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.