Friday, March 26, 2010

Being Jobless Has Changed My Sense of Time

Tick, tock! Tick, tock!
Forty ’leven by the clock.
Tick, tock! Tick, tock!
Leroy F. Jackson

I have now been unemployed for two weeks. The job search began in earnest the day after I was informed my services were no longer needed at the paper. At my age I figure there is no sense being leisurely about this. Thanks to all who have e-mailed and called to wish me luck. I am optimistic that this jobless situation will be temporary. Compared to many folks out there seeking work, I feel fortunate because I do have some concrete prospects.

Not having to get up to go work has changed my sense of time, which has been an interesting phenomenon. I figure it is a dry run for retirement, which keeps getting pushed further into the future. Not that I mind. If this is what retirement is going to be like, I best put it off until I’m too feeble to work, and nobody will hire me.

Now I get up when I want. That means I still get up about 6:15 and walk three miles. Then I drink coffee and read the paper. They’re still throwing the paper I used to publish. Nothing personal, but I’m not paying for it anymore. I’ll just read it online when it quits bouncing off the front door. Then I check e-mails, of which there are a fair number since starting up this site, for which I am grateful. It is great to hear from readers, so I don’t feel that I’m just talking to myself out there. It’s bad enough that I talk to myself here at home, in real life.

Somebody has e-mailed me an article to read, about picking the right university in which to teach, or how a university can pick the right person to teach there. I get engrossed in the piece and the ensuing comments, since academia is one avenue I may pursue. I finish reading and wander out to the woodshop to look at the legs of the desk I glued together last week. I take the clamps off, and check the sturdiness. Next step is building the cross braces, but I am still pondering how I want this to look. Likely this will be the final project in this shop, and maybe the last project for quite some time. I will probably downsize for a good while until I feel more secure, job-wise, wherever I end up, and not buy another house. So the shop will go into storage somewhere, maybe for years. Hard to tell right now.

Next I run the usual online journalism job site traps. Nothing looks promising today. No surprise there. I looked last night before I went to bed. I have filed for unemployment online and am obligated to conduct five searches weekly, starting next week, to get the check. I have mixed feelings about taking the money, but I plan to do so. My aged friend says I have gone on relief, as they called it during Roosevelt’s day.

I glance up at the clock on the computer. Somehow it is already 10:30 a.m. In a past life — and surely soon a future one — I would have been at work two-and-a-half hours. I take a quick shower and go pick up Mom for lunch at Cotton Patch. We both get the special to save money.

After lunch with Mom, who enjoys the outing though she keeps asking me why I am not at the paper and what is going to happen, I go to the post office and get the mail. There are about five envelopes from the Texas Workforce Commission, more stuff to fill out.

I decide to mow the lawn for the first time this year. This takes a while, because the harsh (for East Texas) winter left a lot of dead grass. The weeds went wild in the few warm days, even through that crazy snow last Sunday. Yard care takes two hours. After that, I am ready for a nap, a quick 30 minutes on the napping sofa — which I built a few years back expressly for that purpose. The desk I am working on, made from black walnut, will be the fourth and final piece of mission-style furniture to round out the suite.

Already, it is 5 o’clock. I should be getting off work about now, taking a quick nap and then getting to work again in front of the computer. And that is what I do, except I already have the nap marked off the list. I look back on what I accomplished, and it doesn’t seem like so much, though it felt as if I were busy the entire day.

Maybe that is what retirement is like for people like me who have a hard time sitting still — feeling busy but not that sure exactly what you got done when you look back at day’s end. If so, I’m in no hurry to retire. Not that I can afford to, anyway.

The job search continues.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Hiking Our Way Through Last Two Days of Winter

PETIT JEAN STATE PARK, ARK. — We spent the final two days of winter tramping the trails of the oldest state park in the Land of Opportunity. The park is about an hour west of Little Rock, near Morrilton. Petit Jean Mountain sneaks up on you, rising out of cropland that still lies fallow, the irrigation rigs standing sentinel under a 180-degree sky. We begin winding our way upward to the top of this modest mountain, elevation 2,441 feet.

The mountain is named, the legend goes, after a young French woman who died following her true love across the ocean disguised as a boy. He had come to explore Arkansas, then part of the Louisiana Purchase, and forbade her to accompany him — so she stowed away on her lover’s ship as a boy, whom the sailors nicknamed Petit Jean or Little John. Not even her boyfriend recognized her, so he was either nearsighted or possessed typical male obtuseness.

When she became ill, her disguise was revealed. Her dying request was to be buried on the mountain overlooking the Arkansas River, which was named in her honor. Hey, it’s a good story.

The Civilian Conservation Corps, part of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal program, went to work in the 1930s to build the park’s stone lodge, 20 cabins and two lakes, putting a couple hundred World War I veterans to work for eight years during the Depression right up until Pearl Harbor. The lodge and pavilion are still in use today. The original cabins have been replaced by newer but similar style models, with rock facades and brown wood siding.

We hiked not long after arriving in mid-afternoon to the most spectacular attraction, the 90-foot Cedar Falls, which cascades over a cliff into a pool of water below. You can walk a narrow ledge behind the falls about 15 feet above the pool, but none of us were interested in doing so. The water looked mighty cold if one slipped.

There is just something about hiking, climbing carefully over rocks — walking stick in hand to keep my balance — as I choose my steps cautiously, taking in air scented by trees, smelling the decay of dead leaves, just being outdoors putting one step in front of the other and savoring God’s beauty that recharges my batteries. I can forget about my earthly cares and just concentrate on the hike, the joy of being healthy and able to still exert my body fairly vigorously as I approach the double-nickel in age.

The weather was chamber-of-commerce perfect, pushing 60 degrees with a gentle breeze. Even the 12-year-old tween-ager enjoyed the hike. Her iPod earbuds effectively blocked the sound of nature as she alternated between texting her friends spending their spring breaks at Disney World or Six Flags, and taking photos with the cell phone to show off the “scenery,” as we called the particularly lovely views we encountered. These were promptly dispatched to her friends, who presumably were grateful to be shopping at some big-city mall instead of taking the risk of perspiring.

The temperature dropped quickly as the sun turned pink, then almost purple, and sank between the gap in the valley. We all went inside — my Beautiful Mystery Companion, her daughter and I. I built a fire, my BMC read the paper and dozed. We all fell asleep fairly early, worn out by the five-hour drive from Longview and the hiking.

The next morning, I awoke before anyone and went down to the lodge for coffee and to read in front of the fire. It was still dark, a good time to read and reflect. For the first time in 30 years, I am out of work, which is why you are reading this piece on this site and not in the newspaper or on a newspaper Web site. It is both scary and exhilarating to contemplate what the future holds. Those thoughts occupied my mind as the darkness eventually gave way to first morning light.

Later, Abbie (the 12-year-old) and I watched as turkey buzzards raced each other high across the valley that stretched below us, just 50 feet from the back door of the cabin, on the final day of winter. I’ve never seen buzzards act that way. It was as if they were playing an early morning game of tag. We all hiked a few more trails, then headed home.

Two days later, on the second day of spring, back here in Longview, it snowed for hours, fat wet flakes. Some days it does seem as if the world has been turned upside down, at least for me. But that can be a good thing, I suppose.
Written March 21, 2010

Time to Cut Back the Deadwood

Spring has been angling to arrive for a few weeks, but winter just hasn’t wanted to leave East Texas this year. It has enjoyed its stay with snowstorms, temperatures in the teens, howling winds and all manner of ridiculous behavior. One day I checked the weather app on my iPhone, and it was colder in Longview than it was in Boston. Now that is just messed up.

So it was with great relief that we all got out of the car last Sunday week on the way to church and noticed the tulip trees had exploded on the courthouse lawn. They are the Sentinels of Spring in East Texas, with gorgeous pink blossoms that last just a little while before the trees become noticeably nondescript. But for a week or two, tulip trees rule, proclaiming to us Pine Curtain residents, “Hey, spring is on the cusp. Take heart.”

At our church, First Presbyterian, a series of lovely trees hug the structure and sport magenta blossoms which are delicate and vertical. We asked around and learned these are called Chinese Fringe Trees. Further Web research shows they produce a variety of blossoms. At the church, just west of the courthouse, magenta is the dominant theme. They are lovely blooms, tempting to cut off and hang in your loved one’s hair. Figure the pastor would be OK with that.

I drove to Shreveport the other day to shill for the public radio pledge drive, something I do twice a year since I’m on the advisory board. I am invariably placed during the classical music segment, when few calls come in, since my salesmanship skills are notoriously lacking. One newspaper mentor once joked that my approach to selling advertising was to walk in and ask, “You don’t want to buy an ad, do you?” I didn’t see anything wrong with that. Well, actually I did, but it worked for me at the time.

Anyway, I spent the drive on the way to Shreveport looking in vain for a dogwood tree blooming in the forest, a true sign of spring. My neighbors have a dogwood in their front yard, but it is domesticated and to my way of thinking can’t be a true harbinger of spring’s arrival, though it is a lovely tree. I saw plenty of bloomers — Bradford Pears and other harbingers of the end of winter but no dogwoods. They are solitary creatures generally, at least in our parts, one here or there.

On the way back the rains returned in sheets that made it hard to even drive legally, let alone at my normal five miles above the limit. So I abandoned my sideways looking for dogwoods but noticed the medians were greening up nicely.

By most accounts, this harsh wet winter will produce a bumper crop of bluebonnets in Central Texas, so a road trip will be in order by April or so. My favorite stretch is U.S. Hwy. 290, between Brenham and Austin. It is a pretty fair stretch from here, but we’ll figure out a way to make that happen.

The unusually harsh winter played havoc with the palm trees and assorted cousins planted in yards and in front of businesses here, I’ve noticed. Most have turned a sickly yellow or even a desiccated brown that can’t mean good news.

I’ve always been fascinated with what motivates people to plant tropical trees in places where at least several times a year the temperature drops well below freezing. Homesickness? A longing to sink one’s toes in the sands in some tropical isle? Sick of looking at all those dadgum pine trees? Or maybe some slick nursery owner came through a couple of decades ago and had a sale on palm trees, because some of these trees that now seem to be on the verge of becoming chainsaw material have been around a while.

I don’t have much room to talk. I’ve been carting around a plumeria tree for a few years, which sports the blossoms from which Hawaiians create leis. I forgot to bring the tree inside the garage this winter when the first frost hit, or the second or third. I believe that tree is now skindling material, along with my asparagus ferns and even the hardy gardenias.

Daylight savings time started last night. It is time to start cutting back the deadwood, assessing the damage and enjoying the new growth of spring. Winter soon will be but a memory and none too soon.
Written to be published March 14, but my final day at the newspaper was March 11. So it stayed in limbo until now.

These Little Piggies Have it Made (For a While, Anyway)

At TrueFields farm, Grey Face, Freckles and Girl ally vie for the attention of David Sanders, their human minder. David not only provides food in the form of outdated organic onions, carrots and other produce from area grocery stores. He also gives belly rubs to the 300-pound sows that live the good life on this organic operation.

TrueFields has been located on 850 acres near Hallsville since 2008 but is in the process of moving to a place northwest of Jefferson. My fiancé and I managed to squeeze in a tour from David, who is both an investor in True Fields and an employee, on the last weekend before the big move with the landowners of the Hallsville farm, which is a larger operation. TrueFields is owned by some smart, energetic and fascinating LeTourneau University alumni — who also worked for the landowners full-time, running the latter’s organically raised cattle operation. Now the owners of TrueFields are striking it out on their own in Jefferson.

Coach, the lucky sole boar in charge of servicing those three sows, was the first recipient of a belly rub on a rare lovely Saturday winter afternoon, when the sky was actually blue and the temperature tolerable. Coach, a purebred Heritage Large Black, was stretched out underneath a canopy of oak and pine trees, his gray floppy, elephantine ears covering his eyes. Life was good for Coach as David rubbed his belly. He has three females at his service and a man with an IQ above average at his service.

Suddenly Coach jerked up and commenced to caterwauling, which scared us he had been shot or somehow seriously injured. Girl, in a fit of jealousy had sat on his tail. Once Coach jumped up and stalked off, Girl promptly rolled over so she could get her belly rubbed. Pigs are not stupid, unlike cows or chickens.

These are not your average pigs in a sty. They don’t really even smell that bad out in the open. I’ve been in high school locker rooms that smelled worse, or for that matter, teen-age girl’s bedrooms.

But these porkers aren’t pets, either. This is an ambitious organic farming operation. On its Web site, the mission statement says that TrueFields grows: “quality foods that are naturally, humanely, and sustainably grown. That means delicious, healthy, and fresh food provided to you as God intended: without hormones, GMO products, artificial fertilizers, or pesticides.”

Nearly two dozen piglets, the progeny of Coach and his harem, are running around in various shades of pink and gray. In less than six months, most will be headed to a processor to be turned into organic, free-range pork and sold to local consumers. Besides the expired produce, the pigs eat acorns, hickory nuts, roots, grubs and even grass, supplemented with a custom-made feed that is both corn and soy-free, according to David. I take a photo of a nine piglets stretched out inside a tent-shaped lean-to of corrugated tin that David built. They look more like a litter of puppies than pigs as Freckles, the proud mama of her week-old charges, stretches out alongside for a brief respite from suckling.

Earlier, we had met Mistress, a short-horned milking cow from Ohio, who was plopped on a pile of hay in a pasture. Mistress wore a lovely worn leather collar and chewed her cud contentedly as we approached. She had subtle burnt-orange and white markings, thick luxurious fur, doleful eyes and was absolutely the gentlest, sweetest cow I have ever encountered. She never arose as we approached. Remember, Mistress was neither confined nor tethered. She just looked up and smiled as all three of us stroked her head, rubbed her nose and said hello. A fat black-and-white barn cat came over to join the party, weaving in-between our legs — as cats do.

Having raised cows several times in my checkered past, I found this behavior quite remarkable, even for a milk cow. We brought no bribes of range cubes or other cow candy, just gentle hands and voices. Mistress just likes humans. Most cows, not so much.

David has posted a hilarious YouTube video of the Hereford bulls on the farm tearing into a round bale of hay that he had just placed in their pasture. It’s quite entertaining, further evidence that most cows really don’t have a lick of sense but can provide great entertainment. E-mail me if you would like the link.

I admire what the young folks at TrueFields are trying to accomplish, growing livestock without all that stuff that is injected into the meat we buy at the store or consume in restaurants. It is incredibly hard work, certainly a young person’s game. I wish them well.

For us, spending a winter afternoon watching the piglets and all of God’s creatures provided a lovely diversion.
Originally published March 7, 2010, my final newspaper column, at least until I land another job. Who could have known it would be about pigs?

It Truly Was a Senior Moment

So here is what happened. My lovely fiancé, aka my beautiful mystery companion — which is a line from a Jackson Browne tune — and I were slated to attend the Maya Angelou lecture at Northeast Texas Community College last Friday night. What a treat, this famed poet and lecturer here in East Texas. Alas, Ms. Angelou became ill and postponed her appearance until April. As a consolation prize, we headed to the movies.

I bought the tickets while my BMC was engaged in conversation with a couple of acquaintances that had spotted her. We rarely go to the movies, being recluses when not at work. We prefer to rent or buy DVDs. So I studied the prices and calculated that, at $8.75 each, this was going to set me back $17.50 for two tickets to the evening feature.

When the attendant gave me back $7 from my twenty-dollar bill I questioned her.

“Did you give me back too much money?”

She shook her head.

“Is there a special tonight?” She moved on to the next customer.

I ambled off to my BMC and wondered aloud about how the tickets had only cost me $6.50 each instead of $8.75, and that I couldn’t figure out why. I got one of those “Oh, honey” looks that we clueless males get from time to time from the women who love us despite our cluelessness.

“She gave you the senior discount,” my BMC said.

I dove into the pocket of my sports jacket for the ticket stubs and pulled them out. Sure enough, in all-caps, they both said: SENIOR. My immediate instinct was to go back up to the ticket window and protest. But the line was too long, and the movie was about to start. So I spent the next several minutes on the way to our seats whining to my BMC about the grave injustice that had been foisted upon me. A senior? Me? Are these people blind? Where is the manager? Can I file some kind of age-discrimination lawsuit?

My beloved squeezed my hand. “It’s because I wasn’t with you,” she said. “Then they would have known better.”

Well, that is true. Although my BMC is only 30 months younger than me, she looks easily a decade younger. I figure by the laws of osmosis this makes me look younger when we are together. Since she was off talking to her friends when I was making the transaction, I surely looked like some lonely old codger buying tickets for himself and his unseen aged mother. So I was given the senior discount out of sympathy.

So it is her fault. That’s my story, etc.

My BMC pointed out that most folks would appreciate having saved $4.50 on their movie tickets by mistakenly being labeled a “senior.” (For the record, I am 54. I don’t know what this particular theater defines as a senior, but any business that defines folks at 54 as a senior is desperate for business, in my humble view. Of course, maybe I look 65 or older. That’s the scary part. But the attendant never asked my age, which is even more depressing.)

I don’t appreciate saving money at the expense of being prematurely being labeled a senior citizen. But then a pair of events occurred over the next two days that had me wondering if I truly were losing it:

• I used the wrong first name for one of our Saturday columnists when laying out the opinion page. When I e-mailed him to apologize and explained I had mixed his name up with a long-dead weekly newspaper editor with a similar-sounding last name, he kindly said I had been calling him Paul for a couple of years, off and on. His name is Frank. Sheesh.

• I made a cup of tea Sunday night. Without thinking, I then pulled the lid off to empty the pot. A cloud of boiling steam came out and scalded three fingers on my right hand. I knew better and spent the next several hours in pretty severe pain until the aforementioned BMC via telephone saved me by Googling a home remedy. Remember this, in case it happens to you. Yellow mustard in a poultice of paper towels will ease the pain, though it might take an hour or so.

So maybe I am inching toward senior status faster than I anticipated. Just ask Paul, I mean Frank — or my scalded fingers.
Originally published February 28, 2010

Celebrating 100 Years of Scouting

The Boys Scouts of America turned 100 years old a few weeks ago. My family’s involvement in scouting doesn’t go back quite that far, but it does go back more than 75 years. It continues to this day, thanks to my youngest brother’s volunteer efforts and that of his son, a third-generation Eagle Scout.

I don’t tell you all this to brag, being no great shakes as a Scout. I made it to the rank of Life, which is the one below Eagle, but I was nowhere close to reaching that rarified echelon when the lure of girls, earning money working at this newspaper to put gasoline in Suzuki motorcycle and other lame excuses spurred me to hang up my merit badge sash forever at age 15.

Nonetheless, I have great memories of camping trips with Troop 201 and Scoutmaster V.G. Rollins at the Millpond. I can still recite the dozen precepts of the Boy Scout Law nearly 40 years after retiring the uniform. They are great rules by which to behave, boiled down to twelve words.

Our family tradition started with Carl Basil Borders, born in 1906. He joined Boy Scouts in 1917 and like me also stopped at the rank of Life. My grandfather started volunteering as a Scoutmaster while making a living as a police officer in Wyoming. After an unsuccessful run for sheriff in Cody, Wyoming (a town named after Buffalo Bill) he became a professional Scouter in 1943 and worked in the Japanese internment camps at Heart Mountain, Wyoming to form Scout troops among the Japanese youths held there during World War II. While in Wyoming, my dad became an Eagle Scout.

Eventually my grandfather ended up in Longview in the late 1950s as the district scout executive for the East Texas Area Council. My scouting career began in the cold climes of New Hampshire, where five-mile hikes and campouts took place in the snow. One of my last treks before moving to Longview was in the mountains of New Hampshire, where a rather sadistic Scouting volunteer pretended we were lost and hiked a trio of us to the point of exhaustion with packs overloaded with food intended for a farewell feast. We spent a cold night above the timberline, shivering and convinced we might not get out alive. It took me years to figure out this was a ruse. I wish I could find that fellow now and give him what-for.

Anyway, after years of trying in 1968 my grandfather convinced us to come to Longview and escape the winters and lousy (at the time) New England economy. I was immediately installed in Troop 201. My grandfather was winding down his Scouting career but still ran Camp Pirtle in the summers. That meant I had great privileges in the summer, able to both camp with Troop 201 during its designated time there, but also to return and stay in my grandfather’s lodge for a week or two during the summer and ride in his 1950s Willys Jeep as he kept tab on his charges. It was great fun.

My grandfather, I figured out many years later, had a hard time settling down, which is a trait he apparently passed on to me. He sold insurance, worked as a cop, as a rancher, and moved all over the country. He finally found his calling as a professional Scouter. He loved it and passed this love on to three generations of our family who have earned its highest honors as Eagle Scouts. My youngest brother Gregg achieved Eagle rank 30 years ago, in 1980. His son Matt earned the honor last year.
Boy Scouts teach young men a plethora of life skills, from tying knots to learning to love the outdoors, to be of service to others and the importance of teamwork. The principles Scouting espouses still hold true today, of course, just as they did when my grandfather was a teen.

Since I raised only daughters, I never became active as a Scouting volunteer. My time went toward 4-H and the other interests the girls had. But every morning, when I walk this neighborhood and circle the pond at Teague Park and see the Troop 201 cabin, I smile and fondly recall those days spent in Scouting.

But I don’t miss camping on the ground. Never have.
Originally published February 21, 2010

Good Time Charlie Took Care of the Home Folks

First time I met Charlie Wilson was in 1978, inside the motor coach that served as his portable campaign office. I was a photographer for the Nacogdoches paper. He was running for re-election to Congress, something he did every two years from the time he was sent there in 1972 until he retired in 1996. Despite his well-earned reputation for drinking, partying, squiring around beautiful women and saying outrageous things, “Good Time Charlie” was handily re-elected every time by the voters of his district in Deep East Texas.

I covered Charlie’s return trips home for most of the next two decades, for newspapers in Nacogdoches, San Augustine and Lufkin. There is a photo of Charlie and then vice-president Walter Mondale propped on the credenza behind my desk. I shot it later that year at the Angelina County Airport, when Mondale came to town for a fund-raiser for Wilson. Mondale is speaking to the media, while a thin, tall and undeniably handsome Wilson beams in the background. I dug the photo out of storage a few years ago when the movie “Charlie Wilson’s War” made the by-then retired congressman a semi-household name, at least for a time.

The fine book by the late George Crile, and the 2007 movie starring Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, both chronicle Wilson’s single-handed effort to covertly arm the Afghan freedom fighters in their guerilla war against the Soviets in the early 1980s. Both the book and movie are well worth the time investment, if you haven’t done so already.

In the fall of 1990, I had just gone over to the Sentinel in Nacogdoches as managing editor to work for Glenn McCutchen — who retired as publisher here in Longview two years ago. I’ve been following Glenn around for nearly two decades now. I reckon I will follow him out the door here one of these days. Anyway, Charlie was facing what looked to be a fairly strong challenge from Donna Peterson, an attractive young woman from Orange, who had a military background and was taking advantage of the slow shift of voter preference from Democratic to Republican. She was just six or eight years ahead of her time, as it turned out.

Glenn and I decided to sponsor a debate between Wilson and Peterson at the Fredonia Hotel in Nacogdoches. To our surprise, a standing-room crowd showed up. For a time, I wasn’t sure Charlie was going to show. I was the moderator and getting nervous.

Peterson was at the podium armed with sheaths of notes, since we had provided the questions in advance. A minute or two after the appointed hour, as I peered down the corridors of the Fredonia searching for a very tall congressman, here came Charlie — sucking on his asthma inhaler and cussing a blue streak because he didn’t want to be there. Charlie had no notes and almost certainly hadn’t bothered to read the questions. But he blew Peterson out of the water with his knowledge of the issues and handling of the crowd. Charlie easily won re-election that year and beat her twice more before retiring.

Charlie truly was a larger-than-life character with a booming voice, a quick mind and an amazing memory. He would saunter into the Lufkin newsroom on a trip back from Washington, prop his feet up on a reporter’s desk, polished cowboy boots gleaming under the fluorescent lights, and talk about how he had won funding for a VA clinic for Lufkin or helped an elderly couple in Trinity County with a Social Security problem, or gotten funding for a transit system in Nacogdoches. That’s why the home folks kept sending Charlie back to Congress, until he decided it wasn’t fun anymore.
He truly did take care of the home folks, as he put it, with a superb staff trained to take care of his constituents.

Last time I saw Charlie was at the book signing in late 2003 for “Charlie Wilson’s War,” held at the Diboll History Center. The home folks came out by the droves for that event. They still loved Charlie, who signed the book along with Crile, the fellow who actually wrote it.

I waited in line until my time came and said, “Hi, Charlie,” reminded him I was the fellow running his hometown paper then in Lufkin, where he had returned after making some money lobbying after his congressional career. He needed to; Charlie never cared much about money when in Congress. He smiled, thought for a second, and wrote: “For Gary Borders, a celebrated member of the ‘liberal media.’ Charlie Wilson.” It is one of my prized possessions.

Charlie had more than his share of warts, but he was a patriot and knew how to get things done in Washington. Personally, I wish he were still there. Besides, he gave us newspaper types plenty to write about. God rest his soul.
Originally published February 14, 2010

Mom, a Tough Old Bird, Turns 80

I stopped by the nursing home early last week to tell my mom I would pick her up the next day, to take her to lunch to celebrate her 80th birthday. She looked startled at the news.

“Jeez, I’m old,” she said.

Three years ago, my mom spent her birthday in Good Shepherd Medical Center, bouncing back from once again having received the Last Rites. At the time, I wouldn’t have taken 10-to-1 odds that we would be heading to Cotton Patch Café on a sunny winter morning to mark her birthday with a plate of fried catfish.

She is a tough old bird. That will be her epitaph, in my mind if not on the actual marker.

My middle brother Scott’s birthday falls three days before our mom’s. A group of friends celebrated that event down in Austin last week. At the party, Scott and I recounted to some friends the list of surgeries and maladies our mother has endured since our childhood, with an equanimity that has always amazed us.
I will neither bore nor embarrass you with the medical details. Suffice it to say that my mother is no stranger to a scalpel or anesthesia, is missing a number of internal organs, and owns enough artificial body parts to set off the security scanner at the airport.

But our mom keeps rocking along. For that we three brothers and the grandchildren are all, of course, grateful.

My mom lives her days in a gentle veil of fog that necessitated us taking charge three years ago and moving both her and our dad, now-dead nearly a year, into assisted living. He had been disabled since 1990. Caring for him flat wore her out, along with those various maladies. At least that is my theory.

Some days my mom isn’t sure if I still work in Lufkin and just came back to visit. Or where her grandkids now live. Or what happened to the PT Cruiser that she loved so much. It was totaled in early 2006, replaced by a Nissan Altima that I had to sell, along with the house and most of their possessions three years ago.

Other days the fog lifts, and we carry on rational conversations. Ask her about events that occurred decades ago, and her memory is as sharp as ever. Nearly all days she is cheerful and accommodating. The health-care workers at the nursing home, a couple of whom were her neighbors on South Twelfth Street, take great care of her and clearly enjoy her company. She is proud of the stack of quarters she has won at bingo. That Catholic upbringing has come in handy for a number of reasons, including those bingo skills.

After spending the first couple years essentially holed up in her small suite, Mom now gets out regularly — for bingo, to listen to volunteers sing gospel music or country tunes in the dining room, and for other events. Friends come to visit. She answers the phone now. The first two years, she rarely answered the phone, claiming she never heard it ring.

I moved back to Longview a little over two years ago and brought the parents back here from Lufkin not long after. That first year was pretty rocky for both of my parents health-wise, and, of course, my dad’s long struggle ended last February.

Mom, meanwhile, went to the hospital at least 10 times in 2008 for heart problems, never staying long. She was frail, and her long-term prospects didn’t seem great. As it turns out, she just passed a one-year anniversary without a single trip to the hospital. Maybe monthly fried catfish and hushpuppies will turn out to be the latest heart cure. One can only hope.

These days, Mom watches every court TV show that is broadcast, catches the Red Sox when they’re on the tube, reads this newspaper daily, still harbors an irrational dislike for the Dallas Cowboys and can’t wait until spring, so we can drive down Fourth Street and admire the azaleas blooming in backyards.
We will go eat catfish again soon, or maybe branch out for a hamburger at the Butcher Shop. She’s a diabetic usually connected to oxygen, but we both like to live a bit dangerously.

Why not? You have to have some fun in life. Both my parents taught me that.
Originally published January 31, 2010

A Quintet of Winter Book Selections

Although the weather has thawed out considerably since the Great Freeze of January 2010, it is still the Indoor Season. The sun disappears early so yard work is on hiatus. I find nothing better than settling near a fireplace, listening to soft music and escaping into a good book. Here is a quintet of recently published selections that I have read, or nearly finished, since winter began. Perhaps you will find something of interest here to curl up with as well.

• “The Help,” by Kathryn Stockett. If you read just read one novel this year, this is the one. It is the story of a young white woman in 1962 who returns to Jackson, Mississippi after receiving a journalism degree from Ole Miss and begins to secretly record the stories of three black housekeepers who work for other white women in town. Stockett captures with great skill the dialect and dialogue of these women, who endure indignities and racism with great courage and wit. As a native of Jackson, she knows whereof she speaks. “The Help” is in turn hilarious — as when Minny, one of the black housekeepers, complains the cat “bout gave me a cadillac arrest” this morning — and heartbreaking. The black women live in constant fear that a vindictive white woman will make them unemployable with a false accusation of theft . “The Help” is emotionally tough to read if you have a conscience concerning the South’s racial legacy, but it is a novel that most thoughtful readers will have a hard time putting down until the final page.

• “The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals,” by Jane Mayer. Mayer is a staff writer for The New Yorker and one of the nation’s best investigative journalists. She has written a devastating account here on how the Bush administration in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks made terrible decisions to pursue suspected terrorists using torture, to ignore long-held constitutional protections and to attempt to in essence create a presidency that was above the law and accountable to no other branch of government.

Worse, it didn’t work. Torture methods yielded faulty information, innocent people were held for years under barbaric conditions, Osama bin Laden is still at large, and we have paid a terrific price in terms of damage to our image in the world, and to lives lost unnecessarily. This is a devastating indictment of the so-called “War on Terror.”

• “Wolf Hall,” by Hilary Mantel. Escape into an earlier time of political intrigue, torture and mayhem, namely the16th century of Britain, when Henry VIII has tired of his Catholic wife, Katherine of Aragon, and wishes to have the marriage annulled and marry Anne Boleyn. Thomas Cromwell, risen from impossibly harsh circumstances, has become a fixer, invaluable to both royalty and high-ranking clergy alike.

In this meticulously developed historical novel, Mantel brings alive the key characters of an England slowly rising from barbarism, though none too quickly. Cromwell’s main adversary, Thomas More, meets his death at the end (no surprise there if you know English history) in the first of a two-part tour-de-force.

• “The Sellout: How Three Decades of Wall Street Greed and Government Mismanagement Destroyed the Global Financial System,” by Charles Gasparino. Luckily, the book isn’t nearly as daunting as the title. Gasparino traces the implosion of the financial market back more than 30 years to when Wall Street began taking ever larger risks in hopes of garnering larger profits — and were aided and abetted by government regulators, especially in the housing market.

The result, as we all know now, were millions of homeowners sucked in to buying mortgages they couldn’t afford, for which they certainly bear some blame. But I place the onus on those greedy scumbags who kept bundling risky mortgages and selling them, hoping this house of cards wouldn’t collapse before they could get out with their multi-million dollar bonuses. So does Gasparino.

• “Collected Stories,” by Raymond Carver. Carver died of lung cancer in 1988. The Library of America recently issued an exhaustive collection of his short stories, including notes about the texts, unedited versions, chronologies, and manuscript versions. Carver wrote unsparing vignettes about life along the hard edges of suburbia, where folks drink too much and look for love in all the wrong places. Like a short glass of single-malt Scotch, the stories are best read a few sips at a time. I figure I’ll be diving into this book from time to time well into the next winter.

Read and enjoy the fireplace. Spring will arrive soon.
Originally published January 24, 2010

My Yankee Blood Has Been Boiled Out of Me

During those dreadful days of August, when sweat pours off my body as I trudge through the neighborhood at 6 a.m, even though the sun hasn’t quite decided to rise above the pine trees, I fantasize about retiring someday to my native New Hampshire. Or perhaps I could split my time between here and there — winters in Texas, summers up north. Not that I know how to afford this, but it has its appeal.

I am terribly drawn to the beauty of New England — the saltbox homes built two centuries ago or more, the beauty of the White Mountains, covered bridges across clear brooks, the rugged coastline of Maine, lobster tails, clam chowder, Fenway Park, the broad vowels of Bostonites. Man, already I am about to book a ticket.

Then, reality hits — as in 17 degrees. That is how cold it was here in Longview last week, which is an unusual event. We wrote stories about this cold snap, which indeed snapped water pipes all over town. For more than a week I have gotten up at 5:45, peered at the nifty Weather Channel electronic console that tells me the temperature outside, and groaned. I cannot walk when it is below freezing outside. I have tried and quickly retreated, whimpering and cursing under my breath. The truth is painful. I have turned into a thin-blooded Texan after 41 years behind the Pine Curtain. And 17 degrees is balmy in January most days in Concord, N.H., where I was born.

This harsh truth means I have abandoned any pretense of retiring to my native soil, not that this was a serious dream anyway. I am content to return each August to visit and gain a respite from the hellish summer of East Texas. Besides, I have been down here so long that those Live Free or Die folks sound like they talk funny. (Just kidding, aunts, uncles and cousins. No hate e-mails, please.)

As a result, I have turned half of my two-car garage into a winter gym, with the Bow-Flex, Ab-buster and my road bike set up on the stationary trainer that I bought in a goofy burst of exercise optimism last year. I used it exactly twice in 2009. Found out there is nothing that irks me more than walking or pedaling and not actually going somewhere. It bugs the ever-loving fire out of me. I don’t care if there is a 60-inch television to watch, or NPR, or a 60-member troupe of Chinese acrobats. Stationary aerobic exercise drives me up the wall.

The cold snap has driven me up that wall. For the past 10 cold days, I have mounted my bicycle on its trainer, tuned in to NPR and pedaled in my garage, which is kept moderately warm by the heater in the adjoining woodshop. While pedaling, I am reminded of Airman Dunbar in Joseph Heller’s “Catch 22,” who tried to extend his life by hanging out with people he doesn’t like, so that time passes more slowly.

Airman Dunbar should have tried riding a stationary bike. I set the timer on my iPhone to 15 minutes, then kept cheating and checking it. Holy moley! Only four minutes had passed. My personal best after 10 days, not because of physical duress but because of sheer mental atrophy, was 13 minutes. Climbing on the Bow-Flex was a relief in comparison. I have named my bike trainer Airman Dunbar.

The Sunday afternoon after the deep freeze, I managed to get in a late-afternoon walk. The mercury had climbed into the low forties. Ice still clung to the curbs in the shade where water seeped through saturated lawns, probably spliced with split sprinkler-system pipes. The pond at Teague Park sported a thin sheen of ice, which didn’t bother the ducks. They had found the only clear spot in the water. The half-dozen or so geese, however, were not happy. They honked and complained nearby on dry land, no doubt hoping my companion and I had brought along some bread crusts. We didn’t.

By summer I will grouse again about the heat. But I learned something during this unusually cold Texas winter. The Yankee blood has been boiled out of me, at long last. I would rather endure a few months of Texas heat than the cabin fever of winter life, if I have a choice.

Thus far I do.
Originally published January 17, 2010

Thank Goodness for Second Chances

Do you think life goes on forever? You think behind every chance there’s another one? And another one?
It is the worst kind of extravagance, spending chances.
It is the way you spend your chances.

“Hope Floats”

That piece of dialogue comes from the scene where Ms. Ramona Calvert, superbly portrayed by Gena Rowland, dresses down her daughter, Birdee Pruitt, played by Sandra Bullock, who has returned home and spends her days hiding under the covers from the world. Her husband has left her and their two young children. As both a New Year and decade dawn, I’ve thought a lot about second chances, both personally and in general.

Most of us agree that we all deserve a second chance. Most of us have benefited from at least one, whether it came from our parents, a spouse, boss, friends or others whom we have wronged in some way. Those of us who have faith understand the ultimate second chance comes from a source beyond this earthly pale. It is undeserved. What interests me today is how we determine who deserves a second chance among those that we encounter in everyday life. I struggle with this daily. I wonder if you do as well.

The other day I left the grocery store on a balmy day, before the latest winter snap blew through. A strapping young man with a backpack stood outside. He buttonholed me and asked for a ride to the train station. I discerned no apparent physical disabilities. He appeared neither mentally impaired nor drunk or stoned. I said, “Sorry,” and headed to my car. Letting someone who was much larger and much stronger than me into my vehicle and driving him to the train station seemed too risky — even if Christmas was just a few days away.

The urge struck me before I left the parking lot to go back and say to that young man, “The Amtrak station is no more than a mile from here. Walk west down Marshall Avenue, take a left on Sixth Street. When that ends, take a right, then left on Mobberly. Go under the railroad overpass then you are there. I walk three miles every day, and I am 54 years old. I see no obvious physical reason you cannot walk that far, young man.”

I thought better of it and headed home. He was nearly a foot taller and at least a feed sack heavier than me. But I wish I had a second chance to say that to him, a second chance to talk some sense into him. It probably wouldn’t have made any difference. Now I will never know.

The day after Christmas, a homeless woman knocked on my door. She wanted to know how to get hold of a local church’s office. I pointed her down the street, a bit irritated that she had noticed me walking into my house after my morning exercise and had had invaded my space at 7:30 a.m. — especially since I had a houseful of company still asleep. I recognized her as someone I had given $30 to the previous summer based on a sad story about trying to get home to Mississippi. Later, my houseguests were walking their dog. They said the woman was in the middle of the street yelling at a neighbor who had refused to help: “Merry (expletive) Christmas To You, Too!”

I wish I had what would have been a third chance to help her. Maybe she would have just spent the money on booze or drugs. No matter. It is my decision to provide the money, and her decision on how she uses it.

Johnny Cash once said, something to the effect of, “When I was bad, I wasn’t all that bad. When I was good, I wasn’t all that good.” I know how he feels most days. Like most folks else, I hope I get a second chance to do better in the New Year. Like everyone else, I am sure I will again fall short.
Originally published January 10, 2010