Grace, Gratitude, and a Wonderful Life

Still Got Game 02/17/2022

I can take you down to Goldy’s a neighborhood pub that hasn’t changed since Mike took over the business in 1986, famous for its Goldyburger, where on Fridays they serve deep fried perch, and there introduce you to Una the handsome Irish barkeep with the handsome Irish lilt. I can show you the barstools where my brother Jim and I most often sit, where he is most prone to bust out an imitation of the banter of two stalwarts of Chicago sports, the late, legendary Chicago Cubs announcer Harry Caray, and his still-living color man, now announcing on the South Side for the White Sox, Steve Stone.

The two provided running commentary from an open-air booth at Wrigley field to Cub fans over radio and television for fourteen years. My mimic brother does both parts, the slurred speech of Harry, masking a stroke that didn’t keep him out of the booth and Stone’s more nasally intonations.

Certainly, they announced the game in 1983 on a day when the New York Mets came to town. Frank Howard was coach and the starting pitcher for the Mets, Walt Terrell, hit back-to-back home runs in that game. It was a phenomenal feat, as any baseball aficionado can assure you, based on the stats alone. I was there with Arthur Russell to witness the whole thing. Ferguson Jenkins, starting pitcher for the Cubs, lost the game. Wait a minute, back up! Fergie Jenkins lost the game. His consolation for the loss was his election to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown eight years later in 1991.

The point is my brother is an excellent mime, especially when he’s relaxed, among good people, and drinking Harps from a glass served by a handsome Irish lass. Under those circumstances, his pitch is perfect. The dial is set to ten.

On Christmas Eve, the family, Jim, Carolyn, my daughter, Allison, and mom’s caregiver, Mariya, crowded into the den to watch It’s a Wonderful Life.  I’ve heard Jim imitate Jimmy Stewart many times over many years. The way he enunciates George Bailey’s words in the line “You’re nothing but a scurvy spider, Mr. Potter” captures that signature sound in Stewart’s voice, which sounds like his jaw is still mending after somebody busted it open.

If you know the movie, the person most likely to bust his jaw open would be the misanthropic bar owner, Gus, who appears in a dystopian Bedford Falls, a doppelganger for the bartender, Gus, who appears in the everyday “real” Bedford Falls, where George Bailey already has a wonderful life but is far too stubbornly willful and confused by a mind fogged up with vague “worldly” ambitions to see the wonderful life that God has already granted him. At great peril, he does not realize that the world of Bedford Falls is utterly sufficient. All George Bailey ever has to do is see it that way. It’s like Dorothy and her shoes.

Like his Caray / Stone voices my brother’s Stewart can be pitch perfect. Only on this night, he did not settle for ten. He pushed it up that tiny little bit, all that’s required, to beam a masterful performance into the thick weeds of cornpone. He maxed out the dial all the way to eleven. Carolyn had the prime spot in the den, seated on a chair straight in front of the television. Jim was off on her right-hand side. She leaned to her left, as would a comic on stage breaking the fourth wall to whisper a question to the audience, “How’d I get mixed up with him?”

I was in the perfect spot to pick up her aside, perfectly positioned as her other son to think how ridiculous that sounded, the brother’s mother pretending she didn’t know how it all began. Good thing she wasn’t on a real stage; she would have brought the house down.

It’s a Wonderful Life is my all-time favorite movie. I marvel how it folds in the mood and imagery of film noir into a perennial candidate for feel good movie of the year. I marvel at its durability. How it continues to teach me things. The premise that people routinely, tragically underestimate their influence on others, disparage or are blind to the good they dole out and that this failure might cause them to give up in one way or another has held me in its thrall for most of my life.

Our capacity for blindness is immense. Here’s George Bailey itching to get out to see the world, his idea of heaven, when right around him, right under his nose, is all the world, all the heaven he can handle. It’s literally there at his feet. And he can’t see it. Who is sent to point this out to him? Clarence, a goofy second-class angel.

Only George to the credit of his stubbornness doesn’t go down without a fight. He is brought down to his knees on that icy bridge where, on the brink of despair, he has returned to the scene where he tried to kill himself, for a second time.

Carolyn bowling 02/17/2022

As illustrated in this parable, unless you have a profound sense of your connectedness to others in your community, your life is literally hell. Hell on earth. You don’t have to wait for the afterlife. You can start that gig right away.

As George prays on the bridge, a miracle happens. His prayer is answered. And the astonishing thing about this is that the miracle was always present in himself, his spirit, and his mind. It happens perhaps only when the human spirit intersects with divine will.

This wondrously cheerful movie gleefully takes on the wondrously Quixotic chore of demonstrating to a theoretically very thick-headed audience exactly how thick in the head a human being can be. We’re all running around with logs in our eyes, it tries to tell us.

No wonder I missed some of the other things that movie wants to convey. But for this viewing I was seated next to Carolyn, the woman who uses grace in its most simplistic form, the most commonplace, daily expression we use to express gratitude, which are the words “thank you”. With a zest for candor that comes from grace, Carolyn Poplett is weaponized for love. These days she delivers “thank yous” rapid-fire until you are riddled with them, powerless, forced to relent, and love her back.

Jim and I choose caregivers for competence but mostly for how quickly they surrender to an infectious barrage of love bombs. This explains exactly why Mariya and Lyn have remained in her employ for so long. Carolyn and these amazing women love each other.

If the good people of Bedford Falls were more like my mother (or Mariya or Lyn), you wouldn’t have had time to finish your popcorn. If everybody in Bedford Falls had thanked George Bailey with a measure of her grace, George Bailey would not have gotten anywhere near that bridge and Clarence would have to go elsewhere to get his wings. Carolyn is a woman who at the age of ninety-two, a woman deep into her dotage, is still powerful, more powerful than a baby who can coax grandpa to play on the carpet, because her innocence is recovered innocence and brings with it a deep-seated wisdom that not even dementia can uproot.

Well, something must have rubbed off. Before Carolyn got too far down that slippery slope, I started to ask her for advice. I figured that fierce instinct of maternal love would reel her back to a lucid state. With back-to-back failures in love and marriage, I wasn’t done with the old girl yet. I had plenty to talk with her about. I appealed to her for advice.

That it could almost instantly yank her out of the fog was astonishing to behold despite my confidence in the theory. When I tried it again and witnessed her mind snap back a second time, this tapping into the bond of mother and son, astonished me more. It seemed we were tapping into something close to the center of life itself.

This is the meaning of that Barbara Streisand lyric in the song “People” which asserts that people who need people are the luckiest people in the world. I never understood that. Never. Not even when I started writing this article. I get it now. It only took me 57 viewings of that movie and 64 years of my mother’s sturdy example to reach this point. God spare us all if there are people out there thicker me.

Acknowledging need of others is as simple as saying “thank you”. The rest you leave up to sincerity and intonation. Then, join the luckiest people.

Now finally at long last I have a useful clue to my failures in marriage and love. I was unlucky. I was unlucky because I didn’t acknowledge how much I needed a woman. And a world class, George Bailey worthy stubbornness kept me from seeing how subtly the quality of independence shifts from a virtue to a corrosive, slow-acting poison. This slow-acting property makes it worse, crueler and more difficult to detect. It is insidious like neuropathy or diabetes. Only it attacks relationships instead of the body. I explained this all to my mother this evening. I called her by phone and gave her a condensed version of my theory on need and my failures in relationships.

“That’s right,” she said.

“So, I need to explain this to my friend,” I said. “Even if it doesn’t bring us close. For the sake of doing what’s right.”

In my excitement, I exclaimed, “See, mom, I still need you as my mother? I just called because I had to tell you that,” I said.

“Thank you. Thank you very much,” she said. Then she told me her body was exercising inside and that it was full of joy.

The Mystery of Carolyn’s Daring Escape from Incarceration

Ray E., Patt Oppenheim, and Carolyn

“This is my son, John. He’s the one who incarcerated me.”

Imagine that the person making this introduction was your mother in an assisted-living home. Imagine you were standing next to her, and this is how she chose to introduce you to her fellow inmates—very cheerfully and void of foul intent, venom, rage, or any other more moderate form of ill-feeling. Just, you know, cheerful.

Now imagine that her words, despite the hyperbole—a classic Southern trait—were almost entirely true. Well, not almost true. Actually true. In that moment, she introduced only me though she could have indicted David Strom, her attorney, had he been present. But David had the good sense not to be present.

The truth is David Strom and I did put her in prison, then known as Holley-Court, an assisted-living high-rise here in Oak Park, Il., about two and a half blocks from her longtime townhome residence on Kenilworth Ave., the same street she lived on for 40 years, the same address I came home to from college on Christmas break, the same street upon which my father’s ashes are buried, etc. But David and I only did it because she had fallen several times and I was frightened and concerned that I might lose my mother and my fiercest ally and David was frightened and concerned that he might lose a client and one of his fiercest friends. How fierce? Ask my brother.

Carolyn was and remains fierce, despite dementia, though she cloaks it in beguiling and innocent sounding expressions like “This is my son, John. He’s the one who incarcerated me.”

The truth is I endured more than one of those withering introductions. And if you were in my shoes, like me, you would have wanted to crawl down into them. No! You would have wanted to collapse into them and vanish completely, as when a crew sends a spark to a sufficient charge of dynamite, placed at the foot of a vacant high-rise building, so that the explosion causes the building to implode and crash inward, down in on itself, and fall into a cloud of cinder and ash, its own pulver, its final violent state. This, I hope, affords a tiny sense of how that felt. Did I mention that Carolyn is fierce?

So, the greater truth was that David and I together conspired to incarcerate Carolyn, guilty as charged, on the pretext of concern for her safety and well-being but the ugly truth is that decisions such as these are always a little self-serving. She had every right to call me out. How David emerged unscathed I cannot say.

Somehow and to this day not all the details have come to light, for the guile of a Southern woman is as deep as it needs to be, she engineered her escape in the classic style of a flamboyant felon given to panache: entirely within the confines of her cell.  It’s a safe bet that she required only two ingredients, guile and smile, and mixed those together in the proportions required by alchemy and dark science.

But the one other ingredient that has come to light was “girl power”. Carolyn wanted to bust loose, and she quickly conceived that men, her own son among them, were her enemies. She therefore rallied forces—the only forces she could trust—viz., other women.

Somehow, with her private army and sleeper cells, she located a condominium, entirely situated on a single floor to remove the greatest dread, the consequences of a fall down a staircase, and ordered David to assist her in its purchase. She forthwith made David promise, fiercely I imagine, never to move her again, a promise that he, and I by proxy, have so far upheld.

The condo she purchased was a rebuke to another totem of the patriarchy, this time her late husband, Ray E. Poplett, who fifty years ago had vetoed a chance to purchase a unit in the same building[1].

Diana Ostreko combined forces with her and figured out a way to get every carpet, a baby grand piano, and precious curios out of a three-story townhouse and into her new home. The only complaint of her many doting nieces and nephews is that, in the transfer, the vinyl record of that Christmas classic, “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”, went missing.

They outfitted it exactly to her wishes as a place for hospitality and where great parties were likely to erupt. I do not think it was entirely an accident that her new home became the birthplace for a new cocktail, the “Moonhattan”, which uses all the same ingredients as a conventional Manhattan, except that bourbon is tossed fittingly in favor of moonshine.

The moral of this story is that two Yankee men can’t outwit a Southern woman. In fact, three can’t do it and, if you’re going to try, I advise you as a friend to start out with somebody other than my mother.

[1] I am sure that if we could have him back, Carolyn would restore him his veto power, albeit with a few Ts and Cs freshly amended.

Inveigling and The Kung Fu Mind of Carolyn Poplett

Early Photo of Outsmarted Son Sulking Next to Carolyn

Time and time again, Carolyn has proven—thirty years beyond the death of her spouse, through a stroke, day in and day out after the onset of dementia, right up to last evening—that now no matter how many times the disease shaves off another thin slice of her mind, all it succeeds in doing is to expose another vein of precious ore that it might shimmer in the light.

I have followed the Chicago Bulls since Jerry Sloan, Chet Walker, Bob Love, Tom Boerwinkle, and Norm “Stormin’ Norman” Van Lier were starters in the early seventies. I have seen the Bulls put together many entertaining teams, yet the team has never been more charming than in this 2021-2022 NBA season. We’ve had characters and “greats” but never a team so inspired by love.

With this team, the shop-worn metaphor of chemistry catalyzes into magic. The players do not always succeed in hiding the joy and delight that wells up inside them from the chance to exercise and display their God-given talents, believing in the brotherhood of their team, and seizing on the potential for love in what—as former Bull player and current Bull announcer, Stacey King, routinely asserts on air—is “a simple game”. It seems like when they’re out on the floor they’re always smiling.

Carolyn played ball in high school and college. She coached ball in her first years of teaching in Scales Mound, Illinois, after graduating across the Big River in Dubuque.

At ninety-two, Carolyn enjoys watching the sport not a little but a lot, almost too much. Her eyesight is preternaturally acute. To this day, I believe, she could count the veins on a dragonfly’s wing.  I imagine it makes it extra tiresome to see things that keenly. And people who know my mother, knows she does not get half-way involved in anything.

Earlier this year, DeMar DeRozan, the Bulls’ leading scorer, treated Carolyn, me, and other fans to two back-to-back buzzer beaters where he won both games in dramatic fashion in the closing seconds. Two of them! Each behind the three-point arc! Fully engaging in the drama from tipoff to dramatic or disappointing finale, as Carolyn does, no matter how old you are, is going to wear you down. That she has the stamina and is even eager to watch—after four high scoring quarters, half-time, and 1,400 Geico commercials—the post-game show amazes me. Sure, the analysts, Kendall Gill and Will Perdue, have stepped up their game but, they could walk on balls while juggling bowling pins, it’s still a post-game show. I don’t get it. Maybe Carolyn needs it as a diver needs a hyperbaric chamber to decompress and stave off the bends.

And this happens regularly even after her sons and her caregivers cruelly, surreptitiously like cowardly thieves switched the grounds used to brew her late-night cup from regular to decaffeinated.

Last night I dialed to ask her permission to visit and watch the game. Usually, I don’t dial. I just drop in, often bringing soup from Panera or rice and fish from home. I take my laundry with me and then I attempt to inveigle Carolyn into watching a game.

(should have looked this up years ago)

“Inveigle” is mom’s word, not mine.  The word amuses or charms her in some way that I don’t completely understand though I have observed its effect on her many times. It is perfectly apt for my purpose. To say, “Mom, can I inveigle you into watching a Bulls game with me?” is the quickest way to “yes” or “sure that would be fine”.

Most doting mothers, I imagine, don’t need inducement or any inveigling. Whatever the reason when I called, I didn’t resort to using the mantra word, inveigle. Maybe I thought unleashing it between mother and son was dirty pool, in violation of the Geneva Convention, or merely a sad example of unsportsmanlike conduct.

I asked her meekly instead “if it would be alright to come over and watch the game”.

 “Oh, son, it cheers my heart to hear your voice and receive your call. Nothing in the world makes me happier to be with you and my other son, Jim. And I’ll look forward to hearing from you again tomorrow when you call,” she said.

“Yes, mom. I love you too,” I said.

“Oh, how I love you!” she said.

“Good night, mom,” I said.

“Bye,” she said cheerfully on a rising Southern note.

That’s how Carolyn Poplett blows off her son. She’s been doing it for decades.

Long Day’s Journey into a Mind Going Dark

Carolyn Poplett

Returning from a road-trip that kept me away for two weeks, I knew to expect that my mother, Carolyn, who is fast approaching her 92nd birthday, would impress me with how dementia had robbed another tiny piece of her mind. It’s hard to go away without some dread of the return, knowing how she depends on the society of her two sons.

If nothing else, our company and a steady stream of visits retard somewhat her decline. My brother, Jim, and I will swap turns watching Gunsmoke with her, the longest running show in television history, co-created by John Meston, a screenwriter who authored 379 Gunsmoke episodes himself some time after riding broncos in Colorado and attending Dartmouth, Harvard, and the Sorbonne in Paris. If you want to know why that show is deep, John Meston and an envious liberal arts education had something to do with it. It’s a good thing since Carolyn has undoubtedly looped through 379 episodes more than once, while the rest of us, her caregivers, Mariya and Lyn, and two sons could only claim the half.

I’ve watched all six interviews of Joseph Campbell by Bill Moyers, a TV series called The Power of Myth (which you can buy on Amazon Prime for the princely sum of twelve bucks). Campbell was caught up with mythology early as a boy when he saw a live performance of Buffalo Bill at Madison Square Garden. It sealed his fate. He dove into Native American mythology, rites, and religious customs and didn’t stop until he had canvased the globe.

Carolyn and I have viewed each episode in that series together at least once, some two or three times. Even when she can’t remember my name, a narrative as profound and abstruse as Campbell’s survey of world cultures, religions, and archetypes and myth which, he argues, ground all of human experience, inching us closer to the edge of what is humanly knowable and therefore to God, and Moyer’s dogged persistence in fully animating Campbell’s explanations and replies, grips her mind and reaches deep down inside her to find a place where her intellect remains vibrant and intact. I’ve seen this reawakening many times. To experience it feels akin to a miracle like a flower unfolding before your eyes with the trick of time lapse photography.

Emerging from the bathroom one evening at the one of these episodes, after a change into her pajamas, adorable in her stockinged feet planted on the foot rests of a wheelchair, Mariya paused briefly to give Carolyn a chance to bid me good night.

“You know that man on the show we were watching?”

“I sure do, mom.”

“What he’s been saying is important. You need to tell other people about him.”

“Yes, mom. I agree. Believe me. I’m trying.”

I needed to make that trip though. I had friends to visit and the honor of an all-expenses-paid artist residency at Wildacres in Little Switzerland, North Carolina. My fears of how I might find my mother were soon realized.

I gave her the briefest of rundowns on where I had been and a few of the places I had visited. It was difficult for her to understand what her Yankee son was doing galumphing about her beloved childhood state. It must have been confusing. Why was I there and not her?

Carolyn no matter how much difficulty she’s having in the moment with her memory, refuses to come up short in conversation. I am utterly charmed by her strength of will. This time she decided to co-opt my story and turn it into her own.

I explained how, on the way down, I passed through the area around Boone, NC and saw some friends in Deep Gap.

“Guess where I went on the return trip?”

“Burnsville?” [Burnsville is one of the many towns in Western North Carolina where Carolyn and her siblings shared a home as children.]

“Not this time, mom. But I do go there a lot. I grabbed a bite of dinner next to The Boone Tavern Inn and Berea College where your sister Ginny went to school. I always like to go there. It feels like I am saluting your sisters. Didn’t Aunt Mary Lib and Sally go there too? You always liked to talk about how Ginny had one of her paintings on display for years in one of the campus buildings.”

[And here’s where the conversation went slightly off the rails.]

“Well, I think your mother would be proud of you,” she said.

“You do? Mom, I thought you were my mother. Who do you think I am?”

“Well, I think you live in a lot of people’s minds.”

“I see. I love that thought, mom. I love that idea. I believe it is true and I have similar thoughts all the time. [And here again was yet another time where I got a hard glimpse into how much she had informed my being. It was like opening a closet and seeing a ghost.].

“How about if we talk about going out for a little supper?”

“Well, I just got back from… uhm, Boone and then I went to Berea after that,” she said.

“Mom, we don’t have to talk about our travels. What I’m trying to talk about is super banal. We’re just discussing where we should go to get some supper.”

[Hell will freeze over two or three times before she will concede her part in a conversation or come up short without a repartee.]

“Oh, well, I think that’s very important. I like that idea. Let’s think about that instead. I don’t know any of the places around here like you do, George,” she said. [George was one of Carolyn’s beloved brothers].”

Then, with hilarious cunning, “Where would you like to go?”

[Leaving me to wonder, how many times she had pulled a like ruse on me before, a Southern gal trumping her dim-witted Yankee son, feigning to graciously relinquish the prerogative to me, in this case, the choice of restaurant, though at this stage I could see clear through her deception: that she couldn’t think of a dining spot, not even her long-running favorites, Citrine or Hemmingways, in our hometown of Oak Park, to save her soul.]

“Well, we we could go to Citrines. You might not remember. We went there the week they first opened. You liked it so much you wanted to go back the next night.”

“Did I really?”

“Yes, I reminded you, at the time, that we had just gone there but we decided to go back anyway. That’s how much you like it there. And we always share the beet salad.”

“Mom, I want to watch a baseball game when we get back from dinner but I don’t want to watch it if you don’t want to watch it. All I can tell you is that playoff baseball is like nothing else. It’s operatic. A slow-paced drama only there are charges of dynamite hidden all over the field. You never know when one of those charges is going to go off. A game can lull you while the pitchers engage in a subtle duel for innings and then, out of nowhere, kaboom! One of them goes off. It could be a play at the plate, a double play, a home run, a stupendous catch to keep the ball from going over the fence, stolen bases. Playoff baseball is unpredictable in every way except that it is predictably amazing. And the camerawork nowadays is better than ever.”

“How do you know so much?”

“Mom, I don’t. My knowledge is about half a centimeter deep. It’s your other son, Jim, who knows baseball. How could he not? He’s a Cubs fan.”

“Is he really?”

“Yes, trust me, mom. When we watch a game with Jim, you’ll see. It’s a lot of fun. Wait till he mimics Harry Caray and Steven Stone. You know what a good mimic he is.”

“Is he?”

“Yes, mom.”

“Can I pay the check now?”

“It’s already paid. You can hold your head up high. You don’t have to worry about your son going home malnourished or fainting on his way to the car.”

“Oh, that’s good. We wouldn’t want that.”

“Right, mom.”

At home, that evening, Carolyn had a conniption, a series of rapid fire angry, almost rageful outbursts of an intensity that hasn’t visited her in years, maybe even since she faced the humiliation of having to use a walker for the first time (it’s a wonder she didn’t hurl that thing through one or many walls). She refused to join my brother and me in the den (highly unusual) and instead inexplicably insisted on returning to the bathroom. Popping out of the bathroom a little later, there was nothing left for her to do in there, she avoided the den, more strangely than the first dodge, going to the kitchen to avoid us. She was—to use her own expression—”so mad she could spit bullets”; those that she did spit were aimed at Mariya.

I went in to back her up. “Mom, this is not like you. What’s the matter? This isn’t you. What’s bothering you, mom? Do you know?”

She didn’t. I couldn’t figure it out either1. I didn’t expect her to. I just wanted to jog her out of her upset. She calmed down. People who know her know her know that she cannot stray to far from grace. The instant she started to recover. She apologized to Mariya, the ease and naturalness of it utterly familiar and yet at the same time a display of character to excite wonder. It happens quite often—albeit with less drama—and I’m always quite amazed. A moment or two later, after Mariya moved away, she looked at me and said, “I love you and Jim more than anything in the world. You mean so much to me.”. It was sweet and sincere but also was here apology and way of saying “I know I kind of lost it; please don’t runaway.”

As if, my brother or I could ever entertain such a thought.

  1. Jim later figured out that a reduction in strength of a medication triggered the upset. She’s back on a full-dose now.

Mrs. Leonard Schools Punk: You’re Not That Important

My first best friend, Tim Leonard, a boy wedged in the middle of a pack of ten siblings, grew up a Catholic in a big, rambling house that teemed with life and always felt more crowded than any scene in a Bruegel painting. My parents, then youthful and aspirational white Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs!), moved in across the street.

I was born with at least two—nobody counted; there were almost certainly more—silver spoons in my mouth. The Leonard kids had to share the spoon, which was not made of silver but of some other dubious ore.

Mrs. Leonard and Carolyn Poplett were also best friends: Mrs. Leonard, a devout, mass-attending Catholic of Irish descent, and Carolyn, a migrant rebel from North Carolina, from a family of hillbillies, of Scotch-Irish descent, who by an abundance of natural grace, grew into her full promise, a great Southern lady dwelling comfortably among Yankees.

Carolyn Poplett

While rearing two sons[1], Carolyn also wrote books about the formative years of feminism, in eras before feminism got its name. She wrote a book about the early 20th century suffragist Grace Wilbur Trout. She wrote another book about the women of the Nineteenth Century Club[2], women who pioneered America’s first social safety net when men of station were too busy trying to invent new businesses and too little concerned with the social consequences of building business empires. They mostly cared about their image and their families and were otherwise willing to exploit anybody and everybody[3] except possibly people who attended the same church or were members of the same country club.

Carolyn was and—at ninety years of age today—still is an exemplary model of femininity who also happens to be a second-wave feminist, albeit a feminist who never once dreamed of burning her brassiere.

As a young child growing up, my mother endured poverty which is unimaginable to a great many people in America today, at least, any family or individual blessed to have a home and to live outside of poverty or suffering from the trauma of sudden or extreme, intimate losses of life or dignity.

Carolyn came of age in the great depression. She and her surviving siblings moved from home to home, forced to move most likely because my grandfather was perpetually broke or out of work. My grandfather—I imagine only out of sheer necessity—inadvertently embittered his eldest son, almost for life, when he took my uncle Bob’s pet dog, Jake, a bluetick hound, a breed prized for its fearlessness (mountain men used them to hunt black bears), to sell it for cash. Uncle Bob and my mother and most of my aunts and uncles, then children, were living in the mountains or likely a “holler”, in a cabin, when two of their siblings starved to death for lack of food.

She reached her maturity as did all of her siblings with the burden of survivor’s guilt. I am sure it was very much intact by the time Carolyn and Mrs. Leonard bonded. I am sure it was an essential fact for the tightness of that bond.

For, you see, Mrs. Leonard herself birthed two children, her two eldest boys, Bill and Mike, who died from the complications of muscular dystrophy by the time they were twenty[4].

That alone was sufficient to explain why Carolyn might sometimes cross the street to the Leonard’s to wash dishes after the family assembled together and had their meal. The Leonard’s had it rough. It resonated so deeply with my mother that of her the neighbors said:

Even the nuns gave up on the Leonards.

Meaning, pointedly, that my mother never gave up on her friend.

From Mrs. Leonard I learned one of the most abiding lessons in my life. As the bratty WASP kid with the two spoons, I complained to her one day that her entire brood had decided to pick on me on one particular lazy, hot summer day, merely for the sport of it, the kind that sheer boredom inspires. We were out of school; we had all day to play and get into mischief; there was no reason to have a single concern. Mrs. Leonard was lugging bag after bag of groceries out of the back of a full-length Buick station wagon into the house with indifferent help from a few of her children.

I uttered my complaint while she crossed over the front porch to enter the house through the front screen door. Without breaking stride, she answered, “That’s too bad.”

That was it. Many years later, decades later, when I remembered that incident, I had to smile. Fundamentally, it was hilarious. Mrs. Leonard with a passel of daily challenges could hardly feign concern. I doubt she had even a fleeting impulse to console me. I am in fact quite convinced she did not. For this Thanksgiving, I vow never forget that sometimes all an adult should tell a child, whether their own kids or the child of their best friend, whether their spouse, another adult, or a co-worker:

That’s too bad.

God bless you, Mrs. Leonard. Thank you for schooling this punk.

[1] According to Carolyn, “you rear children and you raise cattle”.

[2] The 19th Century Club is a short block and a half walk from my current residence here in Oak Park, Illinois

[3] Cast your mind back to the age of John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie and General Motors, people and institutions which were not always “nice”.

[4] An outstanding fact of their bond was that neither my grandparents or Mr. and Mrs. Leonard practiced birth-control.

How to Spot a Liar in Eighteen Seconds or Less

When you get the chance, treat yourself to Bo-Diddley’s heart-thumping rock ‘n roll rendition of the Willy Dixon song, You Can’t Judge a Book by The Cover. Enjoy Willy’s lyrics.

George Eliot originated the expression in her 1860 novel, The Mill on the Floss.

I don’t know where or when or how I got it into my head that another lyrical mind, Oscar Wilde, contradicted the original expression “you can’t judge a book by its cover” by saying “you can judge a book by its cover”.

So far, copious searches on the Internet have yet to bail me out. It could be that I made it all up, propelled for some dark reason to invent a Wildesque fictional quotation, aided by the observation that Oscar Wilde loved nothing better than to flip conventional wisdom on its head.

I do know that many years ago, on break from college at home with my parents, I was having a meltdown reading The Price of Power, Seymour Hersh’s deeply-researched book that shreds the reputation of Dr. Henry Kissinger, when he served as Secretary of State under President Nixon’s administration during the Vietnam War. It zeroed in on his efforts building backdoor communications to our armed forces in Southeast Asia. It included a vignette of him personally picking out targets on the ground in the illegal bombing of Cambodia.

It was the same bombing campaign that triggered protests across the United States which sparked the tragedy at Kent State University in Ohio, when, on fifty years earlier on May 4, 1970, Ohio National Guardsmen pulled the trigger and shot four unarmed protesters dead. If you want a shining example of the “deep state”, there’s a real good one, documented in excruciating detail by a bonafide journalist, the same journalist who exposed the horrors of the Mai Lai massacre and helped turn the tide of public opinion against that particular pointless and as-it-turned-out unwinnable war.

Carolyn Poplett (AKA “mom”) is a North Carolina belle who married a Yankee lawyer. She managed to join the feminist movement in the 70s while hanging onto her femininity (she never burnt a single bra), author a pair of books on women power, and twice over a 50 year span rescue the local mental health agency from financial oblivion.

I was venting to Carolyn about Dr. Kissinger with steam gushing out of my ears. I was trying to summarize in words exactly how the secretary’s actions were so unfathomably reprehensible. 

“Oh,” she said, “I knew all about him the minute I saw his picture posing naked on a bear skin rug on the front cover of a magazine. What does it say about a man that ugly posing naked on a rug?”

National Lampoon’s Henry Kissinger

What she didn’t realize and I didn’t realize, up until I started this essay, was that the cover was Fake News—before we knew what to call it—manufactured by Harvard’s Lampoon. Only it was the good kind of fake news, which is otherwise called satire, a form of humor where as my father liked to say “many a truth is said in jest”. It captured the essence of the man and his boundless sense of his own self worth. Fake news or not, it was all that Carolyn needed to get a glimpse into his capacity for delusion.

Her remark served the magnificent purpose of suggesting the opposing notion, that sometimes you can tell a a book by its cover. If Oscar Wilde never said it, I transfer full credit to my mother.

So here we are, a scant few weeks from the 2020 Presidential election, when it would be most timely to have this knack Carolyn Poplett postulated, when last the United States was in a deep spiritual crisis, “to tell a book from its cover”.

Or, in paraphrase:

To judge, you sometimes have to cast a keen eye on the surface.

I have invented ways to follow my mother’s precept. It’s not always easy and I still get fooled but with practice it gets easier. Here I provide you with a few examples:

  • Bill Clinton boards a plane with Jeffrey Epstein not once but twice. Next!
  • Hillary Clinton receives a fee from Goldman Sachs for delivering a speech behind closed doors. Next!
  • Sean Hannity hid the fact that he used Michael Cohen as his attorney while reporting on the whole Stormy Daniels thing. Next!
  • James Comey, as head director of the FBI, used his personal email account on the job. Next!
Dr. Cornel West

Chris Wallace, on the other hand, gets a pass. While our national attention was still focused on Black Lives Matters, he called Dr. Cornel West onto his show because Chris Wallace is comfortable in his own skin, comfortable calling in a Harvard professor who is an expert on the racial divide. It is something that Sean Hannity, that other Fox News commentator, would never do for fear of making himself look bad. Chris also is amused by humankind. Watch the airing of that show and you will see Chris Wallace, smile and enjoy his conversation with Dr. West. You will see Dr. West get Chris to crack a smile. Sean, on the other hand, sees evil everywhere he bothers to look. He rarely smiles.

Fortunately, for persons who purport to follow the Christian faith, the litmus test is easy. Jesus Christ made it easy.

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies…

Matthew 5:43-44

In the sphere of politics, the energy a candidate throws into casting shade on or disrespecting an opponent is the extent to which the candidate is “not loving the enemy”. In short, violating a fundamental Christian precept. That’s all you need to know. And you can make that judgement in less than eighteen seconds. When you do, you should have seconds to spare.

Shaving Cream

So, why are people so hopelessly bad at telling a book by its cover? My guess is that we neglect another adage, the adage to “heal ourselves”. I cannot think of a more frequently overlooked admonition than this piece of sound advice. Healing yourself, as any self-respecting psychiatrist or therapist will tell you, takes years of will and dedication. In other words, more of us are full of shaving cream than any one of us would care to admit.

Ray Allen

Engagement in the lifelong process of healing yourself is a prerequisite for citizens who wish to make good judgments, sometimes snap judgments, effortless and confident judgments, like the ball coming out of the hands of Ray Allen late in the fourth quarter for a three-pointer. If you haven’t already set out on a journey of spiritual self-improvement, you’re too late for this election. Maybe you need to think about it. Maybe you need to sit this one out.