What’s a few years anyway?

Savannah Morning News column

Nov. 29, 2015

Last week without hesitation or doubt I dated a check 2005.

“That’s nothing,” a woman said when I told her this story. “The other day I wrote my maiden name on a check. I’ve been married 15 years.”

Who can keep up?

Some friends are visiting this week from Durham, N.C. I was sure it was less than four or five months since we had last seen one another.

“Nope,” said Gene. “It was on my birthday.”

That never changes. It was the end of August.


Sometimes it works in our favor, this memory thing. Was it my left knee I broke last summer in Tel Aviv or the right? Or is that just reinventing the past to keep from going crazy with the truth. Now I hear myself speaking of the month-long stay-at-home knee recovery period in almost glowing terms. “It wasn’t so bad. I read three books. I got to experience stillness.”

One thing’s for sure: It’s hard to remember pain. When I tell people my knee hurt so much when I tried to lift it over the threshold going to the bathroom that I had to literally pick up my leg it’s the truth. Not that I feel the pain. I don’t anymore. That ability to block out or forget the pain is, I’m pretty certain, a good thing, although I’ve always found disappointments carry a greater level of emotion than achievements, like submitting work to a writing contest and not winning anything – boo, hiss, rats – versus taking first, second or third (of course who wants to come in second, which is so close to first? Third is better than second). But the award? Whew, OK, I won. That’s good. All with little or no emotion.

Other things are certain too: war, homicide, suicide bombers, crooked politicians, decaying infrastructure, more bluster, more air strikes, more collateral damage. If you smudge out the date on today’s news you might just as well be reading yesterday’s news and not just news from 2015. Nothing new about regime change. Iran, Chile, Guatemala, Iraq, Afghanistan. Doesn’t work. Nations, like people, have to change themselves.

It’s a wonder we read anything at all in the news. Some people don’t. Some people on the drive to and from work listen to Mahler or Mendelssohn or Nine Inch Nails. News updates? Paris bombings? What Paris bombings? As far as I can see these people don’t seem to be missing out on anything.

I tried that one day. I left my phone at home (ok, not deliberately), but with it all vital information, camera, calendar, calculator, date, weather, connection to news updates, reminders, email and “notes”. I swear my shoulders dropped three inches. I stood taller. I sat and watched a hawk on my neighbor’s chimney (he was sitting very still, just waiting for me to open the chicken coop and let the girls out for some exercise, some worms). My arms swung a bit freer. My mind, well, it was just a little freer, too.

It didn’t last. I’m an addict. If it weren’t so serious, if so many people didn’t keep dying, I might as well regard the news as I do a serial television series. As it is I might as well just watch Homeland and get lost in the wily, worried eyes of Claire Danes aks Carrie Mathison (at least we know she won’t die. She can’t. She’s the main character) or Mandy Patinkin as Saul Berenson (he can’t die either; he’s another star and he’s the former head of the CIA; they don’t die, right?) At least we get to see what Berlin looks like.

At least, on Thanksgiving, we get to eat good, laugh good, be around good friends and feel good. That never changes.

I was talking to someone the other day when out of the blue he asked how long I have known a mutual friend of ours.

“Since 1989,” I said to Ben. “You probably weren’t even born yet.”

“I was 2,” he answered.

A few minutes later he asked me over to dinner. What’s a few years, anyway, I thought. Nothing. Nothing at all. It’s just time.




When it’s not about the money

Sunday column, Savannah Morning News

Nov. 22, 2015

At 77, George Wilson pretty much knows what he wants and how to go after it.            He loves to sing so nine years ago when he moved to Savannah, he went choir shopping. When he didn’t like the acoustics in the first church he settled, happily, at Wesley Monumental United Methodist. Wilson, who was reared Baptist in Miami, now sings tenor in the choir.

When he went house hunting he knew he needed a sunny, commodious backyard to plant fruit trees, keep chickens and grow greens – frisee, escarole and mizuna, among them. Oh, there’s a swimming pool in the rambling, two-story Cuyler-Brownsville house? All the better. He filled the pool with aged manure from the city’s horse stables, gathered compost and incorporated the space into his garden. His greens – advertised as George’s Gorgeous Greens at the Saturday Forsyth Farmers’ Market – regularly sell out.

The man knows how to spot an opportunity and move on it.

When Wesley started a major renovation project, which meant the choir had to relocate to nearby Congregation Mickve Israel for weekly practices, George couldn’t help but notice the Temple’s “real” tablecloths and individual flower arrangements on the tables. He was impressed. He was inspired. He thought, “I can do that.”

But first he needed a place to grow flowers, lots of flowers.

Enter the 150-acre Wesley Gardens on Burnside Island. This roomy piece of property next to the Moon River was a gift to the church in 1962 from Mrs. Samuel Rotans. PS, she was not a Methodist. Somewhere in the 50 acres of land – the rest is marsh – George, an accomplished cook who has owned a French restaurant in Atlanta, where he also taught high school English, could have his wish. He could plant flowers. He could plant enough for the church’s Wednesday night suppers that would be served on real tablecloths with fresh-cut flower arrangements.

The challenge was growing enough to decorate 18 tables for a group that meets year-round.

“March is the slackest time,” he said. Then, speaking like a gardener who knows something can always go wrong, he added, “But that’s probably my fault.” He did not say why. Except if it’s not the deer (“See, here’s a few tracks”), it’s the black leaf disease that got the mums (“all that rain”), the dearth of honeybees (“the traditional pollinator”) or the stems of the marigolds. Sometimes they’re too short for flower arrangements.

Fortunately camellias are just starting their show. They, he said, will “cover us all the way to March.”

It’s all a learning process. Now he knows if he wants blooms in the spring he needs to plant some sub-hardy annuals such as larkspur, bachelor buttons, nigella (“or love in a mist”), coreopsis tinctoria, which he did a few weeks ago. His fallback plant in the summer? Zinnias. “They will carry us through the heat.”

“Oh boy, the nigella reseeded like crazy,” he said recently, pulling out dollar weed and wisteria as he goes (“Ha! As if you can get it all.”)

Later he would dig up gladioluses to plant again next spring. He would pull out the dahlias and the cosmos.

He’s got dotted horsemint, yellow and white mums and the capricious rose campion he grew from seed.

Every Wednesday George goes out to the country estate once called “Folly Marsh” and tends the garden he planted six years ago. A pair of pruners in hand he surveys the plot looking for color and variety. He spots some blue ageratum (“very aggressive”), some remaining physostesia, some volunteer celosia, some purple coleus, a few remaining rudbeckia and some dahlias he grew from seed (“that didn’t do much in the heat of summer”). Those plus a few white mums and some early camellias and sasanquas would get him through another Wednesday night. After picking and weeding he would drop the buckets off at the downtown church for someone else to do the arrangements although at one time he did that too.

“I decided this would be my pleasure garden,” he said of the plot that sits near a hut used by the Colgate University rowing club and not far from a bricked labyrinth made by a local Boy Scout troop. This is where George would dig, plant, tend, weed, create and develop his year-round garden.

But here’s the deal: he would work as a volunteer not an employee.

“I did not want to be paid,” he said. “If I was paid I probably wouldn’t enjoy it so much. It’s more powerful this way.”