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.

How then do you strike a balance between apathy and apoplexy, between just not caring or having a cerebral hemorrhage?

For me, it’s a simple reality check, an inventory of my sphere of influence. At best, I can offer up a prayer for an atrocity on the other side of the world (and I should). But I’m not a mover or shaker of foreign policy or even things closer to home. No one is calling me up to ask my opinion on matters of policy, treaties, social injustice or world peace. That does not mean however that everything is outside of my control or influence.

Everyday I interact with dozens of people … dozens of children of God. From the clerk in the checkout line at the grocery store, to my co-workers, to my family, this is my sphere of influence. This is where I decide how to react to everything from kindness to rudeness. There are no conspiracies, no news or fake news to lay blame upon, It’s all on me, for once I’m in control. Do I answer disrespect with disrespect? Can I offer hope and a simple kindness when by conventional standards it’s not warranted? I have done both.

Upon refection maybe the answer is as simple as the well known Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr, “Grant to us the serenity of mind to accept that which cannot be changed; courage to change that which can be changed, and wisdom to know the one from the other.”

Could it be that simple? I’m willing to give it a try.

(Don’t let your head explode!)

peace, Poppy

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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.”

Two minutes later, I was walking through the front door of Cadillac Jack’s … in linen pants.

Let’s put things in perspective, Mrs. Poppy and I were high school sweethearts, got married and spent our formative years in the Pentecostal Church. By any standard we were not worldly-wise. Our experience with bars was limited, not to mention biker bars.

We walked past a pair of burly gentlemen in black t-shirts with the word, “SECURITY” stenciled on the back. I nodded, they nodded … so far, so good. Other than a few guys unabashedly checking out Mrs. Poppy, we attracted no attention at all (if you are going to walk into a biker bar wearing linen pants, do so in the company of a beautiful woman). The decor featured improbably busty young ladies astride Harley’s and the music was loud, but the staff was friendly, the drinks were generous, the food was cheap and we had a blast. So we came back … again and again. We got to know most of the staff and many of the regulars. I believe they adopted Mrs. Poppy and myself, viewing us as something of a novelty. The bar and grill eventually closed down and with it closed a chapter of our life, but along the way I learned a few lessons.

Respect what others hold dear: Every group, culture, club or organization has its rules. Sometimes written, often unwritten. The regulars at Cadillac Jack’s were no different. As a group they were pretty tolerant. Mrs. Poppy and I were there one night when a group of young African-American’s walked in. I confess, that I tensed up a bit. How would they be received in this all-white, blue-collar, biker bar? Turned out it was a total non event. They could have been invisible or wearing linen pants for all the attention they received. But there were some strict unwritten rules in place. The number one rule was that you don’t mess with someones bike and you honor the area designated for bike parking. One night some poor cabbie dropped off a customer and decided to turn around in the bike parking area. Billy, one of the more impetuous regulars commenced to jump up and down on the top of the cab until it exited the parking lot.

Not excusing Billy’s behavior, but your journey through life will be easier when you understand that everyone does not hold the same things precious that you do.  Your taste in music, food, literature, movies or motorcycles will not be universally shared. By accepting that others may have a different value system, your standards are not diminished, but your ability to relate to your fellow humans is greatly increased. This leads me to my next point.

Be comfortable in your own skin: Bill Shakespeare would have put it this way, “To thine own self be true.” I was never going to be mistaken for a hard-core biker, had I pretended to be anything other than a slightly nerdy, graphic designer, wearing linen pants, that first night, I’m not sure that we would have been accepted.

Be honest, who are you most comfortable with? Chances are, it’s with people who are comfortable with themselves. We all know people who are constantly trying to impress others with their knowledge, popularity, status, or cleverness. This causes me to put up my guard and want to spend as little time as possible in their company. The irony here is that they aren’t impressing anyone and it’s likely that your opinion of that person is decreased rather than increased, the end result is the exact opposite of what they had hoped for. Relax and remember these words of wisdom from the famous philosopher, Popeye the sailor man, “I yam what I yam, and that’s all what I yam.”

Treat everyone you meet as an equal: Why? Because they are. Prince or pauper, both are your equal. There is no need to feel inferior to the prince or superior to the pauper. God created humanity in an infinite array of shapes, sizes, colors, appearances and abilities. As a species, we are very broad, but not deep at all. There is no up, there is no down, there is only a thin layer of humanity, exactly one person deep. We all stand with our feet planted on the earth in the form God chose for us. There are people who are better or worse looking by some contrived standard. There are people with more or less money, talent, intelligence and prestige, but there are no humans 2.0, everyone of us are an original 1.0 version, equal in God’s eyes. We are his children … saints and sinners, which is to say, all of us.

Poppy

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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.

Eleven and a half years prior to this photo being taken,  my dad moved our family from a small town in Texas to St. Louis. They left a little white frame house with a rose garden and a goldfish pond to live in a two-family flat in south St. Louis. My mother thought she had been transported to a special kind of urban purgatory, if not hell. She must have forgiven Dad, because a year later I was conceived. A decade passed and my mom still yearned to return to Texas. Dad traveled a lot during the summer and I was out of school, that combination made it the perfect time to return and spend the summers with my maternal grandparents in the small town of Chandler, Texas.

I wish I could say that my memories of that summer were a tightly woven fabric, where every detail, every location, every story was perfectly remembered. But that was 52 years ago and I have only disconnected, singular memories … pleasant, but not connected in a complete woven narrative. I am left with just memory threads.


The dog. “We travel too much, who would keep it while we’re gone”? and “The yard’s not fenced”. All valid reasons why I never had a dog growing up, but I still yearned for a dog. When that beautiful collie showed up shortly after our arrival that summer in 65′, I considered it at least a minor miracle. None of the neighbors had seen the dog before and no one showed up looking for a lost collie. She was in need of a companion, I was in need of a dog. It was a mutually agreeable arrangement. My mother was something of a germaphobe and stray dogs certainly fell into the, “you don’t know where they have been” and “you don’t know kind of diseases they may have”, category. But even she was won over by the collie’s gentle nature and intelligence. I pretended to train her and teach her tricks. She pretended to not have already known every command I practiced. Each time I stepped outside the house, she was there to great me. We were the best of friends that special summer.

The girl. If you look closely at the photo, you will see a girl about my age sitting very primly in a chair on the porch. She and her younger brother lived next door in a modern brick ranch. The four of us (counting the collie) made up games and entertained ourselves as kids did back then. Yes, in 1965, girls played in dresses. I can’t remember her name. Though it would soon change, at least for that summer, I found dogs more fascinating than girls.

The chair. My grandparents house was most likely built in the late 1800’s. The house was divided down the middle by a center hall that ran from the front door straight to the back door. If both main doors were opened, it allowed for air to flow through the screen doors and straight through the house, providing some measure of relief from the Texas heat. Facing the front of the house, the bedrooms were on the left and the living room, dining room and kitchen were on the right. The living room contained a large overstuffed chair, positioned squarely in front of the black and white console television. This was where my grandfather watched wrestling, or raslin’, as he pronounced it. I was only allowed to sit in the chair if my grandfather were not home. That chair got me in more trouble than should be possible for an inanimate object. The chair was upholstered in a faded, coarse, floral tweed. Unfortunately the fabric was not entirely intact. There were holes worn through on the massive arms that allowed the stuffing to poke through. Apparently I was the only who couldn’t refrain from picking at the stuffing. I was reprimanded, I was scolded, yet when I became engrossed in whatever I was watching, my fingers took on a life and mind of their own and inched toward the protruding stuffing. Before I knew what happened, there was a small pile of chair innards lying on the floor. I was eventually banished from the chair.

The gun. My grandfather was the constable in that little town. He was a man of routines. When he arrived home, he entered by the back door, unbuckled his gun belt, wrapped the belt, holster and gun in a loose knot and left it on the dresser by the back door. He then went into the kitchen to see what there was to eat. I was fascinated by the gun. It evoked ideas of cowboys and the Alamo in my ten-year-old brain. It was Texas after all and my father certainly did not wear a gun to his office. I remember the faint smells that accompanied the gun. The oiled leather of the belt and holster, the sharp metallic scent from the revolver and bullets. I knew I was not to touch the gun and fortunately my fingers had more control over this issue than they exhibited with the chair upholstery.

The porch. I spent a lot of time on that porch. It was a deep porch than ran the width of the house. It was a good spot to read and drink sweet tea. Other than positioning myself directly in front of one of the window fans inside the house, it was the coolest place to be. For all her good manners, the collie was not allowed inside. That was another reason to sit on the porch where she could keep me company, her tail beating out a comforting rhythm in three-quarter time on the wood floorboards.
The rain came rarely to that part of Texas during the summer, but when it did, it was often fierce and accompanied by a raucous duet of thunder and lightning. Positioned on the porch you could feel the drop in temperature right before the showers arrived. The porch was not equipped with any gutters, so when the rains came, the water poured over the edge of the porch roof in translucent sheets. I could stand with my toes curled over the edge of the porch and thrust my arms through the curtain of rain water.


My grandson is currently the same age I was when this photo was taken, my granddaughter, seven years younger yet. They are just beginning to weave their fabric of memories. I hope to help them collect some good ones. My mother is 39 years ahead of me down the road of life. Sadly at 101, her memories are becoming unraveled.

I understand now that I was a child of privilege. Not in terms of wealth or being sent to expensive private schools, but I was raised in an environment of love and support. I was exposed to art, music and literature. I wanted for nothing,  … well, except for a full-time dog.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Arriving next summer, I immediately asked about the collie. My grandparents told me that she disappeared shortly after we left for St. Louis the previous summer.

God in his wisdom, has decreed that dogs have a much shorter life span than humans. I don’t understand this and hope to have the opportunity to question him about that decision some day. I choose to believe that somewhere in Texas, the descendants of the collie, four or five generations removed, are playing catch with 10-year-old boys and girls. Running across the hot sandy soil and building memories.

Poppy

Reflecting

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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:

3 parts good quality EVOO to 1 part balsamic vinegar – use more or less vinegar depending on your “tart tolerance”.
1 or 2 teaspoons of Dijon Mustard.
This is where Poppy (sometimes), steers this recipe away from the traditional version … I add enough fresh ground Parmesan (whisking the dressing briskly) till it becomes a slurry.
You can take it a step further by adding some chopped red onion.

Sometimes I toss the greens with the dressing, sometimes I just drizzle it over the top … can’t miss.

Lets jump to the fun part. We have stretched our canvas (the greens), primed the canvas (the dressing), now it’s time to get out our paints.

  • cheeses: Parmesan, Feta, Mozzarella, etc.
  • halved grape tomatoes
  • peeled sliced cucumber
  • orange or tangerine chunks
  • pine nuts
  • almond slivers
  • grilled Piquillo peppers
  • red onion
  • strawberries
  • watermelon chunks
  • olives: green, ripe or Kalamata
  • coarse ground black pepper

You can mix these any way you want, some pair very naturally (Feta cheese and Kalamata olives for example), but don’t hesitate to experiment. If you keep enough of these paints (ingredients) on hand, your salads will never be boring.

I’m strong to the fin-ich, Cause I eats me spin-ach– (sorry couldn’t resist)

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Asparagus and Grape Tomato Side

This is so simple, I hesitate to call it a recipe!

I like to keep things fresh. Not fresh like crispy veggies, but fresh as in not cooking the same things over and over again. This is an unexpected side dish that is super simple, not starchy, adds color to any plate, healthy, and goes with anything (unless your main dish involves asparagus and grape tomatoes).

Let’s get started. Halve some ripe grape tomatoes, snap off the hard ends of some medium to small diameter asparagus, then toss both in a little EVOO. Place the brilliant red and green mixture in a large skillet over medium heat.

Put a couple of tablespoons of salted butter in a cup. Take a clove or two of garlic and run it through your garlic press on top of the butter. You do have a garlic press, don’t you? Zap the butter-garlic mixture in the microwave until the butter is melted and the garlic is warmed.

Saute the asparagus and tomatoes, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes become blistered and the asparagus is done. How do you know when the asparagus is done? … when no one is looking, take a bite out of the end of one of your stalks (you can put that one on your plate).

When ready, transfer to your plates, spoon a little of the butter-garlic sauce over the veggies and top with a little fresh grated Parmesan.

Yes, it’s that simple!

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The 67′ Pontiac and the Comfortable Silence

Mom never drove a car.

To be totally accurate, I should say, I never saw her drive a car. She claims that in 1931, at the age of 16, she went to the drugstore in whatever small town in Texas her family was living in at the time and exchanged a dime for a drivers license. Apparently at that time, proving a proficiency in driving was no more necessary to obtaining a driver’s license than proving a proficiency in fishing was necessary to obtaining a fishing license. Whether or not she actually drove is unknown. No one in the family has any recollection of that happening. Two years later she married and received not only a husband, but a chauffeur. That union lasted 78 years and Dad did all the driving for 75 of those years until he passed the keys over to my brother at age 95. That Dad did all the driving was for the best. Dad was the pragmatist, rooted in logic and a good sense of direction. Mom was the dreamer, the artist, and had no interest in navigation or driving. It was a good arrangement for Mom and Dad and everyone else on the road.

Growing up during the Great Depression, to say that Mom and Dad were frugal, would be an understatement. But if Dad had a fiscal weakness, it was for cars. Even then it exhibited itself in the most conservative of ways. Dad liked big cars with big trunks and he was partial to Pontiacs. In the Pontiac line the Catalina and the Bonneville were the full sized cars. The Bonneville had more luxury features such as power windows, but in Dad’s mind that just meant more opportunity for things to break, and since the trunks were the same size on both models, Dad drove Catalinas. He also paid cash for them. He taught me from an early age the concept of setting aside money every month for your next car purchase.

“Making a payment to yourself,” was how he explained it. I learned the concept, but have yet to apply it. (There was one exception, but that’s a blog post for another day)


And so it came to be, that in the summer of 1967, at the age of 13, I was in the backseat of a brand new 4-door Pontiac Catalina. Dad was taking my mother to the monthly meeting of the South County Art Association. I shared the backseat with a painting that my mom had just completed. I don’t remember much about that painting, except that she had mixed sand with the paint to give an added dimension to her creation. I also remember Mom being very nervous. The art club was having a guest lecturer, Dimitri Zonia, a local artist of some renown. In addition to the lecture, he was also going to critique the work of anyone who wanted to bring in a painting.

Dad pulled up to the entrance of the Presbyterian church whose basement provided the venue for the art association. Putting the car into “park”, he exited to retrieve the painting. Mom climbed out and waited for Dad to come around with the painting. I took the opportunity to slide into the passenger side of the front bench seat and watched as Dad passed over the painting and gave Mom a quick peck on the cheek.

The Midwest sun was close to setting, but there was still enough daylight left for my father to pick a parking spot underneath the shade provided by the boughs of an ancient oak tree that had somehow survived the construction of the church and it’s parking lot. In 1967 the average price of gasoline averaged 33¢ per gallon. That was reason enough to park and wait for the meeting to be over rather than make the round trip home and back again.

Dad turned the ignition key into the auxiliary position, quieting the engine and turning on the radio. We cranked the windows down and the humid Midwest air rolled into the car along with the summer sounds of crickets, cicadas, katydids and tree frogs. Spilling out of the car were the sounds of Jack Buck and Harry Caray, announcing the Cardinals baseball game that was in progress. In 1967 the St. Louis Cardinals were on fire. My favorite players were Bob Gibson and Orlando Cepeda. That night was a good night because Bob Gibson was pitching and Orlando Cepeda was tearing things up. When the opposing pitcher intentionally walked Orlando, rather than face him, I did an imaginary fist pump in my mind. We sat three feet apart on that bench seat. A man and a boy. A boy on the way to becoming a man, and I was learning from the best. Continue reading

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One Brick at a Time

At some point you realize you’ll never win the Nobel Peace Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, find a cure for cancer or even the common cold. You wake up every morning and prepare to go to work where you will not win any major awards, where your co-workers will not hoist you on their shoulders, marching around the office chanting your name, where it seems that you are not making a difference, where your job appears almost meaningless. Day after day.

You may wake up to the sounds of a crying infant or toddler, knowing that your day will be spent within the boundaries of your house, changing smelly diapers and preparing food for an unreceptive audience. Day after day after day after day.

Behind us and before us are a string of days beyond our reckoning. Behind us are the records of everyone who has ever lived, from the most famous to the most obscure. People who have made history and the majority who have not. The majority who have struggled to survive, with no recognition, no accolades, no mention in the history books, yet day by day they persevered, they made a life for themselves and their families.

Before us are days that can’t be seen or accurately imagined and the number promised to us is unknown.

We do not own the past or the future, we only own today. Each day we, along with everyone else on the planet, are handed a brick. Each day it is the same size and weight. It weighs 4.5 pounds. It is 3 5/8″  deep, 2 1/4″ tall and 8″ long. It is also 24 hours or 1,440 minutes long. It is ours to do with what we wish. We can choose to just toss it aside onto a heap of its brethren, it is just another brick, it is just another day. Who cares? Who notices? What does it matter? Continue reading

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