Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thankful For Family, Fried Okra & 28 Other Items

One of the Facebook diversions floating around lately is “30 Things
For Which You Are Thankful.” Being grateful for one’s blessings is critical to happiness, so I am happy to provide my own modest list. Just don’t ask me to join Farmville or any of those other silly FB games. (For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, in this case ignorance is, if not bliss, at least the wiser route.) So here goes.
I am thankful for:

• My bride of five-and-a-half months, Julie, newest daughter Abbie, and my two “grown” daughters, Kasey and Mere. I am constantly astounded that these four really smart, beautiful females put up with my ways — at least most of the time. They always give me joy and love, and I would be lost without them. Talk about blessings.

• The family I joined when marrying my Beautiful Mystery Companion on a warm June afternoon out in the East Texas countryside. Recently, they have experienced great loss with the death of one of the clan, 20-year-old Cody Norris, while serving our country in Afghanistan. The service in La Porte, southeast of Houston, three days before Thanksgiving was both heart-wrenching and uplifting, the support from the community amazing. Still, tough times remain in those quiet days when the hubbub has ended, the flowers faded, the embraces fewer and far between.

• That I was able to be at my mother’s side, along with my brother Gregg and daughter Mere, when she passed away in mid-May. I did not want her to go out of this world alone, and will forever be grateful that we could all get there from out-of-town and ease her passing. I miss her.

• My faith, a terrific pastor, a friendly church, and a peace about what happens next, whatever it might be. I guess part of finally growing up is learning to ride that roller coaster. Most days, I’m good with that.

• Good health, few aches and pains, and the ability to walk three miles daily. You quit taking such things for granted as one ages.

• That I have a dog. Well, technically my BMC has the dog since we still have a commuter marriage. But Rosie the Wonder Dog loves me as unconditionally as the rest of the peeps. Sometime soon, I will tell you the story of how this little dog vanished for two weeks, and the adventures she faced until we got her back. I forgot how much joy a little creature can bring to a family. Rosie is a fine little dog and a leading candidate for Cutest Dog in the Universe. Just saying.

OK, gonna start devolving into the less weighty. Fair warning as to what else I am grateful for:

• The Republican presidential debates. These have provided considerable entertainment and an excuse, besides football, to keep up my cable subscription. I was an eyewitness to Rick Perry’s forgetting that third federal agency he wants to eliminate. It is the first time I have felt sorry for the man. I watched yet another debate two nights before Thanksgiving. Bless their hearts. That’s all I have to say.

• There won’t be any Democratic primary debates. Whew.

• Rain. We haven’t had nearly enough, but at least the skies have opened a bit.

• I have gotten old and hardened enough to not mourn more than five minutes if UT loses a football game. I have bigger fish to fry.

• The ubiquitous presence of excellent breakfast tacos in Austin and in my alternate domicile, East Texas. I will not prejudice you by naming favorites, because new ones pop up constantly in both locales. The rise of breakfast tacos in popularity provides me hope that Western Civilization indeed will survive. But that’s just me.

• Affordable GPS devices. Man, talk about saving this middle-aged
soul some angst. I’m thinking this is the wisest $100 I ever spent.

• That I watched in person as the Boston Red Sox won Game One of the 2007 World Series. The ticket was expensive, but the way last season ended, I might be pushing 80 before they’re back in it. Besides, now it’s off the bucket list.

• Wolf Brand turkey chili.

• Satellite radio, even though I only listen to about three of the
gazillion choices.

• The Geico commercials. They make me laugh.

• None of my children turned out to be Aggies. At least not yet. (Kidding. I couldn’t care less.)

• Summer has finally left Texas.

• Owning more books than I could ever hope to read before dying.

• People with a sense of humor, like the anonymous soul who added an extra letter with duct tape to a sign I saw: It then read: Futility
Work Ahead. We can all relate.

• I can still do math in my head.

• Fried okra from Chicken Express. It’s the best in the nation. We
get the okra and skip the chicken.

• Clint Eastwood.

• Dolly Parton.

• Gimme caps that effectively hide my receding hairline and bald spot.

• Not having to wear a necktie every day.

• Never having had the urge to wear a bowtie. I’m not dexterous enough to tie one properly.

• Plumbers. I’m dangerous with a pipe wrench.

• Automatic transmissions. I am over my love affair with stick shifts.

• Comfortable shoes.

Finally, and seriously, I’m thankful for those who take the time to read these modest offerings and send comments, critiques and kudos. Thank you, and God bless.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Old Darkroom Sparks Memories

I visited an old photo darkroom recently. It hasn’t been used in at least a decade, maybe longer. Digital cameras began replacing film in the early 1990s, as newspapers and other print media figured out it was a way to both save money and speed up the process of producing a photograph. At the small daily newspaper where I worked in East Texas, we plunked down $20,000 in 1992 or ’93 for our first Nikon digital camera. A similar model today might cost $500 at most. An entire generation of photographers has arrived, never knowing the thrill of watching a print come to life in a tray of smelly chemicals, the image illuminated only by the faint yellow glow of a safelight.

All the tools necessary to develop rolls of film and make prints were still in that old darkroom, stacked in piles and on cabinets. Stained plastic trays gathered dust on a shelf. An enlarger was perched on a shelf in the corner, 8x10 print boxes stacked on its base. Film reels lay abandoned on the floor, along with yet another enlarger for making color prints. The desiccated crust of photographic chemicals clung to the vats in which chemicals were once mixed: Fixer, D-76 for developing film, Dektol for prints.

The place still possessed that darkroom smell, which I was first introduced to more than 40 years ago in the basement of the Longview newspaper. There I developed sheets of 4x5 film and rolls of 120 negatives shot by other photographers, and learned how to make prints. For the next 20-plus years, I held jobs that required at least a part of my workweek was spent in a darkroom, until digital arrived. Sometimes I miss having a darkroom in which to retreat, music playing in the background as I methodically cranked out prints for the next issue of whatever newspaper I toiled for. It was a form of therapy, an escape from the world. But I can’t say I miss have fingers stained a subtle tinge of yellow from the chemicals, or the inevitable bleached spots on my clothes from sloshing prints from tray to tray, even though I always wore an apron. I finally sold my personal darkroom equipment in the mid-1990s, when it became obvious digital was here to stay, and film was largely confined to art photographers.

As mentioned, I recently moved once again, buying a house in a quiet subdivision in North Austin. I methodically unpacked a couple of boxes stuffed with three-ring binders of photo negatives, boxes of prints, even a half-dozen carousels of slides. If you remember slide carousels, then like me you’re eligible to join AARP, not that I recommend it. Nobody gets out alive when they join AARP. Just saying.

As I dutifully stacked a yard-long collection of three-ring binders on my closet shelf, accompanied by a couple dozen old print boxes filled with photos, I thought of my children. If I can’t figure out what to do with all this stuff, they will have to deal with it at some point.

I’m loath to chunk those negatives, contact sheets and boxes of prints. They represent the modest contribution I have made to capture a slice of East Texas in those pre-digital decades. So, I will likely keep carrying around these shelves of old negatives and prints until I can talk some archival collection repository into taking them.

At long last, the old darkroom is slated to be cleared out in the next few months. The negatives and photographs will end up in the university’s collections, the enlargers and other darkroom equipment hauled to surplus. A couple coats of fresh paint should eliminate that darkroom smell. I will continue to spend nights at home making prints the modern way, on a big-screen Macintosh attached to a photo printer. I manipulate the images in Photoshop with lights out, to better see the true tones on the screen.

So in a sense I’m still hanging out in a darkroom, just without the smell.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The War, Tragically, Comes Home

I met Cody Norris a couple of times at holiday gatherings of my wife’s extended family, most of whom live in Northeast Texas. He was tall and thin, clearly in shape. Cody was my sister-in-law and brother-in-law’s nephew. He grew up in the Houston area and clearly loved the chance to spend time in the country. For simplicity’s sake he was considered one of the cousins. Cody usually showed up with his dad, Reese, at the East Texas farm that serves as our outdoor gathering spot when the weather is tolerable. These throw-downs invariably involve a fish fry, a bonfire if there is even a hint of chill in the air, an impressive display of weaponry to fire at targets and soda cans, four-wheelers — and, for some, deer hunting when in season and wild hog hunting any time someone spots one of those pests.

Cody was a polite young man who enjoyed hunting there with his dad and brother, firing off weapons, and hanging out with his extended family. His older brother, Michael, is enrolled at West Point. Cody chose to join the Army in October 2010 and became a 240B Gunner stationed at Fort Riley in Kansas and deployed to Afghanistan, according to his Facebook page. That page consists of a number of cell-phone portraits of Cody in his battle fatigues, with an Army-prescribed shaved head, even a few close-ups of a mashed fingernail, the result of getting it caught between a tripod and a rocky surface. The comments about that photo are clearly from peers, asking when he’s going to be deployed to Afghanistan, and for how long. He says it will probably be for a year, according to his paperwork.

He left for Afghanistan in April, about six months shy of his 20th birthday. On Nov. 9 he was killed while on patrol. As of this writing, that’s about all I know. Except that another family is heartbroken. This time it is a family that I have joined, and it is people that I love who are grieving. A grandmother, parents, aunts and uncles, cousins, are all mourning the loss of one who died too young. Cody was killed not quite a month after turning 20 years old, serving in a war that has lasted more than half his life.

I am writing this on Veterans Day, early in the morning because I can’t sleep, haunted by how Cody’s death forever will change the lives of these folks to whom I’m now connected. They will survive this loss because we don’t really have much choice when tragedy shows up uninvited. We deal with it best we can. And they surely will take solace that Cody died in the service of his country. I think the term “hero” is used a bit loosely these days, but surely it applies to those who volunteer to serve our country in combat and die doing so. No matter the political arguments flying back and forth on whether we should continue to fight that war or not. The soldiers do what soldiers do — obey orders and fight for our country.

NPR ran a week-long series of stories in October about the terrible losses taken by one platoon, and the effect it had on the families of those killed or wounded. A young wife who gave birth to the couple’s child a few weeks after her husband died in Afghanistan. A soldier who came home maimed and unable to find work. It was nearly impossible to drive down the road, heading home from work, and listen to these stories, eyes welling with tears.

Now the war has come home hard to people that I love dearly. I have no words other than the usual condolences they have already heard far too often in these early days. We all tend to say the same thing, because we don’t know what else to say. I just hope it provides some comfort. All I know to say is that I am heartsick this has happened, but I am glad I was privileged to meet a fine young man who volunteered to fight to protect this country.

Finally, I pray for peace, for our soldiers to come home out of harm’s way, the sooner the better.

Friday, November 4, 2011

On Firewood and Fried Catfish

The first fire of the season was exceedingly modest, just one fat log buttressed by a couple of sticks of kindling in my BMC’s fireplace in East Texas, fired up with the natural-gas pipe starter in a quick attempt to warm up the living room before we headed to church. More than anything, it was our announcement that summer had at last been banished. Autumn was finally in the house, a tardy arrival but still welcomed. We have been pining for cool weather for many months. Who hasn’t of those who survived this Summer From Hades?

We spent most of Saturday trekking through Northeast Texas, pulling my brother-in-law’s trailer up to my father-in-law’s farm to load up a season’s worth of firewood. Here’s a pleasant surprise, given the terrible drought (which has eased a bit in East Texas but still has us Austin-dwellers by the throat). The fall foliage is certainly muted this year, beaten down by a lack of moisture and unrelenting heat, but patches popped up along the 90-minute drive to the farm near Texarkana. Mainly it’s the scrubby trees, bushes really, whose leaves have taken advantage of a smattering of moisture combined with cool weather to show off a bit, flash a panoply of plumage despite the depredations of summer.

I have inherited a gaggle of in-laws, whom I love dearly for many reasons. They are a hilarious bunch who love to cook, fire off massive amounts of ammo, play practical jokes on each other, root for the Longhorns and are always there when you need a hand. Plus, this family has stockpiled enough filleted catfish caught on a trotline on Wright Patman Lake, and chain-sawed up enough firewood from deadfall on their acreage to survive the Revolution. We might have a difference of opinion on exactly who’s going to be spearheading that Revolution, but I know I’m welcome at the fish fry — and there will be plenty of firewood to stoke the hearth.

It provides my battered soul some balm to take a drive through the country, meandering along winding ribbons of asphalt ringed by trees, only occasionally meeting an oncoming vehicle. Better yet is actually tromping through the woods, to the cache of firewood stored under a pole shed my wife helped build years ago, next to the long-abandoned forest-green Atlanta ISD school bus. There is a window unit air-conditioner stuck in the engine well of the bus, which once served as the family camping retreat. We quickly piled up a load of firewood on the trailer, being careful to balance it over the axle and not overload the SUV. I have no way to hook up brake lights on this borrowed trailer, since the connector is different. So, in time-honored East Texas tradition, I’m hauling this back to Longview — 90 minutes away — by the backroads, hoping a DPS trooper doesn’t notice, and trying to beat darkness at the same time.

Before we leave, I help my father-in-law take his flat-bottom boat to the lake. I back it into the water under his watchful and skeptical eye. Luckily, I have learned how to back a trailer even if I’m not worth a darn on checking trotlines. Once the outboard is in the water, he starts it to run the gas out. Fishing season is over until next spring. He appraises the fall harvest as modest, says he pulled in a couple of 40-pounders, no big deal. My father-in-law is 80 and tougher than shoe leather. I am a quarter-century younger and would rather not face a 40-pound catfish no doubt highly irritated at being hooked to a piece of rope and hauled overboard.

But I sure do love eating that fried catfish.

My father-in-law goes his way, and we go ours, taking a plastic sack filled with jalapeño, banana, Tabasco and cayenne peppers from his brother’s garden, on the farm across the road. At 85, Brad says he’s slowing down. Yeah, well, I should slow down as much. The man still works the land as if his livelihood depended on it, with an amazing organically grown garden that provides a bounty of produce. He and his brother are like the two old coots in “Secondhand Lions,” always grousing at each other but working together nonetheless, whether it’s plowing the garden in preparation for spring, or trying to figure out how to run off the feral hogs.

A day in the country, doing a bit of physical work while enjoying the smell of pine trees, red dirt and a fine fall breeze. That’s just what this reluctant big-city boy needed.