Wednesday, February 8, 2012

A New Website!

Friends: I have launched a new website today using a WordPress blog template (and a lot of help from Meghan Viers). It features my weekly columns, which will still be posted on Thursday evenings, lots of new photographs, links to buy my books (please!) and longer-form essays. I'm excited about the site, which allows me to add much more content. Sometime soon, the site where you're now reading this will go away, though I don't know how these web things really work.

Go to to see the new site. And yes,the deer walking on the sidewalk is an unmanipulated photo. I shot it at Hurricane Ridge in the Olympic Mountains, Washington, last summer.

Cheers, and keep in touch. And spread the word if you like what you see and read.

Gary Borders

Thursday, February 2, 2012

I Guess I Am a True Patriot

According to a recent poll conducted by a blog site whose credentials are likely suspect but anecdotally ring true enough, the New England Patriots — playing in their fifth Super Bowl in 11 years — are the most hated NFL team in America. In fact, of the top dozen disliked sports team — both professional and collegiate — three of them are Boston teams — the Patriots, Red Sox and Celtics. The Boston Bruins didn’t make the list, probably because too few people watch hockey these days to affect a survey. All four comprise my favorite pro teams. It is an inherited trait, because I grew up in New Hampshire with my mother’s French-Canadian family. They brooked no discussion on which teams to follow. Besides, our snowy black-and-white television only picked up Manchester and Boston channels, and only a couple of them at that.

Technically the New England Patriots are no longer a Boston team since building a stadium in Foxborough, about 30 miles south. But that’s close enough, especially for an old-timer like me. I have been a Patriots fan since pre-Super Bowl days, when they were genuinely a Boston team playing at Fenway Park. I was a tyke devouring the sports pages of the tabloid Boston Record-American and the Concord Monitor. My godparents’ son, a fellow named Burton Nault, was the Patriots’ team physician. He occasionally provided autographed photos of the team stars — folks such as running back Jim Nance, quarterback Babe Parilli, and my favorite, wide receiver and kicker Gino Cappelletti. (I think I just liked saying his name.) The team had limited success before the merger of the American Football League with the NFL and the creation of the Super Bowl, appearing in just one league championship and getting whacked, 51-10 by the Chargers.

In fact, for the nearly 13 years I spent in New Hampshire, the only Boston team with consistent success was the Celtics, with its cigar-smoking Coach Red Auerbach on the bench, and legendary stars such as Bill Russell and Johnny Havlicek on the court. The team won seven NBA championships in the 1960s. I remember lying in bed with my transistor radio at age 9 during Game 7 against the hated Philadelphia 76ers, listening to the gravelly voice of Johnny Most screaming hoarsely, “Havlicek stole the ball! It's all over... It's all-l-l-l over!" Johnny Most could make a cribbage game sound exciting over the radio, but this truly was an electric moment.

But the Red Sox and Patriots? Not so much. Both teams only started winning championships after the turn of this century, though both occasionally got to the title game. Even the once-mighty Celtics went 22 years before winning a championship four years ago. The Bruins skated and traded punches for nearly 40 years before winning the Stanley Cup last year. Generations of Red Sox fans, including my kinfolks, went to their graves unfulfilled as the team went 86 years before winning a World Series. The Patriots bumbled from birth for 42 years before winning a Super Bowl.

Now Boston pro teams have seven championships among them in the past decade, so envy likely explains their high rankings in the “most hated” category. No longer are Boston teams the lovable losers of the past, underdogs always, whose team slogans were invariably, “Wait until next year.” Unsubstantiated rumor indicates that epitaph graces a few tombstones of diehard Boston fans, which is too good a story to ruin by actual research. But now Boston fans are considered a bunch of whiners when we bemoan the embarrassing collapse, for example, of the Red Sox at the end of last season. Of course, the report of millionaire pitchers eating fried chicken and drinking brewskis in the locker room while the game was underway is hardly geared to elicit sympathy.

Which brings us back to the Patriots seeking revenge Sunday in Super Bowl XLVI. This massive sporting event is one of the few places one finds Roman numerals being used. I can decipher Roman numerals just fine, but this seems to be a vanishing, admittedly rather useless, talent. The last time the Patriots were in a title game, the team had won all its regular season games as well as two playoff games and headed into the Super Bowl with an unprecedented 18-0 record. And they lost to the Giants, those spoilsports, to the delight of Patriots haters everywhere. This is one of those rare times when I actually was depressed over the results of a sporting match.

I will be watching Sunday but have no intention of allowing this game to affect my mental health, though there will be some cheering and talking to the television involved. I will wear the Patriots sweatshirt my mom gave me after the first SB win. It is well-worn and soft. She forgot that she had bought it for me and bought another a month later, so I have two identical sweatshirts. This allows me to always wear one in the winter once home from work. I had to explain to my Beautiful Mystery Companion that I owned two identical sweatshirts and wasn’t wearing the same clothing article for months on end.

She has no intention of watching the Super Bowl. But if I’m nice I’ll bet she’ll make some nachos.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

A Year of Absent Birthdays

My mother would have turned 82 this week. My dad would have turned 80 this summer. Both are gone now, so this is the first year both of their birthdays are being noted in absentia. As executor, I am wrapping up their affairs and disbursing the estate’s assets, with the able assistance of an attorney. My parents were not wealthy, but they were thrifty. Of course, I would much rather have them back — living independently well into their 80s or 90s as most members on both sides of the family have done — but it wasn’t meant to be. Instead both declined over years until their deaths, just more than two years apart, were sad blessings. And I write checks to the heirs, gifts that are a legacy to my mom’s handling of their nest egg.

It was an honor to be their primary caretaker in those final years. The journey began five years ago this month. My father had long been disabled by a botched medical procedure. For 17 years my mother cared for him at their home on South Twelfth Street in Longview, but it had become clear to me that couldn’t continue. The house was no longer clean, and she fired each housekeeper I hired. The doctor’s office called to say my mom had lost her car in the parking lot, hunting in vain for a white Maxima (she owned a champagne Altima), and didn’t have an appointment that day anyway. I drove to Longview from Lufkin on a Sunday to try once more and talk them into going into assisted living in Lufkin, at a fine facility down the street from my house. This time, in fact, I was going to insist upon it, though I really didn’t want to play the legal card and force them. But their safety clearly was at risk.

My dad was alone in the house when I arrived. He calmly informed me that an ambulance had taken Mom to the emergency room. He didn’t know why. She nearly died that day from insulin shock, received the last rites, and was taken off all artificial support as she had requested. Once again, my mom bounced right back among the living, but her collapse took the fight out of her as far as staying in the house. The journey from assisted living, then to nursing care, finally to hospice began. The house and most of the contents were sold, except for what remains in a storage unit in South Longview.

My brothers and I still haven’t been able to bring ourselves to go through that storage unit, which contains the remaining physical possessions — my father’s paintings and hundreds of prints of his pen-and-ink and pencil drawings, dozens of photo albums, boxes of knick-knacks my mother collected, a few modest pieces of furniture. We will have to do it soon, before summer returns and diving into those boxes becomes physically unbearable.

We used to joke that my mother would photograph anything that moved, and we own the photo albums to prove it. Exactly what we will do with all this stuff is one reason we haven’t yet tackled the project, eight months after my mother’s death. Luckily there are six grandchildren to share in the dispersal. It’s going to take the whole clan to empty that storage unit of photo albums accumulated over a half century.

I have since learned that it is common for the adult children, left behind when parents die, to delay — often for years and even decades — the hard task of cleaning out the closets, going through the photographs, sifting through the personal items that once marked the lives of those who raised us. For my brothers and me, this is a process we already went through once when getting the house ready to sell. That is likely why we show little enthusiasm for doing it again.

My mother used to say in her declining years that, “Growing old is not for the faint of heart,” a phrase not original with her but certainly apropos. Another dear friend who died a year ago used to have a pillow on his couch with “Screw The Golden Years” embroidered upon it in gold thread. I told my mother about the pillow once, and she laughed and said, “Amen.” I’m hoping for a better voyage, but understand now better than ever that dying is seldom pretty or easy. My parents did so with courage and grace. I learned a lot from that, though they’re lessons I’m in no hurry to put into practice.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Cruising Longview, In Search of Vanished Landmarks

I was cruising around South Longview and the downtown area the other day, whiling away time on Memory Lane before a dreaded appointment with an MRI torpedo tube. Dreaded, not because it hurts or I’m particularly worried about the results. The deal is I’m decidedly claustrophobic and have to get legally stoned on Xanax to keep from climbing out of that contraption before the scan is completed. I have abandoned ship before, much to the dismay of the medical staff. So to keep my mind off the impending test, I drove around looking for long-gone landmarks from my youth— until it was time to enter pharmaceutical la-la land.

We moved to South 12th Street in the fall of 1968 from New Hampshire, after spending a summer living in Greggton with my grandfather, while my dad found work and a house to buy. By fall I was a 13-year-old kid with a banana-seat bike, operating a paper route through downtown for the afternoon edition. Most of the stores, bars and businesses I peddled papers for a dime through downtown are long gone or moved. There was Riffs, a hoity-toity women’s clothing store; Hurwitz, clothing for men, now out on Judson Road; Dillards, now in the mall but for years downtown at Tyler and High streets; Kelly Plow, whose furnaces conjured up visions of Hell as I tiptoed past; the Arlyne Theater and Brass Rail up the street from the paper. The latter was my favorite den of inequity and failed dreams. Both are long demolished.

A magnolia tree towers still on the corner of Tyler and Court streets. It was once the centerpiece of a ramshackle bar on Tyler Street. The tree is more than twice as tall now, the building long gone. I believe it was called the Tree Top Inn but don’t trust my memory. It could have been the Magnolia Saloon. But I am certain the tree grew out of a hole cut in the tin roof, and the bar had a hard-packed red-dirt floor. It catered to workers from Kelly Plow, once located a couple blocks away in the parking lot where a Farmers Market sprang up last year. I have a hand plow from the factory that my late mother got at a rummage sale somewhere. Someday I need to build new handles for that plow.

Traveling down Mobberly Avenue, I try to figure out where Tony’s Sporting Goods exactly stood. Tony was quite the character, with the most impressive set of nose and ear hair I have witnessed. His store was near the old Gibson’s — later a Howard’s store — a precursor to Walmart. I loved going to Howard’s as a teenager, pining over the selections of guitars, wondering if I should spend my paperboy money for the latest Steppenwolf LP or take a chance on Three Dog Night.

One Christmas, when I was 14, I saved my money and bought my parents a new stereo system from Howard’s. It was solid plastic and medium fidelity, but it was a step up from what they were using. It probably set me back $75 or so. I remember my parents were flummoxed I had spent that much money on them. I recall simply wanting to do something nice for them. Now they’re both gone, and that is one of my fonder memories of growing up, so it was certainly money well spent.

Howard’s didn’t survive the onslaught of Walmarts, of course. Not much did. Certainly the S&H Green Stamp Store, once on High Street near Birdsong, didn’t survive, though I don’t know if Walmart is to blame. My Beautiful Mystery Companion and I attempted to explain the green-stamp concept to our 14-year-old daughter recently. You shopped at Brookshires, which was the grocery store in Longview in the 1960s, and received a certain number of green stamps depending on how much you spent.
As you saved, you spent months poring over the S&H catalog, which in the 1960s was the largest-circulation publication in the country. When you had saved up a sufficient number — about 82,800 stamps or 69 books, if memory serves — you would head to the S&H store to redeem the stamps. I remember my mother buying a table lamp with green stamps. Green Stamps are long gone, though the name survives under the concept of online points.

On to the old site of the River Road Drive-In, now occupied by an apartment complex. My buddies and I used to cut through the LeTourneau University (then college) campus and peek over the fence at the racier movies being shown. Finally, back down Mobberly to where Burger Chef stood, at the intersection with Birdsong Street. I would ride my bike down there after supper and buy three little cheeseburgers for a buck. Like most teen boys, my stomach was a bottomless pit that needed to be replenished every few hours.

By then it was time to head home, get zonked on Xanax, and allow my wife to drive me to the clinic. Inside that tube I dozed fitfully, daydreaming about those little cheeseburgers and Tony the Sporting Goods guy, trying to ignore the clanging and banging that goes with an MRI.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Buzzards, Sno Balls and American Pie

The New Year has gotten off to an inauspicious start, though I remain optimistic. The Hostess company, maker of Twinkies, Ding Dongs and Sno Balls, is about to enter Chapter 11 bankruptcy for the second time in the past 10 years. (To steal a line, I guess that makes it Chapter 22.) Hostess products have been staples of vending machines in newspaper break rooms where I’ve toiled over the last 30 years. They appear to remain popular, with 36 million packages of Twinkies consumed in 2010. The fancy-pant equity investors who own — and owe — for Hostess are trying to shed debt to hold on, all the while blaming the rising price of sugar and flour. Whatever. Bunch of greedy muffinheads, far as I can tell.

I gave up eating Sno Balls after conducting a science experiment while working in the newsroom of the Lufkin Daily News, circa 1989. I bought a package of Sno Balls, with that sickly pink coconut covering. Then I formed a betting pool with fellow ink-stained miscreants on when the Sno Balls would develop the type of mold one finds on normal bakery products, such as bread. You know, the type of green stuff that spawned the invention of penicillin. If memory serves, the city editor had the most absurd prediction, something like nine months.

The Sno Balls sat on a shelf for the equivalent of the human female gestation period, never actually looking the worse for wear. The city editor won the pool, though nobody had the nerve to actually take a bite out of the cupcakes to see how they tasted. I concluded that unless it is beef jerky, dried fruit or red wine, one should avoid consuming anything that can survive nearly a year sitting on a shelf. So I have not eaten a Sno Ball, Ding Dong or Twinkie since. I reserve my empty calories for chips and salsa. They are essential to survival in these harrowing times.

I spent the first full weekend of the New Year apart from my peeps. My wife and I both needed to work, so I stayed in Austin while she prepared for classes in East Texas. We don’t like to do that, but there you go. On Sunday morning, after my morning walk and a light breakfast (actually it was two burritos from McDonald’s, but don’t tell her), I showered and prepared to spend the day in front of a computer screen.

While toweling off, I idly glanced out the second-story window over the tub at the sky, wondering if it was going to rain. (Not to worry. A curtain hides me from chin down.) My neighbor’s roofline is visible from that vantage point. Perched on the roof were three turkey buzzards, two of which seemed to be staring at me. I could see into their bloodshot eyes, practically smell that carrion cologne.

Hoo boy. Here I am feeling sorry for myself because I’m away from my family, as our lives seem to pass at warp-speed, and a trio of buzzards is peering into my bathroom window. And I’m in the middle of reading a Stephen King novel to boot!

In between bouts at the computer, I continued my quest to learn how to play Don McLean’s “American Pie” on my resonator guitar. I have discovered what most everyone who cares already knew — that one could find the chords to just about every song published on the Internet. I don’t know what possessed me to try to learn “American Pie.” It was a fine song the first 7,000 times I heard it, all 12 minutes of it.

At least that is how long it takes me to play it, since my chord-changing abilities are still at the rank-beginner stage. My fingers now have calluses, which allows me to play longer than 10 minutes before the pain becomes too much. And it is fair to say that I have improved 200 percent in the past four months of near-daily practice and biweekly lessons that just ended. I now am approaching the level of most 10-year-olds who have been playing for about a month.

A friend asked me what I planned to do once I became adept at playing. I told him I played guitar and banjo — albeit badly — at Shakey’s Pizza Parlor while in high school in Longview. You never know when a career change is in order.

Actually, there is probably a reason Shakey’s Pizza Parlors disappeared from Texas and can only be found in California and a few scattered spots in the South. They kept hiring doofuses like me to sing and play badly as the bouncing ball skipped over the lyrics up on the screen. I was doing karaoke way before karaoke was cool.

No, I will confine my guitar playing to the privacy of the home and only torture the family with my caterwauling and missed notes. I actually played “American Pie” all the way through last weekend. I had to take a nap afterwards to recover.

When I awoke, the buzzards were gone.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Crape Myrtle Mutilation Continues Unchecked

A harbinger of the New Year unhappily but inevitably arrived when I was back in East Texas over the holiday break. I headed with my wife to jointly risk our mental health by shopping at the Big Box Store during the Dead Week after Christmas, when sales abound. We were not shopping for bargains but simply trying to find a holiday six-pack of bottled Coca-Colas to give to someone. No luck. When Christmas ends, for the big-boxers it is out with the old before the eggnog has been digested. Gone are the decorations, cards and artificial trees. In place by New Year’s: Valentine’s Day cards and candy. These days in retail America, merchants uneasily lurch from one holiday to another, imploring folks to “Buy, buy buy!”

But I digress.

What caught my eye, as we pulled into the asphalt wasteland, were landscape workers busily mutilating crape myrtles planted in the strip of dirt bordering the fast-food restaurants near the Big Box Store. Perched on stepladders and armed with lops, they happily hacked away at these lovely trees, cutting the past year’s growth back. What remained was an ungainly skeleton. Most people apparently continue to believe that, for this loveliest of Southern ornamentals to bloom in summer, it must be pruned in January.

Most people are wrong. At least about crape myrtles.

Crape myrtle mutilation is a Southern tradition from Georgia to Georgetown, Florida to Floydada. Google “crape myrtle mutilation” and dozens of links arrive, most from conscientious arborists and landscapers who decry this barbaric practice. I once belonged, by virtue of slapping a bumper sticker on my Jeep, to a loosely formed organization led by a Deep East Texas landscaper and freelance gardening columnist for the paper I published in Nacogdoches, aka the Oldest Town in Texas. Pink and green “Stop Crape Myrtle Mutilation” bumper stickers soon graced, well, dozens of vehicles. Thousands of words were published in various newspapers and elsewhere, begging people to quit hacking away at the myrtles. I contributed my share of commentary to the cause. Talk about a tree falling in a forest. The hacking continues unabated Behind The Pine Curtain.

Crape myrtles come in various sizes. Folks who want mini-myrtles should buy the variety bred to remain modest. Left unchecked, most crape myrtles over years will become stately trees reaching upwards of 40 feet in height. Their blooms are luscious yet hardy, able to thrive in 100-degree summers with little water. And yes, they can survive an annual mutilation, but the end results are trees with thick trunks and spindly branches.

I admit that I am a recovering crape myrtle mutilator. I lived in Nacogdoches at the time, and as a single man had purchased a modest house. January arrived, and I hacked away at the half dozen large crape myrtles in the backyard, as instructed by a couple of my buddies who were trying to be helpful. I spent most of a day risking a spinal-cord injury perched on a rickety stepladder, snipping off branches. Then I had to haul the detritus to the curb. While complaining later that week about my sore back, our gardening columnist — the originator of the famed bumper sticker — overheard me.

This is the way I remember it, acknowledging he might have a different version:

“You don’t have to prune crape myrtles,” he said. “You can just let them grow. Pruning them doesn’t help them bloom; it just makes them look ugly.”

I was delighted to discern that I had spent my last weekend sweating in January while carving up crape myrtles. The gardening columnist had a convert, and over the past 15 years or so I probably have convinced perhaps 10 other kindred souls to stop this insidious practice. That leaves the vast majority of Southern landscapers still whacking away, along with the non-believers and those who just haven’t yet learned the gospel: No pruning necessary.

As for the landscapers, not to be uncharitable, but there isn’t a lot of landscaping work to be done in January. The grass isn’t growing, leaves have quit falling, and it’s too early to plant for spring. Mutilating crape myrtles provides an excuse to keep hard-working folks on the payroll during those slow months. I appreciate the need to keep money flowing for workers, to buy gasoline, etc. I just wish landscapers could think of something else to justify their pay other than turning tens of thousands of crape myrtles into ugly stumps until spring arrives. As for the homeowners out there who own crape myrtles, I hope you read this before spending hours engaged in a totally unnecessary activity. Just think. You can use that time to head back to the Big Box Store and check out what is on sale.

Or you could read a book. That’s my plan. Our front-yard crape myrtle might reach the roofline by this summer. At least I hope so. No trimming necessary.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Please, Do Not Send in The Clowns

I began reading Stephen King’s latest novel, “11/22/63” over Christmas break, having requested and received it as a gift from Abbie, my youngest daughter. I have not read anything by King in years after a phase in the 1990s plowing through “The Stand,” “It” and others in short order — often scaring myself past sleeping soundly.
King belongs to the genre of writing that a colleague terms “booger tales.” I don’t know where my coworker came up with the phrase, which refers to books or movies designed to scare the bejeebers out of the reader or viewer. But it stuck. I assiduously avoid booger movies, a habit that began after watching “Psycho” many years ago. Real life is scary enough without paying money to be frightened witless.

I’m not as squeamish about books, since one can put down a booger book at any time and skip the scary parts if desired. The printed word, no matter how adept the writer, simply doesn’t have the shocking effect as watching on the big screen when someone jumps out of the bushes to attack the teen couple strolling after dark in the park. Or whatever.

King’s “It” features the scariest, evilest clown in modern literature. The novel is set in Derry, Maine, a favorite King locale that doesn’t actually exist. (There is a Derry in New Hampshire, the state where I was raised until nearly a teenager.) The Derry that King describes is broadly reminiscent of the small New Hampshire town in which I lived, near Concord, the state’s capital. Enough strange and sad events occurred there during my youth — a girl strangled on Good Friday, 1964 by her insane aunt in her home on the next street over from ours, a suicide by shotgun a block away, another classmate gone missing and found murdered months later — that “It” resonated in that place deep within, where we try to keep our childhood fears buried. Besides, I have never liked clowns, so King’s novel only reinforced my antipathy.

King, who lives in Bangor, Maine, once did a fine favor for my middle daughter, Mere. When she was in high school she wrote King a fan letter. Weeks later a box showed up at our house, postmarked from Bangor. The box had previously been used, with the original recipient’s address marked out in black. Inside was a limited-edition publisher’s copy of the fourth Dark Tower book, “Wizard and Glass,” and a personal note from him. It was obvious that King had found a used box, packed this personally and trudged down to the post office to send it to a 16-year-old fan. Mere had written King that she lived in Lufkin and loved to drink Orbitz, which she describes as a strange fruit drink with little floating tapioca balls in it.

King wrote:

“Dear Meredith Borders, there's still plenty of the magic in the world. Your letter proves it. From a fellow Orbitz junkie, Stephen King, 2/3/98.” King later mentioned my daughter’s hometown in his next two books, in one describing a fellow “mucking out horse stalls in Lufkin, Texas.”

Where was I? Oh, “11/22/63.” That, of course, is the day President Kennedy was shot, news I received while in Mrs. Mahoney’s third-grade class in Allenstown, N.H. In King’s novel, a recently divorced English teacher in —yes — Derry, Maine, discovers a way to travel back in time and possibly change the outcome of certain events, such as a father in Derry killing several members of his family, and the death of a young president. I couldn’t spoil the ending for you if I wanted, since I’m only about one-fourth of the way through this 850-page turner. King can spin a good yarn, so this is a needed break from dense histories and biographies.

Early on, King mentions Moxie, a Maine-based soft drink that I tried and failed to enjoy as a child. It’s a bitter carbonated concoction invented in the late 19th century. Moxie might explain why Maine residents have a reputation for being a bit curmudgeonly — unlike the sunny folks of the great state of New Hampshire. I’m kidding about all that, of course. Moxie, from what I recall, tastes somewhat like root beer without sweetener. The beverage is still produced, though the company website admits Moxie is an “acquired taste.” Sort of like Orbitz, I suppose. Floating tapioca balls?

My daughter Mere is now a full-time writer and editor. She got her start writing reviews of horror movies for her own blog. She clearly did not inherit her love for booger movies from her dad. She now gets paid to write and edit for Badass Digest, an Austin-based website that reviews pop culture. She works very hard. I’m obviously quite proud.
I believe Stephen King played no small part in her success, though he likely will never know that. That’s why returning to read one of his books, set in a place so eerily similar to where I grew up, is a fascinating, if somewhat scary, ride.

I just hope no clowns show up.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Yard-Art Santas and Paperboys

My favorite Christmas card each season doesn’t come from a store. It is a photograph, printed on 4x6 paper, of a yard-art Santa Claus somewhere in East Texas. The photograph is invariably, wonderfully weird. For nearly two decades, by my count, O. Rufus Lovett has been distributing these photographs to his friends and colleagues. Someday I will gather them up from the various boxes where they are stashed and frame them into a single display.

Rufus and I have been friends for nearly a quarter-century. We met when I spent a year at Kilgore College as yearbook adviser and college photographer. Rufus has been the photography instructor there for more than three decades. His work is in museum and gallery collections throughout Texas. He is a contributing photographer to Texas Monthly and a number of national magazines, and has published two fine photographic book collections. (Google him to find out more.) I look forward to receiving Rufus’ cards each year.

This year’s offering features the torso of a blow-up Santa, with just his beard and belt visible, a pair of twine keeping him upright. Past versions include a Santa who appears to have been lynched on a front porch, the photo shot from behind; a forlorn decapitated Santa head hanging on a white-washed wooden fence with “God Bless America” painted across the pickets, a deer stand visible in the background; and a Santa mask fastened to a chain link fence guarding an electrical substation.

My friend Rufus has a keen eye for yard-art Santas. There is bound to be a book somewhere down the road.

As of this writing, three days before Christmas, I have received two other Christmas cards. (I suppose this should sadden me, but since I never send out cards it would be presumptuous to expect any in return.) One is from my attorney, the other from my newspaper carrier. The former told a few funny family tales. The latter wrote a thank-you note and included his address.

I suspect my carrier would not be opposed to a Yule stipend, which will be mailed to him forthwith. He is an excellent carrier who tosses a copy of the Wall Street Journal in the exact same spot on the driveway every morning. I have a soft spot for newspaper carriers, of course. Selling papers launched my checkered newspaper career.

A photo hangs in my office showing me and two other teen-aged boys standing next to a bicycle loaded down with a canvas satchel crammed with newspapers. It was taken in the fall of 1968, when I was 13. Downtown Longview was my oyster, especially at Christmas. The week before Christmas was a time of anticipation as I rode my route, peddling papers downtown, from the Brass Rail to the Bramlette Building, down Cotton Street to the car dealerships along Spur 63, back up the hill to the black neighborhoods hugging the south side of the city’s center back then.

At Christmas I was hoping for tips, much like the carrier who chunks my paper here each morning. The Brass Rail was the mother lode, a smoke-filled bar on Methvin Street, filled each afternoon with men playing 42 and spitting sporadically at the brass spittoons on the floor. One florid-faced fellow wearing a snap-button cowboy shirt gave me $20 once, a few days before Christmas — my best paperboy tip ever. But even the folks who struggled to come up with a dime a day for the paper kindly tipped the paperboy at Christmas, a quarter here, a buck there.

The memories of being a paperboy stick with folks of my generation and older. I have talked to people running for the U.S. Senate, for governor, men who are now successful in the corporate world. Nearly every one of them at one point had a paper route that they remember fondly. (Gender note: I know there were female youth paper carriers. I just didn’t know any, nor have I met any since. As adults, yes, but the afternoon paper route job was definitely male-dominated during my tenure.)

These days, my thoughts around Christmas are invariably reflective. Another year is about to pass. Lately, I ponder how best to spend my remaining years, however many or few that turns out to be. I can’t tell you I have come up with an answer, but it lays heavily on my mind.

Clearly, I am blessed, with my bride, children, family and friends. I need nothing. I want to know how to give back, how to make a difference. To me, that is part of the spirit of Christmas, discerning what admittedly small contribution I can make to our part of the world in the time I have remaining. It’s not just giving money, though that doesn’t hurt. It is figuring out how best to serve.

Friends, I hope you have a truly Merry Christmas. God Bless.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Blessed Rain, And Landmarks on Road Home

I sat in my office this morning and gazed out the window at a rare sight. Rain came down in gentle sheets. The live oak trees across the avenue seemed to be smiling. So was I. For the first time in the six months working on campus, I had to use my oversized comic-strip umbrella to walk from the parking garage to the office. Hours earlier, in the pre-dawn darkness I happily got soaked on my morning walk.

Perhaps the drought is over. We can only hope and pray that the experts predicting a second year of cracked earth and barren pastures are wrong. For now, gray skies and a soaking rain are a treasure — after nearly a year of incessant blue and the most brutal summer in memory. In Austin, the temperature topped 100 degrees one out of every four days in 2011. Now that’s just absurd.

It is startling ¬— and heartening — to see how quickly things begin to green up — as we say in East Texas — once a bit of rain arrives. The small city park down the street from my house looked like a dust bowl when I moved into the neighborhood in mid-October. Brown patches of grass and expanses of dirt lay below the live oak trees clearly in distress. Now, though winter is knocking on the door, grass is sprouting all over the park. One has hope, at least temporarily.

I was walking to work in the rain and heard one student complain to another about the inconvenience, that her feet were soaked. “Hush, child,” I was tempted to say. “Don’t you know what a precious gift rain is these days?”

Driving back to East Texas, as I do most Friday evenings, I look for the landmarks that mark my four-and-a-half hour journey, up to Waco on 1-35 where I cut across on state Hwy. 31, bordered by pastures, and furrowed blacklands awaiting the spring crop. If it is still daylight, there will be two horses tethered to a fence post on the north highway shoulder, somewhere near Kerens. The owner has taken advantage of the state’s grass for at least a couple years, since I have been regularly making this trek. Apparently, alarmed motorists have called the sheriff’s office, thinking the horses have gotten loose because recently a crudely painted plywood sign appeared at the gate stating, “Horses are tied up!” Good to know.

I always look for the four toilets filled with faded plastic flowers at the driveway entrance of a ranchette outside Hubbard; that marks the halfway point back to Longview from Austin. The pond in the front yard of the ranchette has nearly disappeared in the drought, but the toilets have held up well. I have been tempted to stop and inquire about the provenance of this commodious yard art.

A few miles west of Corsicana on the south side of the highway lies a small white-frame house with a detached garage and a chain-link fence. “DIVORCE,” reads the sign planted at the driveway’s edge, along with a phone number, and the attorney’s name nailed on a board beside the front door. I wonder if he gets much drive-by business, an unhappy spouse whizzing by, seeing the sign and whipping into the driveway ready at last to split the blanket. Probably not.

On the loop in Athens, two old Metropolitans cars are parked in a pasture occasionally populated with cows or round bales of hay. They have been there, advertised for sale by a sign on the fence, for at least a couple of years. I keep threatening to take a photo of them when the light is right. The combination of pasture, cows, cars and aesthetically accommodating sky might make an interesting photo. So far, I haven’t found the perfect light. I hope I capture that scene before the cars are sold.

By the time I get off that loop and turn left to return to Hwy. 31, I’m just over an hour away. It’s tricky driving from here to the other side of Tyler, speeding up and slowing down as I pass through the small towns of Murchison, Brownsboro and Chandler — watching out for the local law invariably lurking about, trying to nab someone who forgot the speed limit just dropped from 70 mph to the double-nickel.

I will make that trip again after work Friday, music playing, my mind meandering, heading back to the family I love. I hope it is still raining.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

With Blackbirds On The Wires, He Dances Alone

My commute to work is no longer arduous, for which I’m grateful. However, much of it capably vies with similar stretches in Texas metropolises — for the ugliest urban landscape not yet declared an EPA Superfund site. I will put far North Lamar Boulevard up against any ugly roadway in Texas. Its unrelenting parade of failing strip centers, garish signs, tilting utility poles and potholed parking lots has little to recommend it aesthetically. Pawnshops abut Indian restaurants, which nudge up against auto parts stores, which share a wall with a wig salon, next door to a discoteca. And so forth, for miles.

At night, the lighting resembles a poor man’s Las Vegas or Times Square, garish and jarring. North Lamar would be a fine location to shoot scenes for a film noir, featuring a hard-bitten sleuth who spends too much time eating bad Chinese food and drinking cheap whiskey neat at bars with names like Mike’s Stay Awhile. Some signs displayed on the hodgepodge of freestanding buildings along the boulevard were sloppily painted by amateurs over the signs of the previous and doubtless now-broke tenant. They advertise transmission repair, fortunes told, money loaned, fortunes lost.

I travel this route twice daily during the workweek, at dawn and dusk in these pre-winter solstice days. Lamar Boulevard is congested both ways, but it beats taking MoPac or I-35, the two main arteries. Of the latter, the late and sorely missed columnist Molly Ivins once said, “The key to happiness in Austin is to never, ever drive on I-35.” This, indeed, is sound advice that I follow faithfully. The only reason I get on I-35 is to head back to East Texas, and that is only because there is no other route, at least starting out.

The most intriguing intersection on the North Lamar route is at Rundberg Lane. Spindly Bradford Pear trees line the patchy grass between the concrete sidewalks and asphalt road. The grass is turning green again after a few welcomed bouts of rain, but the trees look diminished by the heat and drought. Who isn’t? Two corners contain seedy strip malls. The ubiquitous Sonic Drive-In and Walgreens anchor the other two corners. At 7 a.m. and 6 p.m., when I am passing through, the sun is either barely peeping over the nearby interstate horizon to the east, or sinking below the modest subdivisions that begin a few blocks west. The line of taillights waiting to get through the traffic signal invariably stretches in both directions for hundreds of yards to the next set of signals. So I have had plenty of time to study this intersection.

Dawn and dusk are when the blackbirds hang out at Rundberg and Lamar, literally thousands of them darkening the trees, lining the utility wires, streaking the pole signs with their droppings. Roll down a window, and the air is filled with the unmelodious conversations the blackbirds are having among themselves. I worry about the folks sitting at the bus stop benches. “Look out below,” I’m tempted to shout, “Incoming!”

In the evenings, the birds — and the motorists stuck at the light — often are entertained by a young thin black man wearing earbuds, dressed in a brightly colored tracksuit. He spends evening rush hour dancing and singing exuberantly, smiling and gesticulating at the drivers, most of whom look straight ahead with that “Ignore the Panhandler” gaze big-city dwellers learn quickly to adapt. There is a panhandler at most every urban corner here, with a cardboard sign, battered backpack and a defeated look about them.

But this man isn’t hip-hopping for money, not that I’ve observed. He doesn’t approach cars with his hand out but simply dances along the sidewalk quite adeptly, smiling broadly all the while. Some days the man dances in front of the Sonic; other days he gyrates near the store on the opposite corner. Every day, he is harmonizing with the blackbirds as he dances alone at Rundberg and Lamar. I wonder what he listens to, what type of music gets his feet to tapping, his hips shaking.

I have tried to figure out why the blackbirds gather at this spot. Web searches indicate the birds gather en masse at promising sources of food. But this intersection contains the barest remnants of nature, a sad, dying display of trees and grass strips. The air is foul with vehicle exhaust. Sirens blare, horns are honked, and a man dances alone to music only he can hear.

I’ll likely never know why the blackbirds gather at Rundberg and Lamar, each dusk and dawn. Or why that man dances as we all head home after work, both providing a few seconds of entertainment to the appreciative few. That’s OK. Some mysteries are best left unsolved.