that person isn’t well groomed, dresses in old clothes, hasn’t bathed recently and tells you things you may not understand–that person isn’t so different from you.

By the grace of God we go…

Was that new? Was that news? I wrote my article, showing how, despite physical appearances, we shared a common humanity with the homeless. To my surprise, the editor accepted and printed it. “All this will lead you to someplace great one day,” he assured me. Over the years I’d hear this from every publisher and editor–some of whom worked for the most prestigious publications in the world. I wasn’t merely exploited by an industry that depends on cheap, idealistic, highly motivated labor. I was gaining valuable experience, they insisted, that would “pay off” later.

It did, but not where, or how, I thought.

I got a clue when, toward the end of long day of making sandwiches, I glanced through curtains of the window of the row house next to the one that housed my apartment. An old woman in a wheel chair stared right back at me and motioned me to come to her door.

If I hadn’t interviewed those homeless people, if I wasn’t reminded of how so much of what results in success or tragedy defies easy explanation, I would have turned the key, rushed up the steps to my apartment and tried to forget about how hard I’d worked that day.

Or I would have turned to my typewriter and created another science fiction story that would never see print.

Instead I opened the woma’s front door and smelled old dust and older perfume. The wheelchair was a throne giving her a full view of the bay window. She turned her chair toward me. “Did you see the sunset?”

I recalled the undersides of the clouds turning gold and vermillion. “I think so,” I replied awkwardly. She hadn’t asked me who I was or introduced herself.

“But did you see it?” she repeated.

I was confused. “I saw some colors. I look at it some nights.”

She raised a thin arm ending in an arthritic finger pointed at the heavens and said as if it was her God-given right. “I see it every night!”

Then she smiled. I smiled back. After a few seconds of silence I mumbled nice-meeting-you and scurried out. I went up to my apartment and put a sheet of paper in the typewriter.

I didn’t make much progress because I couldn’t let go of that woman’s message: that watching the sun set is a gift that everyone deserves, and how important it is to accept that gift. Life overflows with such gifts–the sounds of birds in a tree, the giggle of a child on a playground swing, the warmth of a cup of tea held in our hands on cold day, the famous cherry blossoms that briefly transform Washington into a happy place, the sigh of wind playing with the trees at Dumbarton Oaks (a spectacular landscaped garden a few blocks from where I lived), the aroma of roasting beans wafting out of Georgetown coffee and spice shop, the sudden chill of water encircling our feet when we first reach the tideline at a beach…

These gifts are not merely sensory. Sometimes it’s the knowledge that someone we know and love is happy, or that a terrible accident has been averted. Sometimes it’s a sign that a painful wound has begun to heal.

These are the gifts that hold us together, keep us going and, perhaps, create for us a place of peace and contentment, especially when so much else around us seems to be falling apart.

I became a news consumer (to my parents’ delight) because it was a business I was in. Because I had excellent history professors in college, I became fond of history finding out with where things came from, and how our values change.

But nobody ever asked me to write about a sunset.

While waiting for my writing to take me someplace, I interviewed many famous people who were experiencing career highs. They agreed that they deserved their good fortune, having started out at the proverbial bottom, and had faith that so much hard work would take them to the top.

You hear about people getting what they deserve in the mainstream media. You also hear about people not getting what they deserve. People die in accidents, terrible storms. They come down with horrible illnesses. They’re shot by crazy people with guns. Or they’ll say something or do something wicked and seem to get away with it.

In saying this, I don’t mean to belittle or trivialize the suffering and loss that good journalists show us happens all-to-frequently where we don’t expect it. Nor am I reducing the importance of the work most journalists do, and the consequences some reporters suffer for shining a hard, bright light on injustice, malfeasance, corruption and other brutal deeds around the world. What we call the news has made vital differences throughout history. We need responsible reporting now than we ever did, with so many liars, frauds, propagandists and scammers vieing for our attention on our screens.

But sometimes, even the most attentive, concerned and compassionate media consumer needs a break. We have to turn away from the screen and seek the other mainstream media.

Which brings me to the place all that hard work took me to.

I’m lucky enough to have an outdoor deck, though you can do the same thing in front of a window, or by pausing for a moment in your daily routine to find out what else might be happening around you. Give it time. The more you sit and just watch, the more you begin to notice.

My wife puts bird seed on the deck’s railing, so we can see the family of finches, as well as pigeons, cardinals, blue birds, redwing black birds and the occasional crow, swoop in for free treats.

Over the years my wife and I have planted many different roses. It is an event when they bloom! We can smell the astonishing scent when our lillies open up, and the magnolias flower.

Beyond our fence and a line of trees is the street that, despite numerous stop signs, is used as a cheat for those who want to beat a nearby traffic light. I see big cars and small cars and trucks going so fast on that road, sometimes with the windows down and that hard driving music coming out.

The street arcs through our neighborhood of townhomes and single family pallazzos. I mow my own lawn when the neighbor’s kid forgets. The other lawns are carefully tended by guys in hats steering mowers that scuttle like black crabs. When the crabs are sent back to their trailors, the guys in hats swagger around with roaring leaf blowers so loud that it’s a wonder that the birds aren’t deaf.

The doggie parade begins on the sidewalks and trails at around 7 a.m. and continues through most of the morning, up until around 10. I can see so many different people, some with kids in strollers, some with cell phones pressed to their head, and the dogs whose slow trot signifies that all is well, especially if they can stop and sniff and…

The parade resumes from 4 p.m. to 5:30, and again from 7 to 8. Our dog has a crush on three local dogs, and makes cooing sounds for them. The rest she barks at as if the dogs are members of another political party AND THEY JUST DON’T GET IT! She has to let the world know that she’s in control of the world behind our fence.

Then come the two-legged types, the runners, the walkers and kids on bikes, skateboards and scooters. Every so often a big passenger jet climbs into the sky, or slows into a graceful glide toward the nearby airport. I’ve been on a plane flying over my neighbood, and others and I know hat’s the one thing you always think about when you’re up there looking down: who would ever want to live down there, so close to the jet that I can see who is in your swimming pool?

Sitting on my deck, I remind myself that I have arrived. In fact, I can think about the travel journalism I did and be grateful that I don’t have to put up with a zillion minor discomforts, indignities and international snark in order to write about somebody else’s idea of a great place.

I can just sit here and take in a view that changes all the time, especially at night, when tfireflies dance and he moon bathes the clouds and pine trees in a silver light. Or during the day, when I see a big thunderhead rushing in, with a gray skirt of rain below, and a gusty, angry wind turning the landscape into a square dance where you can’t hear the caller saying step this way and that, but you marvel at how everyone seems to know what to do.

All that hard work I did as a journalist has taken me to this place, where the sun will soon set,

But I won’t write about it.

Seeing it is news enough.

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