Too Brief an Orbit

Orbits … the events we use to mark time and passages. The second hand of a watch makes an orbit and we call it a minute. The hour hand makes a circle around the face of a clock and an hour is marked. Our planet spins on its axis, one full circle and the day is done. The earth makes a full orbit around the sun and another year is added to our age.

We humans also move in orbits, not in the literal sense like planets or heavenly bodies but our lives weave and loop, our trajectories intersect with thousands of fellow travelers, and every crossing of paths provides the opportunity for a positive or negative impact. The briefest encounter with an ill-tempered person can bring you down, a sincere smile from a total stranger can brighten your day.  We also orbit in parallel paths with people for stretches that can last months, years and decades. Those longer circuits have the same potential for a detrimental or favorable influence on our journeys.

The orbit of Halley’s comet brings it close to Earth once every 75-76 years. This comet is the only known short-period comet that is visible to the naked eye. If you are born at the right time, you might have a chance to see this comet twice in a lifetime. Like a viewing of Halley’s comet, if you are paying attention during your pilgrimage, there will be a few times, rare moments where an intersection with another journeyer will alter your path for the good, giving you a fresh perspective, making you a better person for having known them. Such was the case with my intersection with Aaron David Borchelt.

Aaron came to work at Concordia Publishing House taking over the role of a retiring long-time employee. He was a quick study and mastered the position faster than anyone expected.  His can-do attitude and quick wit made him a favorite with his co-workers. Our job functions brought us together, but we bonded over baseball. Aaron had worked as an usher for the baseball Cardinals since he was 17 and had amassed a wealth of knowledge about the game. We would meet to discuss budgets and schedules for the projects we were involved with but found plenty of time to second-guess calls made by the umps and the decisions of the manager from recent games. I had orbited the sun 28 times more than Aaron. I shared stories of my favorite players who were active before Aaron was born, he regaled me with tales of the current crop of Cardinals.

When Aaron came to work at Concordia Publishing House, he was on crutches, laboring to walk with a yet-to-be diagnosed illness. His condition deteriorated, but his positive attitude only seemed to get stronger. It wasn’t long until he had to use a wheelchair, then a motorized wheelchair. I clearly remember the meeting where he announced to the rest of the team that he was going to the Mayo Clinic. You could tell he was pumped at the prospect of finally getting an accurate diagnosis of his condition and possible cure. He came back two days earlier than expected. I went into his cubicle to welcome him back, he was as close to being down as I had ever seen him, he confided that the doctors were certain it was ALS. I can’t remember how I responded, I’m sure it wasn’t eloquent or comforting. He never mentioned ALS again in my presence. I believe he didn’t want to dignify the illness by naming it.

His mental acuity and memory allowed him to do his job, even as his body failed him. I could walk into his cubicle, say the title of a current project and he would recite the project number and most times any information I needed concerning the budget or schedule without referring to his computer. One of the projects we were working on was a book on mentoring, the working title was, Walk with Me. One day I went to where he was seated in his wheelchair and just said, “walk with me.”

He laughed and replied, “I wish I could,” then proceded to reel off the information I needed about that job. He loved to interject humor into every aspect of his vocation. We looked forward to his meeting invite emails because he would invariably take the words from the subject to be discussed or the book title we were planning and twist them into a groaner of a pun or some wordplay.

I rode up the elevator with him one morning. At this point, he could no longer lift his arms to press the floor selector buttons. I was carrying an antique tube radio I had purchased. I talked about its design and function, and concluding by saying, “Of course it’s only AM.”

He laughed and said, “So, it only works in the morning?”

He was that quick and that smart!

Aaron would matter of factly ask for help when he needed it, but not tolerate anything that even came close to pity. I tried to express to him once my respect and admiration for the way he handled himself given what he had to deal with. He froze me with a steely stare from his baby-blues, and I quickly changed the subject. Aaron did not pity himself and he sure as heck wasn’t going to allow anyone else to pity him.

Aaron’s life acted as a mirror, reflecting God’s love and goodness onto anyone he came in contact with. His servant attitude combined with his strength of character, unflinching positive attitude, and limitless humor created a gravitational pull that altered the orbit of anyone whose path he crossed.

Aaron made his last orbit on December 3rd, 2019. He rounded 3rd and headed for home plate, deftly sliding in ahead of the throw. The call came quickly, it was obvious to all that were watching, there was no need for a review, he was safe. Aaron David Borchelt was safe, nothing could touch him now, he was safe, safe at home  … rejoice!

Poppy

The Last Paintbrush and the Lifetime Guarantee

“Can you use these?” my father held out an array of paintbrushes, ranging in size from petite angled devices to wide, stout brushes. Decades removed from Texas, he retained a trademark slow Texan drawl that extended beyond his speech to his movements and demeanor. “I’ll be 96 next birthday,” he continued, “I reckon my painting days are over.” It was an admission of diminished abilities that came reluctantly, but honestly.

Some of the brushes were new, the ones that had been used were in like-new condition. My father took care of his things. As newlyweds during the Great Depression (the real one), my parents lived by the motto, “make do, make it last, wear it out.”

Pictured above is the last survivor of that group. It’s a sturdy brush, four inches wide and an inch thick. Fully loaded with paint, it’s a wrist-buster. I didn’t have to ask where it came from, like many men of his generation when it came to tools, tires, paint, and brushes, his go-to source was Sears & Roebuck. Embossed on the ferrule are the words, “LIFETIME GUARANTEE.”

In my hands, it did not last a lifetime.


There are few advantages to maturing (I refuse to call it getting old), but they do exist. Chief among those is perspective. If you are paying attention at all as you notch years in your belt, you will learn to separate the wheat from the chaff, you will learn the difference between the insignificant and those things that truly matter, you learn that things are just things, no matter their cost, even if they have “Lifetime Guarantee” stamped on them.


Looking back, the things I really needed to know in life I learned from my father. Any knowledge of the Pythagorean theorem or the Magna Carta has sadly disappeared, but I am left with my father’s examples of how to take care of things, and it extends far beyond paintbrushes. Taught by example, the hierarchy was very clear; Your relationship with God, your relationship with your spouse, your relationship with your family, your relationship with your friends.

Taking care of a paintbrush requires work. After a day of painting, I’m tempted just to chuck the thing into the trash because I’m not in the mood to care of it properly. Maintaining relationships requires a lot more work than maintaining a brush. Being a good spouse is work. Being a good parent is work. Being a good friend is work. There are days when it’s tempting just to throw that relationship onto the scrap heap, but a relationship is not a paintbrush, it has lifetime implications. While there are no guarantees with relationships, their successes or failures will last throughout your life and deserve our best efforts. There are no magic formulas or easy answers. Life is messy, families can be messy on steroids.

Listen – Give – Take – Speak – Respect – Value – Honor – Stand Your Ground – Defer – Communicate – Love – Listen Again


I played out a scenario where I walked into the last remaining Sears store, laid the paintbrush on the counter and demanded my money back. The clerk would look at the paintbrush, then look at me and say, “Sir, if you had taken better care of this brush, we would have honored the guarantee.”

Peace, Poppy
(and take care of those closest to you)

Sense-Ability (an exercise program)

 I should exercise more; my doctor and my wife remind me of that. I even nag myself about it. But there are different kinds of exercise. Some work your heart, some your muscles, some your mind, and some work your senses.

I stepped onto our front porch about 8:30 p.m., just days removed from the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. It was a golden hour, work was finished, dinner was prepared then consumed. It was a time of reflection, of calming, a time of exercising your senses. I stood with my hands braced on the front porch rail and attempted to soak in every stimulus before me. Though we were months removed from January, I wanted to tuck those memories into a safe-deposit box to be withdrawn as needed in the dead of winter.

Smell: It was unseasonably cool for the middle of June. The rain drifted in and out in a slow, spring-type drizzle all day. Humid air carried the pleasant odor of rich earth dominating every other smell. It was the scent of fertility, growth, and renewal, hope, and good crops to come. Second to that was the bouquet of flowers, present, but in the background, waiting in queue to dominant as the temperatures increased and the air became drier. Moments before I stepped out, someone walked down the sidewalk smoking a cigarette. I could not see the smoker but the damp air held the fragrance of burnt tobacco in its grasp, reluctant to let the vapors escape.

Sound: Natures orchestra was in the middle of a shift change; the birds were in the final movement of their concerto, while the crickets, katydids and tree frogs were just tuning up. It was not hot enough for the cicadas to bless us with their sine-wave cacophony, but an owl hooted in the distance. The wheels of cars running up and down Elizabeth Avenue created a swooshing-sizzle sound unique to tires on wet pavement. From within the house came a faint creak as someone walked across hardwood floors. The siren of an emergency vehicle in the distance briefly dominated the soundscape.

Sight: The setting sun raced toward the next horizon, turning the houses and trees across the street from three-dimensional objects into silhouettes. The edges of leaves and limbs, so crisp and sharp against the sky at midday, began to soften, blur. The air had a golden quality as the palette of the landscape became muted. Street lights and porch lamps were hot points of light that reflected on the wet streets and sidewalks.

Touch: My elbows were locked, feet spread slightly apart, hands planted on the wide porch rail. Beneath my palms I could feel tiny divots in the paint, no amount of sanding would make these hundred-year-old boards feel perfectly smooth. I reached out and ran my fingers across the top of one of the azalea bushes that ran the length of the porch. The tiny leaves held enough rainwater to create a gentle spray as they flipped back in position. My hands were as wet as if I had dipped them into a bucket of water. I brushed them across my cotton work-shirt, softened by a hundred washings, it felt as soft as fleece.


Whew, I’m exhausted by this sensory workout and Mimsy needs to go on a walk. Feel free to withdraw these memories when it’s 5 below.

Peace, Poppy

A Farewell to Ferguson

At one time when someone would ask me where I was from, I would answer; “St. Louis Area,” or “A suburb of St. Louis,” because I knew they would have never heard of Ferguson. Now when I’m asked the same question and knowing that I live in one of the most recognized towns in the nation,  I puff out my chest a little, look them straight in the eye and say, “I’m from Ferguson, Missouri!”


Family obligations require us to sell our house of 27 years and that’s okay because it’s for family.  We moved to Ferguson in 1984 and have lived in two different houses, both built in 1890, the same year Ferguson was incorporated.

How to describe Ferguson?

That’s a tough one because the perceptions of those outside of Ferguson are likely totally different from those who live here.

“Diversity,” is the first word to come to mind. Diversity of architecture, diversity of housing stock, diversity of locally-owned businesses and of course diversity of its citizens. We are a mix of races, ages, religions, professions and orientations. Within its boundaries you will find doctors and lawyers, retirees, single parents and those newly married. You will find folks who are well-to-do and those living at the poverty level. You will find saints, sinners and sons of bitches, that is to say, all of us.

If you want to live in a community where everyone looks, thinks, and votes like you, then Ferguson won’t be a good fit, because in any trip to the local grocery store or watering hole, you will be surrounded by this wonderful mélange of humanity.

If you want to live in a community where most of your dining options are national chains, then you will be disappointed, because Ferguson is rich in family owned restaurants and bars.

To the next owner of my home, I would offer this advice; get involved. Get involved in your neighborhood association, or church. Volunteer for a spot on one of the cities many boards and commissions. I was a member of the Ferguson Landmarks Commission when we presented the then current homeowner with a plaque recognizing the 100th “birthday” of the property. I took the opportunity to get to know the owner and when she was ready to sell, we arranged a private transaction and the house never went on the market. This house has not been on the open market since 1953!


Mimsy and I head for home after the last walk of the day. The skies are veiled with a thin gauze of grey clouds, those cool colors contrast with the warm light spilling out of the windows of our house. It’s early autumn and the squirrels are working overtime. Our yard is a veritable squirrel smorgasbord with its oak, hickory, and walnut trees, and that’s just in the front yard.

Mimsy starts to tug on her leash, I don’t know if that’s because she wants to get at the squirrels or she is anticipating the bacon treat awaiting her. I would suspect the later.

I wonder how many more times we will be able to walk this neighborhood. I am the definition of mixed emotions, I will miss this house but I’m excited about the future as we turn the page to the next chapter.

Poppy

The Dog Days of Summer, from a Cat’s Perspective

8 o’clock on September 16 and it’s 86 degrees. Summer’s last blast, I suppose. I’m taking the week off in a mad dash to get our house listed to sell. Today was the day to seal the driveway.

I failed.

Tomorrow is another day.

The little TV in the kitchen is tuned to the Cardinal’s game. It’s the bottom of the seventh and we just took a 4 to 2 lead.

Tomorrow is trash day. I walked out the back porch with the last of the refuse. Mrs. G is sprawled out on one of the chairs. She is a cat that likes her comfort and has little tolerance for heat or rain.

It may be September, but summer is still in force. The symphony of crickets, katydids and tree frogs serenade me as I wheel the trash bins out to the curb.

It is a season of chapter turnings. I must resign myself to that. Today my grandson turned 13. The dreaded teen-aged years. He is now as tall as me and when we called to wish him a happy birthday, the voice that greeted us was deeper than I expected. Fortunately, his character and kindness are undiminished with his new status.

In a few weeks, my oldest daughter will be married. Another chapter turning. I couldn’t be happier for her and my soon to be son-in-law.

10:00 o’clock, I make the circuit to turn off the lights and lock the doors. Mrs. G hasn’t moved. I step onto the front porch. The warm air embraces me and I try to store that feeling for the coming winter. I stare across the street, aware of the pages and chapters that turn before me. It is the essence of life, drifting, moving, changing. Sometimes good, sometimes not so good, but never without hope.

I step inside, Mimsy is waiting for me to escort her for the last stroll of the night.

Poppy must walk the dog, peace.

 

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)