All Posts By Michael Kahn

God or Huck Finn: Who Should Tell Your Story?

An online discussion among several of my fellow Poisoned Pen Press authors got me thinking about the one decision every fiction author must make before typing CHAPTER 1 at the top of the page. That decision? Who will tell your story?

“Huh,” a baffled reader may wonder, “doesn’t the author tell the story?”

Only rarely. Except for those novels, more typical before the 20th century, where the author occasionally stops the action, pokes his head out from behind the scenery, and addresses you directly, often with a coy, “O gentle reader,” the writer remains, in the jargon of Hollywood, off screen.

So who tells the story? I had to make that decision when, on a dare from my wife Margi, I decided to try to write my first novel, Grave Designs.

But first, a little background:

sistine-chapel-michelangelo-paintings-61One familiar storyteller is the”omniscient third-person narrator.” Think of the Book of Genesis: “In the beginning.” That voice comes rumbling down from on high to describe the creation of the earth or reveal the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. No “gentle reader” playfulness there.

That narrative style is the favorite of many authors. It gives them the ability to dart around the stage and jump inside the heads of any or all of the characters to let us know what they are thinking and what they are up to. In Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, the narrator slips into the perspectives of Anna, Vronsky, Karenin, Levin—and even Levin’s dog, Laska (for two chapters)!

There are more constrained versions of third-person narration, the most popular being the third-person subjective, where the narrator can describe the thoughts and actions of one or a few characters but without knowledge of all people, places, and events. Most thrillers are written that way because the author can build suspense by cutting back and forth between the actions of different characters.

At the other end of the spectrum is the first-person narrator, where the entire story is told by a single character. “Here I am,” our narrator announces at the outset. Whatever happens offstage literally happens offstage, since our narrator can only describe what he sees.

While this narrow scope might seem a handicap for an author, the three contenders for the title Great American Novel are all narrated in the first person, as their authors make clear in their enchanting first sentences. Herman Melville opens Moby Dick: “Call me Ishmael.” Mark Twain opens The Adventures of Huckleberry: “You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.” And F. Scott Fitzerald opens The Great Gatsby: “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.”

Many authors (including me for two of my novels) fit their storyteller to their story, sometimes opting for first-person and other times for third-person. Charles Dickens chose the former for Great Expectations, opening with the narrator introducing himself: “My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name being Phillip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip.” But he chose the Voice of God for Bleak House, which opens with one of the greatest first chapters in literature.

9781464204395_FC-181x276[1]But back to Grave Designs.

I had read somewhere that you should write what you know–advice I now realize is terrible. But what did I know back then? I was a young male attorney in a large law firm, and so my detective would be a young male attorney in a large law firm.  The idea for the novel? A powerful senior partner dies, his firm discovers a secret codicil to his will setting up a trust fund for the care and maintenance of a grave at a pet cemetery. The mystery? He never owned a pet, and his family has no idea what was in the grave (which will be robbed just days after he dies). My protagonist will be assigned the task of finding out what was in that grave.

Having never written a mystery, I opted for the first-person narrative–a common choice for mysteries. And thus the first word in the first sentence of that first chapter was “I.” They say all of us have at least one whiny, boring autobiographical novel in us, and my young male attorney was soon sounding too much like a whiny version of me. Frustrated, I set the draft aside after 75 pages.

And there it sat for months. Until that day in court as I waited for my case to be called. I watched in dismay as a crusty old male judge taunted and humiliated a young female lawyer. She left the courtroomTheDeadHand-cover-by-Fervor-Creative-RGB[1] in tears. On my way back to the office, I had my author epiphany: my hero would not a young male attorney in that big male-dominated law firm but a savvy, tough young female attorney. Once a prized associate at that firm, she got bored with the corporate clients, fed up with the big firm politics, and did the unthinkable (at least to the firm’s partners): she walked away to set up her own practice. And thus–after several more drafts of those first 75 pages–Rachel Gold’s voice suddenly came alive. Two years later, Grave Designs was in the bookstores.

Hard to believe that this month–a quarter of a century later–Rachel and I have reached her tenth novel, The Dead Hand.

Meet Me in St. Louis: Toasted Ravioli, Hoosiers, and High School

By Posted on 0 Comments 3 min read 564 views

If asked to name the key elements of their favorite novel, most readers would place at the top of their list vivid characters and an engaging plot. But when we think of our favorite novels, another vital element is the strong sense of place. Whether it’s Huck Finn’s Mississippi River in Mark Twain’s masterpiece or Pip’s London in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations or the Spanish countryside of Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls or the environments of any of your favorite works of fiction, that sense of place is woven into the very fabric of the story.

Photo credit: Dustin Batt
St. Louis Union Station (Photo credit: Dustin Batt)

Sense of place has always been an important element in detective fiction. Think of Philip Marlowe’s Los Angeles, Dave Robicheaux’s New Iberia, and the Four Corners area of Tony Hillerman’s Leaphorn and Chee mysteries. And now imagine the cognitive dissonance you’d experience if we placed those characters somewhere else. Des Moines instead of Los Angeles, Brooklyn instead of New Iberia, Orlando instead of the Four Corners. Sense of place is key.

St. Louis has been the setting for all but the first of the mysteries in my Rachel Gold series. In addition to trying to evoke the mood of this blues-loving, Cardinals-crazy river town, I’ve worked one or  more unique St. Louis locations into the plots of each of the novels. For example, the final confrontation in Grave Designs takes place inside the Gateway Arch, and the pivotal event in Bearing Witness occurs inside the imposing Clock Tower at St. Louis Union Station.

TheDeadHand-cover-by-Fervor-Creative-RGB[1]In creating my new Rachel Gold mystery, The Dead Hand (to be published this September), I decided to pay homage to three of the quirkiest elements of my town’s culture. Newcomers to St. Louis inevitably comment on all three. Natives of St. Louis, especially those who’ve spent most or all of their lives within the metropolitan area, are startled to discover that what they assumed were standard throughout the nation are in fact unique to their town.

My homage occurs in the opening paragraphs of Chapter 14, which is when Rachel is about to confront one of the city’s most powerful and ominous lawyers. The confrontation takes place at Golden Bough (a fictional Jewish country club that some of my fellow natives may connect to a real country club). Here are those opening paragraphs:


Golden Bough.

I smiled.

Of course.

But first, some background:

There are three things that make St. Louis unique:

The first is toasted ravioli, an appetizer you will find on the menu of every Italian restaurant and sports bar in town and almost nowhere else in the nation.

The second is the word “hoosier”—a term the rest of the nation understands as a proud nickname for an Indiana resident but in St. Louis is a derogatory term for a hick or, for certain suburban snobs, a white-trash resident of the South City portion of St. Louis. Indeed, many a resident of our town is baffled when first learning that the Indiana University sports teams are known as, and are actually proud to be known as, the Hoosiers.

And the third thing unique to St. Louis is our obsession with your high school. As we natives know, the most common question posed when two locals meet is: “Where did you go to school?” And unlike residents of other cities, we understand that the term “school”—even when you’re in a room filled with possessors of graduate and doctorate degrees—means “high school.” And we also know that the answer to that question will reveal a trove of sociological, cultural, and religious information that would make an anthropologist jealous.

For more on the etymology of the St. Louis “hoosier,” you can start here. And for those poor souls who’ve never seen, much less consumed, an order of toasted ravioli, here is a special St. Louis feast for your eyes:

Toasted Ravioli

The Law of Zombies (Crimespree Magazine)

By Posted on 0 Comments 1 min read 487 views
(from Crimespree Magazine)
(from Crimespree Magazine)

As news of the upcoming publication of my next novel, The Dead Hand, began to spread, the editors at Crimespree Magazine asked if I would be willing to share with their readers some insights into the types of research involved in writing such a novel.

I was happy to do so–especially for this new novel. Though I have been a lawyer for more than 30 years, there are certain oddball areas of the law that even after all these years I still have only the foggiest understanding of. One such area, which plays a central role in The Dead Hand, is what I have come to call the Law of the Zombies. So here is what I shared on zombie law with the Crimespree readers. Hope you enjoy it!

From the Odyssey to the Unforgiven

By Posted on 0 Comments 4 min read 758 views

O_brother_where_art_thou_ver1[1]Critics have long debated whether the correct number is six or nine or eleven, but they do agree that all literature–no matter the genre–can be reduced to less than 12 basic story lines. Whether you label Homer’s The Odyssey a quest story, a revenge tale, a picaresque adventure, or an astounding melange of all three, its impact on subsequent storytelling has been enormous. In just the past century, Homer’s epic has been the acknowledged inspiration for the Margaret Atwood novella The Penelopiad, the Coen brothers movie O Brother, Where Art Thou, and the James Joyce novel Ulysses. And certainly the qualities Homer celebrates in Odysseus–wily, courageous, determined, smooth-talking–also describe Philip Marlowe, Spenser, Lew Archer, and many other American detective novel heroes, each of whom sets off on their own odysseys.

But it was only recently that I discovered yet another modern heir of The Odyssey. That epiphany occurred during my drive to the office. I had been listening to the audio version of that epic tale, read brilliantly by Dan Stevens, the actor known better for his role as Mathew Crawley in the PBS series Downtown Abbey.

For those who haven’t read (or have forgotten the details of) The Odyssey, it opens nearly a decade after the Greek-Trojan war. The resourceful Odysseusulysses[1] has been on a difficult quest to return home to Ithaca and to his faithful wife Penelope and only son Telemachus, who was just a toddler when his father left for the war nearly 20 years ago.

As our hero’s quest takes him on one adventure after another–battling monsters, resisting enchanting witches, visiting shades in the underworld–Homer occasionally cuts back to Ithaca, where Penelope and Telemachus have been forced to share their home with the “Suitors,” a crowd of 108 boisterous, obnoxious young men whose goal is to persuade Penelope to marry one of them, all the while exploiting the hospitality of household and consuming its wine, pigs, and wealth.

Telemachus leaves the island in search of news of his father, who he fears is dead after all these years. Back on Ithaca, AntThe_Odyssey_by_Homer_53219[1]inous, the leader of the Suitors and a truly creepy, arrogant aristocrat, plots to kill the young man on his return home. But Telemachus evades the ambush and seeks sanctuary in the hut of his father’s loyal swineherd, Eumaeus. And there, to his joy, he is reunited with Odysseus, who has also just returned.

That’s the point where the story shifts from epic quest to tale of revenge. And that’s when I had my epiphany. As Telemachus and Odysseus start toward their house and all those rowdy Suitors, I realized that The Odyssey was also the godfather of the American Western movie. Yep. The Odyssey, starring John Wayne or Clint Eastwood.

Take, for example, one of my favorite movies, The Unforgiven. That final battle scene in the saloon between the gunslinger William Munny (Clint Eastwood) and the followers of Little Bill Dagget (Gene Hackman) echos the final battle scene in the Great Hall between Odysseus and followers of Antinous.

Odysseus enters the Great Hall disguised as an old man, and is immediately mocked by Antinous and the other Suitors. But after surprising them by winning a contest of strength, he throws off his disguise, grabs his bow and arrows, and cries, “But another target’s left that no one has hit before. We’ll see if I can hit it–Apollo give me glory!”

And then, in a battle scene that echoes the final gun battle in The Unforgiven, Odysseus take his bloody revenge. Here’s how it begins (in the Robert Fagles translation):

With that he trained a stabbing arrow on Antinous . . . just lifting a gorgeous golden loving-cup in his hands, just tilting the two handled goblet to his lips, about to drain the wine–and slaughter the last thing on that suitor’s mind. Who could dream that one foe in that crown of feasters, however great his power, would bring death down on himself, and black doom?

But Odysseus aimed and shot Antinous square in the throat, and the point went stabbing clean through the soft neck and out

–and off to the side he pitched, the cup dropped from his grasp as the shaft sank home, and the man’s life blood came spurting from his nostrils–

thick red jets–

a sudden thrust of his foot–

he kicked away the table–food showered across the floor, the bread and meats soaked in a swirl of bloody filth.

The suitors burst into an uproar all throughout the house when they saw their leader down.

And, as with Little Bill and his doomed posse in The Unforgiven three millennia later, the slaughter has only begun. The message is the same in both: don’t mess with Odysseus, and don’t mess with Clint Eastwood.

First Review of The Dead Hand

By Posted on 0 Comments 1 min read 544 views

Writing is a lonely pursuit. You spend all those hours on your own, writing and rewriting your novel, hoping that it’s working, hoping that your readers will enjoy it, worrying that maybe you’re kidding yourself, that maybe you’re producing the literary equivalent of the Hollywood bomb.

Thus nothing makes an author more jittery than news that Kirkus Reviews has just published a review of your next book. Those reviews generally come out about two months before your book’s publication date. They target an audience of bookstore buyers, public librarians, and other retailers who are trying to decide which books to order for the next season.

In the publishing world, Kirkus has earned its reputation as a tough critic. A very tough critic. To quote the lyrics from that Frank Sinatra classic, “If you can make there, you can make it anywhere.”

And thus as my next Rachel Gold mystery, The Dead Hand, approached its two-month pre-publication date, I started nervously checking the Kirkus website.



Five days later. Click.


Another five days.


And there it was, with the headline: “A high-water mark in this inventive, ebullient series.”

To read the full review, here’s the link.

Thank you, Kirkus!

Reading and Writing: A Fun Conversation with David Alan Binder

By Posted on 0 Comments 1 min read 600 views

As my publisher and I prepare for the release this fall of The Dead Hand, the next novel in the Rachel Gold series, I had the pleasure to “sit down” (in the electronic media sense of that term) for a fun conversation about writing with David Alan Binder, the writer, musician, and prolific blogger who has interviewed dozens and dozens of authors.

TheDeadHand-cover-by-Fervor-Creative-RGB[1]My favorite question from David: “What is the most important thing that you have learned in your writing experience, so far?” It gave me a chance to talk about the joy of cage-free characters. (Thus the feral rooster shown above.)

You can read my answer, along with the rest of our conversation, here.

From Hard-Boiled Mysteries to Film Noir to the World

By Posted on 0 Comments 3 min read 1111 views

Earlier this month, the St Louis Jewish Film Festival asked me to introduce the screening of Fire Birds, an Israeli murder mystery set in Tel Aviv (with English subtitles). To prepare my introductory remarks, I watched the film. Somewhere toward the middle of the movie, I had my epiphany. “Thank you, Mr. Hammett,” I said.

Let me explain.

Some of our nation’s most influential exports over the past century have been our arts and culture. In music, for example, we gave the world the blues, jazz, and rock. In fashion, our contributions have included Levi jeans and Chuck Taylor sneakers.

And in literature, one of our most influential exports has been the hard-boiled detective novel. Although Edgar Allan Poe is often credited with inventing the mystery story, by the 1920s the ascendant version was the so-called British cozy, best exemplified by Dorothy Sayers’ charming gentlemen detective Lord Peter Wimsey, a dilettante who solved mysteries for his own amusement.

And then29056[1] along came the American hard-boiled crime  novel, whose pioneers included Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and James Cain. Unlike the heroes in the British mysteries, this American genre’s typical protagonist was a tough, cynical detective familiar with graphic violence and sordid urban corruption. Marked by fast-paced, slangy dialogue, the hard-boiled detective novel has been one of our most popular literary exports and now includes bestselling authors around the world.

Which brings me to Film Noir, the cinematic version of the hard-boiled mystery novel. The genre got its start in in the 1940s with film versions of those novels, including The Maltese Falcon, The Postman Always Rings Twice and The Third Man. Over the decades since World War II, the genre has spread to filmmakers around the world and has continued to evolve in this country through award-winning “Neo-Film Noir” creations that include Chinatown, Blood Simple, The Big Lebowski, and Blade Runner.

So what makes a film a Film Noir? While that question has inspired numerous critical essays, such as this one and this one, the basic elements can be simply stated as follow:movie_36549[1]

  • a crime–usually a murder–often occurring near the beginning of the film;
  • a cynical detective, usually flawed, often outside the norm (such as, say, kicked off the police force for insubordination or drug abuse);
  • at least one femme fatale;
  • the seemingly straightforward crime that turns out to be far more complex as our detective follows clues on an odyssey through the dark underworld of the city; and
  • lots of flashbacks, occasionally confusing.

Every one of these elements is on full display in Fire Birds.  As the movie opens, an old man’s body is found5543433-6950[1] floating in a river in Tel Aviv with three stab wounds to the chest and a number tattooed along his forearm. The police detective assigned to the case, himself a second generation Holocaust survivor, reluctantly accepts the case and struggles to bring it to a quick close. He soon learns that the number tattooed on the dead man’s arm actually belongs to a Holocaust survivor who died years ago.

As we learn in the flashbacks, the dead man had sought a ‘membership card’ to what one femme fatale labels the most horrible club in the world: the club of Holocaust survivors. Despite his age, the dead man’s charm was evident as he searched the obituaries for widows (a/k/a elderly femme fatales) to beguile. As the story interweaves past and present, we witness each man’s struggle to rejoin the society which rejected him.

This award-winning film certainly works on its own, but fans of hard-boiled detective fiction and Film Noir will recognize the distinctly American lineage of Fire Birds. See it if you get a chance.

Fire Birds: An Israeli Murder Mystery Film (June 7, 2016)

By Posted on 0 Comments 2 min read 674 views

Murder mystery writer introduces murder mystery film to murder mystery fans at this year’s St. Louis Jewish Film Festival.

The writer is me.

The film is Fire Birds.

movie_36549[1]And if you’re a fan of the noire mystery movie–a rich tradition that dates back to such classics as The Maltese Falcon and The Third Man while forever reinventing itself in neo-noire gems that include ChinatownBlade Runner, and Blood Simple–then come join us  for the screening of this remarkable Israeli film at 2 p.m. on June 7 at the Landmark Plaza Frontenac Cinema. I will provide a short introduction before the film’s showing.

As with so many noire murder mysteries, our hero in Fire Birds is a down-on-his-luck detective faced with solving a Fire%20Birds%20_3[1]vexing crime. Specifically, an 80-year-old man’s body is found floating in the river with three stab wounds to the chest and a number tattooed along his forearm. The case is assigned to Amnon, an Israeli police detective and second generation Holocaust survivor who has returned to duty after a lengthy suspension. Living apart from his wife and daughter, he struggles to bring the unwanted case to a quick close.

The investigation leads Amnon to a tattoo parlor and a club of Holocaust survivors with a zest for life who seek solace in romantic recollections of their pre-war world. In the weeks leading up to his death, the victim sought, in the words of one character, a “membership card to the most horrible club in the world”: the club of Holocaust survivors.

As the story interweaves past and present, we witness the struggle of each man–the detective and the victim–to rejoin the society which rejected him.

Baseball Walk-Up Songs for Mystery Detectives

By Posted on 1 Comment 4 min read 994 views

Time for my annual baseball post. Last year I wrote one on the Top 10 Baseball Walk-Up Songs in Literature. For the uninitiated, a walk-up song is that hard rock, hip hop, or country tune that blares over the speakers throughout the stadium as the ballplayer walks from the on-deck circle to the batter’s box. True baseball fans can name the walk-up song for every one of their favorite players.The phenomenon has been the subject of numerous articles, including this one from (featuring the image above).

“All of which,” I wrote back then, “got me thinking about great characters in literature. What would Hamlet select for his walk-up song? Or Nancy Drew? Or Captain Ahab? Or Madame Bovary?” And so I put together a list and invited my readers to add to it.

Examples included Iago (of Othello), whose walk-up song was “Bad to the Bone” by George Thorogood, and Satan from Milton’s Paradise Lost, whose song was, of course, “Sympathy for the Devil” by the Rolling Stones. And then there was Dr. Pangloss from Candide, who was unable to select a walk-up song because, as he explained in reviewing the song list, “All of these are for the best in this best of all possible song lists.” So Voltaire stepped in for him and picked Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.”

sherlock_holmes_baseball_cap[1]Well, I happen to write mystery novels. And like most mystery writers, I read plenty of them, too. And thus I got to thinking about great detectives in mystery novels. What would Sherlock Holmes select for his walk-up song? Perhaps “Anarchy in the U.K.” by the Sex Pistols or maybe “A Well Respected Man” by the Kinks. What about Miss Marple? Would she be aggressive enough to pick Queen Latifah’s “Ladies First”?

I’m willing to start a list of walk-up songs for mystery novel detectives, beginning with my own creation, Rachel Gold. I’m hoping some of you can add to it. And if you write mysteries, please add a walk-up song for your character(s).

  • Rachel Gold: Walk-up song: “Hollaback Girl,” by Gwen Stefani.
    • Explanation: Rachel’s buddy, Benny Goldberg, made this choice for her, explaining that an obnoxious opposing counsel had made a huge mistake in trying to intimidate Rachel. “To quote the great philosopher Gwen Stefani,” Benny said, “you ain’t no hollaback girl.” To which Rachel replied, “Huh?”
  • Philip Marlowe: Walk-up song: “Sharp-Dressed Man” by ZZ Top.
    • Explanation: My inspiration for this choice comes from the opening paragraph of The Big Sleep, which happens to be one of the greatest opening paragraphs in modern American literature:”It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.”
  • Jack Reacher: Walk-up song: “Ramblin’ Man” by the Allman Brothers Band.
    • Explanation: If you’ve read any of Lee Childs’ Reacher novels (which my daughter-in-law Amy labels “man porn”), no explanation is needed. Reacher is a former Major in the U.S. Army Military Police Corps who quit that job and now roams the country taking odd jobs and investigating suspicious and frequently dangerous situations. As Childs explained in an interview, “I thought that I would do a book that’s not the same as everybody else’s. Everybody else had their guy working: a private guy in Boston, or a police lieutenant in L.A., or wherever. I thought, ‘Well, he won’t be working, and he won’t live anywhere, and let’s just take it from there.'”
  • Cletus Purcel: Walk-up song: “Light My Fire” by the Doors.17323869[1]
    • Explanation: Cletus is Dave Robicheaux’s hot tempered sidekick in the James Lee Burke novels. Other possibilities for Cletus: “Wild Thing” by the Troggs, “Walk on the Wild Side” by Lou Reed, or “Born to Be Wild” by Steppenwolf.
  • V.I. Warshawski: Walk-up song: “Born in Chicago” by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.
  • Harry Bosch: Walk-up Song: “Another Day in L.A.” by Indigo Swing.
    • Explanation: Oh, boy, this was a tough one. I eventually opted for this jazzier song because of Harry Bosch’s love of jazz, but others that made the final list include: “West L.A. Fadeway” by Los Lobos (a cover of the original Grateful Dead version); “2 a.m. on Mulholland Drive” by The All-Stars; and “L.A. Woman” by The Doors.
  • Marlow: Walk-up song: “Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns N’ Roses.
    • Explanation: Yes, that Marlow. The narrator/detective from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. A few years back I wrote a series of blog posts on great works of literature that happened to fit the definition of a mystery–and I gathered links to all those posts into a compendium post entitled “Nine Mysteries for Literary Snobs.” There you will find a link to my take on Heart of Darkness, and why it fits the model for a classic mystery novel about a detective retained to find a missing person, such as, for example, The Big Sleep, where a detective named Marlowe is retained to find a missing person. Marlowe’s jungle is the dark side of L.A. Marlow’s jungle is, in fact, the jungle.

Okay, your turn. Who should we add? So many possibilities. What would Nero Wolf pick as his walk-up song? Or Easy Rawlins? Or Kinsey Millhone? Or Sam Spade? And so on and so on. And, if you’re a mystery writer, what would your detective pick?

And finally, which hapless detective gets the U2 song, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”?

In Praise of the Lowly Weed

By Posted on 0 Comments 3 min read 567 views

If, like me, you have a lawn out your front door, then taking a Word Association Test using “dandelion” will likely trigger an array of negative terms, including perhaps Weed B Gon and other chemical warfare products offered by Scotts, Ortho, and Monsanto.

Thus imagine my surprise at the nearly childlike wonder I experienced earlier this week as I was walking past an untendedDandelions 1 lot that was teeming with dandelions. I was so struck by their beauty that I stopped, leaned in close for a better look, and took a few pics with my iPhone. (I’ve posted one of those photos to the left.) The joy and awe of that moment continue to reverberate as a reminder of the beauty of everyday objects of nature.

But dandelions? I asked myself. Really? After all, just that past weekend I’d dug up several that were scattered across my front lawn.Nevertheless . . .

And the aesthetics of those weeds are in no way diminished–indeed, may even be enhanced–when the flower heads transform into those spherical seed heads known as bl800px-Dandelion_seed_head_(Taraxacum_officinale)[1]owballs, several of which were on that untended lot. Next time you come across one, in your lawn or out on a stroll, take a moment to gaze at the perfect symmetry and alignment of those seed heads.

As James Russell Lowell wrote, “A weed is no more than a flower in disguise.” Even so, it’s easy to forget that, in the words of Walt Whitman, “a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars.”

Fortunately, it’s a lesson our children and grandchildren remind us of whenever we take them out for walk. We adults dutifully repeat the cliche about the need to “stop to smell the roses,” but it’s no cliche to a child. It’s their modus operandi.

Jake 1982Indeed, one of my favorite photos is of our son Jake, taken more than 30 years ago, back when he was just 18 months old. We were walking through our Chicago neighborhood and came upon a patch of wild flowers growing along the sidewalk. Without any prompting from me, Jake stopped to smell the flowers. Little Jake is now 6’4″ and the father of three children of his own, including little Charlie. (Shown in the photo below.) Like his father and two older sister, Charlie always stops to smell the roses.

The point of all this is to remind me–and perhaps you–of how easy it is to travel through life, head down as we text and email and Facebook and Google while walking past a canvas far more beautiful than anything ever created by man. For me, taking a stroll through the woods with my wife Margi (a/k/a the World’s Most Enthusiastic Nature Lover) is an aesthetic experience that surpasses a stroll through the finest art museums in the world. She reminds me–and I do need reminding–that even the lowliest leaf or twig is a thing of beauty to be treasured.

And so I end this meditation with some quotes on the topic from those who came before us:

Jake and Charlie
Jake and Charlie
  • “Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you.” Frank Lloyd Wright
  • “My profession is to always find God in nature.” Henry David Thoreau
  • “Nature is the art of God.” Dante Alghieri
  • One touch of nature makes the whole world kin. William Shakespeare

Well, actually, I end this meditation with a somewhat embarrassing disclosure: at sometime over this coming weekend, you will probably find someone who looks remarkably like me prowling my front lawn, shovel in hand, scanning the area for the stray dandelion poking up from all the grass.