When the Turtle Crossed the Road and I Discovered Literature

I grew up without a television … possibly the best thing to happen to me.  I didn’t feel the least bit deprived, besides I got to go next door to watch Lost in Space with my best friend, Jonathan. Life was good.

Without a television to distract me, I became an avid reader. At an early age, beginning at 8 or 9, my parents would drop me off every Saturday morning at the local library, returning 2 or 3 hours later. Today, this would get them arrested for child endangerment, but this was the early 60’s, a different time, place, and culture. Besides, what safer place to leave a young boy than a library under the watchful eye of the librarians,  whose main concern with young boys was that their noise level remained in check. By the time my parents returned, I had selected and checked out a stack of 4 to 5 books which would all be read and ready to be returned by the next Saturday morning.

I have vivid and clear memories of that library; the layout, with the children’s books in low bookcases on the right as you entered, gradually moving up in age-appropriate categories and size until you reached the tall adult section on the far left. I remember the mid-century modern bookcases constructed of maple with chrome legs, the bank of floor to ceiling windows on the southern exposure covered with thin white gauze curtains. But most of all I remember being intoxicated with the sense being on my own with a whole world to explore. Tucked away in the little wooden drawers of card catalogs was the code to an entire universe of stories; adventure, fantasy, science fiction, biographies, and favorite authors.

I read my way through the Freddy the Pig series, Doctor Doolittle, Danny Dunn and everything by Elizabeth Enright (to this day, one of my favorites). Science fiction from “Through Space to Planet T” to Isaac Azimov and Ray Bradbury.

Reading is a form of prayer, a guided meditation that briefly makes us believe we’re someone else, disrupting the delusion that we’re permanent and at the center of the universe. Suddenly (we’re saved!) other people are real again, and we’re fond of them. —George Saunders

Reading is also sneaky learning. Without knowing it you are learning history, science, social studies, and of course writing, spelling, sentence structure, and grammar (though I still manage to mangle all of them).

I read my way through the maple bookcases, from the lowest to the highest. Somewhere in my early teens, I found myself in the adult section, pulling a copy of John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath off the shelf. I took it home with my stack of books unaware of what was awaiting me.

Chapter 1 was a brief introduction to the dust-bowl years in Oklahoma. Chapter 2 introduced Tom Joad after his release from prison. Chapter 3 was the second of what I was to learn later called, intercalary chapters. Inserted between the narrative chapters, were the accounts of the social, economic, and historical situations that shaped the events of the novel. It is a short chapter that tells in great detail of the struggles of a box turtle attempting to cross the road. It is a story of the struggles of life. It is an allegory for what happens to the Joad family as they travel down the road toward California. It is a brief study in human nature as one driver swerves to avoid hitting the turtle and another swerves in an attempt to hit the turtle. It is a chapter of hope and survival.


And over the grass at the roadside, a land turtle crawled, turning aside for nothing, dragging his high-domed shell over the grass: His hard legs and yellow-nailed feet threshed slowly through the grass, not really walking, but
boosting and dragging his shell along. The barley beards slid off his shell, and the clover burrs fell on him and rolled to the ground. His horny beak was partly open, and his fierce, humorous eyes, under brows like fingernails, stared straight ahead.


At the end of that little chapter, I had an epiphany of sorts. Until then books were all about the story, the plot and the characters. At the end of that chapter, I understood that books could be enjoyed on a new level. Sure the story, plot and character development were all there, but at that moment I learned to appreciate the craft of writing as an art form.

It was a wonderful revelation, but one that also carried a downside. As an avid reader, I also yearned to write, but the more I read, the more I understood my limitations. I allowed the authors I admired to intimidate me. It wasn’t until years later that I realized that I could write just for myself. I finally understood that not being Steinbeck, Hemingway or Faulkner was not a bad thing, I will never be equal to an almost unlimited number of authors, but I have my own voice. If I never write anything more than these blogs posts, that’s okay.

If you love playing the piano, don’t be intimidated by Arthur Rubinstein, Art Tatum or Mitsuko Uchida. If you want to paint, don’t be intimidated by Rembrandt, Caravaggio or Mary Cassatt. If you are chopping, sauteing and simmering in the kitchen, don’t be intimidated by Julia Child, David Chang or James Beard.

Find your own voice in every endeavor, relax, and learn to love it.

Peace, Poppy


If you haven’t read Steinbeck, get off the computer and grab a copy of The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men or Sweet Thursday, just for starters.

The Boy Who Cried Nazi

It was a chance, unfortunate juxtaposition. As was our tradition I had just taken my grandson to get his back-to-school haircut. Returning home he hurried upstairs to take a shower while I started the prep for his favorite soup. Mrs. Poppy joined me in the kitchen, filling me in on the events of the day at home and abroad. She read aloud a post on social media equating the arrest of some trying to enter the country illegally to Nazi Germany and the holocaust. It was silly, but sadly not uncommon. We gave it no more thought until the next event.

My grandson has discovered the joys of the original Twilight Zone episodes. We are slowly working our way through the series. We filled our bowls with tortellini soup and settled back to enjoy the next installment. It was titled, “Deaths-Head Revisited.” The story was about a former SS officer revisiting the Dachau concentration camp a decade and a half after World War II. It was rightfully disturbing. It is hard to comprehend the death of six million humans by mass shootings, gas chambers, and starvation. Six million people; grandparents, moms, dads, teenagers, toddlers, babies. The final sentence of the story was this …

All the Dachaus must remain standing. The Dachaus, the Belsens, the Buchenwalds, the Auschwitzes – all of them. They must remain standing because they are a monument to a moment in time when some men decided to turn the Earth into a graveyard. Into it they shoveled all of their reason, their logic, their knowledge, but worst of all, their conscience. And the moment we forget this, the moment we cease to be haunted by its remembrance, then we become the gravediggers.”

There are things that are so pure, so holy that they must not be diluted. Conversely, there are things that are so evil, so vile that they also must not be diluted … lest we forget.

To compare anything going on in American politics today to Nazi Germany and the holocaust is intellectually weak and historically inaccurate.

To forget a Holocaust is to kill twice.”
Elie Wiesel

Poppy (with no apologies)

A Dog Looks at Life (and Politics)

For many years it was believed that dogs only saw in black and white. This saddened me, thinking that our canine companions with their heightened sense of hearing and smell were destined to live in a world where everything appears in shades of grey. More recent behavioral tests have shown that dogs perceive some of the color spectrum, but to a much lesser degree than humans. I’m not sure why, but I take comfort in the knowledge that dogs can see some colors.


Most of the schools around us will start classes again next week. I have very vivid memories of those back-to-school days, especially during my grade school years. The beginning of a new school year also meant a new pair of sneakers. Lacing up those shoes for the first time, with their fresh-out-of-the-box rubber soles, taking a few exploratory steps then bounces, made you feel like you could run faster and jump higher than any kid had ever done. Another clear and pleasant memory was getting that new, pristine, 24, 48 or 64-count box of Crayola crayons. It was a sensory overload with a scent unique to a newly opened box of crayons and a visual treat of perfectly pointed and unsullied colors, surely capable of creating any masterpiece the coming grade would require.

Alas, as I got older a new pair of shoes, became just a new pair of shoes … containing no superpowers. I gained the knowledge that my brain interprets the reflected light of different wavelengths from objects as colors and a new box of crayons became less magical.


My grandson went through a stage where he wanted to put hot sauce on everything from eggs, to french fries, to hamburgers. From a culinary perspective, this is very immature. Fortunately, he soon outgrew that. Life (and dining) is not a choice between unseasoned oatmeal or hot sauce, it is a wonderful mix of nuances and subtleties.

This same grandson told me that he didn’t like onions. I listed off several of his favorite dishes and told him that they all contained onions. He seemed surprised.

“You probably don’t like raw onions,” I said, handing him a sliver of an onion that I was dicing.

He gamely took a bite then quickly said, “No, not a fan.”

I tossed the diced onions into the skillet with a little olive oil and sautéed them until they became translucent, filling the kitchen with a wonderful aroma. I offered him a small spoonful for tasting.

He nodded thoughtfully then said, “Better.”

I reduced the heat, added a little butter, slowly stirring until the onions became caramelized.

“Wow,” he said, “Totally different.”

One onion does not fit all situations. Caramelized onions would be terrible in guacamole and raw onions would ruin a good French onion soup. There is room for all types of onions.


There is a function in Adobe Photoshop to convert an image with multiple shades of grey into an image with only black or white pixels. One of those options is called the 50% threshold. If you choose that option every pixel above 50% grey becomes black, and every pixel below 50% grey becomes white. For those pixels at 53% or 47%, there is no negotiation, there is no moderate position, they are assigned to one extreme or another. Increasingly this is where our political landscape is taking us. Admittedly I have a few issues that I perceive as black or white. One of those is the sanctity of human life. I believe that human life is precious throughout every age and every stage. On this issue, there are no shades of grey for me, it is literally a matter of life and death. There are other issues where I have strong opinions but accept the possibilities of other options. Further down are issues that I am attempting to research and investigate, but have no firm opinion yet.


The centrifuge of the media attempts to spin us faster and faster towards opposite ends of the political spectrum; oatmeal on one end, hot sauce on the other, raw onions on one end, caramelized on the other, black pixels vs. white pixels, red states move to the right, blue states please take your position on the left. Moderation has ceased being a virtue and is now portrayed as a weakness.


Mimsy and I take our final walk of the night. It is late summer and I soak in the sounds, smells, and sights of the cornucopia of life that surrounds us. The synchronized rise and fall of the cicadas’ chorus has given way to the chirps of crickets and songs of tree frogs. In the distance is the drone of a lawnmower as someone attempts to take advantage of the last rays of dusky light to finish their lawn care. The night breeze carries the sweet smell of new-mown grass. Twilight has muted the colors of our landscape that would have been bright and brilliant just a few hours ago. I wonder if this is how Mimsy views the world at midday, the new box of crayons reduced to muted colors.


I dread the coming winter as much as I dread the coming election. The nuances and subtleties of summer’s growth, sounds and life will give way to a 50% threshold of dead branches against a cloudless sky.

“Let’s go home Mimsy,” she understands the command and does a 180.

I shut the door softly behind us. She is a creature of routines and can’t wait to go to bed (though she has slept most of the day). I unbuckle her harness and she dashes upstairs.

I step briefly back on the front porch, leaning forward, palms pressed against the porch rail. As if on cue, fireflies started to dance above the lawn.

Yes, winter is coming … but so is spring.

Peace, Poppy

Faith like old jeans …

I woke up this morning and slipped into my faith. The anxiety and worries of the coming day faded.

The weather channel informed me there was a 50% chance of rain today. I checked the chances of me screwing something up … 100%, the same forecast every-single-day. No worries, I thought as I pointed skyward, you’ve got this.

I’ve had some designer jeans with logos predominately displayed, but they were never this comfortable. I always felt like a poser, pretending to be something I wasn’t, plus they were ridiculously expensive. What I put on this morning didn’t cost me anything … not that they were cheap, quite the contrary. The purchase price was beyond my imaging, beyond measure. Hand-me-downs to be sure, over two thousand years old I’m told. They are old, worn, blood-stained, tear-stained, the knees are threadbare, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything. Sadly they are becoming out of fashion. A strong belief system today can get you labeled as intolerant, even hateful.

It’s said that a critic is one who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing. In my opinion, things of real value are rarely new things. Puppies are cute but give me an old dog any day. My decades-old Sears Craftsman drill requires a chuck-key to tighten the drill bit and by modern standards is too heavy, but the solid metal case and the over-built motor has held up through much abuse and has never failed me. It reminds me of the great Guy Clark tune, Stuff that Works, if you’re not familiar with the song, it may be the best 5 minutes of your day. The chorus goes like this:

Stuff that works, stuff that holds up
The kind of stuff you don’ hang on the wall
Stuff that’s real, stuff you feel
The kind of stuff you reach for when you fall

The last line, in particular, resonates with me. I fall (or fail) a lot, but my faith is always within reach. It’s taken me a while to get to this point. I’ve spent too long worrying that I wasn’t doing enough of something or doing too much of something else. Eventually, the beautiful simplicity of the Gospel smacked me upside the head and I finally understood that I was never going to be good enough. I realized that every day I will mess something up, 100% of the time … and that’s okay because I don’t have to be perfect. I just have to understand the price paid by the one who was perfect.

I’m no theologian and comparing Christianity to old jeans, or a Sears Craftsman drill will no doubt permanently exclude me from their ranks … I can live with that.

 

 

 

Character, Gladiators and the back of Garages

Driven by family obligations we are preparing our 1890 house for sale. It’s not easy on any level; physically … coming home after a normal workday to fix things that we’ve lived with for years, but may not be acceptable for the next owners, emotionally … leaving a house rich in character and memories; Christmases, birthdays and countless family dinners … but it needs to be done.

My simple goal for this week is to finish scrapping and painting the back of the detached garage. Like many houses of this era, the garage is set well back from the house. It crossed my mind many times … is it worth it? Will anyone notice? I could sell the house “as is” with the back of the garage left unpainted, but this is our family’s major nest egg, it’s important for our future to squeeze every dollar out of this transaction. And then there is this … it’s the back of the garage, it doesn’t show from the street … but I know it needs repainting … even if no one else notices.

John Wooden, the legendary basketball coach famously stated, “The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.” This is something I strive for, but don’t always attain.

Charactermoral integrity, are they still valued? We often look for character in all the wrong places, Hollywood actors, celebrities, and politicians. There is a good chance that the true heroes, the men and women of character, are living next door, sitting in the pew ahead of you in church, or waiting with you in the checkout line of the grocery store. It’s the dad who works a grueling job but carves out time to coach his daughter’s soccer team. It’s the single mom who forgoes her personal needs to provide for her children. It’s the family who dedicates themselves to take care of a disabled child or an aging parent. They will never make the news, never receive any accolades, but do what they do without question, because it’s the right thing … character.

One of my favorite movies is “Gladiator,” the 2000 epic historical drama directed by Ridley Scott. Russell Crowe portrays the Hispano-Roman general Maximus Decimus Meridius, who is betrayed when Commodus the ambitious son of Emperor Marcus Aurelius,  murders his father and seizes the throne. Reduced to slavery, Maximus rises through the ranks of the gladiatorial arena to avenge the murders of his family and his emperor.

It’s a movie I wish I could share with my 12-year-old grandson. Sadly the adult themes and violence won’t allow that for many years. Why do I want to share this movie with him? At its core, it’s about character, it’s about honor, it’s about integrity. Until the time we can watch it together, I will do my best to point out the soccer coaches, the single moms and the caregivers alongside us every day.

Peace, Poppy

 

Power-Wash Therapy, the next big thing!

I love my job … but there are days, and this was one of those days.

What I felt like doing when I got home was playing some mindless video game or something equally nonproductive, but we are getting our house ready to sell. I have discovered over the years that inanimate objects do not heal themselves. Leaky pipes do not seal themselves, chipped paint does not restore its self, dirt and grime don’t reform and become clean. This realization was a big disappointment to me.

Apparently in 1890, when our house was built, you could not have too many porches. Ours has “only” four, the least used of them is the one off the dining room at the back of the house. Why is there a porch and door from the dining room? In spite of what my grandkids might think, I was not around in 1890 … you will have to ask the builder. What I do know is that over the years it has acquired a protective layer of dirt and grime.

I gave it a light scrubbing with a detergent and bleach mixture, then hauled out the “big guns,” my Ryobi, Honda engine powered, power washer. I donned my safety goggles, then fired that mother up. The engine was roaring, I was getting splattered, the dirt and grime were being blown away by a force they never expected and I felt my tension melting away.

Then it dawned on me; forget psychotherapy, forget laying down on some couch and talking about how you were not respected, put some goggles on, prepare to get wet and blast away dirt, grime, and peeling paint!

At least for most guys, power washing checks a lot of boxes:
noisy? check … gasoline powered? check … creates fumes? check … messy? … check … instant gratification? check. (disclaimer; I can only speak for guys, in spite of being married 40 something years and having two daughters, women are still a mystery to me, though I do love a good mystery).

Feeling stressed? The stock market got you worried? Your boss riding you? Politics driving you nuts? Stop on by, I’ve got projects and therapy that will cure your ills. For the nominal rate of only $100 an hour, I will set you up with a clearly defined task, a noisy, messy, fume-producing, power washer and you will feel like a new man (or woman).

Poppy

The Lady in Front of Me

Having several hours with nothing to do and no responsibilities sounds heavenly … until it happens to you.

Hour one:

I’m in Jury Assembly Room S52 in the St. Louis County Circuit Court building. I’ve been here only an hour, at least that’s what the clock on the wall tells me. My internal “Boredom Meter,” tells me it’s been much longer. The notice on the wall states that the maximum occupancy for this room is 259. The room is pretty full, that’s a lot of bored people.

Hour two:

There is a magazine rack in the far left corner. It’s not getting much traffic, at least not two hours into the process. Once everyone’s cell phones start to go dead, there may be a run for 8-month-old copies of Sports Illustrated and People magazines.

I’m situated about three-fourths of the way back on the left side of the room. I was hoping for better people watching, but it’s a pretty nondescript group of humans, at least from my perspective, observing a collection of the back of people’s heads.

I’m bored out of my gourd, and since misery loves company, I will do my best to bore you too by attempting to describe the lady directly in front of me.

Occasionally she will look left or right, giving me just a glimpse of her face. She is not wearing any makeup. A collection of faint age spots are sprinkled across her cheeks just below the tiny crinkles that extend from the corners of her eyes. Her hair is a pretty shade of auburn, clean and shiny, straight with no hint of curls. I can’t determine the length, but it’s long enough to drape over the front of her left shoulder. Periodically her left arm raises, reaches behind her head and pulls back into submission any strands that are attempting to stray.

A pair of small, simple, silver hoop earrings and a tiny silver chain necklace are the only jewelry visible to me.

Her cap sleeve t-shirt, a soft salmon-pink, compliments the texture of the fabric, softened through many laundry cycles.

Her head bobs ever so slightly in the manner of someone whose legs are crossed and foot is wagging. Other than that she sits erect, almost motioness compared to my fidgeting.

She pulls a paperback out of an unseen bag and for a moment raises ir high enough for me to see the print, but I can’t make out the title in the running head.

It’s human nature to make snap judgements about people based on their appearance, wardrobe, manner of speaking, etc. After sitting behind someone for a couple of hours, I wouldn’t call this a snap judgement but I’m pretty sure she …

Oops, the bailiff just called my name, gotta go!

(FYI, Got selected and I’m sitting in a jury for the rest of the week)