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.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Goose Turns 30, and I'm Getting Old

My daughter Meredith turns 30 in a few days. I have a hard time with that statement. Goose is 30? No way. Way. The child who arrived while I slogged through graduate school in journalism at The University of Texas at Austin is now five years older than I was when she was born.

Did you get all that? I have a nerdish way with numbers, dates, etc. Sorry. To simplify, I was not-quite-26 when she was born. Now she’s 30, a graduate of this same university along with her older sister. I work a couple hundred feet from where I was attending classes back then. If I could impart one piece of wisdom to you who are on the road, as the song goes, it is to never be surprised at how things turn out. Savor the trip, folks — good, bad or just plain ugly.

When Mere was born in Austin, we lived in one of the final houses on Guadalupe Street where it tails off north of town. That used to be the boonies, near the end of the bus line. Now, well, those who live here know. The boonies are miles away in all directions. They tore down the old Brackenridge Hospital where she was born, a squat, red-brick building just west of I-35 near downtown. I used to tease Mere that she was the building’s demise.

I rarely call her Goose anymore, she being 30 and all. I have a hard time explaining why I started calling her that in the first place. It just fit when she was a wide-eyed baby examining the world. Then my mother shot a photo of her being chased by an actual goose at Teague Park in Longview. My artist dad turned that into a colored-pencil sketch entitled “Wild Goose Chase,” which now hangs in my house. Thus are sobriquets born and legends made. Mere is still scared witless by geese. I’m not crazy about them either, at least the chasing kind.

That’s just one thing we have in common, along with a love for books and writing. We walk alike, as anyone watching us coming down a sidewalk can attest. I have had people say, “That must be your daughter” after watching us both walk, feet splayed to the outside, a slight bounce to the gait. Folks say we look alike as well, though she’s obviously much cuter than me. We’re both short with brown eyes. I once had brown hair; now it has turned gray or turned loose. Her hair was once purple. I think she has outgrown that phase, save for Halloween, one of her favorite events.

Mere is a naturally gifted writer who has a great day job at a museum but really lives to fill empty spaces with words. She had her first poem published at age 8, sent in by her big sister Kasey, who fibbed and told Teen magazine that the author was 13. The poem went:

Hand in hand across the beach
Looking for something out of reach.
The moonlight shines upon the sea
Looking for something called destiny.

These days she writes a blog about horror movies and another that covers all types of entertainment and is part of a popular Austin blog called Badass Digest, sponsored by Alamo Drafthouse. Her piece on that site is called Borders Line and covers all sorts of genre. Google it some time. Parental-advisory warning: Some times she uses words not often found in family newspapers, or in this blog. It’s a generational thing. But her style is breezy and crisp, her ability to rattle off plotlines and character names is phenomenal, and I’m thrilled she semi-stole her blog title from the old man.

One of the most enjoyable exercises of my adult life was when we watched an advance screening of “Charlie Wilson’s War” together a few years ago, and each wrote separate reviews for the Lufkin newspaper. Hers was better.

Like me, Mere makes no money filling her space. She does it because she has to write, or her world doesn’t feel right. I know the feeling. That is why I continue writing a column each week, 29 years after I first started. Several featured a wide-eyed toddler with a goofy nickname. I was then and am now a proud father of all my daughters.

But this one is for Mere. Happy 30th, Goose. Love, Dad.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

A Blow Struck for Plain Writing

I was scouring websites for editorial ideas the other night, for my stringer work opining for the small newspaper in Kansas where I worked last year. Writing three editorials weekly keeps my skills sharp and provides eating-out money. I’m pretty fast at writing editorials after 29 years of doing so.

The key is finding a topic on which I can provide an opinion. With subject in hand, I can pound out 350-400 words in a half-hour at the most, thanks to the boundless resources of the Internet. There is really nothing on which I can’t find background material, stories, quotations and whatever else I need to put together an editorial.

I’m thinking this whole Internet deal is here to stay…

I ended up on the website for the federal Office of Management and Budget, reading a report on how environmental regulations are a net benefit to the economy because they save lives and cut down on pollution-related illnesses. Another topic caught my attention as I waited for my printer to spit out the executive summary. (Try as I might, I am still a dead-tree person when it comes to reading anything of substance.) I hit the print key again and soon had in hand the “Final Guidance on Implementing the Plain Writing Act of 2010,” from the OMB.

With all that was going on last year — midterm elections, UT’s lousy football team, Texas Rangers in the World Series, the Deepwater Horizon disaster — somehow we all missed passage of this crucial piece of legislation. No matter, since it took six months after passage to get the document now before me, which is the federal government’s game plan for encouraging government officials to write in plain English. Unsurprisingly, it takes six pages of 12-point text set at 1.5 line spacing to outline the plan. However, I must add that the document is written, well, in plain language.

The deadline for each federal agency to pick a Senior Official for Plain Writing and create a section on the website devoted to that topic just passed. Each agency was required to publish a plan for swearing off bureaucratese and writing plainly. I am happy to report that your government dollars have indeed been hard at work. I spot-checked the websites for the justice, agriculture, commerce departments, plus threw in the EPA for good measure. All have dutifully created such sections on their websites, swearing fealty to plain writing.

This is welcomed news. Anyone who has attempted to read the federal tax code, for example (My advice: Don’t), knows that the feds need a healthy dose of plain writing habits. Unfortunately, Internal Revenue Service apparently didn’t get the memo, since I couldn’t find any mention on its website of a new commitment to plain writing. Since I would prefer not to be audited again, I will withhold judgment on exactly what that means.

On the same site on which I found the Plain Writing Act of 2010 was a 171-page document, which I did not print, entitled the “2011 Report to Congress on the Benefits and Costs of Federal Regulations and Unfunded Mandates on State, Local and Tribal Entities.” This report obviously was written before implementation of the Plain Writing Act, so I have taken the liberty of reinterpreting a few passages.

The report states: “As discussed elsewhere in this Report (see Appendix A) as well as previous Reports, the aggregate estimates of benefits and costs derived from estimates by different agencies and over different time periods are subject to significant methodological inconsistencies and differing assumptions.”

In other words: Actual results may vary.

Also: “A possible approach to the potential difficulty of advance assessment of costs and benefits involves rigorous experimentation with respect to the likely effects of regulation; such experimentation, including randomized controlled trials, can complement and inform prospective analysis, and perhaps reduce the need for retrospective analysis.”

Translation: It is possible to predict benefits before a regulation goes into effect.

Finally: “In order to promote data-driven regulation, OMB continues to be interested in public suggestions on how to use retrospective analysis to improve regulations, perhaps by expanding them, perhaps by streamlining them, perhaps by reducing or repealing them, perhaps by redirecting them.”

Translation: We need to hear what the public thinks about our rules.

Once the Plain Writing Act transforms gobbledygook into plain English, let’s start working on all those acronyms. If I were in charge, I would allow CIA, FBI and IRS, but that is about it. The less alphabet soup the better.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Sex With Chickens, and the Leander Police

I was reminded of the Sex With Chickens story while eating at Cowboy Chicken the other day. That’s a new franchise in Longview of which the Beautiful Mystery Companion — aka my bride — and I have become quite fond. Cowboy Chicken sounds like an unhealthy food choice, but actually the bird is roasted and the side dishes are fresh vegetables. What a concept: Fresh, healthy food in East Texas, no less.

Anyway, seeing all those naked chickens spinning their way on a spit through the ring of fire to land on plates of hungry people reminded me of a fight I had with the Leander Police Department early this year over releasing police reports, at my last newspaper gig. After several weeks toiling in suburbia, I finally noticed that we were not publishing police reports from Leander, but we regularly ran the Cedar Park department’s list of miscreants. I asked our able editor, who said the department wouldn’t turn them over, that he had banged his head against the wall trying to get them to see wisdom, to no avail.

To an ink-stained, Freedom of Information stalwart like yours truly, those were fighting words. This is public information, by gosh, and no small-town department is going to keep us from what anyone has the right to obtain — the so-called first page of incident reports. Besides, police reports make for some really excellent reading. People do the dumbest things to end up in the blotter.

Just the other day a woman was arrested in Cedar Park for stabbing her husband because he was snoring. I must say I am entirely opposed to such behavior, out of a sense of self-preservation. We don’t want this type of response to spread. At least I don’t, having pleaded guilty to sawing logs on more than one occasion.

Anyway, I started out slowly in my quest to force the Leander police department to obey the law — a novel concept, admittedly, them being peace officers and all. I had a pleasant conversation with the city manager — a really nice guy who sadly has since passed away. As always, he was affable but made it clear I would have to work it out with the chief.

“It’s that chicken story,” he said. This was not the first time I had heard that rationale for why the Leander police department didn’t want to release police reports. The newspaper, long before I arrived, had supposedly run a police item describing in graphic detail a complaint about a man having sex with chickens. The words used were considerably more graphic. It was told as gospel truth that the newspaper had actually dropped the F-bomb in describing what had occurred.

I found this a bit hard to believe. Community newspapers — even mediocre or badly run ones — shy away from using profanity in their pages. The F-bomb generally tops the list of Words You Won’t See in a Family Newspaper. Of course, what can get into a small newspaper by accident is Katy-bar-the-door. I once single-handedly saved the Lufkin Daily News from running a photo caption that said, during the first Gulf War, “A soldier returns to base after sitting in a bunker for 12 hours.” That’s what the writer intended. An extra “h” in “sitting” gave a whole new meaning to the caption. There is little doubt this typo would have ended up in print — and probably on “The Letterman Show” — if I hadn’t just been walking by. Pure serendipity.

I went sleuthing, with help from the newspaper’s staff, and we found the offending Sex With Chickens story, written in 2005. It reads, in whole:

“June 6
At approximately 6 p.m., a 50-year-old woman came to the police department and told an officer that she wished to file a complaint regarding a man in the 300 block of North Brushy who she saw having sex with chickens.

According to the complainant, who lives next to the subject, two men live in the home, an older man who owns chickens, and a younger man who is stealing them and having sex with them, causing them to die. The woman refused to give further information and is not willing to work with the police department. It is undetermined whether the information is accurate, as there is no evidence supporting this charge. The case has been forwarded to investigators.”

First off, there is no way any self-respecting newspaper humanoid is going to keep this out of the paper. This is pure gold, folks. Every one of you, I predict, went “Oh, my gosh” upon reading that squib. It is what we used to call a water-cooler story, folks standing around talking about the piece. Today’s edition might have broken a major scandal at City Hall, or published a prize-winning thumb-sucker about sewer collection issues. No matter. The story that folks would be talking about is some crazy dude having Sex With Chickens.

We filed a complaint with the attorney general over the Leander PD’s refusal to release reports. I wrote the usual impassioned editorial, pointing out that if crime reports are secret, then residents don’t know if they’re living next to someone just arrested for child molestation, or if there has been a rash of burglaries in the neighborhood. (“Rash” is one of those newspaper terms we pundits love. “Mull” is another one.)

Readers largely yawned, though a few attaboys came our way. The Leander PD, after a few more weeks of obfuscation, saw the light and began releasing reports. Another small victory for sunshine in government, I suppose. I am simply thankful we did our small part to make neighborhood chickens safe from sexual assault.