Wednesday, November 24, 2010

There is Plenty For Which to be Thankful

Suddenly it is Thanksgiving. How did that happen? It seems like yesterday we were dressing up in our Easter finest. The day before that I was perched on a ladder, taking down the Christmas lights and making a set of largely unfilled New Year's resolutions. Months fly by now. Middle-aged folks like me look up to find their middle daughter reminding you that she will turn 30 next year.

Whoa. Goose, as I nicknamed her as an infant, will hit three-oh next summer. I am officially and inexorably on the path to geezerdom. There are no grandchildren, nor none on the horizon, just a couple of granddogs whose company I enjoy. No hurry on the grandbaby gig, girls. I’m just sayin’ — as the young folks are fond of uttering.

It has been a topsy-turvy year. I joined many of you in the jobless ranks in late winter, for the first time in more than three decades. Luckily, that didn't last long. Soon I was headed to Kansas to run a family owned small-newspaper operation there. But being away from loved ones proved wrenching, so I jumped at the chance to come back to Texas. For that, I am truly thankful this season, indeed every day.

Even in the midst of my worries over jobs, separation from loved ones, what the future holds, all those niggles that awake me in the night, I have always held strong to a faith that things eventually turn out. Maybe they don’t turn out quite as we hoped or even prayed for, but even the thorniest of life’s calamities have a way of working themselves out. At least they have so far. Thus I remain truly thankful for the many blessings in my life, both large and small.

Here are just a few of the things for which I’m thankful. I hope you have a list as well, and that you share it with those you love — if not on Thanksgiving Day, then soon. Learning the art of being truly grateful for small acts of grace and beauty is a lesson hard-earned and worth holding onto, because it will help you get through those days when things seem to be falling apart. And we all have those days.

• Watching the sun rise over the roofline of the elementary school where my oldest daughter teaches, as I walk just a few blocks from the house I have leased. Lately, the awakening sky has put on quite a light show, iridescent streaks of orange and purple. I never imagined a few short months ago that I would end up working and living minutes away from family and friends.

I looked on my iPhone the other day to check the weather forecast for Kansas, from whence I escaped just more than a month ago. The low temperature today is predicted to be 14 degrees. That was a close shave. As one Texas friend put it upon learning I was returning, “Don’t you ever pull a stunt like that again, buster,” by trying to leave the state. I won’t.

• Still being blessed with great health at the double-nickel of years. I work at it with daily exercise and a fairly healthy diet, but I know much of it comes down to chance, or whatever one wishes to call it. I know, as we all do, that good health doesn’t last forever. But I’m deeply grateful for being able to jump up at 6 a.m. and walk three miles, hop on the Bow-Flex, and feel great with minimal aches and pains.

• Books and magazines, the vast universe that they open up to us. That T-shirt one sees in Book People in Austin and other bookstores — “So Many Books, So Little Time” — would not be a bad epitaph to put on the park bench I have instructed my Beautiful Mystery Companion to buy a plaque upon at Lady Bird Lake upon my passing. That’s as close to a tombstone as I want, with my ashes scattered to the winds along the shore. (That is probably illegal, so y’all watch out for the law.)

• Speaking of my BMC, I’m always thankful she decided to e-mail me nearly three years ago, after reading a column I wrote in another newspaper about unpacking my books. She suggested we have coffee because she thought we might become friends. That is my favorite column. Someday soon, we’ll be married.

Happy Thanksgiving. I hope you count your blessings, hold on to your friends and family, and extend a hand to someone less fortunate. See you next week.

Originally published in the Hill Country News, (Cedar Park, Texas), November 25, 2010

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Bleeding Burnt Orange During A Rough Season

I bleed burnt orange and have since James Street led the Texas Longhorns to the 1969 national football championships, as well as pitching two no-hitters for the baseball team. Street graduated from Longview High School — as I did, though he was seven years ahead of me. He spoke at an assembly at Foster Junior High in Longview when I was in the ninth grade, after the Horns beat Arkansas 15-14 to take the Southwest Conference title and then beat Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl. I was hooked after hearing him speak and have been since.

In the ensuing decades, I managed to get a master’s degree in journalism from The University. My middle brother received his degree there, as did my two older daughters. In the course of researching a book I wrote a few years ago, I spent hundreds of hours on campus doing research at the Center for American History and in the Perry Castañeda library. I love walking around that campus and do so every chance I get. I buy tickets to at least one football game each season and rarely miss watching the rest on television when possible.

As it turned out, the game I picked this year was last Saturday night’s against Oklahoma State. Worse, I bought the tickets a couple months ago when I learned I was coming back to Texas and escaping Kansas before snowfall hit. So I paid premium prices for a quartet of tickets. Texas was ranked fourth in the nation at the time, undefeated at 3-0. I am embarrassed to admit how much I spent for the tickets, compared to what they’re selling for these days.

But you know what? I’m really not particularly upset the Horns are having a lousy season. We fans are long overdue a dose of humility. The success of this team in the Mack Brown era since 1997 has led most of us to expect Texas to vie for the national championship every year. After all, until this year the team has appeared in two national title game in 13 years and come close a number of times. Until this year, Brown had led the Horns to at least nine wins in each season and completed six seasons with 11 or more victories. That’s pretty darned impressive.

This has led to a sense of entitlement that borders on arrogance. I read blogs and have heard folks in the stands talking about players in ways that is just cruel. These are kids, for goodness’ sakes. They’re big kids, to be sure, playing in a first-class program in which they are treated like royalty. But many are still as young as 18. Those of us who have raised children of that age know how immature they often still are.

I don’t have as much sympathy for the coaches. They make a boatload of money — a ridiculous amount, in fact. Mack Brown now makes $5.1 million a year, which might end up being about a million bucks or more per victory this season. Defensive coordinator and heir-apparent Will Muschamp pulls in $900,000 annually. Sheesh. That seems excessive even for a program that makes a healthy profit.

All that aside, I still had a good time last Saturday night, watching the pageantry of a big-time college football game, singing the “Eyes of Texas,” and — for a short while — holding out hope that Texas might actually beat OSU. That hope was gone by halftime. Texas simply doesn’t have a very good football team this year. But the sun will still rise in the east tomorrow, and the world will keep spinning on its axis. I have never lost any sleep over a football game.

The highlight of the night was halftime, when the Show Band of the Southwest performed three John Philip Sousa marches to honor our veterans — a number of whom were present and recognized.

As my old buddy, the late Sam Malone — a hard-drinking country editor who kept a bottle of whiskey in the desk drawer and a shotgun in the corner — used to say when the home team got beat badly, “Well, at least we won the halftime show.”
Even the best football programs have bad years, and this is ours. Hope we don’t make a habit of it.

Originally published in the Hill Country News, Cedar Park, Texas, November 18, 2010.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Beware of Folks Seeking Money Via E-Mail

I received an e-mail a few weeks ago from a former newspaper colleague with whom I’ve corresponded a few times in the past year. I haven’t laid eyes upon him in probably a quarter-century. It went:

I'm writing this with tears in my eyes. I came down here to London, United Kingdom for a short vacation, unfortunately we were robbed at the park of the hotel where we stayed, worse of it was that our bags, cash, credit cards and cell phone were stolen of us at GUN POINT, it's such a crazy experience for us.

We need help flying back home and the authorities are not being 100% supportive but the good thing is that we still have our passports but don't have enough money to get our flight tickets back home and pay for the hotel bills and the hotel manager won't let us leave. I'm just gonna have to plead with you to lend me some funds right now, i'll pay back as soon as I get home. We need to sort the hotel bills and get on the next available flight home.

Forgive the run-on sentences and typos. I cut-and-pasted this straight from the e-mail box. Having been the recipient of my share of missives informing me I won $18 million in the Nigerian lottery and could claim the prize if I would just provide my bank account number — and mail a $3,000 check for “handling” to the Deputy Ambassador of Lagos at a post office box in Toronto — I was naturally suspicious.

For one thing, my former colleague would never write a sentence such as the second one. It is actually four sentences connected by commas, a double run-on sentence, if you will. Even if he had been robbed and was destitute, his knowledge of proper grammar hadn’t been stolen. We old-timers have our standards. I won’t knowingly even send a text message with improper punctuation.

Second, if my colleague needed money to get home from London I surely would be way down the list of people he would hit up for a loan. As I said, I haven’t seen the fellow since Reagan was president.

Last, my friend provided no way to contact him except by hitting the “reply” button on my e-mail account — no phone number or where he was staying. Naturally I was loath to hit reply, worried what type of computer sorcery I might be setting loose. Instead I found an older e-mail from my colleague and typed in that address to e-mail him. I told him I figured this was a scam but added the caveat that if he truly needed money to get home I would do what I could.

He replied quickly that many of his old colleagues had gotten the same bogus e-mail. The best thing about it, he said, was that he heard from folks with whom he had lost contact. The worst thing, and I wonder if he has figured this out yet, is his e-mail account has been hacked, because it came from his exact e-mail address.

I cut-and-pasted the original message into Google’s search window. Up popped hundreds of examples of the same scam played on other folks. A number of news articles have appeared both here and in the UK about the scam. The United States embassy in London advises folks to not send money to anyone claiming to be one’s friend in distress. It further points out that any American citizen in London, for example, can go to the embassy for help. No American citizen is ever turned away.

It is upsetting to think folks actually fall for this ploy, boneheaded as it sounds. What most often happens is that people whose accounts are hacked — these are usually Web-based accounts, such as Yahoo or G-mail — often waste hours having to recover their accounts by setting new passwords, talking to tech support, etc. Often, from what I read, they have to get a completely new account.

My fiancé, aka my Beautiful Mystery Companion, and I were talking about hackers the other day. They spend untold hours writing viruses to bollix computer systems for no discernible reason than to do so. Imagine if they used that energy to do good deeds, my BMC said. The world would be a better place.

Probably not going happen, I replied. Like Springsteen sings, “I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.”

I wish it wasn’t so.

Originally published in the Hill Country News, Cedar Park, Texas, November 11, 2010.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Driving The Box Truck to Buda

The Friday before the election I spent a half-day driving the battered box truck from our Cedar Park office to the company printing plant in Taylor, then down to Buda. We had a commercial printing job that needed to head south — to be trimmed and collated, and our regular driver was out of pocket. We have a small staff. I was the only one available. Besides, it was a lovely autumn day for a drive, especially since the toll road is open.

This trip would not have held any allure before the opening of Texas 130, which takes motorists from north of Georgetown and neatly deposits them at Cabelas in Buda. Eventually it will end further south, in Seguin. Of course, it costs money. On this afternoon, I wasn’t paying, the toll being recorded electronically by the TexTag on the windshield of this bug-spattered Mitsubishi.

Before, driving to Buda from Cedar Park via Taylor would have been a nightmarish trip down I-35 through Austin, a highway most of us have learned to avoid traveling through the city whenever possible. It would not have been possible to avoid before the toll road when traveling to Buda from Taylor. I suppose I would have tried going down MoPac and cutting across or some other alternative.

The toll road turned this into a pleasant drive — stress-free, windows down, driving the speed limit, the only downside being that this truck will rattle the fillings from one’s teeth. After 120 miles on this trip, I was sorely in need of a masseuse and possibly a neck cracking from a chiropractor.

No matter. I enjoyed traveling a sparsely traveled road thus far. It reminds me of when MoPac first opened, back when I was in graduate school at UT in the early 1980s. Man, I would get on that vast expanse of pavement in my 1974 Austin Healy and feel as if I had the road to myself — because I did. Most everyone else was still stuck on I-35, either out of habit or because they were skeptical this route would be faster.

I arrived in downtown Buda past lunchtime, my stomach growling but with no time to revisit Casa Alde, one of my favorite Mexican restaurants. Along Main Street there were more political signs packed into a few blocks than I have ever seen. Folks were handing out leaflets on this last day of early voting. I’ve read there have been some hot races in Hays County.

Glad to see the two-party system is still alive in some parts of Central Texas, which leads to one of my biennial rants. Why in the world do we require county commissioners, county judges, and other local elected officials to run under party labels? It’s silly. When choosing someone to represent a given precinct, for example, mainly you’re trying to find a person who won’t steal, has some common sense, cares about helping folks and has a sense of humor. I could care less whether that person is a Republican or Democrat, at the local level.

OK, I’ll step off the soapbox now.

The drive down the toll road reminded me of my several trips to and from Kansas, during my five-month stint working there. I never got a K-Tag. Fact is, I never changed my driver’s license or plates. Kansas and Oklahoma have hundreds of miles of toll roads, which means I would set off on each trip with a couple of rolls of quarters. My happiest trip was the one I made about three weeks ago. I knew, as my pile of quarters grew smaller, that I was that much closer to being home.

I took in the Texas countryside as I drove to Buda and back, watched firefighters battle a grass fire alongside the toll road, enjoyed the distant view of the Austin skyline about halfway down the highway. I didn’t expect to spend half of Friday driving a beat-up box truck to Buda and back, but it was a nice way to spend an autumn day in Central Texas.

Originally published in the Hill Country News (Cedar Park, Texas), November 4, 2010