John Carlson: It’s Worth Looking Into

There’s nothing like gazing into a gazing ball. Photo by: Nancy CarlsonThere’s nothing like gazing into a gazing ball. Photo by: Nancy Carlson

By: John Carlson—

For my recent birthday, number 67, my wife bought me a garden gazing ball.

Technically, my first choice of gift was, as always, an airplane. Not a big, expensive airplane. Just a little, old, cheap, used airplane somewhere in the $20,000 range would do, making me giddily happy to be back in the sky again. Didn’t get it, though.

My second choice? A muscle car. Heck, I’m not picky. I don’t need a Corvette or a Viper. I just think I deserve to own a Camaro, a Mustang or a Charger sometime before I steer an urn of ashes around Beech Grove Cemetery for the rest of eternity. Didn’t get that, either.

But my third choice?

“Boy, would I love a garden gazing ball!” I remember telling Nancy. Actually, come to think of it, I don’t remember telling her any such thing, but I must have. Why else would she have bought it for me? After waking up late on my birthday, I blearily crawled from between the sheets and there it was: my very own garden gazing ball, staring me in the eyes.

For a minute, I was speechless. With excitement, I mean.

Then I started studying it. A note on the box said it measured 10 inches by 10 inches by 11.8 inches, which I found disconcerting. How could those be the dimensions of a ball? They sounded more like the dimensions of a roundish squash with a weird bump growing out its side. But then I saw another note indicating this baby had been imported from China, where some of the world’s premier garden gazing ball makers work, figured it must have passed inspection and dug it from its box.

Turned out it did have a thing sticking out the bottom, which neatly fit into the top of its pedestal for a secure fit.  That was the least interesting thing about it, though. Raising it to my eyes, I gazed through this gazing ball and immediately went into sensory overload from the kaleidoscopic colors and fractured shapes it presented. I realized right then that garden gazing balls are pretty much lava lamps, only for old people like me.

Remember the late 1960s and early 1970s? Back then I would spend hours in darkened rooms with Jefferson Airplane’s music pounding from the stereo speakers, mesmerized by the oil in lava lamps bubbling up, all while totally stoned out of my mind. Being a mostly law-abiding young citizen at a Christian college, however, my drug of choice was a 12-pack of Stroh’s.

Still, under its influence, my mind would expand to ponder deep thoughts. “Whoa, man,” I might think, soberly nodding my head at what would suddenly present itself as a universal karmic truth. “If you’re walking from Muncie to Indy, it must seem like a crapload of miles.” Or out of the blue I might think, “You ever wonder how Hostess gets the spongecake wrapped around the crème inside Twinkies? I think about it all the time.”

Meanwhile, watching the brilliantly colored oil blobs slowly rise, I’d have spectacular, otherworldly visions. Granted, most would be of amoebas racing other amoebas to the surface. But given the times and my constant case of the munchies, every now and again one that looked like Richard Nixon would float up before transforming into a misshapen meatball.

Heavy, dude, I’d mutter.

But these days, if my mind remains altered, it’s mostly from the loss of brain cells associated with aging.  Just seeing my shiny new garden gazing ball glowing out in the garden was neat. It looked beautiful. But still, the kid in me wouldn’t leave it alone. Bringing it back inside, I punched the Airplane’s “Surrealistic Pillow” album into my Apple Music account, held the ball closely to my face and thought, “Freaky!”

Gazing at my image, all of a sudden my lips were bigger than Mick Jagger’s. And that gap between my lower front teeth? It looked wide enough to pass a Tootsie Roll through. My detached hand, viewed through the ball, was kind of red and weird looking. And the sky through my gazing ball was the color of strawberries viewed between the petals of a sunflower.

And then, as I knew it would, came a deep thought.

“Geez,” I thought, deeply. “You’re 67 years old and shuffling around bumping into stuff because you’re looking through a garden gazing ball. Quit being such a dumbass.”

That’s when I carried it back to the garden where it belonged, thinking another great band, the Grateful Dead, had definitely gotten it right: “What a long strange trip it’s been.”


A former longtime feature writer and columnist for The Star Press in Muncie, Indiana, John Carlson is a storyteller with an unflagging appreciation for the wonderful people of East Central Indiana and the tales of their lives, be they funny, poignant, inspirational or all three.