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.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Black Fridays and Blue Laws

“So this is Christmas, and what have you done,”
— John Lennon.


Black Friday recently passed with multiple violent incidents, including a woman pepper-spraying people in order to forge ahead in line to buy a heavily discounted Xbox gaming device. A West Virginia man died after collapsing in a Target. Frenzied shoppers stampeded past the man as he lay on the floor. Elsewhere, folks got in a tussle over $2 waffle makers. Across the country, people began lining up on Monday for openings of big-box retailers with limited offers of big bargains. Spending several days in the elements in order to save a few hundred bucks on a big-screen television is a catalyst for bad behavior, I’m thinking.

Thanksgiving used to be a shopping-free zone. Sure, restaurants opened to serve those unwilling or unable to cook. Convenience stores sporadically opened their doors, usually by late afternoon, to sell beer, Tums and cigarettes. But for the most part, the merchant class took a break. That seems to be rapidly becoming a quaint, unobserved tradition.

Black Friday was named because the cash registers ringing — or more accurately these days, beeping —put merchants into the black, profit-wise. Now Black Friday is sliding backward into — I don’t know — Gray Thursday Night?

What a terrible name to start the holiday shopping season: Black Friday. Yeech. It conjures images of evil acts, sorcery, even vampires, which seem to be all the rage these days. Perhaps this poor choice in capitalist marketing partially accounts for the increasing incidents of bad behavior. Or maybe there is a growing segment of the population that cares more about getting a good deal on a DVD player than making someone sure someone doesn’t get trampled to death.

So much for peace on earth and goodwill toward men. Don't be surprised to see Santa in the mall armed with pepper spray.

When I see some poor sap bundled up against the elements as the temperatures plunge into the 70s in Texas (to steal a line from KUT, the local NPR station), talking to a television reporter for the annual story on how long he has been camping out to be first in line at Best Buy, I wonder, “Do these people not have jobs? And if they are unemployed, why are they spending their money on a big-screen television?” Maybe this is how they spend their allotted vacation days. Personally, I would rather go hiking in the mountains or alongside a white-capped river. I also wonder about bathroom breaks, the need to shower more than once every four days (at least for me and everybody I hang out with), and other weighty matters.

These violent incidents breaking out across America over Christmas shopping make me grumpy and inclined to keep all the decorations in the closet. My wife and I already have pledged to keep spending modest and try to find a place to serve others on Christmas Day. Not because we are wonderful people — at least I’m not — but because all this spending and hoopla just don’t seem right anymore. There is a reason for this season, and it sure isn’t standing in a mob outside a Walmart at 3 a.m. waiting for the doors to open, standing along with several hundred other testy shoppers, hoping not to get trampled.

The trend this year is for stores to open on Thanksgiving evening, after the Detroit Lions have been clobbered in another Turkey Day tradition: The Lions lose while a nation snoozes after overdosing on tryptophan from all that turkey. Then we’re all supposed to wake up and head to the stores.

Not me. I am old enough to recall when many stores in Texas had to stay closed on Sunday because of blue laws. (I had hoped to provide the etymology of blue laws, but said to fuggedaboutit. Nobody really knows.) Somehow we managed to survive no-shopping Sundays unscathed and rarely felt deprived that we could not shop ‘til we dropped after church. Sure, sometimes it was inconvenient, like when one had to buy Pampers at triple-price at Circle K because we didn’t make it to the grocery store on Saturday. But I don’t think we’re any better off as a society, now that stores are opening on Thanksgiving, before the turkey and dressing have cooled enough to put the leftovers in the fridge.

As for me, I’ll just stay home Thanksgiving night and watch UT play Texas A&M. Whoops. Forgot that isn’t going to happen anymore, at least for a while.

Another tradition crumbles. What’s next to tumble? One shudders in nervous anticipation.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thankful For Family, Fried Okra & 28 Other Items

One of the Facebook diversions floating around lately is “30 Things
For Which You Are Thankful.” Being grateful for one’s blessings is critical to happiness, so I am happy to provide my own modest list. Just don’t ask me to join Farmville or any of those other silly FB games. (For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, in this case ignorance is, if not bliss, at least the wiser route.) So here goes.
I am thankful for:

• My bride of five-and-a-half months, Julie, newest daughter Abbie, and my two “grown” daughters, Kasey and Mere. I am constantly astounded that these four really smart, beautiful females put up with my ways — at least most of the time. They always give me joy and love, and I would be lost without them. Talk about blessings.

• The family I joined when marrying my Beautiful Mystery Companion on a warm June afternoon out in the East Texas countryside. Recently, they have experienced great loss with the death of one of the clan, 20-year-old Cody Norris, while serving our country in Afghanistan. The service in La Porte, southeast of Houston, three days before Thanksgiving was both heart-wrenching and uplifting, the support from the community amazing. Still, tough times remain in those quiet days when the hubbub has ended, the flowers faded, the embraces fewer and far between.

• That I was able to be at my mother’s side, along with my brother Gregg and daughter Mere, when she passed away in mid-May. I did not want her to go out of this world alone, and will forever be grateful that we could all get there from out-of-town and ease her passing. I miss her.

• My faith, a terrific pastor, a friendly church, and a peace about what happens next, whatever it might be. I guess part of finally growing up is learning to ride that roller coaster. Most days, I’m good with that.

• Good health, few aches and pains, and the ability to walk three miles daily. You quit taking such things for granted as one ages.

• That I have a dog. Well, technically my BMC has the dog since we still have a commuter marriage. But Rosie the Wonder Dog loves me as unconditionally as the rest of the peeps. Sometime soon, I will tell you the story of how this little dog vanished for two weeks, and the adventures she faced until we got her back. I forgot how much joy a little creature can bring to a family. Rosie is a fine little dog and a leading candidate for Cutest Dog in the Universe. Just saying.

OK, gonna start devolving into the less weighty. Fair warning as to what else I am grateful for:

• The Republican presidential debates. These have provided considerable entertainment and an excuse, besides football, to keep up my cable subscription. I was an eyewitness to Rick Perry’s forgetting that third federal agency he wants to eliminate. It is the first time I have felt sorry for the man. I watched yet another debate two nights before Thanksgiving. Bless their hearts. That’s all I have to say.

• There won’t be any Democratic primary debates. Whew.

• Rain. We haven’t had nearly enough, but at least the skies have opened a bit.

• I have gotten old and hardened enough to not mourn more than five minutes if UT loses a football game. I have bigger fish to fry.

• The ubiquitous presence of excellent breakfast tacos in Austin and in my alternate domicile, East Texas. I will not prejudice you by naming favorites, because new ones pop up constantly in both locales. The rise of breakfast tacos in popularity provides me hope that Western Civilization indeed will survive. But that’s just me.

• Affordable GPS devices. Man, talk about saving this middle-aged
soul some angst. I’m thinking this is the wisest $100 I ever spent.

• That I watched in person as the Boston Red Sox won Game One of the 2007 World Series. The ticket was expensive, but the way last season ended, I might be pushing 80 before they’re back in it. Besides, now it’s off the bucket list.

• Wolf Brand turkey chili.

• Satellite radio, even though I only listen to about three of the
gazillion choices.

• The Geico commercials. They make me laugh.

• None of my children turned out to be Aggies. At least not yet. (Kidding. I couldn’t care less.)

• Summer has finally left Texas.

• Owning more books than I could ever hope to read before dying.

• People with a sense of humor, like the anonymous soul who added an extra letter with duct tape to a sign I saw: It then read: Futility
Work Ahead. We can all relate.

• I can still do math in my head.

• Fried okra from Chicken Express. It’s the best in the nation. We
get the okra and skip the chicken.

• Clint Eastwood.

• Dolly Parton.

• Gimme caps that effectively hide my receding hairline and bald spot.

• Not having to wear a necktie every day.

• Never having had the urge to wear a bowtie. I’m not dexterous enough to tie one properly.

• Plumbers. I’m dangerous with a pipe wrench.

• Automatic transmissions. I am over my love affair with stick shifts.

• Comfortable shoes.

Finally, and seriously, I’m thankful for those who take the time to read these modest offerings and send comments, critiques and kudos. Thank you, and God bless.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Old Darkroom Sparks Memories

I visited an old photo darkroom recently. It hasn’t been used in at least a decade, maybe longer. Digital cameras began replacing film in the early 1990s, as newspapers and other print media figured out it was a way to both save money and speed up the process of producing a photograph. At the small daily newspaper where I worked in East Texas, we plunked down $20,000 in 1992 or ’93 for our first Nikon digital camera. A similar model today might cost $500 at most. An entire generation of photographers has arrived, never knowing the thrill of watching a print come to life in a tray of smelly chemicals, the image illuminated only by the faint yellow glow of a safelight.

All the tools necessary to develop rolls of film and make prints were still in that old darkroom, stacked in piles and on cabinets. Stained plastic trays gathered dust on a shelf. An enlarger was perched on a shelf in the corner, 8x10 print boxes stacked on its base. Film reels lay abandoned on the floor, along with yet another enlarger for making color prints. The desiccated crust of photographic chemicals clung to the vats in which chemicals were once mixed: Fixer, D-76 for developing film, Dektol for prints.

The place still possessed that darkroom smell, which I was first introduced to more than 40 years ago in the basement of the Longview newspaper. There I developed sheets of 4x5 film and rolls of 120 negatives shot by other photographers, and learned how to make prints. For the next 20-plus years, I held jobs that required at least a part of my workweek was spent in a darkroom, until digital arrived. Sometimes I miss having a darkroom in which to retreat, music playing in the background as I methodically cranked out prints for the next issue of whatever newspaper I toiled for. It was a form of therapy, an escape from the world. But I can’t say I miss have fingers stained a subtle tinge of yellow from the chemicals, or the inevitable bleached spots on my clothes from sloshing prints from tray to tray, even though I always wore an apron. I finally sold my personal darkroom equipment in the mid-1990s, when it became obvious digital was here to stay, and film was largely confined to art photographers.

As mentioned, I recently moved once again, buying a house in a quiet subdivision in North Austin. I methodically unpacked a couple of boxes stuffed with three-ring binders of photo negatives, boxes of prints, even a half-dozen carousels of slides. If you remember slide carousels, then like me you’re eligible to join AARP, not that I recommend it. Nobody gets out alive when they join AARP. Just saying.

As I dutifully stacked a yard-long collection of three-ring binders on my closet shelf, accompanied by a couple dozen old print boxes filled with photos, I thought of my children. If I can’t figure out what to do with all this stuff, they will have to deal with it at some point.

I’m loath to chunk those negatives, contact sheets and boxes of prints. They represent the modest contribution I have made to capture a slice of East Texas in those pre-digital decades. So, I will likely keep carrying around these shelves of old negatives and prints until I can talk some archival collection repository into taking them.

At long last, the old darkroom is slated to be cleared out in the next few months. The negatives and photographs will end up in the university’s collections, the enlargers and other darkroom equipment hauled to surplus. A couple coats of fresh paint should eliminate that darkroom smell. I will continue to spend nights at home making prints the modern way, on a big-screen Macintosh attached to a photo printer. I manipulate the images in Photoshop with lights out, to better see the true tones on the screen.

So in a sense I’m still hanging out in a darkroom, just without the smell.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The War, Tragically, Comes Home

I met Cody Norris a couple of times at holiday gatherings of my wife’s extended family, most of whom live in Northeast Texas. He was tall and thin, clearly in shape. Cody was my sister-in-law and brother-in-law’s nephew. He grew up in the Houston area and clearly loved the chance to spend time in the country. For simplicity’s sake he was considered one of the cousins. Cody usually showed up with his dad, Reese, at the East Texas farm that serves as our outdoor gathering spot when the weather is tolerable. These throw-downs invariably involve a fish fry, a bonfire if there is even a hint of chill in the air, an impressive display of weaponry to fire at targets and soda cans, four-wheelers — and, for some, deer hunting when in season and wild hog hunting any time someone spots one of those pests.

Cody was a polite young man who enjoyed hunting there with his dad and brother, firing off weapons, and hanging out with his extended family. His older brother, Michael, is enrolled at West Point. Cody chose to join the Army in October 2010 and became a 240B Gunner stationed at Fort Riley in Kansas and deployed to Afghanistan, according to his Facebook page. That page consists of a number of cell-phone portraits of Cody in his battle fatigues, with an Army-prescribed shaved head, even a few close-ups of a mashed fingernail, the result of getting it caught between a tripod and a rocky surface. The comments about that photo are clearly from peers, asking when he’s going to be deployed to Afghanistan, and for how long. He says it will probably be for a year, according to his paperwork.

He left for Afghanistan in April, about six months shy of his 20th birthday. On Nov. 9 he was killed while on patrol. As of this writing, that’s about all I know. Except that another family is heartbroken. This time it is a family that I have joined, and it is people that I love who are grieving. A grandmother, parents, aunts and uncles, cousins, are all mourning the loss of one who died too young. Cody was killed not quite a month after turning 20 years old, serving in a war that has lasted more than half his life.

I am writing this on Veterans Day, early in the morning because I can’t sleep, haunted by how Cody’s death forever will change the lives of these folks to whom I’m now connected. They will survive this loss because we don’t really have much choice when tragedy shows up uninvited. We deal with it best we can. And they surely will take solace that Cody died in the service of his country. I think the term “hero” is used a bit loosely these days, but surely it applies to those who volunteer to serve our country in combat and die doing so. No matter the political arguments flying back and forth on whether we should continue to fight that war or not. The soldiers do what soldiers do — obey orders and fight for our country.

NPR ran a week-long series of stories in October about the terrible losses taken by one platoon, and the effect it had on the families of those killed or wounded. A young wife who gave birth to the couple’s child a few weeks after her husband died in Afghanistan. A soldier who came home maimed and unable to find work. It was nearly impossible to drive down the road, heading home from work, and listen to these stories, eyes welling with tears.

Now the war has come home hard to people that I love dearly. I have no words other than the usual condolences they have already heard far too often in these early days. We all tend to say the same thing, because we don’t know what else to say. I just hope it provides some comfort. All I know to say is that I am heartsick this has happened, but I am glad I was privileged to meet a fine young man who volunteered to fight to protect this country.

Finally, I pray for peace, for our soldiers to come home out of harm’s way, the sooner the better.

Friday, November 4, 2011

On Firewood and Fried Catfish

The first fire of the season was exceedingly modest, just one fat log buttressed by a couple of sticks of kindling in my BMC’s fireplace in East Texas, fired up with the natural-gas pipe starter in a quick attempt to warm up the living room before we headed to church. More than anything, it was our announcement that summer had at last been banished. Autumn was finally in the house, a tardy arrival but still welcomed. We have been pining for cool weather for many months. Who hasn’t of those who survived this Summer From Hades?

We spent most of Saturday trekking through Northeast Texas, pulling my brother-in-law’s trailer up to my father-in-law’s farm to load up a season’s worth of firewood. Here’s a pleasant surprise, given the terrible drought (which has eased a bit in East Texas but still has us Austin-dwellers by the throat). The fall foliage is certainly muted this year, beaten down by a lack of moisture and unrelenting heat, but patches popped up along the 90-minute drive to the farm near Texarkana. Mainly it’s the scrubby trees, bushes really, whose leaves have taken advantage of a smattering of moisture combined with cool weather to show off a bit, flash a panoply of plumage despite the depredations of summer.

I have inherited a gaggle of in-laws, whom I love dearly for many reasons. They are a hilarious bunch who love to cook, fire off massive amounts of ammo, play practical jokes on each other, root for the Longhorns and are always there when you need a hand. Plus, this family has stockpiled enough filleted catfish caught on a trotline on Wright Patman Lake, and chain-sawed up enough firewood from deadfall on their acreage to survive the Revolution. We might have a difference of opinion on exactly who’s going to be spearheading that Revolution, but I know I’m welcome at the fish fry — and there will be plenty of firewood to stoke the hearth.

It provides my battered soul some balm to take a drive through the country, meandering along winding ribbons of asphalt ringed by trees, only occasionally meeting an oncoming vehicle. Better yet is actually tromping through the woods, to the cache of firewood stored under a pole shed my wife helped build years ago, next to the long-abandoned forest-green Atlanta ISD school bus. There is a window unit air-conditioner stuck in the engine well of the bus, which once served as the family camping retreat. We quickly piled up a load of firewood on the trailer, being careful to balance it over the axle and not overload the SUV. I have no way to hook up brake lights on this borrowed trailer, since the connector is different. So, in time-honored East Texas tradition, I’m hauling this back to Longview — 90 minutes away — by the backroads, hoping a DPS trooper doesn’t notice, and trying to beat darkness at the same time.

Before we leave, I help my father-in-law take his flat-bottom boat to the lake. I back it into the water under his watchful and skeptical eye. Luckily, I have learned how to back a trailer even if I’m not worth a darn on checking trotlines. Once the outboard is in the water, he starts it to run the gas out. Fishing season is over until next spring. He appraises the fall harvest as modest, says he pulled in a couple of 40-pounders, no big deal. My father-in-law is 80 and tougher than shoe leather. I am a quarter-century younger and would rather not face a 40-pound catfish no doubt highly irritated at being hooked to a piece of rope and hauled overboard.

But I sure do love eating that fried catfish.

My father-in-law goes his way, and we go ours, taking a plastic sack filled with jalapeño, banana, Tabasco and cayenne peppers from his brother’s garden, on the farm across the road. At 85, Brad says he’s slowing down. Yeah, well, I should slow down as much. The man still works the land as if his livelihood depended on it, with an amazing organically grown garden that provides a bounty of produce. He and his brother are like the two old coots in “Secondhand Lions,” always grousing at each other but working together nonetheless, whether it’s plowing the garden in preparation for spring, or trying to figure out how to run off the feral hogs.

A day in the country, doing a bit of physical work while enjoying the smell of pine trees, red dirt and a fine fall breeze. That’s just what this reluctant big-city boy needed.

Friday, October 28, 2011

It Was A Moving Experience

My move from the City Where All The Houses Look Somewhat Alike (aka the Town With No Downtown) into North Austin is finally complete, about seven weeks after it began. It truly is less trouble to move cross-country than cross-town. One must pack up everything and ensure that it all goes on the big truck when moving a significant distance. Cross-town moves involve, at least for me, a few dozen trips pulling my utility trailer, climaxed by hiring movers to haul the heavy stuff. I probably spent $100 on tolls hauling my stuff down Hwy. 183A.

I itemized the other day, during a moment of idleness, each time I have moved since becoming an alleged adult. This latest trek was the 33rd time I have moved in 38 years. Now that’s just ridiculous. The excellent news is that we now co-own (with the mortgage company) a lovely house with huge oak trees. The lot backs up to a greenbelt. Well, it is a brownbelt actually, given the drought. Maybe someday it will be green again. Still, it’s pretty sweet for city living.

Other than having my trailer twice come off the hitch and nearly make this move truly my final trek, things went fairly swimmingly. After nearly three dozen moves, I have the routine down — unlike moves in my misspent youth. I once tried to move a revolving bookrack with the books still on the shelves, figuring if I went really slow everything would be fine. I still have some of those paperbacks with road rash speckling the covers. In addition, after a certain age, one realizes that your friends really don’t want to help you move in exchange for beer, though I did lean on one buddy to make a few trips.

The movers I hired showed up on time, both slugging down fat cans of energy drinks. They were about half my age, twice as tall (OK, not twice but considerably) and three times stronger than I was at that age — and I thought I was in shape back then. I own a futon sofa for guests that had to be carried down an L-shaped stairway. The previous mover took it apart to get it upstairs, then put it back together. These guys lifted it up over the banister to clear the first hurdle, then one of them put the sofa frame — now in bed position — under his arm and carried it out to the truck. I tried to get my cell phone out to take a photo and send to my Beautiful Mystery Companion, but he was too fast.

These guys ran back and forth from the truck to the house. They had my possessions loaded in just a couple of hours. I left a minute or so before they did, pulling my haunted trailer filled with boxes. About halfway down 183 toward the new house, the movers blew by me, most of my worldly possessions packed in their gooseneck trailer. That is a strange feeling, watching your stuff fly by in a truck driven by a guy with way too much caffeine in his bloodstream. But they arrived safely at the new house and in 30 minutes had the trailer unloaded. The rest was up to me, with help on a couple of weekends from my BMC, who remains in East Texas.

It took a bit longer than usual for me to unpack everything, hang dozens of photos and artwork, and sell the used boxes. Perhaps it is a sign of optimism that I sold the boxes, which have been used for three moves in the past 18 months. But my moving days are hardly over. Over Christmas break I hope to retrieve my shop equipment from my son-in-law and commence to making sawdust once again. And someday, my BMC, daughter Abbie, and Rosie the Wonder Dog all hope to live under one roof. Whether it is the roof under which I now live during the workweek, well… I have learned to take life one day at a time these days.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Birthday Wishes to The Abster

In just a few days my youngest daughter turns 14, going on 20. Anybody who has raised a teenager knows what I mean. One moment they’re still kids, giggling while rolling on the floor with the puppy, complaining because we’re making them take a bath. Moments later, they’re trying on massive amounts of makeup and spending hours primping in front of the mirror, wearing out the hair straightener while adding a sawbuck to the electric bill.

Teens’ heads can spin on a dime, ala Linda Blair in “The Exorcist.” Suddenly your IQ has dropped below freezing, in their estimation, because you won’t let them do what the mysterious “Mr. or Ms. Everybody” are doing. As in, “But Mom, everybody is going to the midnight showing of “Zombies Eat Their Young.”” If I ever meet this Everybody Duo, I’m going to chastise them for making the responsible parent’s life such a challenge.

This isn’t my first foray into raising teens, so not much surprises me in my dotage. The Abster, as we call her, became my daughter when her mom — the Beautiful Mystery Companion — and I married last June. It was a package deal and quite the bargain for yours truly — a woman I adore, another daughter to love, and Rosie, the World’s Cutest Dog. Seriously. We could rent Rosie out to single adults looking for a mate. Take her down the jogging trail, and folks just swoon over that pooch.

Abbie is smart, gorgeous, has a huge heart and will likely serve on the U.S. Supreme Court after a distinguished legal career — unless she decides to become president instead. The girl can argue with a rock— the material that at times she believes comprises the space between her parents’ ears. I look forward to hearing her first trial summation, if she chooses that path. The other side doesn’t stand a chance; her parents rarely do.

She remains our compass — literally. It remains a tossup which of us alleged adults is worse at finding our way around. We rely heavily on our two GPS devices — both named Gretel because she leaves electronic crumbs for us to find our way back. The GPS isn’t much help when walking unfamiliar streets on vacation, trying to remember where we parked. Abster has rescued us from meandering any number of times, shaking her head in bemusement at her directionally challenged parents.

In the nearly four years we have been hanging out, Ab is the go-to girl when it comes to all electronic gadgets. Her mom and I will be poring over the owner’s manual trying to decipher instructions written by someone for who English is not a native language, while Abster just grabs the device and starts figuring out how it works. It doesn’t matter what it is: iPhone, digital camera, new television, the aforementioned GPS. She will have it up and running before we have managed to find the index in the owner’s manual.

It will not come as a shock to parents or grandparents of teens reading this to learn that our daughter would prefer to spend every waking moment on Facebook, while clutching her phone in anticipation of the next text message, the iPod’s earbuds implanted in her skull. It is a grave injustice, in her view, that we don’t let her do that, that there are limits to electronic use. Tough turkey. This ain’t my first rodeo listening to teenagers complain about how mean I am as a dad. She will thank me someday when she approaches middle age and hopefully can still hear and see without glasses or hearing aids. Of course, I will be decrepit or dust by the time Ab is middle-aged. Best not dwell on that.

We have had some grand times together, the three of us, with lots of laughter as well as holding on to each other during times of loss and sorrow. I feel blessed and privileged to be Abbie’s dad and to do whatever I can to help her grow into the fine young woman she is certain to become. It’s been a wonderful journey thus far, and God willing it will continue for many years.

Happy Birthday, Abster. And turn down that iPod.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Monk Left A Lasting Legacy

Monk Willis would have turned 95 a few days ago. He passed away in January. His many friends — and I was privileged to be one — know that Monk is still with us, just in a different way. For those of us who loved him, Monk is ever-present, his wisdom still whispering through our thoughts, his wit and humor bringing smiles to our faces, that silly giggle he had cracking us up.

We met in July 2008, about six months after I returned to run the Longview paper. Retired surgeon John Coppedge set up a lunch. I knew John from his bringing around Republican judicial candidates to the various East Texas newspapers I ran during the last couple decades. He called one day and requested I meet him at the Summit, a private dining club downtown.

Coppedge said, “There’s someone you need to get to know. He’s 92 (as Monk was at the time). He is one of the smartest people I’ve ever known, plus he’s a damn liberal like you.” We three met, Monk and I hit it off, and in the next two-and-a-half years, Monk became like a second father to me, especially after my own dad died a few months later.

I talked to one of Monk’s daughters the other day. She remarked how hard it was to go back in the house on Noel Drive and see that all the books are gone. Monk and books were so intertwined. I recall going over to his house a few weeks after that first lunch. The dining room table groaned from the weight of books clearly just purchased. Stacks of them circled both the chair in the front parlor and his recliner in the back study. You had to pick your way carefully through those rooms, narrow paths left open through piles of books. I had never seen anything quite like it. I began wondering that I would spend my dotage hemmed in by books. There are worse fates, I concluded.

That day, I asked Monk where he bought his books. He snorted and lit another cigarette. “Well, Amazon, of course. Where the hell else would I get them?”

Soon I was enlisted in helping Monk navigate that confusing online world to order more books, or print out articles that he wished to share from newspaper websites.

Monk clearly had a testy relationship with the computer that his daughters bought him. He cussed it regularly, pecked on its keyboard one finger at a time with a belligerence that just dared that machine to malfunction, clicked the mouse as if he was snapping a trap on a real rodent’s neck. He would yell at me regularly as I tried to figure out what electronic rabbit hole he had sent his website bookmarks down — as always cracking me up.

The computer for Monk was just a means to an end, a way to get more books to read, articles to peruse and disseminate. He truly was a man of letters, who could recall stanzas of poems he had memorized when Hoover was president. He once borrowed from me two volumes of Will and Ariel Durant’s “Lives of Western Civilization,” when he realized I owned a set bought at rummage sales over the years. He had been, as he put it, “thinking about the Greeks.”

We talked after he had finished reading about the Greeks, about memory and history. Monk was skeptical about accounts of events that had occurred three thousand years ago, of the level of minutiae that Herodotus and others provided. How could they possibly have remembered what happened in such detail, he asked me. Hell, you and I can’t remember where we ate lunch last week, he pointed out. I wanted to reply — but didn’t — that I could remember because we either ate at Sally’s (Man, I miss that place) or Jack’s Health Food Store, with an occasional venture to Rodriguez or Hu Pei 2. He loved Jack’s because women were constantly coming up and hugging him. One day, I was giving him the raised-eyebrow look after the fourth well-kept woman squeezed him. 

“One of the few fringe benefits of being older than Methuselah,” he said, cracking that grin.

Monk to his death remained a sharer of ideas, of books and policies, politics and even sports. But he was more than that. He was a doer and a fixer, someone who was more interested in making life better for the least among us than personally enriching himself or his family. He loved politics not just because of the action, though he clearly loved that, but for what could be accomplished to make this part of our world a better place to live. I remember picking up a 4x6 snapshot of the library at North Texas on one of my first visits, which he kept on a table by the front door. In the photo, students are walking by a nondescript building with a sign out front, and you had to hold it close to read what the sign says.

I looked at Monk and asked, “They named the library for you?” Usually you have to be dead or filthy rich for that to happen with a university building these days.

“Yeah,” Monk said. “And I never gave them a damn dime, either.”

He gave far more to North Texas, of course. Eighteen years as a regent, a dozen as its chair. Monk gave of his talents, his energy, his passion and his money, until the very end.

He left his friends and family some very precious gifts. Mainly was the gift of serving others selflessly, of loving largely and with great tolerance, and of being humble. My days with Monk on this earth were not that numerous, compared to many. But the lessons I learned, the wisdom he imparted that resonates still today of an examined life, the friendship we shared, all that will remain as long as I’m around.

Looking back — which always is easier than looking forward — there seem to be three reasons God brought me back to Longview for a brief and tumultuous time. First was to be able to bring my parents home to live out their final days, to care for them until they too passed away. Second was to meet the love of my life — my wife, Julie, and our daughter, Abbie. Finally, it was to be able to share the joy of being able to call Monk Willis a friend and a mentor.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Losing My Car A Common Calamity

I lost my car in the UT parking garage the other day. It was bound to happen. The fact that it took nearly four months for this unhappy event to occur counts as a minor victory. Perhaps I am making progress in the Not Losing One’s Car In A Parking Area department.

Still, it was annoying. I left at lunch to run errands, which meant I sacrificed my choice spot on the second level, always on the left side on the first ramp. (Parking in this garage is first-come, first serve.) I get to work early and park in the same area every morning, which is why I haven’t lost my car to this point. Upon returning, lost in reverie and in a hurry to get back for an appointment, I zig-zagged up the ramps until I finally found a spot in the nosebleed section of the garage. When work ended, I trudged back to the garage and realized I had no idea where I had parked, except that it wasn’t on the second level. Third maybe? Fifth? Seventh?

I climbed to the fourth level and hit the alarm button on the key fob, a trick that a fellow auto-amnesiac taught me. Sure enough, my car started honking, but I couldn’t tell if the sound was coming from above or below. I went up a level and tried again. Nothing. I went down a level and hit the red button once more. No response. I returned to the third level and walked the entire area, looking in vain for the oval “HR” sticker I put on the back window to help me find my car. That stands for Hurricane Ridge, in the Olympic National Forest of Washington state — one of the prettiest places on the planet. I suspect most people who see it think I work in human resources.

Fifteen minutes later I found my car on the fourth level. I have no idea why the car alarm would not go off when I was actually on that level, but it did when I was below. I was just glad it only took 15 minutes. My personal record is two hours, when I parked on a side street and walked to the football stadium to meet my daughters. After the game, in darkness I searched for my car down one street after another. I was about to take a cab back to the hotel and wait for sunrise to begin the search anew, when magically my vehicle appeared on a street I was fairly certain I had searched a half-dozen times already.

My inability to remember where I park appears to be both inherent and inherited. My dad was a dreamy, absent-minded guy who would often forget why my mom had sent him to the store. Bread? Milk? Cigarettes? What? Back then, in the Paleolitic era of my youth — before cell phones, GPS or car alarms were common — there weren’t any Big Box stores either, so he could usually find the car in a small lot. I have learned to park in the same general area in the sea of asphalt that fronts most stores I frequent, whether it’s the grocery store or a home-improvement establishment. Facing the store, I always park to the far right, as close to a shopping cart-return bin as possible.

A few Christmas seasons ago, I lost my car in the parking garage of the Austin Convention Center after going to the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar. Again, I could make the car alarm go off, but it took 45 minutes to pinpoint the sound. Several years ago, I parked at the Houston airport in an outdoor lot because it was cheaper. Aware of my handicap, I wrote down the location. Upon returning, my car was not where I had so diligently recorded the location. Finally, in utter bewilderment, I asked the attendant at the pay window for help. She laughed and said several rows of cars had been moved while I was gone so the parking lot could be repaved. She pointed, and far in the distance I spotted my car. This did nothing to bolster my confidence. Even writing down the location didn’t help.

My wife and about-to-turn 14-year-old daughter are well aware of my malady and carefully note where we park when we go somewhere. When I’m parking solo, all bets are off here in the big city. I guess I’m just a country boy at heart.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

There's A Hitch To It

I have a checkered history with pulling trailers that continues unchecked. To wit: I recently hauled another load to the new house and decided to make a quick trip to the Big Box Home Improvement Stores nearby — one decked out in orange, the other in a red-and-blue motif. I figure you have shopped these establishments if you live in America. I prefer the mom-and-pops, with my current favorite being Breed & Co. near the UT campus, and Zenger Hardware, further north off Burnet. Both remind me of my all-time favorite hardware store, now greatly diminished, which was Cason Monk & Co. in downtown Nacogdoches.

In the day that was such a lovely store, with a distinctive smell emanating from the merchandise and hardwood floors, kept clean with Murphy Oil Soap. At least that is how those floors smelled to me. I search for places in Austin that remind me of Cason Monk. Someday after retirement I might end up working in a hometown hardware store, if there are any left. That’s how I think these days, post-crash, as do many folks of my age. We scheme about what our post-career job is going to be, not what we will do with all that leisure time in retirement. Fine with me. I have learned through a few brief periods of joblessness that idleness is definitely not my strong suit. I need to work to stay healthy and just this side of wacko.

That’s all I’m asking. Just keep me on the skinny side of sane.

Anyway, to get on task, I was aisle-shopping at a Big Box, making plans on what type of plastic storage unit to store lawn implements. I had taken a trailer-load to the new house and hauled it empty to the stores. As I cruised down Parmer Lane at about 50 mph with that unloaded trailer, I noticed it was bouncing more than usual. Loadless trailers bounce a bit, so it took a few hundred yards for me to realize my trailer was whip-sawing about. Somehow it had come off the trailer ball and was only connected by the safety chains. The tongue was bouncing off the road at 50 mph, likely kicking off sparks on the pavement. Other drivers gave me a wide berth as I pulled over on the shoulder. The trailer slid under my Ford Escape. Fortunately the hitch ball stopped it from plowing into the back of the vehicle. Even more fortunately, I wasn’t on MoPac going 70 mph when this occurred, which is where I had been an hour earlier.

Luckily the trailer was light enough to pull out from under the car and put it back on the ball. I drove slowly back to the new house and figured out that the latch that keeps the hitch locked on the ball had broken. I rigged it by wrapping a 6-foot bicycle cable around the hitch and ball and padlocking it, then slowly drove back to find someone who could fix the trailer. The fellow I found has tattoos on top of his tattoos, including his forehead, cheek and neck. I am hopeful he gets my trailer fixed before his parole is revoked.

It galls me a bit that I appear to finally have learned how to properly tie down loads — and the dang trailer breaks, potentially causing a pileup on Parmer Lane — a six-lane ribbon of traffic that evokes none of the pastoral feelings that the label “lane” implies. I once lost a load of one-by-six pine lumber — about 500 boards — on Highway 59 in Nacogdoches while helping my builder haul it to my shop on his 16-foot trailer. Hoo boy. I foresaw a criminal trial for negligence, as 18-wheelers bore down the hill. Providence played a role in that mishap not becoming a tragedy.

Some months later, I headed to the lumber yard one Saturday morning to buy a sheet of plywood, got home and realized with horror that the plywood was no longer in the trailer. Who knew a gust of wind could flip that sucker out of a trailer and me not notice? Thank goodness a motorcyclist wasn’t tailgating at the time. I found the plywood on the side of the Lufkin loop about a mile from where I bought it.

Now I carry two jugs of bungee cords in the back of the Escape. When loaded, the trailer looks as if it is ensnared in a giant spider web, with both jugs of bungees deployed.

My trailer is still being held hostage by the tattooed guy. Motorists in the Austin area are safe in the interim.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Unpacking A Passel Of Books

So, it turns out I have two copies of “The Corrections,” by Jonathan Franzen, a popular contemporary novelist who I’m still trying to decide whether I like or not. I have no clue how I ended up with two copies but learned long ago not to spend too much time trying to cipher such matters. I simply put the pair together on the shelf with his latest novel, “Freedom,” the other day while unpacking books. Again.

This is the fourth time in less than four years I have gone through the arduous process of book unpacking. Job moves have sent me hurtling around Texas and the Midwest, a middle-aged pinball zinging about — grateful for a job in these wacko times but flung about by the flippers of fate. I’m so grateful and optimistic, actually, that my Beautiful Mystery Companion and I just bought a house in North Austin.
Hence, the Moving of the Books once again, from the place I leased last fall.

I am in the midst of one of those ugly cross-town moves that last for weeks and involve sloppy packing. The last three moves were company-paid and traversed considerable distance. This trek is self-financed, meaning I will move everything I can myself. My friends are grateful I have become, like them, too old to risk back injury moving the really heavy stuff, like appliances and couches. I’ll hire a crew for that. But the books are my bailiwick.

Unpacking boxes of books soothes me, somehow, though lugging them upstairs to the bedroom where roughly half will reside puts a strain on my legs. It invariably takes far longer than it should. I become distracted by this title or that, happen across old friends that I forgot about owning. This probably explains why I possess two copies of “The Corrections.”

I always come across books that I have not yet read — a result of years being mailed unsolicited review copies at newspapers where I worked, gifts from friends and family that haven’t made it into the “need to read soon” pile, books I bought but never got around to delving into. Having lots of books still unread bothered me when I was younger. Now I realize that I will croak without having gotten around to reading this or that book that has been on my shelves for decades. As the T-shirt on the rack down at Book People, my favorite bookstore on the planet, puts it, “So Many Books, So Little Time.”

A dear friend who died last January at age 94 was an inspiration to me, in more than one way. He loved books with a greater passion than anyone I have known. He bought them by the armload from Amazon, pecking out his order on a computer given to him by his daughters. His dining room table was covered with new purchases, stacked to near-toppling height. Shelves everywhere creaked under the weight of books, with other stacks on the floor creating a maze in his study.

Unlike me, however, my friend had an incredible memory for what he had read, able to quote entire passages from books read a half-century or more earlier. I have a terrible memory that is getting worse. For self-improvement, I have been reading a fascinating book about memory and people who are able to train themselves to remember long lists of items, random number sequences, etc. I was telling a friend about it at lunch the other day but couldn’t remember the title and had to Google it from my phone. There is something ironic about forgetting the title of a book about memory. It’s called, “Moonwalking With Einstein,” by Josh Foer, a hilarious young man I met at a recent literary conference. Good thing it is sitting in front of me in the study, or I would have forgotten the title again.

I am about halfway through unpacking books, which comprise most of what I own. My kitchen-related possessions take up about two boxes, the books about 50. As always, a few volumes have made it onto the designated shelf for books on my reading radar, as a result of unpacking. That has meant relegating a few back to the stacks, where they will likely sit unattended until the next move — which I hope isn’t for a long time.

The best thing about unpacking books is it recalls the memory of a similar column I wrote nearly four years ago. A few days after it was published, a woman emailed me, asking if I would like to go to coffee, that she enjoyed my writing. Perhaps we would become friends, she wrote.

She is now my wife, the Beautiful Mystery Companion. She has a lot of books, too. I will be happy to haul them here from East Texas when the time comes.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Just A' Pickin' & Grinning

Mississippi Delta was shining like a National Guitar.
— Paul Simon

My Beautiful Mystery Companion kindly gave me a resonator guitar for my birthday, the result of an offhand response to the annual question: “What do you want for your birthday?” It is a modestly priced knockoff of the classic Sunburst National Guitar, with the silver cone in the middle of the body. My Rogue sounds and looks great. Now I just have to learn how to play it.

I am not a total newbie, having hacked around in high school. I even played and sang briefly at the Shakey’s Pizza Parlor where I worked in high school — as the words to songs flashed on the screen, me wearing a red-and-white striped shirt and a straw boater. There are clearly other reasons that is now difficult to find a Shakey’s Pizza Parlor, but I suspect my utter lack of talent and musicianship drove away more than a few customers munching on anchovie and mushroom pizzas as I flailed away. That was nearly four decades ago. I gave up trying to play after college.

Every time I have watched or heard someone smoothly sliding a bottle neck down a slide guitar, or banging out a 12-bar blues progression, it made want to try again. I have no illusions, at 56-years-old, of rising to anything approaching mediocrity. I just want to amuse myself and stretch my creative boundaries a bit. In that vein, I have signed up for eight half-hour lessons at a local, venerable guitar school in North Austin. I paid for the lessons in advance to force me to follow through for at least that long.

My instructor, who I will call Ted because that is his name, is roughly my age. He looked vaguely concerned when I told him I remembered no more than five chords. And that I am preternaturally stiff-jointed, utterly without rhythm, have no instinct for picking out tunes, and might possibly be tone-deaf. Plus my fingers hurt from practicing a few minutes a day since receiving the Rogue. A lot.

Ted patiently taught me how to properly place my fingers on the fret so the tips hit instead of the sides of the digits. He noted that I was clenching the neck with enough strength to choke a squirrel and pointed out it is actually easier to pay with a lighter touch. Once, when enthusiastically strumming the E7 chord, he stopped me with a pained expression and asked, “Can’t you tell that one of your fingers is on the wrong string?”

No, actually I can’t. That’s why I’m taking lessons, I thought but didn’t say.

Meanwhile, through the wall I could hear the sound of someone running through a nice blues riff flawlessly. Probably some 12-year-old kid who has been playing since he was not long out of pull-ups, I figure. The waiting area consisted of teens, tykes, one young woman twirling a pair of drumsticks, and some old guy wearing flip-flops and a UT cap. That would be me.

I try to practice at least 15 minutes a day, first going through the finger loosening exercises Ted suggested, than monotonously strumming a sequence of three chords over 36 bars. At least I think that is what I’m doing, judging from the handouts received.

The printer was on the blink, so I just took home two sheets, which is plenty at this point. Ted assures me it will get easier as times passes, and that learning this blues progression allows me to play most any blues tune — just as the major chords of C,D, and G will get one through a bunch of country classics.

I bought a brass slide at the music store for $8 or so. I enjoy sliding it up and down the neck, making goofy sounds — but I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing. First time I put it on my ring finger, I didn’t think I was going to be able to get it off. I didn’t tell that to Ted. He might fire me as his student, and there are seven lessons to go.

Friday, September 9, 2011

So Much, Yet So Little, Has Changed

Most Americans who are now adults remember where they were on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. I was sitting in front of a computer laying out the editorial page for the Nacogdoches Daily Sentinel when the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center — broadcast by CNN on a television hanging from the newsroom wall. Like most, what was taking place didn’t sink in for a minute or two. Only when the second plane hit did it become apparent our country was under attack by terrorists. I spent the rest of the day marshaling the newsrooms of the Lufkin and Nacogdoches newspapers to produce a four-page extra edition by that evening.

People actually lined up to buy the extra, though frankly it contained nothing they couldn’t glean from television or the Web, save a few local reaction-type stories that added little to their knowledge. I think folks just wanted something to hold in their hands to remind them. It was the last “extra” I will help produce. The media climate changed radically not long after. Just 18 months later, the Shuttle Columbia disintegrated over East Texas. As pieces rained down upon the Piney Woods, we opted to devote our efforts to getting the news online first rather than producing another extra. Today, I’m not sure many folks under 30 even know what an extra edition means.

So much has changed in those 10 years, and yet so little. Facebook and Twitter, smart phones, hybrid vehicles have all entered the marketplace — to name a few ways how we communicate and get around have evolved. Those items are important, but that’s with a little “i.” The biggest change seems to be diminished expectations. The housing crash, the recession, more than a tenth of Americans unable to find work — all have combined to create an America that is either unable or unwilling to get back on track. We have gotten used to taking our shoes and belts off at airports and being groped. Has that made us safer? I don’t know. I have my doubts.

It is simply impossible to fathom the grief the families of those who died in the attacks must still bear. No memorial, remembrance or service can do much to assuage that. I suspect grieving survivors take solace in being with their families or with the kin of others who died in the attacks or in the rescue attempts. Time dulls the pain, but nothing can erase it. We all have suffered losses of loved ones. That provides a small window into what they must feel. I pray their pain lessens, and that on this 10-year anniversary we as a nation remember with respect those families who lost loved ones. I hope cable television doesn’t inundate the airwaves with footage of that horrific day. We know what happened, what it looked like.

I can’t help worrying that we have not adequately honored those who died by how we have behaved as a nation. Instead of being asked to sacrifice, we were told to go shopping, that it was time to return to our normal lives. We did so with abandon until everything came crashing down around our ears. People bought houses they couldn’t afford, aided and abetted by mortgage lenders who knew better. They racked up credit card debt betting on pay hikes, increased housing values — or, most likely, not really thinking it through. Too many folks wanted their piece of a perceived American Dream right now. We have fought in wars for nearly a decade now, but for the vast majority of Americans that is an abstract concept. Only those who have actually been deployed, or their family and friends, understand the sacrifices that have been made. The rest of us just go about our business. At least we did until the bottom fell out.

I am not much different, so this isn’t an exercise in finger-pointing. I thought the good times would just keep on rocking along, though a natural Yankee frugality saved me from serious financial hardship when I began a bumpy road from job-to-job, after more than two decades climbing up the media ladder. I am blessed with a great job once again. Many of my friends and colleagues in the media business are not.

It seems to me now that as a nation we blew it after 9/11. As Thomas Friedman points out, previous generations used such crises as World War II or the Cold War to require national sacrifices, to embark on bold initiatives that would keep our country strong and competitive — the space program and interstate highway system, to name two. The Baby Boomers and their younger ilk maxed out credit cards, bought McMansions with little money down, didn’t save squat and assumed the good times would never end. Well, they did.

Our leaders failed us in the past decade, both Democrat and Republican. But we also failed ourselves. I hope we get a mulligan, a chance to make it up, to take the hard steps to put this country back on a firm financial footing. It means, for one thing, remembering what is important: faith, family, friends. It also means realizing happiness doesn’t lie in more stuff bought on credit. It means learning to make do, living within our means, both individually and collectively.
It means making the sacrifices we should have started making a decade ago. At least that’s how I see it.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Peanuts Floating in Coke, and Other Culinary Foibles

The cracker crumbs floating in a bottle of Diet Coke took me back 40 years, to after-school shifts in the dungeon darkroom of the Longview News-Journal, etching Fairchild engravings of photographs. That is how photos were produced on newsprint in 1971, at least in plants not up to the latest technology. The News-Journal still used Linotype operators to create metal slugs of copy, ink-spattered pressmen running massive machines, turning ink crews and adjusting water fountains by hand to produce the daily miracle, as we called it.

The Fairchild engraver copied the photograph onto a piece of plastic, both of which were wrapped on a cylinder that rotated slowly, translating the whites, blacks and grays of the photo to a muddy amalgam of halftone dots on the plastic. My job was to adjust the dots produced by the red-hot stylus by peering through a scope, to make reproduction as clear as possible given the medium. Once done, I dismounted the plastic engraving from the cylinder, trimmed the edges and scrubbed off the soot with Ajax. After that, I would get a chance to take a swig of the Dr Pepper bottle filled with a bag of salted peanuts, once enough soda had been swallowed to allow space.

So the other day I was bolting down some stale peanut butter crackers from the basement vending machine — my breakfast of champions. If vending-machine peanut butter crackers are carcinogenic, I best settle my affairs. A 16-ounce bottled Diet Coke accompanied the crackers, setting me back $2.75 in total. Sheesh. I hope this money goes toward a good cause here on the Forty Acres where I toil. Anyway, I looked up and saw cracker crumbs floating in the Diet Coke, which reminded me of intentionally sending a bag of salted peanuts swimming in soda every weekday afternoon after high school.

Several years ago — being memory-addled, that means it could have been 5 or 15 — I recreated the peanuts-and-soda concoction. In a nod to my advancing age and waistline I used a Diet Coke. Bleahh. I can’t believe I used to consider that gloop a key part of my daily nutritional requirements. This wasn’t the first time I have dived into a piece of pre-packaged food convinced I was about to enjoy a trip through my childhood of dining delights — only to conclude that my tastes during adolescence must have been guided by a spirit that has long since left the building. Some years back, I made my all-time favorite sandwich back in college —mayonnaise and banana on wheat bread.

Oh my goodness, I thought as I bit into my final M&B. This is nasty. I must truly have been on drugs to enjoy this repast. I now eat my bananas ala carte and view mayonnaise as something only used in conjunction with meat-filled sandwiches. There are several other foods that, upon reflection and re-tasting, are to be avoided. Moon pies, DQ banana splits, RC Cola, Sweet Tarts, Peppermint Patties, Swizzles, beef jerky — these are a few of the items gobbled greedily in youth that I have since tried and rejected in the supposedly sage perspective of adulthood.

A few comfort foods remain on the playlist: Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups top the category, now relegated to a few times a year. (Older you get, the more one reserves empty calories for key occasions, like drinking several beers with buddies.) My wife’s pecan pie with chocolate chips renders me helpless and eager to propose once again. The bread pudding at the Fredonia in Nacogdoches had a similar effect.

I was headed back to Austin the other day from a long weekend in East Texas, having endured an extra couple of days spent being poked and prodded by medical folks, which is an unpleasant part of passing the double-nickel. By the time I hit Corsicana — which, with its recent sewer and waterline construction, has solidified its status as the most annoying small town to traverse in Texas — I was starving. OK, I decided, with boring self-rationalization. I have been a good toad nutritionally, and just received a glowing bill of health. I will indulge in a quick Arby’s roast beef sandwich and fries.

The fast-food world is engaged in a caloric arms race. The chains compete for offering the biggest, baddest, heart-slowing, artery-clogging sandwich possible. One chain offers a slab of fat where two pieces of meat sub for the bread. Several chains now insert fries and onion rings inside the bun as well as offering them as a side. I have often sneered and commiserated with my skinny and nutritionally adept wife about such foolishness.

I sidled up to the counter of Arby’s. A poster advertised a roast beef, mushroom and swiss cheese sandwich. Sounded good and not ultimately lethal. I ordered one with curly fries and unsweet iced tea. I figured I would skip supper in penance.

Turns out I should have examined the poster more closely. I bit into a sandwich into which curly fries had been stuffed between the bun. I managed to eat about half before giving up. I mean, seriously? A side of fries plus fries stuck between two buns and a half-inch of meat, cheese and mushrooms? I felt like jogging back to Austin to shed the calories. OK, not really.

This new trend of stuffing cheeseburgers with onion rings and fries between the buns must stop before people start exploding. At least that’s my take.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Abercrombie & Fitch, And Abs

News item: Abercrombie & Fitch has offered to pay Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino of the “Jersey Shore” reality show to not wear its merchandise. Sorrentino is said to be highly insulted by the offer from the racy teen retailer.

I have never watched “Jersey Shore” on MTV. From what I have read, that is a wise decision for anyone hoping to not destroy any more brain cells than necessary. At my age, I figure I don’t have a lot of margin for error. Speaking of age, I have resigned myself to accepting the senior discount at movie theatres, though I’m drawing the line at joining AARP or getting the early-bird special at Luby’s. As of a few days ago, I am now closer to 60 than 50, though I have no plans to rush it.

Anyway, apparently Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino is fond of showing off his stomach muscles, which from the photo I saw in the Wall Street Journal are tight enough to bounce a nickel off. I believe the term is “six-pack abs.” Like most American men, though I am nowhere near obese, the only time “six pack” is said in direct association with my abs is when I bring home some brewskis from the grocery store. The work required to have abs like Mr. “The Situation” is far more than I’m willing to undertake. Even if I did, I am too modest to walk around in public with my shirt pulled up. For that, my unadoring public is grateful, I’m sure.

Apparently, A&F feels that Mr. “The Situation” is not a great role model for its brand. It issued a statement saying, “We understand that the show is for entertainment purposes, but believe this association is contrary to the aspirational nature of our brand, and may be distressing to many of our fans," the statement read. In the interest of research I read a synopsis of Season 4, Episode 3 in an online post from the WSJ.

I quote: “Brittany comes out of Mike’s room and wants to know what’s keeping him. So this leaves Snooki to panic to JWOWW about Jionni breaking up with her. JWOWW counsels Snooki, saying she won’t lose Jionni over this whole Mike thing. Snooki seems genuinely upset. So is Mike just claiming they got together because he got burned? Or did Snooki give in? We’ll never know!”

Hoo boy. Thank the Lord for C-Span.

My only encounter with A&F came last year, when our daughter attended a Justin Bieber concert in Houston, accompanied by my Beautiful Mystery Companion while I watched a football game in the hotel room 20 stories above. The next day we went to the Galleria. They wandered off while I sat on a bench and read a book, there being pretty much nothing in the Galleria that I’m interested in spending too much money to purchase. (Actually, my wife feels the same way. We were indulging the new teen for her birthday.)

I looked up from the book and saw this impossibly sculpted young man, maybe 18, shirtless and talking to some teen girls outside a mall store. “That boy needs to put his shirt on,” I thought and went back to reading. Later I noticed yet another shirtless male. This one might have owned an eight-pack of rippled muscles. His stomach looked like a series of West Texas mesas turned on its side.

The womenfolk returned to the bench. “Did you see those boys just walking around without shirts?” I asked. “What’s up with that?” They, of course, rolled their eyes and explained the boys were male models for A&F, one of its edgy marketing devices. “They just pay those kids to stand around without shirts and look good?” I asked incredulously.

“Yes, and they sure look good!” both replied. I was rather shocked.

I don’t know how much A&F is offering to “The Situation” to not wear its line of clothes. This is likely just another edgy marketing ploy, since A&F carries a shirt called “The Fitchuation,” and another that just says, “GTL.” That stands for gym, tan and laundry, which apparently take up a lot of the “Jersey Shore” cast’s time.

Regardless, here’s my offer. I’m willing to not wear A&F’s line of clothing for, let’s say, $9. That’s enough to buy me a six pack of a decent micro-brewed beer, including sales tax. Further, I promise to never go shirtless in the mall. That alone ought to be worth the money.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

For Forks, 'Twilight' A Temporary Boon

FORKS AND LA PUSH, WASHINGTON — Lovers of the “Twilight” series of books and subsequent movies will recognize that dateline. Author Stephanie Meyers set her highly popular teen vampire/werewolf series in the town of Forks and along the Pacific Coast beach near La Push. We’re here on a side trip at Abbie’s request. Our 13-year-old daughter is a huge fan of the series. I can survive just fine without watching a vampire movie or reading a similarly themed novel, but that’s just me. We all have our passions.

We wind our way through the Olympic National Park, past the stunningly clear Crescent Lake, through the forest of massive Douglas firs for about two hours, from our cottage on Discovery Bay near Port Townsend. A handcrafted wooden sign welcomes us to Forks, the raised carving showing inside a circle a logging truck, tree, mountains, and a fish swimming in the nearby Pacific. No vampires on the sign though there is a symbol of one on the outhouse downtown.

Forks is a town of about 3,500 folks who mainly work in logging. It’s home to a large number of Native Americans and mobile homes, has an unemployment rate of about 12 percent and, to be frank, is one of the least picturesque places we visited in Washington. A sad little town, is what I kept thinking as we drove around snapping photos at Forks High School, where Bella met Edward, or the Cullen family home (which in real life is a charming bed-and-breakfast), and the modest but neatly kept home where Bella lives. Edward turns out to be a vampire with a James Dean hairdo, though one with benign intentions — for a bloodsucker. (My wife and I did see “Twilight,” the first movie, with Abbie.)

The “Twilight” boom seems to be piddling out in Forks, though plenty of Twilight merchandise is on sale, and signs abound. “Dazzled by Twilight” had several customers when we visited on a weekday morning, but not much merchandise was moving in the shopworn store. The guided tours have been discontinued. It looks as if the Twilight movies have done about all they will do for this rain-soaked town, which gets more than 70-plus inches annually. Please God, send some of that to Texas. Just saying.

Down the road to the southwest about 15 miles from Forks is La Push, home to the Quileute tribe and First Beach, where Bella meets up with Jacob Black, a childhood friend. From him she learns the history of the Cullen family. Long story short, Edward is a member of the “cold ones,” aka a vampire. In a following book, Jacob finds out he is actually a werewolf. Man, I hate when that happens. Talk about bad-hair days.

First Beach is located down the road from Second Beach, both hanging off the Pacific edge of Washington. The sand is gray and gritty, the beach ringed with trees and branches too large to be classified as mere driftwood. The forest comes right up to the edge of the beach, where the dead trees have piled up. Large rock islands jut out of the ocean a few hundred yards offshore. On this day, the sky is cloudless, the weather a San Diego-like 70 degrees. But it is easy to imagine this beach as an autumn storm sweeps in, wind howling, werewolves and vampires doing battle — the modern movie version, with impossibly great looks but in need of orthodontic care. It is just as easy to imagine Edward and Bella living in Forks under leaden skies and a forest canopy, not much to do except take an occasional bite out of a luscious neck.

One sticking point: the films — three so far — were not filmed in Forks, or First Beach for that matter. According to the Internet Movie Database (, Oregon and British Columbia provided the bulk of the locations. That is not unusual. Think of all the Texas cowboy movies filmed in Arizona, for example. The difference, which I find fascinating, is that the good folks of Forks actually designated sites throughout the town as places where the characters lived, so that tourists could visit — and not one scene of the movie was filmed there.

It’s not a secret. Anyone with Internet access can quickly find that out. An enterprising chamber-of-commerce fellow enlisted fellow townspeople to scout locations where the movies could have been shot. Signs were posted. So we have joined thousands before us, wandering around Forks snapping photos of homes, the high school, hospital, police station, etc., places that weren’t actually used in the movie — but serve as stand-ins for those making the pilgrimage.

To her credit, Stephanie Meyers came to Forks a few years after her first novel and returned for a day in her honor last year. Daughter Abbie says the book accurately describes the town and area. You can’t blame the good folks of Forks for trying to cash in on their town’s unexpected fame in a vampire series. Right now, I might even welcome a vampire, as long as he brought some rain along.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Taking A Hike On Hurricane Ridge

HURRICANE RIDGE, WASHINGTON — A cartoonishly cute furry animal the size of a morbidly obese housecat sits perched on a moss-splattered rock outcropping near the crest of Hurricane Hill in the Olympic mountains. Minutes before, we stopped on the trail to catch our breath — my bride and I both feeling the effects of thin air — and read a sign describing the cute critters. This particular species is called the Olympic marmot. It has kinfolk across the continent, including the woodchuck and even squirrels. The Olympic marmot, which is a darn fine name, is a protected species because numbers are dwindling — possibly because of an influx of coyotes.

Moments after reading the sign we spotted one in real life, as if he had been hired to hang out close to the display. He gamboled about in the prairie that improbably grows here just below the tree line. As we walked along the crest, Rocky (as I silently named him) sunned himself on the rock, nonchalantly staring at me. I walked close enough to capture a National Geographic-style photo with a telephoto lens.

About this time a very nervous deer skittered out from a grove of trees and also came close to us and the half-dozen other folks scattered on the ridge. She kept a wary eye on a small group of mountain goats grazing nearby — two pairs of adult couples, two kiddoes. The goats charmed us, until two guys from the area also up on the ridge warned us to watch out. A nearby resident and hiking aficionado was killed last fall by an aggressive mountain goat on an adjacent trail. He was gored to death. The goats are acting rather territorial, and the deer is spooked enough to get closer to us than one usually experiences. We keep our walking sticks at the ready. I am prepared to sacrifice my telephoto lens as a bludgeon if necessary. It wasn’t. The goats moved on, and the deer finally calmed down.

I have published news items at least three times in my newspaper career about folks getting trampled by deer they thought were tame. None were killed, but flying hooves in panic mode injured all. So I was watching that deer and counseling my Beautiful Mystery Companion to do the same. My words of warning rang hollow, however, when we hiked back down to the visitor’s center. A deer came out of the pasture and walked down the parking lot, ending up on the sidewalk as if it were a two-legged pedestrian. I shot a photo of this deer, maybe 30 feet away at the time, walking down the sidewalk as if it were headed to the snack bar for lunch.

The hike up to the top of Hurricane Hill and back is a bit over three miles, a distance at which initially we scoffed since we both walk that far daily here in Texas — albeit before sunrise during the dog days. But the elevation rise of 500-plus feet after starting at about a mile high sent our lungs into hyper-drive. This “hill” tops out at 5,767 feet, which in Texas would be defined as a nice-sized mountain.

Oh, the scenery. This is seriously one of the prettiest places on the planet, especially to lovers of trees, mountains, blue sky, rapidly changing cloud formations, wildlife, the smell of unsullied air. Back at the visitor’s center, we sat outside and ate homemade turkey sandwiches with chips on the side. That ranks as one of the best meals I’ve eaten in years, gazing out as my BMC sang out, the “purple mountain majesties, across the fruited plain.” She’s a nerd like me.

The lone deer skirted close, maybe looking for a handout. At the next table a ranger who specializes in educational talks, described how global warming is affecting the park: snow melt, animal behavior and their habitats. The young woman was earnest and articulate, and I hope at least a few of the dozen folks listening paid attention. She is preaching to the choir as far as we’re concerned. Anybody who doesn’t accept the fact that the earth is getting warmer is both anti-science and hasn’t stepped outside this summer.

Sorry, had to preach a bit. I have fallen in love with this place and don’t want to see it change. My affection likely will remain an occasional dalliance, but this piece of America has captured my heart. Besides, those marmots are adorable. I love those little guys.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Stepping On Snow In Late July

DISCOVERY BAY, WASHINGTON — The tide rides in twice each day, slides out twice as well. On this day, first high tide was at 1:17 a.m., an event I missed. By then the sleepy waters of Discovery Bay covered the crunchy layer of shellfish and the cedar-shingle-covered sand. It lapped close to the wiry grass. By 8:56 a.m. the tide had receded out nearly to the white buoy placed to mark the lowest edge, a linear distance of about 45 feet and a height difference of more than nine feet. By 5:29 p.m. the tide was at its highest level of the day at 8.1 feet, and by 9:24 p.m. had receded again, but only to 6.5 feet.

Be patient. I’ll get over my nerdiness in a moment. It’s a deeply ingrained trait.

We have neither wireless internet nor cable television in our lovely cottage on the bay. My bride is fine with that, being naturally opposed to the wired world. Her new husband and our daughter — hers from the get-go, mine officially since mid-June — are having withdrawal symptoms. We keep scamming wifi off the landlord’s line by perching ourselves just outside his back door, or using my iPhone to acquire in painfully slow fashion a connection to the online world.

In defense, I get online to fulfill minor work obligations, reply to emails and knock out a couple editorials, as well as this piece. I can live without the news while vacationing in paradise. The 13-year-old, however, believes we have brought her to this place as a form of punishment: no malls, no wifi, no television. Access to Facebook is sparse. I hope her friends survive not learning her status for hours at a time. It’s iffy.

I head out for a walk along the beach. A family of sea otters lives behind a row of pilings placed to keep the hillside from eroding further. They venture out each day to gambol about in the bay. One fellow suns himself on a small floating dock; others appear briefly before diving back down for a breakfast treat. Herons line the shore like sentries, moving systematically as we approach on a morning walk, keeping their distance as ducks and seagulls fly overhead, squawking. To the south, the tallest mountains of the Olympic range still have snow above the treeline. We can see the peaks to the south across the bay depending on the cloud cover.

I never tire of watching the light change over Discovery Bay from early morning through the day, unto dusk. Fog floats across the water some mornings, returning as the sun sinks. My wife saw the eagle that lives here the other day. I’m still looking as I trudge down the beach, early morning or as dusk falls. Light reigns in these parts, at times sunglasses bright, and minutes later turning the world into a miasma of gray.

The other night we sat outside as darkness crept in, warming ourselves by a firepit. On July 28, we Texas refugees built a fire and reveled in the fact we could do so. A fire wasn’t exactly needed to stay warm. Just the fact we could build one without being arrested for violating a burn ban — or not being adjudged insane for wanting to do so — was simply lovely. Earlier that day we had hiked along Hurricane Ridge and walked across giant snowpiles that obscured the trail.

Snowpiles! Just three days before August begins! It simply doesn’t have to get any better than this.

Like all vacations, this one must end eventually. But for now, I’m sipping coffee on the deck while wearing a light jacket, keeping an eye out for the eagle. The clouds are rolling in over the mountains once again. It might rain. I hope so.

(Still more to come.)

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Buskers And Beautiful Blooms in B.C.

VICTORIA, BRITISH COLUMBIA — The Inner Harbour downtown is lined with sailing ships, seaplanes, whale-seeking boats and the massive ferry that brought us here from Port Angeles, Wash. The walkway along the harbor’s edge is replete with vendors and street performers, commonly called buskers. Flowers abound, bursting out of hanging pots on the streetlamps, spelling out “Welcome to Victoria” in blooms on the bank opposite the province’s stately parliamentary building. The temperature is in the 60s on a late July afternoon. I am plotting, thus far unsuccessfully, how to stay here until first snowfall. Summer in Texas is about to kill all of us.

We are here on our family honeymoon, staying on Discovery Bay near Port Townsend, Washington — my bride, brand-new teen daughter and me. Rosie the Wonder Dog is visiting in Houston with my daughter. Early in the morning we drove to Port Angeles, parked for $6 and walked aboard the M.V. Coho for the 90-minute ride across the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Victoria.

The Buchart Gardens are the primary destination in Victoria — 55 acres of breathtaking gardens created in a former limestone quarry more than a century ago by Jennie Buchart, the wife of the quarry owner. He dug. She planted. The result attracts nearly a million people annually to the garden, on the Saanich Penisula just north of Victoria. My bride, the Beautiful Mystery Companion, buys a packet of bachelor button seeds to plant in East Texas. She doubtless will wait until it is not so blamed hot.

Even the jaded teen-ager is impressed by the size and vigor of the blossoms, which thrive on cool weather and bright sun. Everything is not bigger and better in Texas. Flowers, for example.

Back at the harbor, buskers perform. There’s Dave Harris, a veteran musician and singer who sets up shop on the sidewalk with guitars, fiddles, harmonicas, a mandolin, and even a small drum set that he plays with his feet while picking on a stringed instrument and blowing on the mouth harp. Harris looks like a mountain man, with a flowing beard and matching hair vaguely tamed with a leather wide-brimmed hat. Harris has performed as a one-man band for 25 years and made a number of recordings.

Then there is Plasterman, a human statue whose clothes and visible skin are encased in white paint. He stands utterly still on a small crate with his stage title lettered upon it, on this day wearing a white visor and workingman’s clothes. Sometimes he wears a suit. Plasterman is the creation of Clark M. Clark, a former educator and “part-time thespian,” according to his website. He comes alive when money is dropped into the till, dispensing handshakes and hugs to the generous-minded. I must confess I don’t give money to Plasterman. Clowns and mimes make me uneasy. Plasterman is a mime, albeit one with a different schtick.

Speaking of different, we happen along Alex Elixir, a juggler and unicyclist with an edge that, on both occasions in which we watched, turns a bit sour. The first time, he abruptly ends his act after a couple tosses a couple of Canadian quarters in his box as they leave. He tells the nonplussed audience that he must save his voice and felt insulted. We all wander off in search of other entertainment. A few hours later Elixir sets up again with the same result. The finale is supposed to involve an actual axe with which he is going to sever the arm of a young boy.

This makes me even more nervous than the mime. I don’t think Elixir is terribly great at the power of illusion, though he is an adequate juggler and can crack wise with the best of them. The boy is willing to play along, so willing that I wonder if he is a shill for Elixir. The routine ends with Elixir glaring at the audience, dropping the axe and lying down on the asphalt. The boy follows suit. The crowd disperses after a couple minutes. End of show.

Maybe this is an example of that vaunted Canadian humor that brought us Lorne Michaels and Dudley Doright. All I know is I have no plans to get near a highly strung busker wielding an axe. We won’t be back.

The temperature is in the 50s in the mornings, rarely reaching 70 at night. It has rained a few times. For a time at least, we have escaped the baking of Texas.

More to come.