Saturday, July 31, 2010

These Folks Have the Write Stuff

GRAPEVINE, TEXAS — Near the DFW airport, close enough to examine the underpinnings of the airliners taking off overhead, more than 300 writers and lovers of writing have gathered, as we do each July. Some of us enter an essay or manuscript competition and subject ourselves to an all-day workshop in which we critique each other’s work under the watchful and gentle counsel of a big-city editor, usually from the Dallas Morning News or Texas Monthly. The remaining two-and-half-days are devoted to soaking up wisdom from some of the nation’s best nonfiction writers, eating good food and then renewing acquaintances at the Bonnie & Clyde Bar.

The Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference, sponsored by the University of North Texas, by its sixth year has emerged as one of the premier events of its type in the country. I recharge my writing batteries each summer by attending, entering the competition, hanging out with folks who love writing as much as I do, and listening to authors whose works fill my bookshelves.

Speakers in the four years I’ve attended include famed novelist and essayist Joyce Carole Oates; raconteur nonpareil and National Book Award winner Bob Shacochis; reporter and harmonica player extraordinaire John Burnett of NPR; and Ira Glass, founder of “This American Life,” one of the quirkiest, most interesting shows on public radio.

This year’s lineup included Mary Karr, memoirist and poet, author of the “Liar’s Club” and her latest, “Lit,” about staying drunk and finally getting sober. Karr, who grew up in what we used to call Deep Dark East Texas when I was running a weekly paper near those parts, has that rare ability to write about a wretched upbringing without being maudlin or self-pitying. She is flat-out funny, both in print and in person. That’s tough to do when writing about a momma who once piled up all her toys in the front yard and set them on fire with gasoline, or once came at her with a butcher knife.

Still, Karr and her mother hung together until her mom died; her sister and she split the cremated remains — Mary’s half coming in a ziplock Baggie marked with a Sharpie: “Mom: ½.”

Another headliner this season was Mark Bowden, who wrote “Blackhawk Down,” the story of the failed attempt to capture a Somali warlord that led to a protracted and unexpected urban battle after two helicopters were shot down and nearly two dozen U.S. soldiers killed. Bowden, then a Philadelphia newspaper reporter, always hastens to explain that he is not a military expert but simply a reporter. In this case, he was trying to explain the images he saw in television in 1993 of this failed mission.

The Pied Piper of this conference is George Getschow, a former Wall Street Journal writer and editor who serves as writer-in-residence for the Mayborn Graduate School of Journalism. We have become friends over the years, because of a mutual love for good writing and stories. George refers to those who attend or otherwise participate at the conference as members of the Mayborn tribe. After four years I’m a member of that tribe. Returning each summer is akin to attending a family reunion, without the drama.

I am one of those poor souls who feel out-of-sorts if I’m not working on a writing project. Besides filling this modest space and writing editorials five days a week, at least a few nights a week I spend time trying to work on something more substantial. It might not amount to anything when all is said and done. But I feel incomplete if I
don’t try, as if a limb is missing.

When I hang out at the Mayborn each summer, I am among people who feel the same way. Plus, I get to talk to folks who are actually getting paid to write books full-time, a relative rarity — sort of like making it in the NBA. Here there are giants, I think.

I listen and learn, both from these literary rock stars and my fellow conferees. I always head home inspired and jazzed. Further, what strikes me is the humility of these writers who are household names, at least among those of us who actually read books. The authors are invariably gracious, self-effacing, funny and clearly grateful to be among the chosen few able to make a decent living writing books.

As for me, I keep slogging away most nights, my bank account a bit lighter after each Mayborn. You can’t go there without buying an armload of books, signed by the authors, after all. I have an entire year to read them before returning to buy another armload.

Originally published in the Junction City (Kansas) Daily Union, July 31, 2010.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Those Pesky Disappearing Items

I am convinced a malevolent spirit follows me and my peeps around, compelling semi-valuable items to permanently disappear on regular occasions — never to be found. There is simply no other explanation except perhaps that I am losing my gourd. I would rather not go there, at least not yet.

The latest involved a cell phone that belonged to the tween-ager who was visiting. It was charging on the kitchen counter as bedtime approached. Curfew had passed. To eliminate any temptation, I decided to hide the phone until the next day, in my dresser drawer.

At least that is where I thought I hid the phone. That was more than two weeks ago. We ransacked the house trying to figure out where I actually hid the phone. I even picked through the garbage, wearing disposable gloves. I made sure it wasn’t in the freezer or the wine cooler. The tween-ager and her mom, my beautiful mystery companion, have since returned to Texas, sans phone. Luckily, we have insurance to replace it, but I haven’t given up the search. At least once a day I look again. This is a big house with lots of crannies. But hope is fading fast. The tween-ager is miffed but still loves me, luckily.

On the same visit, a few days earlier, my BMC’s prescription reading glasses vanished one afternoon. We retraced her steps, from home to the coffee shop, to the newspaper office, then back home. The glasses are gone, as is her blue-jean jacket, which vanished on a trip a few days later to Wamego, possibly in the Oz Museum, possibly not. She brings it along to battle air-conditioning on steroids. Or she did. Past tense now.

I hasten to explain that we are not particularly flighty people. I have been accused of being positively OCD when it comes to keep things organized and in their place, and plead nolo contendre. I keep things tidy in my house and office, so I can find stuff. Except for the stuff that keeps disappearing.

One afternoon a few months before moving here, I was leaving work and put on my prescription sunglasses. A lens popped out. I was driving the chili-red convertible Mini Cooper my BMC and I jointly own but luckily had the top up because it was hot. No worries, I thought. I’ll find the lens when I get home.

When you have worn glasses for nearly a half-century, such mishaps are commonplace. At least a couple times a year I dig out my tiny screwdrivers and put a lens back in place, or if necessary head to an optician’s shop to let someone perform surgery.

The lens had disappeared. How could a sunglasses lens vanish inside a Mini Cooper? I searched for an hour. My brother and nephew arrived later that day from Austin on a visit. I offered the nephew, a hungry college student, twenty bucks if he could find the lens. He’s borderline brilliant and needs money, of course. No luck. Abster, the bright 12-year-old who was out a cell phone thanks to me, also took a run at finding it. It was gone.

Big deal, you say, except that these were tri-focal sunglasses that cost more than $300 to replace. I couldn’t simply replace the missing lens because I had bought the glasses in another town, before I had moved. Aaah well.

An extra garage door opener that I faithfully kept by the back door at my former home, which had a detached garage, vanished one day. I refused to spend money replacing it, the result being I eventually locked myself out of both the house and garage, which cost me $75 in locksmith fees. That only steeled my resolve not to replace the opener, and I never did.

Then there are the lost socks, books gone missing, bills I swore I mailed that never got there. It’s an ever-growing list of items I imagine are all piled somewhere, to be found someday.

Maybe I am losing my gourd. Nah. At least if I am, I have company. My BMC never did find her glasses or jacket.
Originally published in the Junction City (Kansas) Union, July 24, 2010.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Slip Sliding Away

One of the assorted fringe benefits of hanging out with a 12-year-old this summer, my fiance’s daughter, is that I have been slipping down water slides all across Kansas without feeling as if I am some gross geezer pushing his luck. “Hey, I’m with the kid,” I can say if given The Look.

I will turn 55 — the double-nickel — next month, which officially entitles me to a company pension from my previous longtime employer, retiree health insurance and a discount at Schlitterbahn in Kansas City. The latter perk braises my backside, truth be known. Since when is 55 considered a senior citizen? Good grief. I have at least a decade left in the workforce, probably more. Give the discount to the poor folks. Sorry, that’s a sore spot with me.

We checked out the new Schlitterbahn in Kansas City a few weeks ago. The original park, in New Braunfels, Texas, has been an annual pilgrimage for both my beautiful mystery companion and me, since long before we met. The new park has some growing up to do, but it was worth the trip. That’s where both my BMC and Abbie pointed out that after Aug. 23 I could get the senior citizen discount. I responded by getting in line for the scariest water slide whose long line I could tolerate.

As I looked around it was clear that I would have been the clear winner of the Oldest Dude in Line Contest. My BMC is about three years younger than me but looks easily a decade my junior, so nobody ever suspects she has crossed the mid-century mark. Clerks are always trying to give me the senior citizen discount, even though I don’t yet qualify. I have been accused of being Abbie’s grandfather or even my BMC’s father, for Pete’s sake. This is a definite source of irritation to me; they find it hilarious, of course.

I read all the warnings on the sign approaching the ride, mainly there to attempt to protect Schlitterbahn from lawsuits. Don’t ride if you have had a heart attack, have high blood pressure, etc. Whatever. I’ll take my chances. After about 20 minutes my BMC and I were finally at the top. Interestingly, the Abster declined to ride, preferring to watch the aged folks risk life and limb. Near-teens are an interesting breed. They’ll happily accept your money but would prefer, like emergency vehicles, that you stay at least 100 feet back.

I am a sucker for water slides, but that’s as far as my thrill-ride derring-do goes. I am finished with roller-coasters after an unpleasant experience in my late 40s at the Six Flags in Dallas that sent me to a chiropractor for a couple of months. I am opposed to anything that makes me dizzy or sends my head below my feet. But flying down a water slide still is something I can handle, and I enjoyed my trip down the Schlitterbahn slide.

I just wish I had remembered to put sunscreen on my feet. I can’t believe I did this again. I slathered sun block on my face, arms, neck, etc. I tan easily but am old enough to know that sunburns are neither cool nor healthy. But since I was wearing water sandals, I forgot about my feet, which now sport a really interesting pattern, as if I had joined some weird foot-tattoo gang.

A quarter-century or so ago, I sat on the beach in San Diego while my young daughters splashed in the surf. Same foolishness transpired. All body parts were protected save my feet. My trip to Disneyland the next day wasn’t so wonderful, since I was limping badly.

Since Schlitterbahn, I have sampled the slides at the Junction City pool and the newly opened Manhattan pool, tagging along with the peeps. I tried all the slides at both locations. The green slide at the Junction City pool provides the twistiest ride by far. I ended up with a slight ankle limp for an hour or so after that ride. It reminded me of Disneyland.

The good news is that nobody tried to give me the senior citizen discount at the local pool. I don’t think such a discount exists, which is fine by me.

Originally published in the Junction City (Kansas) Daily Union, July 17, 2010.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Flying the Not-So-Friendly Skies

The rather expensive comedy of errors I’m about to relate is typically self-induced. Before moving here, I booked a flight online back to Texas for Memorial Day weekend, well in advance in order to get the cheapest fare possible. Just a few days before climbing into my Ford Escape in mid-May to literally escape the heat and make the Flint Hills my home, I retrieved the confirmation e-mail to send to my beautiful mystery companion, so she would know when to pick me up at the Dallas airport.

At the time I was sitting on her living room couch in Longview, Texas. That’s when she heard me utter a phrase that best not be printed in a family newspaper. When I called up the e-mail, I realized that I had booked the flight in reverse order. Instead of flying from Manhattan to Dallas, I had booked it in the order I had taken to come up here for the initial job interview and then on a second trip to find a house to lease.

A panicked call to the discount online travel site that I use yielded unsatisfying results, after the requisite 30-minute delay during which I listened to Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” apparently performed underwater on out-of-tune instruments. Finally a woman came on the line — such a quaint term to use in these days of cell phones. I explained my doofusness —I had booked the flight backward because I was used to starting in Texas and going to Kansas and hadn’t adapted to reversing the order. She laughed sympathetically, which gave me hope that with a quick peck of a few computer keys she would erase my stupidity and get me pointed in the right direction.

It wasn’t to be. From Bangalore or somewhere in the neighborhood, she punched buttons and finally informed me that it would cost me $1,350 to change the ticket. I asked to speak to someone else. After more Vivaldi, a gentleman no doubt from a neighboring village drew the same conclusion. I finally accepted a credit for a future purchase and went back online to rebook the flight in the proper order.

A few days ago, I called to attempt to use the credit and book another flight in August to visit my mother and, of course, my BMC, who will have returned to Texas by then. You must call; this can’t be done online. The musical selection this day was Pachelbel Canon in D — this time broadcast through two tin cans attached to each other by string. I had an hour-long conversation with a pleasant young man who had apparently secured this job at about 9 a.m. that morning, not long after finishing his ESL class.

I had gone to American Airlines’ Web site and planted the dates, flight numbers and times on the screen in front of me. Manhattan to Dallas on the first leg, where my BMC would pick me up. Then Longview to Dallas to Manhattan on the trip home. Total cost: $316 if purchased directly from the airline. But I was owed money from the online travel site and wanted to use my credit.

The customer-service representative kept putting me on hold to Pachelbel performed by the Tin Can Orchestra, then returning, determined to send me to places I didn’t want to go — even though I was providing the airport codes for all three airports. “Spokane to Dallas, correct?” he asked. No, Manhattan, I said. Kansas, not New York. Airport code MHK. He would apologize and disappear for another five minutes.
“Long Beach, yes?” he asked hopefully. “No, Longview: GGG is the code,” I replied. I decided God was paying me back for being dumb enough to book the Memorial Day flight backward, so I was being extraordinarily patient.

One hour into the conversation/concert, he informed me he had to “determine the validity and policy of the original booking.” I then was informed the airline was going to charge me $150 for changing the original fare. I argued a while, then gave up and booked the flight. As of this writing, eight hours later, I still haven’t received a confirmation e-mail, and my credit card hasn’t been charged.

The trip isn’t until early August, so I’ll give it a few days before calling back. Perhaps by then Bach will be the musical selection, performed by baying hounds. I’ll call when I have a couple of hours to spare, and my blood pressure is at low tide.

Originally published in the Junction City (Kansas) Daily Union, July 10, 2010

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Teaching an Old Shutterbug New Tricks

I bought myself a present just before coming to Kansas, a Nikon digital SLR camera and a couple of lenses, plus a nice flash. I emptied the Domke camera bag that I’ve lugged around for 30 years of its battered Nikon film bodies, grabbed one of the old lenses that will work in manual mode with the digital, and am back taking photos with an SLR instead of a point-and-shoot digital.

What a relief. I never got used to using a camera that one peered into a LCD screen from several inches away, and then had to wait a few seconds before the image was captured with a fake click of the shutter. I’m used to cramming my left-eye glass lens into the viewfinder so often that eventually I have to buy new glasses because of lens scratches.

I’ve been a newspaper photographer off-and-on for 40 years, sometimes as a full-time job. I was never a particularly distinguished shooter but always somebody who expected something to happen when the button was pushed. I have made do with a decent digital point-and-shoot for several years until coming here, where I’m far more hands-on when it comes to taking photos that end up in the newspaper. So I watched for a sale, bought a lens on eBay and put together a new digital package to replace my old Nikon stuff and that annoying point-and-shoot. I consider this a fringe benefit of the job, by the way, because I love to take photos and write stories.

There is a learning curve to using this camera, which has more bells and whistles than I will ever need or use. Since arriving here in mid-May I have been wandering around taking photos and slowly, ever so slowly, learning how to use the camera. I keep the owner’s manual in the Domke bag and consult it regularly. A few weeks ago I shot photos down at the Smoky Hill River Festival in Salina and then headed home through the back roads, stopping outside of Enterprise to shoot photos of wheat.

I know; that’s original. Wheat is fascinating to a newcomer, a lovely color, a lot shorter plant than I expected. (Of course, that’s what people say about me as well.) So I was down on my haunches on the side of the highway, camera bag by my side, flipping through the owner’s manual because I couldn’t remember how to change the aperture without changing the ISO, which is what in the old days we called the film speed, or ASA.

That’s when the deputy sheriff showed up and scared the bejeebers out of me, mainly because I was so absorbed in what I was doing. I sensed someone watching me and finally turned around to a smiling man wearing sunglasses and a gun, leaning out of a squad car.

“Everything OK here, sir?” he asked.

“Oh sure,” I said. “Just taking photos of wheat,” I said, waving both the owner’s manual and camera in the air like an idiot. He waved back and left.

My peeps arrived a couple weeks ago for a nearly month-long visit. I bought a companion SLR for my beautiful mystery companion, who also has missed taking photographs, using chits saved up on an Amazon credit card to secure it pretty cheaply. It is a less expensive but creditable partner to my camera, so that we can swap lenses, flashes and such. Abbie, her 12-year-old daughter and the queen of all things electronic, immediately took control. She is smart, creative and quickly began tutoring me on both how her mom’s camera worked, and, by extension, how my camera functioned.

There is something that just works differently in the brain of those young ‘uns. I don’t want to sound old, though I am relatively middle-aged. But I am not a Luddite. I love technology, own an iPhone, am on Facebook (though don’t really know why), have my own Website ( and feel blessed to live in the midst of this amazing information revolution. My goodness. There is no question I can ask that I can’t find a reasonable answer to, except, possibly, if you’re so smart, how come you’re not rich? Google can’t handle that one.

But Abbie can figure out how to use my GPS, digital SLR — whatever device I buy — in nanoseconds, while I’m still bumbling along reading the directions, something men aren’t supposed to do. Moreover, she has an eye for composition, crazy angles, interesting juxtapositions. In short, she is both teaching and inspiring me as I re-enter the photographic world. I hope I am teaching her as well, to be patient, to not blindly fire away at everything to try to actually compose the image, to bide one’s time.

We’ll see. Literally.

Originally published in the Junction City (Kansas) Daily Union, July 3, 2010.