Of Buckeyes, Batteries and Broken Blades

It’s a short walk from our front door to the end of the driveway. Once there, we have a decision to make … go left or go right. I suppose I could turn this into a deep, heavy, political discussion, but I’m just walking a dog and I’m kind of over politics. I let Zsa-Zsa make the decision. I figure it could be the most important decision of her day and who knows, maybe it gave her a sense of empowerment. A pug-power kind of thing. Not that she needed any encouragement in that area. She was always chock full of attitude and vinegar.

Mimsy will occasionally look back at me as we walk, as if seeking my approval. Zsa-Zsa had no such compulsion. I believe she thought she was walking me, probably sized me up and figured I needed the exercise.

If we head right it only takes us a few steps before we enter the complex of the Catholic Church next to our house. In the narrow green space between the sidewalk and the street are a couple of old horse-chestnut trees. These are not great specimen trees. They are Tim Burtonesque bonsai versions of horse chestnuts. The green space they are living in runs parallel to the power lines above them. Left unattended their limbs would surround the telephone and power lines, but the electric company does not leave them unattended, they are pruned almost beyond recognition, but they still produce fruit. Large spiny pods that contain brown nuts resembling the eye of a deer, hence the name “buckeyes.”

As Zsa-Zsa and I walked past  the trees during late summer into autumn, I couldn’t resist picking up one of the “buckeyes” as we went past. The pods that hold them are sharp and unpleasant, but the nuts contained inside are smooth, pleasant to the touch and roll easily between the forefinger and the thumb in a comforting sort of way. They eventually ended up in my pocket as a temporary holding device until they landed in a variety of locations. Zsa-Zsa is no longer with us, but years of walking past these trees have resulted in my finding these buckeyes in many unexpected places. I can be rummaging through the drawers of my office desk in search of a paperclip, only to find an old petrified buckeye.

If I’m honest with myself, I know exactly why I pick them up, and it goes back decades. The grade-school I attended in the early 60’s was 2 miles from our house. At some point when I was 8 or 9 my parents agreed to let me walk to school with my friends. Bus service was provided, but as an 8 year-old boy, it was not cool to ride the bus. Parents today would not dream of letting their children walk 2 miles along a road with no sidewalks and across railroad tracks unsupervised. It was a different time, a more innocent time. The cold war was heating up, we had had the Cuban missile crisis, and satellites were starting to appear in the night skies, but a 2 mile walk to school with your neighborhood pals was considered perfectly normal.

Bragging rights in young boys of that era were established in many ways. How far you could throw a ball, how fast could you run, how good you were at arm wrestling, how many speeds your bike had, did your family own a color television, and the contents of your pockets. Girls had not yet come into the equation.

I was above average at arm wrestling, below average at how far I could throw a ball, and we didn’t own a television set, let alone a color one. My bike was a one speed coaster bike. The contents of my pockets benefited from my walks to school.

Our school commutes had two speeds, the all-out-run or the amble. The all-out-run was employed when we spent too much time on the amble, or were just plain running late. Ambling allowed for time to kick anything down the road that wasn’t firmly attached to the terra firma. It allowed for the discovery and collection of found objects along our route. Anything with gears was a given to be collected. Discarded batteries  even if completely discharged, were picked up. They had the right size and heft to make them ideal for throwing at anything that needed throwing at.

Nine-volt batteries were very common then because they powered the transistor radios that everyone had. These batteries were particularly easy to test for charge. A quick touch of the terminals to the tongue let you know immediately if there was any charge left. Mind you, we were not without our hygienic principles. It’s not like we just picked something off the ground and put it to our tongue, we wiped it on our shirt sleeve first.

It was a time when almost all men carried 2 things in their pockets: a cloth handkerchief and a pocket knife. So occasionally we found a pocket knife. Usually with a broken blade, but it was still a great find. A broken blade could also serve as a screwdriver. Of course there was always the chance that the blade could snap shut during that maneuver and cut your finger. It was a risk worth taking.

Then there were the nuts. Acorns and hickory nuts weren’t worth picking up. Walnuts, like batteries were made for throwing. But a buckeye, a buckeye was a rare find. Worthy of pulling out at recess and showing off.

“Cool, let me see it. Where’d ya find it?”

Of course it didn’t take long for the teacher on recess duty to come over and confiscate the object of attention and we would never see that buckeye again.

Mimsy and I still walk that path that I walked with Zsa-Zsa. I will still pick up a buckeye and run my thumb around it’s smooth skin. It still brings a smile to my face and a remembrance of a simpler time. I still put the buckeye in my pocket.


Because I’ve got a buckeye and you don’t. Bragging rights!


Of Perspective, Statues and Small Dogs

I snapped this picture returning home from a late afternoon dog-walk. The convergent lines formed by the telephone wires, road stripes and sidewalks, the vanishing point punctuated by the tail lights of a receding car, all took me back to art school days and studies in perspective.

Mimsy is walking beside me. She sees the same trees, sidewalks and telephone lines that I see, except that she sees them from one foot off the ground. A different perspective. A different point of view.

I’ve long known that the world revolves around me and I’m at the center of the universe.

This seems very narcissistic and I used to feel guilty about that outlook, until I realized that every human ever born has interpreted their world from this same self-centered context. This realization leads me to believe that this inward-out perspective is by divine design. Self-preservation is one of our strongest instincts. If you are not the center of your universe, self-preservation takes a big hit. Imagine your world as a series of concentric circles, like the ripples generated in a still pond from a tossed pebble. You are the pebble, the ring closest to you contains your family and loved ones. Extending outward are rings made up of friends, co-workers, neighbors, etc. The more distant the rings from the center (you), the less their actions, problems or successes impact your life. The closer those rings are to you, the more likely you are to help and defend the people within that circle.

Problems arise, not from having that self-centric world view, but from forgetting that our particular viewpoint is not universally shared. Even when we try to understand the worldview of someone else, it can never be entirely accurate. The more different their background, upbringing, socioeconomic status, geographic location, race, religion and education (just to name a few factors), the more difficult it will be to understand them. If we want to add time to the equation it becomes exponentially more difficult to understand the worldview and subsequent actions of people who lived a hundred or a thousand years ago.

A person’s perspectives and worldviews can be more or less accurate based on facts, history, knowledge, etc. But those viewpoints, even if inaccurate are not good or evil of themselves. It is only when those perspectives turn into actions (or inactions) that we can judge them right or wrong.

Of course, there are people who have no interest in understanding the worldview of anyone else. These worldview isolationists arrive at their position by everything from pure selfishness to apathy and laziness. It requires effort to try to understand why someone might see the same issues and current events that you do, but interpret them differently. Some people  have no interest in making that effort.

Then we have the worldview supremacists, who believe that their viewpoints are superior to all others. Smug in their self-anointed righteousness, they can’t be bothered with even trying to understand the views of someone whose ideas are so obviously inferior to theirs.

Closely related to the worldview supremacists are the worldview moral superiorists. Not only does this group think their beliefs and opinions are morally superior to everyone else, but that anyone with a different view should be shunned and publicly shamed. This is most often accomplished by affixing labels to those with opposing ideas. The usual epithets are: racist, leftist, homophobe, commie, fascist, misogynist, Nazi, etc. These labels need no basis in fact, but that is of no concern to the morally superior crowd. Being morally superior justifies anything inflicted on the great unwashed masses beneath them. Unfortunately, such labels are easy to affix, but difficult to remove.

I’ll be the first to admit I’m sliding faster and faster into my curmudgeon status. I’m not to the point where I’m shaking my cane and yelling, “Get off my lawn,” at least not yet, but more and more I think that the net value of social media does not exceed the downside of its inane posts and hateful comments. It’s impossible to have a meaningful conversation using only 144 characters. I bemoan the lack of good civil discussion between people with differing views.

You didn’t ask for my advice, but since I’m a curmudgeon, I’m going to give it to you anyway …

Get off your computer and phone. Take your dog for a walk. If you don’t have a dog, I’m sorry for you, but go out and meet some neighbors anyway. Find someone with a differing view on a current issue and say, “Help me understand your view-point.” Maybe even go all out and read a book!

“Civility is not not saying negative or harsh things. It is not the absence of critical analysis. It is the manner in which we are sharing this territorial freedom of political discussion. If our discourse is yelled and screamed and interrupted and patronized, that’s uncivil.”  Richard Dreyfuss

When Mimsy sees a squirrel on our walks, she thinks, “Chase … game on.”

When I see a squirrel, I think, “Bushy-tailed rat than can chew through anything, including the eaves of my attic.”

When she spots a fast food wrapper that someone has thrown out of their car window, she thinks, “Smells good, is there something in there for me?”

I think, “What a slob, couldn’t you wait till you got home to throw it away?”

When I see someone walking down the sidewalk toward us, I instantly try to categorize them. Do they look familiar? Is it a friend or neighbor? Is it a stranger, how should I greet them?

Mimsy sees the same person, and no matter which category they fall in, quivers with excitement. Her experience has been that everyone she meets loves her, wants to pet her, and tell her how pretty she is.

Mimsy has never seen a statue of Robert E. Lee, but I think I could predict her reaction. She would walk up to the closest point, hike her leg and relieve herself on Traveller’s hoof. This is a perspective shared by a lot of people these days.

I see the same statue and I don’t see it as an ode to the horrors of slavery. I don’t think of it as something to be desecrated or destroyed, but that’s just my perspective … and I’m a curmudgeon.

Let’s talk.


Thank God for Nazis!

As I walk our dogs, I usually have a one-sided conversation. Tonight I tell Mimsy that she doesn’t have a sarcasm gene. If like Mimsy, you are missing a sarcasm gene, the title of my post is not entirely serious, but it is intentional.

The events this last week in Charlottesville, Virginia have been tough for all  of us. We have seen raw, unadulterated hatred. Sadly we have also seen the death of a young woman. In no way do I want to make light of these events, but I am somewhat bemused by the indignation heaped on the neo-Nazis. Of course they are evil. They are such an obvious target that it takes no imagination to decry them. During WW II the real Nazis were a real threat, the atrocities they committed are beyond imagining.

Today, if we are honest, the neo-Nazis are a caricature. They are the storm troopers in Star Wars. They are the guys Harrison Ford fought in Raiders of the Lost Ark. They are like the bad guys in a second-rate western, who wear black so we can identify them and know who to boo.

The neo-Nazis do serve one real purpose. They give us the opportunity for righteous indignation and a smug feeling of moral superiority. We can beat our chest and proclaim, “Thank God, I am not like them.”

I am not scared of neo-Nazis. I am scared though of the more subtle forms of racism. I am scared of the racism that hides deep within me. I am scared of my thoughts when I see a black family visit the open house next to me that is for sale, and I think to myself, please not them. I am scared when I visit a clinic and I’m assigned to the Indian doctor and I think, I wish it was the cute Irishman. I am scared when I’m on the phone with some someone with a deep southern accent and I assume that their IQ is at least 20 points below mine. This is what scares me.

Thank God for Nazis!


It’s Good to be Common!

Mack and the boys

Our Father who art in nature, who has given the gift of survival to the coyote, the common brown rat, the English sparrow, the house fly and the moth, must have a great and overwhelming love for no-goods and blots-on-the-town and bums, and Mack and the boys. Virtues and graces and laziness and zest. Our Father who art in nature.” – John Steinbeck

This year, mid-July in the heartland was a “scorcher” as they say. Day after day of temperatures breaking the 100° mark with no rain for weeks. Nighttime provided little relief with the lows staying in the 80’s. I was careful not to over-exert Mimsy, our Japanese Chin, on our walks. She is not as brachycephalic (flat-faced)  as our pugs, but I was still cautious. As we walked along on our night-time stroll, I heard the tree frogs calling out and wondered how they were surviving this hot, dry spell. Then I remembered the passage from Cannery Row at the top of this post. I need not have worried about those little frogs … they are common.

God in his wisdom did not give the gift of survival to the peacock, panda bear or Bengal tiger. Beauty does not seem to be a criteria for continued existence. I find great comfort in this.

As Mimsy and I slowly made our way down the sidewalk running alongside Elizabeth Avenue, my mind drifted to God’s apparent love of the common. I believe that God loves all humanity equally, but in reading many of the stories in the New Testament, it appears that Jesus had his favorites. He clearly did not like to spend time with the pharisees and self-righteous, instead choosing to hang with fishermen, assorted sinners and the occasional woman of low-moral character.

Mimsy is pretty low-maintenance and our ambling pace allowed my imagination to take another leap.

What if Jesus had visited Steinbeck’s Cannery Row?

Where would he spend his time? Who would he hang out with? Since this musing is just a product of my over-active imagination, I can draw my own conclusions. I don’t believe he would be with the rich people at their houses on the top of the hill. I don’t believe he would be in the formal churches. But I can see him sitting with Mack and boys on the pilings down by the wharf, feet dangling over the water, watching the sun set over the Pacific Ocean as he tells stories of the creation from a perspective that only he would know. The boys listen in awe as they pass a pint of “Old Tennessee.”

I can envision him pulling up a chair alongside Doc in his laboratory. The two of them discussing the complexities of even the simplest of lifeforms while Doc’s record-player fills the room with the sounds of Bach’s, Art of Fugue.

I imagine Dora placing a “closed” sign on the front door while they prepare to have tea with Jesus. Feeling pure and clean, the girls are once again ladies as he tells them of the wonders of heaven that await them.

In the opening chapter of Cannery Row, Steinbeck described its citizens thusly.

…Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, “whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches,” by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peep-hole he might have said : “Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,” and he would have meant the same thing.

Our walk over, Mimsy and I head home. I look down at her plumed tail and prancing gait.

“You better watch out, girl,” I tell her, “You’re purebred, you could be in danger of extinction, you’re not common like me.”

She looks up, gives a little chuff, as if that’s the silliest thing she’s every heard of. We both have someone to watch over us.

If you have not read Steinbeck’s Cannery Row and its sequel Sweet Thursday, don’t waste anymore time. Find a copy now! The books are filled with love, hope and the enduring goodness of the common man, flaws and all.

Written as fiction but the characters are all based on people that Steinbeck knew. The photo at the beginning of this post is of Harold Otis “Gabe” Bicknell and his friends, the basis for Mack and the boys.

Of Dogs, Frogs, Bugs and Sounds

Our 1890 house is surrounded by trees. Large old trees. When they are not falling on our house (which they have done), I love them. Similar trees line the sidewalks and streets along our walking routes. From spring till autumn, these leafy giants teem with life and a beautiful chorus drifts down from their  branches. Birds, squirrels, cicadas, katydids, crickets and tree frogs are all players in this tree-top symphony.

During our morning walk, it’s the birds that take center stage. Chirping, trilling, warbling and cooing, their chorus is joyous and uplifting. Occasionally I will hear an overachieving cricket randomly chirping along with the birds, long after the rest of his kin have retired.

As the sun and the temperatures start to rise, the cicadas move to the front seats of this orchestra. The rhythmic rise and fall of their droning, for me is the soundtrack of summer. As the sun begins to set, the katydids and crickets join in. Pretty soon the cicadas grow quiet, and tree frogs join in with the katydids and crickets, accompanied by the occasional hoot of an owl.

This symphony is white noise, drifting in and out of conscientious. If you focus on it, it becomes dominant, but before you know it, your mind drifts to other things and it disappears.

Mimsy walks beside me, more interested in smells that are beyond my awareness than the nighttime chorus I am enjoying. A telephone pole gets special attention. It is the Facebook page of the dog world in our neighborhood. She stops to sniff the posts … who is in heat, who is marking their territory, who just wants to say, “Hey, I was here.” She contributes to the canine social media and we move on.

Our last walk of the day usually happens between 10:00 and 11:00 pm. These are my favorites. The traffic along Elizabeth Avenue has slowed down. The franticness of the day has given way to the twilight hours of night. We are no longer measuring time with a stopwatch, an hourglass will do just fine. The last grains of the day fall through the glass, piling on the bottom of the instrument in a loose pyramid, waiting to be flipped over to begin another cycle.

In the distance a hound bays, Mimsy searches for the sound, then looks up at me, trying to judge my reaction and expectations. “It’s okay,” I reassure her, “Lets get busy.”

Biological functions completed, I give a gentle tug of the leash along with my words, “Okay, let’s go home,” she switches directions 180° as we make our way back.

I try to remember and store away every sensory experience during these walks. I will need to make a withdrawal from that bank during the dead of winter when the leaves are gone and the only sound coming from the trees is the rustling of bare limbs.

The warm glow of the  porch light illuminates the clapboards near the front door and welcomes us home. Some strategically placed lamps in the living and family rooms spill their light through the front windows where it pools on the floorboards of the porch.

I depress the latch, enter, then close the door behind us. The tree-top chorus is instantly muffled. We are home. Tomorrow will begin a new cycle and a new symphony will cue up. The creator has said, “It is good,” and it is a grand design.

The downside of having your house surrounded by large (old) trees.