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.