Archive for Baltimore

Why Fall is a Writer’s Best Season

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Rudbeckia

Sometimes it seems our population has two types of people: those who hate to see summer end, and those who can’t wait.

Last week, school started in Maryland, and I began experiencing the most time for my work than I’ve had in the last 18 years. Chalk it up to one of my children starting college, and the other joining a terrific high school carpool group that departs at 7:15 a.m. and doesn’t return until 6 p.m.

In the last ten years, my lament has always been: if only the day had 27 hours, not 24. Despite loving my children very much, the demands of driving back and forth left me with less than six hours per day to write and do everything else.

Now I’be been given 10.5 hours, five days a week. That is a ton of writing time—and some me time, too.

dog photo

The weather is still balmy enough to write in the “summer office,” as I call the west-facing screened porch on the second floor of our Victorian cottage. This is the very best place I’ve found to create—and only will feel comfortable for a few more weeks, at which time my muse (Charlie the beagle) will become broken hearted.

It feels vacation-like to settle into work at a natural temperature and in dappled shade. The whispering of trees and chattering of squirrels that makes the space seem sacred. That is—until Charlie sees another dog walk the lane fifty feet underneath us and reads him the riot act.

snoozing dog

If it’s rainy, I go to my real office on the third floor, where I’ve got a desk tucked under the eaves. It’s easy to forget time and write, write, write.

There are times that I’m working on a manuscript and just can’t find the right word. Then I step away and do a short household chore. It’s important to remember to stretch. When I come back, I usually know the words that had evaded me earlier.

house in trees

Walking is another delight of a writing routine. It’s easy to get wrapped up in a story and decide not to go to a gym class—but I can’t find an excuse not to walk for thirty minutes or an hour.

The North Baltimore neighborhood where I live is a walker’s paradise. Roland Park was laid out between 1890 and 1920 by the Olmsted Company, a landscape architecture firm that designed parks, college campuses, zoos and residential suburbs. The naturalistic, wild approach to neighborhood design made it a refuge.

hilltop path sign

In less than an hour, I can walk up hills and ridges, traverse curving streets, enjoy the shade of towering native trees, and explore the secret staircases in a network of paths and lanes designed for people and horse-drawn cart traffic. I love to meander off on these mysterious paths that take me to a peaceful place.

walking path

lane stairs

Lately, I’ve been counting monarch butterflies on my walks. In the 1970s, suburban gardens were filled with dozens. As a child, I thought they were as common as flies.

butterfly photo

These days, I rarely spot more than a single monarch on my walks. I know that it’s a matter of not enough milkweed homes around for their caterpillars.

But I’m cheered by the solo flyer doing its daily job, just as I enjoy coming back to the house, taking off my shoes, and getting back to my own work in a silent old house.

An Unsolved Death in Baltimore

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Freddie Gray

The Vidocq Society is a small but legendary group of experts who gather to solve mysteries of the ages. I wish they could find the answer to an unexplained death that took place a few miles from me, last spring. This is the death of 25-year-old named Freddie Carlos Gray, Jr.

On April 12, 2015, Freddie made eye contact with a police officer in his Baltimore neighborhood. He ran, and a group of cops that included some bicycle officers caught him. He was searched, found to have a small switchblade (legal for the state of Maryland but not for Baltimore City) and was taken into custody. Some spectators observed police sitting on his neck and bending his legs backward. A civilian-shot video shows him being dragged and loaded into the back of a police van. In the van, the police put him in wrist and ankle restraints—but the seatbelt that was also in this section of the van wasn’t used.

bal-recorded-freddie-gray-arrest

The van made five stops before reaching the Western District police station. Freddie asked for medical help several times. When the van reached the police station more than 45 minutes after loading up Freddie, he was unresponsive. Freddie was taken to hospital, where doctors discovered he was in a coma and had severe spinal cord injuries. He died April 19, 2015.

This death, coming on the heels of so many other police-on-civilian killings nationwide, was not going to fade into oblivion. For a few weeks, the city’s reaction was many protest marches, rallies and discussions. But the night following the funeral, a protest became aggressive, with bottles being thrown at police. Thirty-four arrests were made and fifteen police officers suffered injuries.

The next day, the Metro Transit Administration made the fateful decision to stop bus and light rail service in an area where several high schools converged. Some frustrated students grew into a bloc that began vandalizing cars. Earlier that day, some students had spread word through social media that there would be a “purge” with violent behavior.

The students’ riot was quickly augmented by other, older people, who joined in burning buildings and cars, looting stores, and attacking some drivers of cars. Throughout this, the police stood back, and the violence spread like wildfire throughout city neighborhoods. What was happening was about much more than the death of Freddie Gray. It had become an uprising of disenfranchised people frustrated by city government and a lack of opportunity.

The National Guard arrived and the city went under a 10 pm curfew for almost two weeks. The Baltimore State’s Attorney, Marilyn Mosby, announced that her department had launched an independent investigation and would be prosecuting the six police involved on numerous charges. The most serious charge, depraved heart murder, was leveled at the driver. What was unusual about the prosecution was that Mosby announced the charges without waiting for results of the police department’s investigation or sharing the results of the autopsy, wherein an assistant medical examiner declared the death a homicide, due to injuries sustained through omission of safety procedures. The autopsy also revealed the presence of cannabis and opioids in Freddie’s system, which could be argued might have led to Freddie being restless and physically panicking in the back of the van. The autopsy was the only factor presented to convince a grand jury to bring the officers to trial.

west-baltimore-jtsuboike-0520-edit_custom-93a132c59f88d95638274897d4efd9e93cb0e541-s900-c85

The State’s Attorney’s thesis was the officers had conspired to give Gray a “rough ride” to prison, and that was equivalent to homicide. Yet as three officers of the six officers have come to trial over the last eight months—none of them testifying against each other—no evidence of violence has appeared. The result is one officer had a mistrial; and two were acquitted. The three officers remaining to be tried are asking for charges against them to be dropped.

With a supposed absence of violence, how did Freddie Gray die? Was it just a crazy accident in the van the man caused to himself by moving around?

Another possibility might be that his neck was broken by one or two of the officers before being loaded into the van, and the long delay in medical help proved the final death blow. Apparently, the prosecution had a piece of extra evidence they wanted to present in the recent trials. This information was ruled inadmissible, because prosecution apparently hadn’t gone through the standard process of sharing the information with the defense.

The mystery boils down to how a man who was fit enough to run away from the police without any trouble would lie unconscious with a broken spinal column, less than an hour later.

The Bird’s Eye View From My Veranda

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

A fine third-floor sleeping porch/This Old House

A fine third-floor sleeping porch/This Old House

“The best part of the present house is the veranda,” the U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes journaled in 1873. “But I would enlarge it. I want a veranda with a house attached.”

I share the late president’s opinion. A wooden veranda measuring over 100 feet  wraps four sides of the Victorian summer cottage that is my year-round home. But that wasn’t enough for the home’s first owners. Our cottage has two second-floor sleeping porches that each connect to inside bedrooms. And on the third floor, there are the remnants of two tiny, unsheltered porches, the victims of almost 120 years of wind and rain.

It’s a pretty tall house, and I imagine the perils that faced the early porch builders. I’m so grateful for their efforts. The porches are the house’s defining feature from the exterior, and the center of happy, summer solitude.

My private writing and reading world

My private writing and reading world

A small breakfast and a big book to finish

A small breakfast and a big book to finish

In India and other warm countries, porches are usually called by the president’s chosen word: veranda. The etymology goes back to the Portuguese word “varanda,” meaning railing or balustrade. When the British followed the Portuguese in the colonization of India, they learned “verandaa” as a Hindi language word and added an ‘h’ when they fitted their own “verandahs” onto sprawling bungalows.

Of course, Indians were well acquainted with outdoor home design. In very old times, rajahs and nawabs sat in state on their elaborate courtyards when receiving visitors and addressing the concerns of their subjects. Rooftop sleeping is still common in India, and ground-floor verandas are a popular place for visiting with friends and dealing with merchants.

Brunton Boatyard in Fort Cochin; each guest room has a private veranda

Brunton Boatyard in Fort Cochin; each guest room has a private veranda

Indian heritage hotels have great verandas, such as Brunton Boatyard, where I’ve stayed several times and always found it a treat to sit on the ground floor veranda reading the newspaper.

Restored punka fans cool the large public veranda on the ground floor at Brunton Boatyard

Restored punka fans cool the large public veranda on the ground floor at Brunton Boatyard

Barr House in Mataran became a Neemrana Hotel named Verandah in the Forest

Barr House in Mataran became a Neemrana Hotel named Verandah in the Forest

After seeing the photo above of a colonial hill station bungalow, I’ve become interested in visiting Verandah in the Forest, located in Mataran, a few hours from Mumbai. I’ve mostly walked verandas in India that are made of marble or red oxide. I’m intrigued by this encaustic tile floor and furniture that are often hallmarks of grand Bombay design. And what fancywork on the railings!

At the turning of the 19th to early 20th century, doctors from Europe to the Americas and Asia believed fresh air was believed a good counteraction to disease. Anyone who could afford it fled the heart of the city to expansive living in new colonies and suburbs.

Almost all the houses in North Baltimore were built in the 1890s through the 1950s. Almost all of them have a front or back porch. Insect screens on sleeping porches once kept residents safe from mosquito-borne malaria and yellow fever. In today’s world, they’re a barrier against Zika and Dengue.

Charles Village, Baltimore, row house porches/Greg Pease

Charles Village, Baltimore, row house porches/Greg Pease

Great porches are the icons of many neighborhoods throughout Baltimore City. In my student days, I loved sitting on the porch of my Charles Village rowhouse and chatting with the neighbors the next house over.  Thirty years ago, most of the porches on North Calvert were painted a subdued forest green. Today, many of them follow a candy-box palette. The Charles Village porches explode with color, shouting out their engagement with city life.

Our downstairs wrap-around porch is a social place. We host a neighborhood happy hour party here every summer, and smaller gatherings, as long as the bugs aren’t too bad.  It’s hardly furnished at all; just some heavy Adirondack chairs. The porches are so expansive, I can’t figure out how to fill them.

But the upstairs sleeping porches are smaller, intimate spaces that I can deal with. The westward-facing sleeping porch belongs to my teenage daughter and is outfitted in a bright, modern style. When she had a pair of sugar gliders, they had the run of the place.

The other sleeping porch is my old-fashioned escape.

My sleeping porch-summer is an East/West blend--just like its architecture

My sleeping porch-summer is an East/West blend—just like its architecture

Our house’s former owners called it the Sunset Porch and loved the view in early evening. This porch, like our daughter’s, was open-air, but my husband spotted a system of wooden frames that must have once held mosquito screens. An Internet search led to an online store selling ten-foot-high rolls of nylon insect screening that could be cut to fit any space. Together, we unrolled the screening and fixed it into place. We polished the original brass lantern hanging from the ceiling. I dragged an old maple desk on the porch, added a small Ikea chair, and the summer writing office was in business. And that was it, for the first year or so.

Over the last few years, I’ve added ceiling fans, upholstered rattan and wicker furniture, outdoor rugs and pierced tin lanterns from India. There’s a long coffee table that can hold dessert and coffee for a small group of guests. They are allowed in at night, the porch’s most glamorous hours. I like to think my porch is the Mid-Atlantic, late Victorian version of an Indian veranda.

Although the children regard this place as their mother’s writing porch, one family member considers it his room. Charlie the beagle, rests in his daybed close to the writing desk, guarding me from distraction. Because our porch overlooks a small backyard lane and the neighbors’ gardens, it’s a serene environment where the loudest sounds come from nature. I can literally eavesdrop on birds and squirrels in the tall maple and black walnut trees.

charlie on sleeping porch

Ironically, my sleeping porch has so many places for sitting, I can’t find room for a bed larger than Charlie’s.

Brooks Cottage on Tybee Island

Brooks Cottage on Tybee Island

Although, in my mind’s eye, I envision my porch one hundred and ten years ago. Four cots face eastward over the tops of young trees bordering the property. The view is mostly sky, and one can hear the bells of the long-gone streetcar on Roland Avenue, and the rolling sounds of the milkman’s wagon before the city awakens into summer heat.

The Secret Life and Death of Bees

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Two years ago, my neighbor bought a package of honeybees online as well as a beehive. The bees arrived healthy and active. But shortly after spring started, the bees vanished. Jeff said he didn’t see any evidence of dead bees nearby. It was as if the whole colony had taken off.

bee

It was a sad mystery for all of us. It wasn’t until recently that I started regularly reading about insects and gardens. I’ve learned such honeybee evacuations are a worldwide problem that has a name that sounds like a psychiatric diagnosis: Colony Collapse Disorder.

In Maryland last year, the loss of bee colonies was 61 percent. This is  among the highest rates of bee loss in the US. Huge honeybee losses are also being counted throughout Europe and in South America and Asia. In China, so few bees are left in the massive agricultural belt that people are forced to hand-pollinate to have any apple crops.

The British are desperate to preserve their native honeybee

The British are desperate to preserve their native honeybee

Hand-pollinating apple trees in China

Hand-pollinating apple trees in China

Many scientific studies have determined that CCD is largely driven by pesticide ingredients called neonicotinoids (aka neonics) introduced in the 1990s. Neonics go by names like imidacloprid, acetamiprid, clothianidin, and dinotefuran. Ironically, these pesticides are meant to kill borers, Japanese beetles, termites and other insects that damage shrubs and trees. Not honeybees. But honeybees make it their business to dine on flowering trees and shrubs. They won’t fall down dead tasting a poisoned plant–but they lose the memory of where they need to go. And because they don’t know the way back to the hive, they perish. I read more about this in some recent articles in The Washington Post and Mother Jones.

Ortho and Scott are two huge pesticide companies that have pledged to phase out neonics in their product lines. A recent search of Amazon’s garden category showed Bayer, Bonide, Dominion and other manufacturers have plenty of neonic pesticides for sale.

Apparently, it’s not just the sprays that are risky. Nursery plants grown from a seed or seedling treated with neonics also run the risk of poisoning bees. Even trace amount of neonics have contributed to Colony Collapse Disorder. You could make yourself crazy wondering whether any flowering plant you’re considering is a Typhoid Mary.

Last summer, I decided to start work on our largely ignored garden. The house is in an 1890s city neighborhood where very few people use pesticides and fertilizers. Our neighborhood is a haven for birds, foxes, rabbits, raccoons, bats and other delightful wildlife. Of course, I wanted to do no harm. A 25-year-old memory of how I accidentally killed most of my Japanese garden’s camellia trees by spraying Round-Up on dandelions still haunts me.

I contacted Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay-Wise gardening program, a free teaching service aimed at reducing pollution flowing from the state into the Chesapeake Bay. After an email exchange, two friendly master gardener volunteers. Lynn and Debbie, walked me through my struggling garden. They checked off which practices were environmentally sound, and gave advice on where I needed improvement.

I'm an official Bay-Wise Gardener!

I’m an official Bay-Wise Gardener!

I was very surprised that years of benign neglect put my garden in the Bay-Wise certified category. The fact that grass clippings were left on the lawn after cutting, and water easily reaches the earth through the gaps between bricks in the path. The house gutters have long downspouts that allow rainwater to flow into the earth; all I need are rain barrels to perfect my water conversation. The master gardeners looked at all my weeds but did not criticize. However, they told me I’d better start pulling wild mustard that day.  Debbie and Lynn were concerned about invasive non-native plants, like English ivy, and had chemically free strategies for elimination. There were a few bees buzzing around, and the local trumpet honeysuckle vine was pointed out as a great nectar source for them and hummingbirds.

My biggest takeaway was that if every plant I added was a native one, I could become a farmer’s market for the butterfly, bee, insect and bird populations. I also got the sense I didn’t have to make my property look like a forest to go native.

an inspiring post from Thomas Rainer's wonderful blog, landscape of meaning

an inspiring post from Thomas Rainer’s wonderful blog, Landscape of Meaning

Ever since I saw charming cottage gardens filled with wildflowers and perennials in England and Australia, I’d secretly wanted one. No grass to mow—just flowers, shrubs and herbs waving in the wind.  I realized that if I were to remove the grass right in front of my house, I could fill the leftover space with many perennial plants and grasses that would be more than eye candy.

They’d become bee, bug and bird candy.

Let the planting begin!

Let the planting begin!

The grass came out yesterday. Despite a looming book deadline, I’m working on installing two brand-new gardens: one in front of the house, and the other along the driveway, where English ivy once held a ruthless grasp.

The landscape doesn’t look like much now, but I am hopeful that the organically-grown native plants will be rooted and spreading by summer’s end. Just as I hope that the new Pollinator Protection Act banning commercial sales of neonic pesticides will be signed by our governor tomorrow, making Maryland the first of the United States to get serious about saving bees.

Lovely natural roses with insect-bitten leaves. Who cares?

Lovely natural roses with insect-bitten leaves. Who cares?

Trumping is Everywhere Now

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Donald Trump

Perhaps you have heard about the unexpected drama in the US presidential primary races. Are you surprised, shocked, or startled? I’ve been getting a sick feeling each morning when I pick up theWashington Post and read news about violence at rallies, hateful statements, and the rest. But I’m just as worried about a local election that could reframe life for my 620,000 neighbors. This is the 2016 race for Baltimore’s next mayor.

William Donald Schaefer

When I moved to Baltimore, Maryland in 1982, the mayor was the late William Donald Schaefer, a slightly comical, profane, Democrat who could be called a curmudgeon one day and a cheerleader the next. Baltimore was much larger then: 776,000 people, although that number came after a slow, measured exodus of city residents from the late 1960s onward. City residents were dealing with the disappearance of shipping, steel and other old-industry jobs, but they hadn’t yet faced the plagues of cocaine and heroin addiction. Mayor “Willie Don” lured big companies and builders to create Baltimore’s Harborplace development. Urban homesteaders paid $1 for row-houses they pledged to renovate that would serve as their homes. A federal and a city program helped homebuyers build great residential neighborhoods like Federal Hill and Canton.

Baltimore's Sherwood Gardens in Guilford

Baltimore’s Sherwood Gardens in Guilford

If you live in the central zone bordered by the harbor to the south and the suburbs the north, life is still pretty pleasant. Our historic treasure of a house is larger here than our last one in the midwest, and was half the buying price. Our work lives are going well, and we love the weather and friendly people around us. But the factors I’ve already mentioned  have built a second shadow city that is larger than mine.

Arrest of Freddie Gray captured on cell phone video and shared by Baltimore Sun

Arrest of Freddie Gray captured on cell phone video and shared by Baltimore Sun

In April 2015, a young man named Freddie Gray got spooked when he saw a group of police and started running. The cops caught him, put him in shackles in the back of their van, and took him on a rough ride to the jail that resulted in fatal injuries. Peaceful protests and discussions about Gray’s death escalated into a horrible day of mob destruction that was televised worldwide.

Following the events now called the Baltimore Uprising, our current mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, announced she wouldn’t run for re-election but would focus on rebuilding the city. The old police chief was fired, and a new police chief, Kevin Davis, is making a tremendous impact in solving crimes. However, the city can’t make the overall changes desperately needed without a strong mayor.

Currently there are many choices vying to be the Democratic candidate; and Democrats typically win the city. The candidates have been appearing at casual gatherings in people’s homes, community centers, churches and pubs. I’ve been to a few of these informal events and enjoyed the chance to ask serious questions directly. Televised and webcast debates and roundtable discussions with these candidates have been remarkably civil and friendly. They seem to be in harmony on the importance of giving people coming out of prison a real chance at work; drug treatment; fixing the schools; providing real education in the schools; and improving police-community relations.

The six most viable candidates include two city councilmen, Carl Stokes and Nick Mosby, who speak of their experience representing hard-hit neighbors. Sheila Dixon, a former Baltimore mayor who resigned in 2010 to avoid standing trial on charges of corruption, wants back in because she says she is the only one who knows how to do the job. Catherine Pugh, a Maryland state senator, is proud of pushing the state to send Baltimore needed funds. Elizabeth Embry, the deputy state’s attorney and former chief city prosecutor, says she wants to use data to make the city work and highlights her crime-fighting expertise. David Warnock, a businessman/philanthropist who moved here from Michigan, has big ideas about jobs, transportation infrastructure, and schools. You can watch a roundtable discussion with the gang on ABC’s Square Off!

Right now, Sheila Dixon and Catherine Pugh are running neck and neck, but I’m attracted to a few of the underdog candidates. And here’s where the lessons of the national presidential race come in. A whole lot of small, respectable presidential candidates each gathered small pockets of votes and mini-spikes in polls. These scattered votes put Donald Trump front and center. Therefore, I fear a vote for one of the little guys in Baltimore is a vote for Ralph Nader. And there’s yet another reading of the situation. There are others who will look to another side of the current political game and say that  the sparkling starlets I’m considering are only building steam on what might be called The Trump Effect.

Should follow my heart or my head? Still deciding. Could the two be linked?