Archive for Baltimore

Baltimore’s Rap Sheet Grows

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

I was as eager as anyone to see Netflix new television miniseries, The Keepers. The program, which investigates an unsolved murder in 1969 Baltimore, has received admiring reviews. It’s the story of former Keough School students—now women in their sixties—trying to identify the killer of their beloved teacher, Sister Catherine Ann Cesnik.

The Keepers is a sensitive, well-produced show which gives proper gravity to the crime and its lifelong impact on family and friends. I was sad at the end of the first episode, but for reasons that go beyond what I’d watched.

You see, The Keepers is just the latest Baltimore crime story.

It follows a wildly successful podcast called Serial that re-investigates the prosecution of Adnan Syed, a young Baltimore man for the 1999 murder of his girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. Sarah Koenig, the investigative reporter who wrote the podcast, discover many pieces of suppressed evidence that might have kept Adnan from jail. After the podcast, a series of legal challenges were made, and Adnan was granted a second trial, which will be held next year.

Serial made its splash following David Simon’s The Wire, an internationally celebrated HBO series focusing on Baltimore police’s battle against crime, and before that Homicide, another Simon series with crime on Baltimore’s streets.

Homicide: Life on the Streets

Interestingly, each of these crime dramas involves the hand of an alumnus or alumna of the Baltimore Sun—the great daily newspaper where I began my own writing career. When I was a college intern working at the paper, I had Sunday duty on the “crime desk.” It meant calling the various police stations to learn how many people had died and by what means. What I did was the very opposite of hardboiled beat reporting.

David Simon of Homicide and The Wire, Sarah Koenig of Serial, and Bob Erlandson, who’s interviewed in The Keepers, were highly seasoned Sun writers who followed some homicides for months—or even years.  A freelance journalist, Tom Nugent, collected research on Sister Cathy for years and wrote a 6000-word article about her for the Baltimore City Paper in 2005.

I greatly admire the reporting and editing that went into all of these programs. But the rise of this genre disturbs me. It makes me concerned that Baltimore’s image around the world is nothing but murder.

It would be cool if network executives were interested in a parallel track: dramatic programming about Baltimore that weren’t so deadly. The only non-murder show that comes to mind is Ace of Cakes, a reality show on the Food Network.

Just thirty years ago, the city’s image was charmingly quirky. In the late 1980s, films like The Accidental Tourist, Hairspray, and Diner served up a historic East Coast city short on glamour, but full of characters. People fretted that Baltimore was always typecast as the home of cheerful, blue collar people who spoke with long Os. We all wanted to get beyond that stereotype and diversify.

I wouldn’t mind a few Os, if I could get some back.

In Minneapolis, Purple Still Reigns

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

dem atlas covers Prince this past weekend

Last weekend, when I was visiting the “Twin Cities” of Minneapolis and St. Paul, I was hit with an unexpected surge of purple.

Purple was the favorite color of Prince, a Minnesota funk-rock star—and April 21 was the one-year anniversary of his untimely death in 2016 by overdose. I grew up in St. Paul and was just a few years younger than the man born Prince Rogers Nelson. Prince released his first album, Soft and Wet, at the age of 17, and I avidly followed his every move over the next several decades, as did my sisters.  Like Prince, we were young people of color living in a state that was predominantly white. There were no black musicians played on the radio except for on our sole “black” station, KMOJ-FM.

Scene outside First Avenue at Prince Memorial

It was hard to make friends, or find someone willing to date you, when you were a few shades darker than the majority or had an unpronounceable name. It was exhilarating to see Prince—a small, light-skinned black man who wore lace and satin and high heels—fearlessly be himself.

Artists who perform at First Ave are celebrated in stars. Only Prince’s is golden

Prince’s biggest local shows were at a large nightclub called First Avenue at the downtown Minneapolis. First Avenue remains one of the top national nightclubs that still showcases local performers. Prince’s first film, Purple Rain, is a fictitious story in which he plays “The Kid,” someone very much like himself, trying to make it in show business, get the girl, and deal with some hard family issues. The 1984 movie was a hit, with Prince’s artistry stealing the show. Watching it later, I notice how mixed-race his audience appeared. People seemed to forget about traditional boundaries and fell in love with his hypnotic beats and daring lyrics. I mark this as the start of a new Minnesota.

Purple Rain, best film score ever

Prince shot to stardom shortly after I’d become 18, the legal age to go to First Avenue’s night shows. When he came to Baltimore’s Civic Center, I was a college student and bought a ticket to his show. I pushed my way to the edge of backstage and gave one of the roadies a note addressed to my high school friend, Susan Moonsie, who’d become a singer in one of his custom-made opening bands: Vanity 6. I was gloriously lucky to find myself escorted backstage, where I hung out with Susan all night and met the other Vanity 6 singers and the men of The Time. However, I didn’t get to exchange words with Prince. Susan didn’t want to introduce me because the two of them were in an argument.

Brenda, Vanity and Susan of Vanity 6

Despite his superstar status, Prince never abandoned Minnesota. He built a massive home and recording studio in the suburb of Chanhassen named Paisley Park, after one of his songs, and often opened it to friends and fans who came for private parties with performances. Prince sometimes showed up to play at Minneapolis’s Dakota jazz club or First Avenue.

Paisley Park is now open to tourists

During Prince’s adult years, Minnesota diversified. The state became the chief home of refugees from Somalia. It became a leader in families with international adoptions and was said to be “the gayest city after San Francisco.”

Last weekend St. Paul, Minneapolis and Edina lit their buildings and bridges purple honoring Prince

Was Prince a symbol of civic change—or was he an agent of change?

I wondered about this as I walked through the Twin Cities last weekend listening to the top favorite 89 Prince Songs on The Current, a Minnesota Public Radio station that, like KMOJ, had a special relationship with the artist. Spring comes late in the upper Midwest—while the grass was green, the tulips were just popping and the trees were taking on a light haze of leaves. In many neighborhoods, the gardens sprouted yard signs: “Black Lives Matter,” and “Falcon Heights: The World is Watching,” a reference to the fatal police shooting of Philando Castile in my own neighborhood that came a few months after Prince’s death.

The most popular sign was in rainbow hues, with the state of Minnesota on one sign and on the other, the phrase, “All Are Welcome Here.” The overt activism reminded me of the growing political and spiritual content of Prince’s work in the years just before his death. He had his eyes on the world, and he wanted to keep building bridges.

In April 2015, I was living in Baltimore during a period that it seemed one black male after another was killed by police. In Baltimore, a young man named Freddie Gray was arrested on suspicion of carrying drugs; he died after a short ride to jail in a police van. During a two-day period after Freddie’s funeral, areas of Baltimore were filled with destructive protestors and hundreds of fires were set. We endured almost a week of curfew and a city takeover by soldiers with the National Guard.

We never dreamed that Prince’s career would end a year later

As the city was stilling itself, the city had stilled—but hardly returned to normal—Prince announced he was coming to Baltimore to perform a free “Rally 4 Peace.” He booked the Royal Farms Arena at his own expense. He wrote a song called “Baltimore” that was compassionate yet had a happy, bopping beat. The song will never be his greatest hit, but it seems a perfectly distilled essence of his style and dogged determination to share joy as the way forward.

A Tale of Two City Festivals

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Thousands of cherry trees blossom every spring in Washington DC, a tradition spanning 105 years. At the same time, brilliant light sculptures and art installations glow along the port promenade in Baltimore. Two festivals I’d never experienced drew me away from my work. Which festival first?

I started out on a gray Thursday morning toward Washington DC, hoping rain wouldn’t come. It was my wedding anniversary, and my husband Tony and I had taken the day off. The traffic gods were kind and the car reached the cherry blossom zone just an hour after leaving Baltimore. We strolled from the parking garage to eat ceviche and amazing tacos at a fine Mexican restaurant, Oyamel, owned by chef Jose Andres. We visited the Building Museum and National Portrait Gallery, spending not enough time because we wanted to reach the nearby cherry blossom trail.

The DC cherry blossom festival has quite a history. The trees would never be there, if it weren’t for a woman’s persistence. Bringing Japanese trees to Washington DC was the idea of a globe-trotting journalist, Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore, who fell in love with Japan’s signature tree when she was touring the East. Starting in the 1880s, Mrs. Scidmore lobbied the US government for 24 years with her idea of a mass transplantation of Japanese trees to beautify the new parkland in the city that had been reclaimed from the Potomac.

She had no luck until 1909, when she found a fellow cherry blossom enthusiast in David Fairchild, an Agriculture Department official who’d transplanted Japanese cherries to his own home. However, the government only agreed after Eliza reconnected with an American lady she’d once met in Japan. As the nation’s new First Lady, Helen Herren Taft got the cherry tree plan in motion.

However, the first 3000 trees sent from Japan in 1911 were never planted During their shipment, they fell  victim to insect infestation. The only thing that could be done to keep the environment safe was to burn them all. Still, the Tokyo government, and a Japanese chemist named Jokichi Takamine, were willing to send 3020 more trees the next year. This group of healthy trees took root and flourished, even through World War II, when Japan was an enemy and the trees were referred to as “Oriental cherry trees” in the hopes of avoiding their destruction.

Cherry trees typically live 40 to 45 years, so the trees one sees today are not Eliza’s trees. But they are splendid indeed and provide a fairyland feeling when you stand underneath. It was delightful to be walking in the cherry fairyland, rather than being trapped inside one of the many giant tour buses circling around. I was also pleased that the parkland hadn’t been overtaken with more sales vendors than usual. The photo-snapping crowds made me recall Japan’s “Hanami,” a special cherry-blossom viewing time that inspired The Flower Master, my mystery novel set in Tokyo’s flower arranging world.

The day after our DC excursion, the rains came. And this slowed the beginning of Baltimore’s Light City Festival, which was set to run for 9 days for the second year in a row at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Brooke Hall and Justin Allen, a married arts-and-marketing couple, came up with the idea of a new festival that would bring the arts to the heart of the city. They did their research and crafted a proposal for a spectacular walk filled with lighted sculptures and entertainment. Fortunately, it did not take 24 years to get the Baltimore Office of Promotion to agree to fund Light City Baltimore.

Then the fun began. Artists from many states and countries vied for placement in a very challenging venue—as several of the electric installations are in the harbor’s waters, and all the pieces were subject to high winds and rain at various times during the nine-day festival period. It’s one thing to have your art in an international show—it’s another to realize doing this outdoors could cause its destruction.

The Saturday night we went to Light City Baltimore was the rain date for the delayed opening celebration, with a full line-up of musicians, dancers and magicians. The harbor promenade was edged with vendors selling food and drink, and harbor restaurants and bars were packed. There was a great sense of energy and happiness. Some artists were on hand to explain their work, and other art works were open for exploration, including a field of bright dots, an illuminated see-saw, and a lighted rickshaw with a glamorous Chinese lantern. Among my favorites were a floating installation of 400 umbrellas and an illuminated honeycomb. I’ve been to a lot of festivals over 25 years in Baltimore, and this was the most spectacular.

As I came away from the festivals, I had two thoughts. The Japanese cherry trees were brought to beautify a fledgling city that has subsequently prospered. And the lighted art walk illuminates an old city trying to recast itself in its fourth century.

The East Coast’s Steamy Springtime

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

T-shirt weather in February!

“Want to go for a walk?”

My daughter surprised me with this request last week. During the Baltimore winter, nobody in the family walks together—even the dog doesn’t want to be out more than five minutes.

While Maryland winters are not fierce like the seasons I spent in Minnesota, they are still cold. There are always a few snowfalls and a cold wind blowing off the Atlantic. The difference between winter in Maryland and other places is that the damp wind can chill you to the bones. February is a good month for making soup.

It certainly hasn’t been the usual kind of February. Last December, meteorologists predicted this would be another warm winter, just like 2016. The forces at work were an especially strong El Nino wind and an Arctic Oscillation, a stream of winds above Canada and Alaska that has chosen to trap the cold weather far to the north of us. The US Geological Survey says spring arrived to the Washington DC area 22 days early.

I’m not ready to say that we are in spring (official date of Spring Equinox is March 20). In Baltimore—an hour’s drive from DC—this winter brought only a slight, powdered-sugar style dusting of snow: less than an inch. The mountainous areas in Western Maryland where people ski had a tremendous melt of the small amount of snow that fell.  The ski resorts are all but closed up for the season, when they ordinarily would have had business for at least another month. It’s weird. Just like the active calls of birds to each other, seeking mates, just a little bit too early.

When I say this is a hot winter, I mean that it’s been like California on many days. My husband, perhaps out of loyalty to his birthplace, says it’s a “New Orleans winter.” Instead of the typical temperatures in the 30s, it’s been in the 60s and 70s Fahrenheit for many days in the past weeks. It reached 77 last Friday when I went walking with the dog and my daughter. At Johns Hopkins, the school set up signs encouraging students to practice mindfulness while outdoors. The staff arranged beach chairs to encourage meditating in nature, but the Hopkins students seemed more intent on getting to class.

No time to sit and sun oneself at Hopkins!

Daffodils springing up at Johns Hopkins Homewood campus

For me, the national news has been so chilling, that the warm weather gives me a sort of fragile happiness—the feeling that life still is good. Walking in nature is good for mental health, as well as physical.

I invited my husband to walk with me last Sunday afternoon and we took a 45 minute stroll through the neighborhood. Crocus in February are par for the course. However, we saw sights we would normally not see for a month: magnolia trees in bud, and pink hellebores in bloom. I planted a few hundred bulbs in my own garden around Thanksgiving week, and they are starting to show their faces. That seems hardly enough time underground to get their roots established.

Magnolia buds

Hellebores

Apparently Japanese apricot trees and some early-blooming cherry trees are already in flower. I’m worried that a cold snap will kill the display; just as I feel nervous for any birds laying eggs. I also wonder what might happen if birds and rabbits decide to procreate early. Could their eggs survive a freeze?

Well-naturalized crocuses

My fingers are crossed that the steamy early spring will not lead to a silent spring later on.

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?