Thursday, April 28, 2011

Signs of the Times

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign.
— Five Man Electric Band ( I think)

Have you noticed the number of people standing along carbon monoxide-choked highways and at busy intersections, holding signs, prancing about in front of businesses? They are trying to entice drivers to pull in for a Mexican-food meal, a massage, vitamin supplements, or a car wash, to name a few I have seen. These were called sandwich boards back in the Depression when folks paced sidewalks with signs strapped over their shoulders covering both sides of their body in an a-frame fashion.

Hoo boy. I know people need jobs. The unemployment rate is still far too high. McDonalds just held its widely publicized National Hiring Day with the goal of adding 50,000 new workers. As of this writing, I don’t know if the burger behemoth was successful. I am quite certain I would rather work at Mickey Ds than stand out in the hot sun, eating exhaust while waving a sign at passersby.

Admittedly I am biased when it comes to what type of advertising I think works best. I have been in the newspaper business since Lyndon Johnson was about to leave office, most families had black-and-white televisions, and newspapers were about four feet wide when spread open. But I’ve never believed that newspapers are the only place folks should advertise. I always tell folks who ask that a mix of different media likely work best, depending on the type of business.

But there are some goofy places that folks spend their advertising dollars, and hiring some poor soul to stand out and wave a sign doesn’t seem a terribly efficient way to reach one’s target market.

I guess I’m glad it provides jobs for folks who probably would not be working, since the skill level required isn’t terribly high. But the economics don’t make much sense to me. I saw four guys holding signs along Highway 183 and 620 the other day for the same business. Let’s say the business is paying each only minimum wage, which is $7.25 an hour. And let’s assume those poor souls are out there eight hours a day, five days a week. That totals $1,160 a week being paid out to people holding signs on street corners, which can barely be read by motorists whizzing by at 50 mph while talking on their cell phones. Give me that $1,160 a week and I’ll put together a nice ad campaign in the newspaper and even let you have a little — not much — left over to run some radio spots.

A search online using “holding signs in front of businesses” led me to, which uses homeless people to attach advertising placards to their panhandling signs. If you go to the site, it shows photos of folks who are down on their luck holding their crudely-lettered signs — “Need Food. Please Help,” and the like. Attached to the bottom is a professionally printed sign for “Strategic The Game of all Games.”

The now 28-year-old Seattle entrepreneur who came up with this idea didn’t return my e-mail, so it isn’t clear to me if is still in existence.
The last post was in 2005 so probably not. I’m always glad to see folks down on their luck make money, but “bumvertising?”

Again, that doesn’t sound to me like a great business plan, especially since calling someone a bum isn’t exactly a compliment.
And a placard attached to a poor homeless fellow’s “Need change for the bus stop” sign isn’t exactly going to entice me to visit a website.
I also don’t understand buying ads on park benches or restaurant tabletops.

Be honest. Have you ever decided to buy a product or use a service because you saw an ad plastered under your basket of fries? I think not.
And if someone is using the park bench as intended, you can’t see those ads either because they’re obscured by somebody’s backside.

I know everybody is just trying to get by these days best they can. And I do admire some of the dance routines displayed by the more energetic placard holders.

Some of them know some pretty slick steps.

Originally published in the Hill Country News (Cedar Park, Texas), April 27, 2011.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Keep Packing Pols Out of Pubs

God bless the Texas Legislature. School districts are laying off hundreds of teachers and other school employees as the state grapples with a massive deficit, which was caused by the shortsighted actions of that same august body. Meanwhile, legislators who possess a concealed handgun license may soon be able to legally pack heat in places where the rest of us common folk can’t — bars, schools, churches, football stadiums, even Six Flags. Now that’s important stuff.

State Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, is sponsoring the measure out of what he said is a question of logistics. Legislators have to go from one place to another, often five or six places in one evening. If the stops include either a watering hole or a place that distributes holy water (the former is considerably more likely, especially at night), then legislators would have to unholster and leave their weapons in their vehicles — or back at the office.

Well, cry me a river.

Let me establish some credentials lest I be branded an anti-gun, bleeding-heart liberal. I belong to a not-so-elite group known as gun-toting liberals. I’m fiscally conservative, socially progressive and a strong believer in both the First and Second Amendments. Further, I have owned a concealed handgun license for nearly five years. In fact, this summer I will have to suffer through taking the daylong class to renew my license so I can upgrade to legally carrying a semi-automatic. I originally qualified only with a revolver because that was the only type of handgun I owned.

I own several handguns, a 20-gauge shotgun, and a really cool pellet rifle with a scope. I revel in firing off rounds from my brother-in-law’s .223 machine gun out in an East Texas pasture, shooting clay pigeons (or trying to, anyway), and generally engaging what is referred to in the Piney Woods as “blowing stuff up.” Some folks substitute a different word for “stuff,” but this is a family newspaper. I once watched a young woman obliterate a discarded porcelain toilet with a single round from an SKS that a buddy owns. It was a thing of beauty.

However, I have never cared for hunting, though I have nothing against it. I’m just not enthusiastic about shooting and skinning an animal. That is messy work, so I prefer what little meat I consume arrive already shrink-wrapped and USDA approved. I’m not that crazy about eating wild meat anyway, such as deer or dove. I am willing and capable of shooting a wild hog. Feral hogs are a dratted nuisance. I have killed a couple of snakes, operating under the premise that any reptile dumb enough to take up residence in my garage deserves to die. This did not involve gunfire, since the threat of ricochets gave me pause.

I am firmly opposed to a lawmaker being able to carry a .357 into the Texas Chili Parlor or Scholz Garten if the rest of us can’t. Besides, why should they be able to do so when the mayor of Cedar Park or a Leander city councilwoman can’t do the same? So if we allow state legislators to pack a Glock into Gueros, the next logical step is to allow all elected officials to do so. Pretty soon county commissioners from East Texas will be in Austin for a convention, getting tanked up at the strip bar. Gunfire could erupt over a discussion about the unit road system. Do we really want an Upshur County commissioner bringing a gun into the Yellow Rose when visiting the big city? I think not.

OK, be honest. How many of you reading this even know what your state representative or senator’s name is, let alone what the person looks like? I do, but that’s a job requirement. So the notion that these folks need the added protection of being able to pack heat while drumming up early voting mail ballots at the nursing home is just a bit far-fetched.

I saw the play about Molly Ivins last month down at Zach Scott Theatre. The late columnist is one of my heroes. In the play, the woman playing Molly quotes a story from Ann Richards, our late governor and another very funny woman. Seems the ACLU was complaining about a crèche constructed on the Capitol grounds at Christmas. Violation of church and state and all that. Personally, as long as the state allows folks to put up a statue of Buddha on his birthday, I’m good with a crèche at the Capitol.

So was Ann. She said, “Oh, honey, leave them be. That’s the closest three wise men will ever get to the state Legislature.” Bills like Patrick’s only confirm that sentiment.

Originally published in The Hill Country News (Cedar Park, Texas), April 21, 2011.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

An Ill Wind Blows This Spring

The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind.
- Bob Dylan

Apparently, the answer would be pollen. At least that's all I see blowing in the Central Texas wind, which lately never ceases. I'll wake up at night and glance out the second-story bedroom window, on the miniscule chance that it might actually be raining. What a quaint notion, April showers. There will be no raindrops lashing the windows, but the treetops sway as if dancing to an celestial salsa band. Night and day they swing, shaking off oak pollen by the wheelbarrow load in the yard.

This is my first spring living in Central Texas in nearly 30 years. I have spent virtually all the past three decades in Deep East Texas, where pine trees dominate. Spring in those parts means a fine coating of yellow powder on every outdoor surface. One quickly learns to give up washing the car for a month or so, to never leave a vehicle's window open - and never, ever raise the windows of one's home. That is, unless, one enjoys a patina of golden dust on every surface.

Most years a gullywasher will sweep through those piney woods, washing yellow rivers of pine pollen down gutters and into the storm system. A good thunderstorm might leave some branches to pick up - pine trees being rather brittle - but at least the pollen would disappear. All would once again be bright and clean.

Fortunately, I developed an immunity to pine pollen as a callow youth growing up in the land of virgin pines and tall women. Or maybe it was the reverse. Sorry, old East Texas joke. The season was aesthetically annoying but didn't cause me sneezing fits, watery eyes or a runny nose. I did not suffer as so many do, until arriving here in the land of cedar, live oaks and prickly pear. I discovered a few months after moving here that cedar fever is indeed as foul a malady as others have described it. It took me a while to figure out that I didn't have a common cold, that the winter pollen from cedars was kicking my behind.

Considering I live in Cedar Park, and my back yard contains five trees of that species, one would have thought this diagnosis might have occurred to me earlier - but no matter. I loaded up on over-the-counter drugs and hobbled through, taking comfort in learning that cedar fever ends at springtime.

Then oak pollen season arrived. I honestly had no idea such existed. I lived in Austin during my last stint here, attending graduate school at The University starting in 1980 - a year marked by a Gil Scott-Heron song titled the same, which we played incessantly. Maybe the grackles distracted me. Or oaks were scarce in the yards of the cheap houses we rented, trying to elude burglars who seemed to follow us. Seriously. We were burglarized twice in two years and narrowly escaped a third attempt. That's enough to distract one from pollen. Now I seem to have more time on my hands and have noticed a yellow coating on everything outside.

And inside, at least briefly. I revel in fresh air and open windows when possible. As the cool spring air (which lasted about a week) arrived, I flung open second-story windows. (I learned my lesson about leaving first-story windows open). An hour's worth of vacuuming and dusting after work coupled with a grand mal sneezing attack convinced me there is a reason God invented air-conditioning and ceiling fans.

Finally the pollen is beginning to abate, but the wind shows no sign of settling down. The paper had a booth at the Cedar Park Heritage Festival recently, which I manned on a Saturday afternoon. I spent a half-day getting ready, mounting photographs on a tri-fold display board, gathering bound copies of old papers for folks to peruse, ordering a new banner.

The wind howled across that park, tossing canopies about. Luckily, we were under an industrial-strength cover installed by city workers who pounded rebar into the rocky soil. I would likely still be trying to hang our banner if not for the help of a kindly volunteer with the Austin Steam Train Association. I had to abandon the notion of displaying photographs on the display, some of which would have ended up north of Leander before sunset. Instead, I settled for only showing the bound books, the pages of which had to be carefully turned in the wind.

But I met lots of nice folks, who mainly remarked on the wind. One person noted that we would be missing these gales come August.

Well, there's that.

Originally published in the Hill Country News (Cedar Park, Texas), April 14, 2011.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Keeping the Home Fires Burning

t was the last fire of winter, burning on a night that teetered on the cusp of being cold enough to justify going to the trouble. I stoked the small hearth with post-oak logs and put the lighter to the gas pipe that tends to singe my hands when it ignites. My right hand has been hairless since late November, the skin occasionally reddened from the whoosh of pent-up gas combusting. The fireplace in this suburbia rent house bears watching.

Despite the epidermal damage, I have enjoyed burning real wood once again after four years of living with a gas-log fireplace. There are merits to both, the latter providing low maintenance but an antiseptic flame, the former being messy — requiring purchases from men peddling stacks on highway corners and shoveling out the ashes every few week

I left East Texas on a cool gray Sunday afternoon — my lovely fiancé, aka the Beautiful Mystery Companion — about to stretch out in front of a roaring fire I had built. She planned to catch up on reading as I headed back to the Hill Country. My only consolation for leaving was that I could build a similar fire here once I finished the 4.5-hour drive. And so I did, our parallel home fires burning.

Disaster was narrowly averted in East Texas when I piled red-oak logs — split by my BMC’s nearly 80-year-old father and hauled to town for his only daughter — into her fireplace and lit that gas pipe, which isn’t as prone to blowing up, since the hearth is much larger. After about 30 seconds I asked, “Is the damper open?” Admittedly this question is best asked before putting flame to gas, igniting the shards of lighter pine and kindling at bottom. It was getting a tad smoky, but you never know. Sometimes damp heavy air discourages wood smoke from heading upward.

“I’m not sure,” she replied. Time to grab a flashlight and peer upward, trying not to singe eyebrows and read the “Open,” and “Close” markers her landlord had written with a Sharpie on the metal insert. Sure enough, the flue was closed. I quickly flipped it to the left and with flashlight made sure the damper truly had opened. My BMC was none the wiser of my near-doofishness. Until now.

Twenty years ago, in a house outside Lufkin where I relied heavily on wood to heat in winter because the alternative was an expensive and balky propane tank, I blithely built a fire. I was keeping my daughters on a divorced-dad weekend. After igniting yet another gas pipe, I went outside to do manly things, such as spit and gather more firewood, perhaps even indulge in a bit of Skoal before I gave up that nasty habit. I re-entered the home to discover smoke alarms screeching and a viscous cloud of smoke that reminded me of following the mosquito-fogger truck on a bicycle during an East Texas summer. The damper was closed, so the smoke took up residence throughout the house. It took a while to get oxygen levels back to a breathable status. My children were so busy playing with Barbies in the back bedroom that they barely noticed the commotion.

My favorite fireplace was in a house owned in Kilgore, a few blocks north of the college. It was the home of a family that owned a funeral home next door. They are still in that business but have since moved both their business and residence. It was a fine old house, built in the 1940s with pine-knot paneling in the family room, which contained a double fireplace. One side was for building a fire for warmth. The other side contained a smoker and an electric spit, so one could, for example, slow-cook a pork loin on one side while enjoying a crackling fire on the other. I plan to have a similar arrangement again someday, though I’ll probably put the cooking portion outside.

The fire is starting to die down as I write this on a laptop, listening to Jackson Browne on the stereo, the television on mute as I watch occasionally scenes of tragedy and sadness in the world beyond. It has gotten warm enough, and a bit smoky, so I have to open the windows. I’m almost certainly the only fellow here in suburbia burning a fire on the next-to-last day of March.

Originally published in The Hill Country News, April 7, 2011.

Friday, April 1, 2011

How I Learned to Curse in French

Spring means a change of wardrobe. I trade button-down long-sleeved shirts for short-sleeved polo style shirts. Gone are the sports jacket worn in winter. It feels foolhardy to wear a sports jacket when it is more than 90 degrees outside, unless attending a funeral or similar formal event. And I only wear a tie under duress.

It also means switching hats, literally. Spring means that, when not working, my bald spot will be covered with a Boston Red Sox cap purchased at Fenway Park two years ago. Major League Baseball season is about to commence. Life is good.

I became a Red Sox fan in the womb, up in Concord, N.H., where I lived the first 13 years of my life. I had no choice in the matter of which team I followed, though my dad — not a native New Englander — rooted quietly for the Cardinals. He was outnumbered by my mother’s French-Canadian family, which had immigrated from the Quebec province into the Granite State in the 1920s. They promptly took up rooting for one of baseball’s most star-crossed teams.

I learned a wide array of profanities seated near kinfolks, watching the Red Sox on television during the 1960s. These included French phrases that comprised my only foray into that language. I have since learned how to curse in Spanish but forgotten nearly all the French imprecations learned at the knee of my grandfather and uncles. My grandmother, who outlived her husband by more than three decades, didn’t curse. She would just cluck her tongue and talk to the television as the Sox blew yet another lead.

That all changed in 2004, when incredibly, the team came back from a three-games-to-zip deficit to the hated Yankees to take four straight and win the American League pennant. They next dispatched the Cardinals in four straight. The 86-year-old Curse of the Bambino, so named after the team traded Babe Ruth to the Yanks in 1918, had finally ended.

I have attended games sporadically at Fenway Park since 1967, when my dad bought tickets to the next-to-last game of the season. That was the year of the Impossible Dream. The Sox won the pennant on the last game of the season. We sat in the bleachers the day before, watching our team win to tie the Twins for first place. My best friend Bruce Courtemanche and I held up a banner in hopes of getting on television. My father was our hero for having bought tickets back in the spring. None of us suspected our ragtag Sox would be vying for a World Series berth in autumn. (This was when there were just two leagues, no divisions or playoffs. The Sox lost in seven games to the Cardinals. The Curse continued.)

I visited Bruce in New Hampshire a couple years ago. He still lives a couple of blocks from our elementary school and confessed that he still has that banner, more than four decades later. As for me, I acquired a baseball a few years ago signed by my boyhood hero, Carl Yastrzemski. Yaz won the Triple Crown in 1967, leading the American League in batting average, runs-batted-in and home runs. No player has repeated that feat since. My baseball, perched in Lucite, has his signature and “TC 1967” inscribed. It’s part of the Red Sox décor that makes up my upstairs bedroom and study, along with a large black-and-white photo of the famed scoreboard at Fenway and a 1967 photo of Yaz leaping to catch a line drive in left field.

The photo I shot in Fenway of the first game of the 2007 World Series between Boston and the Arizona Diamondbacks also hangs in my bedroom. It shows Josh Beckett throwing the first pitch as the crowd watches. It is framed together with my ticket to the game. Naturally, I’ve since changed my mind but at the time thought the Lord could go ahead and take me now. I’ll die a happy man. Since then I’ve conjured up other events, goals, etc., to keep me plugging away on this planet. But that was a moment of pure happiness.

Like spring, the opening of baseball season is a time of hope and renewal. There are 162 games to be played — starting on April 1 for the Sox against the Texas Rangers. The latter is my second-favorite team, though a distant second. I’ll never trade my affection for a team that’s been part of my life since I was old enough to know what the phrase, “You *@**@&@& bums” meant.

In French, no less.
Originally published in The Hill Country News, March 31, 2011.