Thursday, June 30, 2011

Joining the Seemingly Endless Commute

I have recently become a big-city commuter. I live in the exurbs of Austin — in a land of cookie-cutter houses — and drive daily to the University of Texas campus to draw a paycheck working a dream job. I’m a lucky guy.

The prospect of this commute worried me. I am not good with traffic issues, generally. It makes me crazy when I am headed back to East Texas on I-35, and everything just stops for no apparent reason. The most frustrating aspect of those sudden stoppages is that one has no idea why it is taking place, or how long it will be before things loosen up. Sometimes it is caused solely because a DPS trooper has pulled someone over, so everybody is shifting to the left lane as law requires. Other times it is a grisly wreck, at which passersby feel compelled to gawk, slowing down in the process.

I had to give myself a Patience Pep Talk upon moving back to the Big City, which is a far cry from driving Behind the Pine Curtain. So far it has largely worked, though the new job and commute will be a test of my ability to keep my cool. I estimate that 90 percent of the profanity I use — and this is an area where the older I get the choosier I am about letting loose a blue streak — is while driving alone in traffic. Doltish drivers just set me off, though not in a road rage, gonna-get-in-a-fistfight way. I’m too old and small for that type of foolishness.

Thus I confine my imprecations to the car’s interior. Hand gestures are kept below the dashboard. But I must say, there are some goofy drivers on the road, texting and applying mascara at the same time, or popping open a tall boy while smoking a cigarette. At least I think it was a cigarette. I didn’t want to get too close.

Traffic patterns baffle me. I have learned that if I am pulling out of my driveway at 6:50 a.m., then I’m in the office by 7:30. If I leave at 7:00 instead, it could be close to 8 before I arrive. The opposite is true when headed home. If I leave at straight-up 5:00, I won’t be back in this 2011 version of Levittown — where I live — until 6:00. But if I wait until 5:30 or 5:45, the commute time is cut nearly in half.

I occasionally take the train, but discovered it actually means a longer commute — and I’m at the mercy of CapMetro’s schedule. That means I have to leave my house no later than 6:30 a.m. to make it to work by 8:00. Coming home, if I miss the 6:44 p.m. connection — which means I must leave the office by 5:30 to catch the express bus to the station — I would have a very expensive cab ride back to where my car sits baking in the sun. So, even though I’m a bleeding-heart liberal who drives a hybrid and sips red wine, this whole train thing doesn’t work daily for me.

The art of seizing the moment — when a tiny gap occurs to switch lanes and thus gain a few hundred feet momentum on MoPac — is absolutely critical to cutting a few minutes off the drive. Cell phones have made this quite easy, since about half the folks on the pavement are texting or talking during the tortoise-like advance north at rush hour. Thank goodness our fearless governor preserved the constitutional rights of drivers to put themselves and others at dire risk, when he vetoed a bill that would have banned texting while driving. Maybe next, Gov. Goodhair will allow drivers to brown-bag their beer when they hit the road, as in the not-so-good ol’ days.

I’m kidding, of course, though I do find it fascinating that the folks most interested in regulating women’s bodies and what goes on behind closed doors between consenting adults get all constitutionalist when it comes to banning behavior that could kill innocent folks — and in fact already has.

Sorry. I have a lot of time to think about such matters while commuting.

Finally, though I stay calm while stuck in Austin traffic, it is a different story when back in East Texas. I get impatient if I’m stuck at a signal for more than 30 seconds on Eastman Road in Longview. I can’t explain this shift in attitude. At least I have plenty of time to ruminate on the topic while stuck on the Hwy. 183 flyover in North Austin, looking down on an endless river of vehicles.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Teens Perfect Art of Cellphone Self-Portraiture

My brand-new 13-year-old daughter is in love with my iPhone. One of her fondest wishes is that we buy her one. Well, if wishes were horses, and all that. Both her mother, my bride, and I agree that is an unnecessary expense — considering she has a laptop, iPod Touch and an adequate cell phone on which she can text faster than I can type. And I’m pretty fast.

What she loves to do most of all is take photos of herself. That is an activity that the latest model makes easy, since it allows one to switch the “viewfinder” so that you can see yourself on the screen and aren’t just shooting blind. No more trying to center one’s reflection in the silver apple on the back of the phone.

That was a brilliant move by Apple. Taking photos of oneself with a cellphone is clearly a national obsession with a wide swath of the younger generation, especially teen-aged girls. An added twist to these self-portraits is to use a mirror so that the finished result is an image that clearly shows the cellphone being used as a camera.

Abbie is quite creative in this new art. I admire her ability to shoot really amazing photos of herself, armed only with a cellphone camera and her imagination. The other day I stood in front of a mirror with my iPhone and attempted to recreate some of her interesting poses, with the horizon tilted, phone visible, big smile on my face. Of course, I looked like an idiot and quickly deleted these sad attempts. Do not try this at home if you are over the age of, say, 35. I’m being generous at that.

Girls in their teens definitely view this as the preferred way to create new Facebook profile photos. I confirmed this by checking Abbie’s Facebook page, which I do regularly as part of my parental duties. She doesn’t necessarily appreciate the snooping, but that is one of the rules for her being allowed to have a page. I personally am a minimal user of Facebook, mainly using it to alert folks I have a new column — and to keep up with my daughters.

The reality is that this social networking site has become the primary method of communication among a large portion of the younger populace. I still don’t know what to make of this phenomenon, though with more than 500 million active users, it is a safe bet that Facebook is not a temporary craze. I don’t have the same confidence that Twitter will be around years from now. But I learned some time ago not to predict the future on matters of technology — or anything else for that matter.

At least with Facebook there is a somewhat permanent record of the communication, which isn’t true with text-messaging. Young people have largely shunted aside email in favor of texting, to the point that a colleague told me she has to force students to email their communications instead of texting. It is pretty difficult to maintain a string of conversations with more than one person via texting, something that is straightforward with email.

Sorry, got sidetracked. Someone sent me a text.

I googled “iPhone self-portrait” and naturally was supplied with links to discussion boards and tips for taking better self-portraits. And, of course, there were links to dozens of folks who have posted self-portraits online, even made YouTube videos as they shot a photo of themselves. Now that’s complicated.

I found a fellow named Noah who, beginning in 2000, shot a photo of himself every day for six years, then made a six-minute video showing the results in rapid sequence. Noah is undoubtedly a creative, interesting young man, but after about two minutes I was sliding the fast forward control on YouTube. But it did reassure me that our 13-year-old is simply following a rather innocent trend with her cellphone self-portrait fascination.

Someday I might compile all her efforts into an Andy Warhol-like series on a single canvas and call it art. This might launch a new career, chronicling a pretty teen-age girl’s various poses in front of a mirror, phone held high. If not, at least I’ll have a cool collection of photos of our daughter at a special age.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

We Three (And Rosie) Are Now A Family

We met on a cold February afternoon 40 months ago, at a downtown coffee shop in Longview. Julie had emailed because she liked a column I had written about unpacking boxes of books, the simple pleasure of revisiting those old friends as I set up a new house. She suggested we have coffee and see if we might get better acquainted, possibly become friends. I agreed, intrigued. It turned out to be the most fruitful column I have produced in nearly 30 years.

I walked up the alley from the newspaper office at the appointed hour, reaching Green Street as Julie crossed, wearing a maroon raincoat, curly hair blowing in the winter breeze. She recognized my face from the newspaper mug shot and said my name. I said hers.

Talking about having me at hello.

We went inside for coffee, out for dinner the next night, a long walk the morning after that. We have been inseparable since, hanging on to each other through thick and thin — certainly enduring our share of the latter.

I told anyone who could tolerate listening that I had met my life’s love at that coffee shop, at that moment. Most folks nodded politely, figuring it was merely an infatuation that would eventually pale. It wasn’t, and it hasn’t.

Her daughter, Abbie, then 10, and I quickly bonded as well. The first time we met was at Pizza King. She was reading the fourth Harry Potter book, a beautiful child with porcelain skin and a quick wit. In the three-plus years since, we three have had grand adventures, to Washington, D.C., New England and Longhorn games each fall.

I stunned Julie by proposing on Thanksgiving night while on holiday in Wimberley nine months later. That morning all three of us had leaped into the Comal River, gasping with the shock of the cold water. First Julie jumped, then Abbie — both shivering and squealing about the frigid water. I had no choice but to follow, then quickly realized if I didn’t get out immediately I might suffer what Minny in Kathryn Stockett’s “The Help” called a “Cadillac arrest.” The hot tub never felt better than after that escapade.

When I handed the woman I call my Beautiful Mystery Companion a ring that night and asked for her hand, the day became forever known as When We Took The Plunge. Events conspired to keep us from getting married: a house too small for us that wouldn’t sell, job loss and relocation, yet another move and job change. Finally we concluded that if we waited for everything to be perfect, one or both of us would be returned to dust before we wed.

We married on a hot late-spring afternoon out in the East Texas countryside under a grove of trees, a dozen or so family members in attendance. Abbie, now 13 going on 20 most days, stood beside us. Now she is my daughter as well. Rosie the Wonder Dog carried our rings in a pouch tied around her furry neck, firmly secured with a leash. I happily will carry to my grave the image of Julie walking down the hill in her wedding dress, flowers in her hair, a bouquet in her hands. I forgot to breathe for several seconds. Abbie whispered to me something about how beautiful her mom looked while I nodded dumbly. Our preacher broke the silence. Birds chirped and cows lowed as we exchanged vows.

I’m grateful the event was recorded both on video and still photography. Everything is a bit of a blur for both of us, and it will be lovely to relive the event. Our honeymoon was brief with a longer trip planned later this summer. We still must live apart for a time because of our jobs. But we are a family, at long last.

It is humbling to realize that — at an age when movie theaters and museums give me the senior discount without asking — I get the chance to love again. We will raise Abbie together as best we can. My daughters have joyfully accepted her as their sister. Even Rosie likes me. (Of course, she likes everybody.)

I am truly blessed. We will have a grand life together, we three and Rosie.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

A Cute Canine Business Opportunity

My fiancé and I were walking Rosie, the World’s Cutest Dog, the other day. I am quite certain at least some of you will take issue with me unilaterally bestowing that title on Rosie. Some of you might even be under the misapprehension that the World’s Cutest Dog resides at your house. There surely are a number of dogs owned by readers that are mighty cute. I have two grand-dogs, Zelda and Ernie, who live with my daughters and fall into that category. But both daughters would admit if pressed that Rosie has that cute thing going on in a major way. They want to stay in the will, for one thing.

An unfortunate encounter with an overzealous dog groomer temporarily took away much of Rosie’s cuteness, but after more than two months her fur is growing back as curly and goofy as ever. When in full cuteness mode, Rosie looks like a 10-pound version of Chewbacca, from “Star Wars.” She loves all humans, indeed all animals that don’t make too much noise. Yapping dogs make this puppy that never peeps nervous, but otherwise she loves all creatures great and small. Once my Beautiful Mystery Companion sent cell phone photos of Rosie wrestling playfully on the walking trail with a large tabby cat, who came up to say hello — perhaps sensing a kindred spirit. My BMC finally had to drag Rosie away as the tabby looked on mournfully.

When we walk, Rosie turns heads virtually without exception. She is always smiling, prances on her feet and makes passersby smile and invariably ask what breed. She’s a rescue mutt, a little of this and that. More than once someone has said, “If you don’t want her, I’ll sure take her.” This is an exceedingly strange comment probably meant as a compliment, but weird nonetheless. Why would we not want this adorable dog? Do we look unhappy that we’re out here on a breezy spring day enjoying God’s handiwork while walking the dog?

I often wonder what would happen if we said, “Yes, take her. We’re tired of being licked to death. Best of luck.” Not that we would dream of doing such a thing, but it’s interesting to imagine.

If Rosie could be cloned, and if such procedures didn’t make me exceedingly nervous, I have an excellent revenue-producing idea. We could rent the cloned Rosie (the original is too close to our hearts for crass commercialism) to single men and women looking for a way to break the ice with attractive members of the opposite sex walking on the trail. She is a proven walk-stopper. If a single attractive guy walked down the trail with this pooch, I guarantee women would constantly be stopping him to pet Rosie the Clone, ooh and aah. The rest, as the say, would be up to the couple in question, in terms of exchanging emails or phone numbers. Rosie, as they say, is a surefire chick magnet.

This would work well for women, though long experience indicates that men need the most help. The advantages are considerable. This beats meeting women in bars, which I never figured had a lot of future. We would keep rates low enough to compete with eHarmony or Pet patrons would have the opportunity to see their potential match in person and not be at the mercy of an online posting of a photo taken 10 years and 50 pounds ago. Besides, someone that one meets on a walking trail clearly is interested in good health and fitness, which is a good trait.

Single fathers out with their babies or toddlers have long realized that a cute baby is a definite draw for women, who will come up and talk funny to the tyke. Renting out a baby, however, as a dating tool seems fraught with all sorts of legal and moral problems not faced with a mere dog.

I see definite franchising possibilities here, especially in neighborhoods with large numbers of single people who enjoy physical exercise. Hey, weirder business notions have worked.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Golf Is Flog Spelled Backwards

Golf is a good walk spoiled. — Mark Twain

Samuel Clemens must have never broken 80. That would have changed his outlook. I have shot in the 70s just five times. You remember such momentous events, though the last time I did so was more than 10 years ago. I lost my obsession with this game when I concluded:

• I will never be more than a mediocre golfer, able to shoot in the low 90s most days but perfectly capable of blowing up and busting the century mark.

• The game takes too much time. I should be more productive in my leisure hours.

• A sport where drinking is not only allowed but actually encouraged is not conducive to good health.

Golf has become a semi-annual event at most for me, usually in scrambles held for charity affairs. A scramble, for you non-golfers, is a tourney usually four people play as a team, using the best shot of the quartet. A scamble takes the pressure off hackers like me. Beer drinking is required, which improves neither my game nor my intelligence. Fortunately, it has the same effect on my teammates, so we enjoy ourselves. A nap invariably follows.

A buddy and I indulged in an inaugural 2011 round the other day, nine holes at Austin’s Hancock golf course, which is the original Austin Country Club founded in 1899. The back nine lies below the shopping center across the street. The remaining nine holes consist of hardpan fairways and sketchy greens. But it is cheap to play there, seldom crowded, and is one of the first courses I played after taking up the game 20 years ago.

We rented pull carts and began an unspoiled walk on a windy spring day. My first golf swing in nearly a year results in a soaring, string-straight tee shot that sailed over the par-three green. Five strokes later, the ball rolled into the cup. My short game is shot. Not to worry. I fully intended to enjoy this morning and not obsess over the score. Nothing was going to spoil this walk — even a three-putt from 12 feet away that any fool should make who is worth a flip at this infernal game that ought to be banned before it turns middle-aged guys like me into quivering mounds of anger. Sorry. Had a moment.

Golf courses have their share of characters, folks who play every day wearing attire one doesn’t expect to see on a golf course. Never bet with a golfer wearing overalls; they’ll take your money every time. Avoid toothless guys as well. There was a fellow nicknamed Chicken at the course I played in East Texas. He wasn’t entirely toothless but working on it. Chicken chain-smoked Camels, drank beer nonstop and bestowed free mini-golf lessons on hackers like me, whether you wanted them or not. Chicken would reward a topped tee shot that dribbled down the fairway, barely clearing the women’s tees with the comment, “That was hell for straight.”

I once played on the base course down in Corpus Christi with an older gentleman who early on said he was blind in one eye. He pointed to a tank parked rather incongruously near the teebox on which we stood. “That (expletive-deleted) tank is how I lost my eye.” I thought he meant in combat, but it was an errant tee shot that hit the tank, ricocheted back and hit him square in the eyeball. The fact that he still played golf on the same course where he lost half his vision is testimony to the game’s addictive power. I’m glad I was able to kick the habit before a similar mishap occurred.

I knew another fellow who was bitten by a copperhead while looking for his ball in the woods. He was out of commission a few months while his leg healed. This prompted establishment of the FYOB rule at this course, meaning, “find your own ball.” That rule was invoked by a golfing partner when I hit an approach shot on a par five that landed just short of the green. I was razzing him about the lovely shot, which outdistanced his by a good bit, when a fox came out of the woods, picked up my ball and trotted into the woods on the other side of the fairway. I guess the fox thought it was an egg.

“You know the rules,” he said. “You have to play it where it lies.”

Tough game. Tough crowd.