At First Glance (a resolution)

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The flotsam and jetsam of 2016 are being dragged out to sea by the last ebb tide of the year. It is a strong night tide that has cleared the beach and leveled the sand, leaving it pristine, unmarred and untouched. It awaits the dawn of the next year and fresh footprints on a new stage. In the vast continuum of time, it is just another day. There are a trail of days, behind and before, that defy our reckoning. But we have drawn a line in the sand with our calendar and tomorrow we will mark the start of a new year. It is a time, real and imagined, of new hope and new beginnings. It is a time of resolutions.


I am what they refer to as, of a certain age. Though the definition is vague, it is generally accepted to mean, no longer young.

Guilty as charged.

Being of a certain age carries with it some disadvantages. For men, it means that their hair starts to disappear from locations that are desirable and relocates to regions that are less so. In my twenties I gave no thought to my eyebrows, now they require trimming, let’s not even mention the nose and ears. It also marks the onset of what my father called the furniture disease. This is when your chest starts to settle into your drawers. But being of a certain age also brings some benefits. Most of us are finally comfortable with ourselves. We have come to accept our weaknesses and our few strengths. We realize it’s unlikely to see big swings in our temperament, personality, knowledge or wealth. In the words of the great philosopher, Popeye the sailorman, “I yam what I yam, and that’s all what I yam.”

Being of a certain age, I  have to guard against turning into a curmudgeon. I’m starting to see hints of that sneaking into my vocabulary. I try to catch myself before I utter phrases like, “it wasn’t like that when I was (insert age),” or, “that’s not the way it should be done.” I have also become pretty good at sizing up people with just a glance and assigning them to categories of mine own making.

I have buckets ready to place people in for broad categories … rich, poor, old, young, black, white, straight, gay, Republican, Democrat, I’ve got buckets for everyone. It’s not just big categories though, I’ve perfected it so that I have a bucket ready for you for the most trivial of things. You say you only listen to top 40 country music?, I’ve got a bucket for that. You don’t like grilled asparagus, boom, into the bucket. God forbid you are a rich, young, black, gay Democrat who only listens to top 40 country music and doesn’t like grilled asparagus!

I can do better … this is my one and only New Year’s resolution.

At first glance, before I decide anything else about a person, I want to assign them to the largest bucket of all. A category so large and encompassing that everyone who has ever lived has been a part this group. This is an organization from which there is no escape. A collection of saints and sinners, which is to say, all of us.

The young black man strutting down the street. The one with dreadlocks and his pants buckled below his butt. Yeah, I’m putting him in this bucket. At first glance I want to see him as a child of God.

The twenty something hipster brewing my coffee, with his BMI measured in single digits. Into the bucket you go, I see a child of God.

The woman in front of me in the checkout line, talking loudly on her cell phone and covered in ill-advised tattoos, as much a child of God as anyone ever born.

That guy that just cut me off in traffic, yes, he’s a child of God (but he’s still a jerk).

Everywhere I look, before I make snap judgments about people based on some superficial criteria of my own construct, I want to see them first as children of God. I’m pretty sure when God looks down, he doesn’t see any of my buckets. I’m pretty sure he only sees his children.


The receding tide has left a few pools on the spotless beach. The offshore breeze ruffles the surface of the tide pools, obscuring anything below and distorting any reflections on the top. Then the air stills, suddenly the surface of the little pool become mirror-like and an image emerges, the reflection of a man. He is of a certain age. His hair is thinning and his eyebrows could use a trim. He too is a child of God. This is a tough one for me, because I know this guy all too well. I am very familiar with all his shortcomings, his thoughts, his sins. I often have a tougher time viewing him as one of God’s beloved children than I do total strangers.

If you run into him during the course of the day, do your best to see him first as a child of God. He remains very much a work in progress.

Peace, Poppy

The Fine Art of Being Still

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The sun has already dropped below the horizon and the moon is just a sliver in the night sky. Venus shines brightly directly below the waxing crescent, as if suspended by an invisible thread attached to the arc of its celestial neighbor.

With the help of some nocturnal insects, the gentle surf from the Gulf of Mexico provides the soundtrack for the evening. The reverie is interrupted only briefly by the sound of a distant power boat returning to the marina, its pursuit of fish done for the day. On plane, the drone of the outboard engine is joined by the slap of its hull as it pounds against the offshore chop.

I’m writing this from my version of paradise … the lanai of a condo rented on Sanibel Island. Sanibel has no high-rises, no traffic lights, no fast food restaurants, the only exceptions being a Subway and Dairy Queen, grandfathered in after the strict building ordinances passed in 1974. It is as peaceful as it gets in this crazy state of Florida.

Why then is it so hard for me to quiet my mind?

The fact that we are just days away from the most contentious Presidential election that I can remember, is certainly a factor, but I can’t blame it all on that.

Of course I’m writing this post on my laptop, my smartphone just inches from my right elbow. I’m just a click away from news, pseudo-news, sports scores and endless Facebook posts. It’s hard to remember when Mrs. Poppy and I first came down to this island in the late 70’s, we were armed only with a set of AAA Triptiks for navigation, a roll of quarters for tolls and pay phones, and enough books to keep us entertained. Somehow we survived!

But you don’t have to become a Luddite to meet a certain level of mental peace. I’m not a theologian, psychologist, psychiatrist or a scholar of any sort, but I can tell you what works for me.

  1. Take an inventory of your surroundings.

 Engage all of your God-given senses, sight, hearing, touch, smell and yes even taste plays into it sometime (if you’re doing this over a morning cup of coffee for example). This serves to anchor you to your current surroundings and if for just a moment helps you to set aside all the things that are beyond your sight and beyond your control.

I go through this exercise every time I walk down to the beach. Partly to clear my mind from the stress I’m trying to leave behind and partly so I can recall that experience in the dead of winter when I really need it.

Our first beach experience of any trip usually occurs in the afternoon. At that point of the day, if the sun is shining, the water will be punctuated with millions of brilliant highlights that briefly bloom as the waves of the gulf reach up toward the fiery sun. Mrs. Poppy refers to them as “diamonds on the water”, (and reminds me that every girl loves diamonds). Looking toward the sun, the sparkles coalesce on the horizon into a solid brilliant mass only outdone in their brilliance by the sun itself. On either side of that spectacle, the horizon turns into a razor-thin line of deep ultramarine that contrasts sharply with the soft blue of the sky beyond. The perfume of the beach, saltwater mist, with hints of seaweed and sunscreen lotion delight my olfactory nerves. The soundtrack provided by the breeze, the waves, the mewing of gulls and the distant laughter and squeals of delight from children rise and fall in a pleasant and endless loop. The sun reaches down to gently massages my shoulders with its warmth and my bare feet discern the difference between the soft sand and the sharp edges of the shells that form rows running parallel to the shore.

And at least for a moment, the outside world with all its chaos and tragedy melts away as I walk that magical line where the saltwater meets the sand.

You might be thinking, “Sure Poppy, that’s easy to do on the beach”. It is easy there, but the same principles apply to that early morning cup of coffee at the kitchen table in your own home.

Observe the quality of the early light that comes through your windows. Is it softened by curtains or do you have horizontal blinds that cause the morning sun to split into stripes that wrap around and embrace your kitchen? Is it a cloudy day where the light gently drifts into your room without casting shadows? As yours hands wrap around the warm coffee mug, what do your elbows feel as they rest on the table? Is it the coolness of glass or tile, the warmth of wood or the softness and texture of linen? Take a quick mental inventory of the objects around you. Focus on the ones received in love. A useless gadget given by an adoring child or grandchild is more precious than the skillet you use almost every day. Breath in deeply the aroma of the freshly brewed coffee, but don’t dismiss the faint aromas of last night’s dinner.

Even if you don’t have the luxury of a peaceful morning, embrace the loving chaos of your family. The laughs, the whining, the click of spoons against a bowl hastily filled with Cheerios, it’s all good.

  1. Channel your thoughts.

This is easier said than done. I find myself more and more returning to this scripture from Philippians 4:8, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

If you can apply this, it becomes a great filter for your brain. If you can focus on things that are true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy, it pretty much excludes anything political and about 95% of all Facebook posts. It also focuses you on people and excludes material things. I would love to own a BMW M5 or closer to me now, a condo on Sanibel Island. But neither of those things fit the definition of honorable or commendable, it can only be the deeds of good people or God himself.

For me it starts with my family, loved friends and coworkers, then radiates out from there.

  1. Reflect those thoughts.

If you are thinking about your family, friends, coworkers and beyond, offer up a simple prayer for them.

Select a favorite scripture, passage of a loved book, Psalm, uplifting song or prayer and let it run through your mind during the day.

Focus on others and not yourself. As much as is possible, view everyone you see during the day as a child of God.

Why is it important to periodically quiet our minds? The simple answer would be to say,  just to maintain our sanity during this political season and endless barrage from all things social media. But the foundational reason is to bring perspective to our day. To mentally separate the wheat from the chaff, the unimportant from the things that matter, to bring clarity to our day.

And then there is this in 1st Kings chapter 19 as the Lord attempts to show his presence to Elijah.

And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice. And it was so, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out …

Peace, Poppy

Having “Skin” in the Game…

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At the time, I didn’t know his name.

All I knew was that I was in a hurry and he was partially blocking the entrance to the Shop N Save. He looked to be about 14 or 15 years old. The August heat radiating off the pavement, caused a thin sheen of perspiration to coat his ebony skin, soaking into his jeans and dark grey sleeveless t-shirt.

“Excuse me,” he said, holding up his hand motioning for me to stop.

Here it comes, I thought, He’s going to ask me for some type of handout.

He didn’t disappoint. His approach was direct and to the point.

“I need some money for the bus, could you help me?”

I’m pretty sure there is an invisible sign floating over my head that only people who are panhandling can see. It says, “Soft Touch” or “Easy Mark”, or something to that effect, with an arrow pointing down at my head.

“Sorry,” I said, “I don’t have any cash on me.”

He paused for just a second then said, “Could you give me a ride then? It’s just down the street,” as he pointed in a southerly direction.

“What’s just down the street?” I asked, somewhat incredulous at his bold approach. Between my less than stellar hearing, the ambient street noise, and his thick inner-city dialogue he mumbled something that I didn’t quite catch. “I’m sorry, what’s just down the street?” I repeated.

“You know, it’s next to the Walgreens” he said with equal parts exasperation and desperation, “It’s not that far.”

Still not understanding everything he was saying, I said, “I’m going to get my groceries,” and walked past him into the store. I had less than a dozen items to pick up but that still gave me plenty of time for an internal debate.

It’s not my problem … he’s young, it won’t kill him to walk a few miles … but it’s 95° …what if he tries to carjack me? … he’s a skinny kid, I could take him … but what if he has a gun? … he’s only 14 or 15 … even 14 year olds have guns these days … if he was intent on carjacking someone, would he hang out in such a visible spot? …it’s just not smart to let a total stranger in the car with you … but he seems so desperate … I could go out the other entrance to the store and circle around to my car, he would never see me … I can spare 10 or 15 minutes out of my life to help someone … it’s not my problem.

I paid for my groceries. Not bothering to take a shopping cart, I balanced my two small bags of groceries in each hand, and headed out of the store. He was sitting on the ground, back pressed against one of the brick columns that ran the length of the store. His arms wrapped around his bent legs, forehead resting on his knees, he was the picture of dejection.

“You ready?”

He glanced up and jumped to his feet, “Yes.”

I shifted the bags in my right hand to my left and introduced myself.

Tentatively he took my offered hand, “Maurice,” he replied.

I loaded the groceries into the back of the SUV while he climbed into the passenger seat. Opening the driver’s side door, I took one last inventory of my companion before settling in behind the wheel. “So, Maurice, where are we headed?” I asked, still not understanding exactly where he wanted to go.

“I’ll show you, it’s not that far,” he said trying to reassure me. “The people from the store let me hang out, I tried to earn some money by helping people with their groceries, but nobody wanted any help,” he volunteered.

Still trying to puzzle out his desired destination I asked, “So do you live on that street by the Walgreens?”

“Oh no,” he replied quickly, “I live in the city! That street goes to the bus station.”

“If you live in the city, how did you end up out here?” I asked.

“I was supposed to meet my cousin, but I took the wrong bus. Now I don’t have any money, I’ve got to get home … this is the worst day of my life!” he blurted out.

I couldn’t help but laugh. “Maurice, I really hope this is the worst day of your life, but if you live very long I can pretty much guarantee this won’t be the worst day of your life.” Before my eyes the young black man I had viewed as a potential threat morphed into a kid … lost, confused and just trying to get home.

“How much is the bus fare?” I asked.

“With the transfer, it’s $3.00, but if I ask the driver maybe they will let me ride for free.”

Good luck with that, I thought to myself.

“Let’s see what we can do.” I said, “There is always some cash scattered around in the truck I keep for tolls and such.”

“Can we look?” he said excitedly.

I pulled off the road and started rummaging through the cup holders and console. The drink holders yielded 79¢, the console revealed a long forgotten crumbled one-dollar bill along with some more change. I passed the loot over to Maurice bit-by-bit as he totaled it up.

“How are we doing?” I asked.

“We’ve got it!” he exclaimed.

When we arrived at the Metrolink station, a much more confident young man thrust his hand into mine and said, “Thank you.”

With his head held high and a bit of strut in his walk he made a beeline for the bus.

I’ve thought about Maurice several times since then. He told me what school he would be attending this fall, I have a pretty good idea what part of town he lives in … the odds are not in his favor.


I’ve lived in two houses built in 1890. I’ve learned to fix a lot of things. But the things I can fix pale in comparison to the things I can’t. I can’t fix racial strife and inequality. I can’t fix abusive cops. I can’t fix the divisiveness of Black Lives Matter. I can’t fix either of the Presidential candidates or even top 40 country music, and that’s just scratching the surface! So why even worry about it?

I’ve flirted with Apathy. I’ve considered going steady with her. If I totally committed to her and embraced her, maybe life would be simpler … I wouldn’t have to worry about all those things I can’t fix. But Apathy will never be my mistress, you see I have skin in the game.


My grandson, whom I love more than life itself, is biracial. I see him as an amazing young man bursting with undeveloped potential. Society will see him as a black man.

Already tall, when he reaches the age of Maurice, he will probably tower over me. Five years from now, will he engender fear when he approaches a sixty-something white man? Will he receive extra scrutiny when he walks into an upscale store? Will he be viewed as an automatic suspect by police?

I don’t like the term white privilege, I find it simplistic and divisive. Privilege exists on an almost unlimited number of levels that are beyond our control or influence. If you are born into money, you will have advantages that others don’t. If you are born with perfectly symmetrical and proportioned features that fit our definition of beauty, you will have advantages that others don’t. The majority of CEO’s are male, over six feet tall and have full heads of hair. Life is not, or ever will be, a level playing field.

While I may not like the term, white privilege, it would be naive not to recognize that my grandson will face challenges that I never had to face. Only by recognizing and acknowledging these challenges will we ever reduce or eliminate them. However, having challenges that I have not had, does not make him a victim. Not being born beautiful, rich, or having any of those other advantages does not make you a victim.

So where do we go from here as a society on the myriad of racial issues that face us as a species?

It would be the height of hubris for me to pretend I have the answers to those questions, but I can tell you how I would like my grandson treated (and by extension the Maurice’s of the world).

  • I want him seen as an individual, not as a member of some monolithic block. As an individual he will decide what types of food and music he will enjoy. As a unique person he will decide who to vote for. As an individual he will choose his friends, his educational path and ultimately his profession. I never want him instantly categorized on any level based on his appearance.
  • I want him held accountable for his actions. I want him judged but not prejudged.
  • I want him given a fair chance, but not receive special consideration based on his skin color. I don’t want him awarded a ribbon for just showing up. A couple of years ago, I taught him to play chess. He has yet to beat me in a game of chess. One day he will best me, and on that day he will know he has earned that victory.
  • Most of all I want my grandson viewed as child of God. Steinbeck wrote, The great change in the last 2,000 years was the Christian idea that the individual soul was very precious. Unless we can preserve and foster the principle of the preciousness of the individual mind, the world of men will either disintegrate into a screaming chaos or will go into a gray slavery.”

What do I want from my grandson?

I want him to take the bullet points above and flip them around, so that he treats everyone in the same fashion I want him treated. I want him to always be grateful for the privileges he has and never look down on those with less. I want him to love God and country. I want him to live by these simple but profound words from William Shakespeare, “Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none.”


And now the question that haunts me; If my grandson wasn’t who he is, would I have given Maurice a ride? I’m not sure … 


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Poppy, 10/15/2016

Of Guns, Manatees and J.S. Bach

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Driving cross-country gives you plenty of time to think. Maybe too much time.

The second and final leg of our journey home started just south of Chattanooga.   We were on the road by 7:30 Eastern time. Somehow, knowing that we were on the cusp of gaining an hour, moving from the Eastern to the Central Time Zone, felt like we had gotten an earlier start. The family, or at least the members that were with us (1 wife, 1 daughter out of 2, 1 grandchild out of 2, and 2 dogs out of 3) quickly settled into their traveling routines of napping, reading, and checking phones and iPads, leaving me alone with my thoughts.

I rewound the events of the last week and played them back. We over-ate in moderation at a myriad of good restaurants, caught lots of sun but avoided any burns, and collected a fair amount of shells without turning it into a job. One night I introduced my grandson to “The Princess Bride.” By any measure, our week on Sanibel Island, was a success. The highlight being a guided fishing excursion in pursuit of snook. The bonus part of that expedition came as we waited on the docks of Jensen’s Marina for our guide. A large group (herd?) of manatee was frolicking at the marina. Having never been a manatee, I don’t know what was going on, but my best guess would be that they were intent on perpetuating their species. In any case they were more active than any manatees I had seen before.

Unfortunately, my rewind of last week’s events included much less pleasant events: the killing of a young singer, the slaughter at the Orlando nightclub, and a the death of a 2 year-old at Disney. Any one of those events is cause for dismay, but coupled together in the span of a week they were downright depressing. Continue reading “Of Guns, Manatees and J.S. Bach”

Christmas from the back seat of a 63′ Pontiac

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I am the only Yankee in our family, or to be more precise, I’m the only non-Texan. I’m not exactly sure where Texans fit into the whole North-South thing. It’s been my experience that they view themselves as a breed apart from … quite frankly … the rest of the world.

In any case, I’m the last and late born son of Ray and Lillie Bell. Last may not be the best way to describe my position in the family, as it implies a string of many children. In fact there were only two sons born to this union. What is unique is that our births were almost two decades apart.

In November of 1953 my parents moved from Sherman, Texas with a population of just over 20,00 to Saint Louis with a population of 850,000. The culture shock of moving from a sleepy little southern town to a large industrial Midwest City was exceeded only by the shock of my unexpected arrival. Nineteen years after the birth of my only brother I arrived on the scene in August of 1954.

My mother had given up a little white frame house with a rose garden and goldfish pond to live in a two family flat in south St. Louis. When you combine that transition with a record-setting heat wave, an unexpected pregnancy and general culture shock from moving to a different part of the country, you can understand why my mother considered herself trapped in a special type of Midwest, urban purgatory, if not hell.

Christmas holidays provided the perfect excuse to make at least a brief escape. The yearly pilgrimages back to the promised land of Texas became a tradition. The perfect excuse to visit with both sides of the family. The perfect excuse to enjoy multiple holiday meals. And the perfect excuse to drink iced tea the way it was meant to be enjoyed … sweet.

Most of my childhood Christmas memories revolve around those annual trips to Texas, riding in the back seat of my father’s big Pontiac. While not exactly traditional, those Christmas memories were as magical as anything that Norman Rockwell could conceive.

Pontiacs were my dad’s choice of vehicle when I was growing up. In Dad’s mind the quality of a car was in direct proportion to the amount of cubic feet available as trunk space. The big four door Pontiac Catalinas provided a lot of cargo carrying capability for the money. He eschewed Pontiac’s Bonneville model as too expensive. It’s luxury features were merely opportunities for more things to malfunction or break; most importantly the extra money spent on the upscale model did not gain you any more trunk space.

Our luggage along with the piles of presents for assorted relations tested the capacity of those land leviathans. It may have been crowded, but it was a cozy crowded. What kid would not want to be surrounded by wrapped Christmas presents? The knowledge that a good number of those packages had my name written on the tag only added to the excitement.

Johnny Mathis, Brenda Lee, Ella Fitzgerald, Gene Autry, Andy Williams and most importantly David Seville and the Chipmunks serenaded our family with holiday songs as we speed south. The signal from the AM radio drifted in and out as we entered then excited the range of the stations in the nearby towns along our route.

A good portion of the first leg of our journey was spent on the Will Rogers Turnpike. Named after Oklahoma’s favorite son, its main claim to fame in my mind was not the divided four lanes or the reasonable tolls, but the “Glass House Restaurant” that spanned the turnpike in Vinita, Oklahoma. Built in 1957 by the Conoco Oil Company, the same year the turnpike was opened, it afforded drivers going either direction an opportunity to fill up on gasoline, souvenirs and pot roast.

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GlassHouse

It was the first restaurant constructed over a United States public highway and became so popular with the local residents that high school proms from nearby towns were held there. Later it operated as a Howard Johnson’s then became a McDonald’s and it’s elegant mid-century modern arches were painted a golden yellow. I chose to view this (in my current curmudgeon state) as a metaphor for the general decline in charm, civility and good taste in America, but that’s a blog post for another day.

We left the turnpike at the Big Cabin exit and headed south on highway 69. As seatbelts were not standard equipment back in the day and certainly not in the rear seats, I spent much of my journey in the back of the car standing on the drivetrain hump with my elbows hooked over the vinyl clad front bench seat that my mom and dad were sitting on. If that wasn’t enough to give Ralph Nader nightmares, I also spent time reclined on the large deck beneath the rear window, totally unencumbered by any type of restraining device or car seat.

Some of my favorite memories of those trips whether we were headed to Sherman, Chandler, or Wichita Falls Texas was not the time spent on the turnpike, but the two lane roads that took us through the little towns along the way. The local business districts, pre-Walmart, decorated for the holidays. Christmas themed display windows, banners stretched across Main Street that proclaimed, “Merry Christmas.” Courthouses and town squares where nativity displays were the norm and where figures of Santa, Rudolph and Frosty coexisted with the holy family and somehow it all made sense.

Of course the real joy was reuniting with family. The Agnew’s, the Boatman’s and the Feltman’s. The hugs, the laughs, the meals, the flurry of holiday wrapping paper, flying through the air as presents were revealed.

Dad went to his reward in 2012. Mom will turn 100 this Christmas day. I can no longer share those Christmas memories with her in detail, they are beyond her grasp now.

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Neither my children nor grandchildren will ever ride in the backseat of a 1963 Pontiac loaded down with Christmas presents, headed to Texas. But I will do my best to pass down the magic. And if the opportunity presents itself, we will stop and have lunch at the McDonalds that spans the Will Rogers turnpike.