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.

Introducing “Poppy Walks the Dog.”

Moments of quiet contemplation and reflection, so simple in concept have become rare in my over-connected daily life. A lack of self-discipline plays a part in that, but I prefer to blame my smartphone, tablets and laptop for any lack of meditative time.

Fortunately, we have a dog. Even better, we have a dog without a fenced yard.

At Poppy’s house, doggie biological functions cannot be accommodated simply by releasing the pooch into the backyard, then waiting a few minutes at the door before welcoming her back. Over the years our dogs have proved to be no more focused than their master. Without a fence, any number of distractions: squirrels, stray cats, butterflies and elusive scents, would have any of our dogs gone from our yard before you could say, “dog gone.”

So, we go on walks … long slow walks … long slow walks with leashes.

I am wary of dogs who might be smarter than myself. We have no Border Collies, Airdales or German Shepherd Dogs. Not to mention those breeds would require real exercise. Instead we have had a succession of Pugs: Norma Jean, Zsa-Zsa, and Tootie. And now Mimsy, a Japanese Chin.

Walking the dog gets me out of the house and away from social media, news (fake and otherwise) and any number of electron-driven distractions. It provides me the opportunity to interact with neighbors, fellow walkers and dog walkers, but not joggers. Our dogs have always viewed joggers with suspicion. I believe that is because they are so accustomed to my pace and gait that when they see humans running who are not being chased by bears or lions they view them as guilty of something and up to no good.

Dog walking allows me to soak in the natural environment along our routes. Spring brings the smells of new growth and fertile soil. Summer offers up the sounds of distant ice cream trucks and the symphony of cicadas, crickets and tree frogs. Fall presents a kaleidoscope of colors and the crunch of fallen leaves. Even winter has its own unique charms, the scent of wood smoke drifting down from chimneys and the patterns of bare limbs against the ultramarine skies of the season.

Amble is a good word to describe the pace of these excursions. Ambling yields the real benefit to these walks. Time. Time to think. Time to contemplate the news and social media that I left behind in the house. Time to remember and reflect on friends and family.

These constitutionals have never produced the secret to world peace or the cure for the common cold, but they have on occasion provided topics for this blog. That may be as good as it gets.

Poppy

 

Between Apathy and Apoplexy

T.M.I.

When I first came across the acronym I didn’t know it’s meaning, so I did a quick internet search to find out. As you probably know, Too Much Information, is the meaning of TMI. That the answer to my question was delivered to me by the mother of all TMI was painfully ironic.

I confess, I’m addicted to information. The cell phone in my pocket has more computing power than was used when we first sent a man to the moon … and I have access to all that power! Instant real-time weather reports, news from around the globe, stock reports, and ceaseless opinions posted to various social media sites. But that is just the beginning, there is the endless deluge of political chicanery, reports of terrorism, conspiracies and corruption, cruelties beyond imagining … and it never ends. I’ll be honest, if the headline hints at atrocities to children, I stop there and read no further. I don’t want those images bouncing around in my brain. Yes, sometimes it feels like my head is going to explode.

At the other end of the spectrum is just not caring about anything. I mentioned apathy on my Having Skin in the Game post, but it goes beyond that topic. Would life be simpler if I didn’t care about anything but myself? Perhaps. But I can’t do that. I’m not touting that as a virtue. I want to believe that I’m part of a vast majority of people who do care. Continue reading “Between Apathy and Apoplexy”

Life Lessons from a Biker Bar

“We should go there sometime,” Mrs. Poppy said, pointed to a simple one story building surrounded by cars and motorcycles. My response was the same as if she had pointed at the moon and said, “We should go there sometime.”

“Sure,” I replied, considering the probability of arriving at either destination statistically the same. Sure, seemed like a safe answer. It confirmed that I had heard her suggestion, but was noncommittal, neither affirming or denying. And it was a whole lot better than the first thought that popped into my head. One should never answer the suggestion of your spouse with the words, “You’re crazy.”

Weeks went by, we drove past the building again. And again the suggestion was made. This repeated itself several more times during the summer. One night, returning home from a party at a friend’s home and approaching the building, the suggestion was made again. This time it was not, “We should go there sometime,” but “I want to go there.” There was a minimal amount of food served at the party we had just left, but ample amounts of wine. This may have played into the weakening of my resolve, but I offered up one last defense. “I’m wearing linen pants, one does not walk into a biker bar wearing linen pants.” Continue reading “Life Lessons from a Biker Bar”

The Summer Dog and Memory Threads

Memory is a complicated thing, a relative to truth, but not its twin. (Barbara Kingsolver)


Hearing a certain song can grab you and yank you back through years and decades to a particular place and time. Spinning Wheel, by Blood, Sweat & Tears instantly takes me back to 1970 and a souped-up Corvair owned by my high-school buddy and next door neighbor. The car was filled with our friends, that song was blaring from the eight-track player concealed in the glove compartment.  The sun  had set, but without air conditioning, the hot, humid, mid-summer air in St. Louis necessitated that the windows be rolled down.  This allowed us to hang our right or left arm (depending on our seating geometry) out of the car and pound on the roof, keeping time to the crooning of David-Clayton Thomas. We were young, life was good, and that memory is firmly etched in my brain.

But hearing is not the only sense that can trigger a memory rush. Any of the senses; smell, taste, hearing, touch or sight can be a catalyst to take us back in time. In this case it was this photo, discovered while going through my dad’s old 35mm slides. Finding it was an unexpected treat, a serendipity of the highest order as I didn’t know this moment in time had been captured.

I was ten-years old in this photo, the summer of 1965. Continue reading “The Summer Dog and Memory Threads”

Baby Spinach as a Blank Canvas

At Poppy’s house, we start most meals with a salad. More often than not, the greens used are baby spinach or a blend of baby spinach and spring mix. Spinach ranks number 2, right below kale as the healthiest salad greens. But unlike kale, spinach doesn’t constantly remind you how healthy it is while you’re eating it.

If we are making even a pretense of eating healthy, the last thing you want to do is use some store-bought dressing packed with calories and chemicals, especially since making a basic salad dressing is so simple and quick. If you have the ingredients handy, I would say 30 seconds, maybe a minute if you’re listening to some good jazz, having a glass of wine and dancing around the kitchen (just sayin’).

My go-to dressing is a variation on the basic Balsamic Vinaigrette: Continue reading “Baby Spinach as a Blank Canvas”