Thursday, December 29, 2011

Please, Do Not Send in The Clowns

I began reading Stephen King’s latest novel, “11/22/63” over Christmas break, having requested and received it as a gift from Abbie, my youngest daughter. I have not read anything by King in years after a phase in the 1990s plowing through “The Stand,” “It” and others in short order — often scaring myself past sleeping soundly.
King belongs to the genre of writing that a colleague terms “booger tales.” I don’t know where my coworker came up with the phrase, which refers to books or movies designed to scare the bejeebers out of the reader or viewer. But it stuck. I assiduously avoid booger movies, a habit that began after watching “Psycho” many years ago. Real life is scary enough without paying money to be frightened witless.

I’m not as squeamish about books, since one can put down a booger book at any time and skip the scary parts if desired. The printed word, no matter how adept the writer, simply doesn’t have the shocking effect as watching on the big screen when someone jumps out of the bushes to attack the teen couple strolling after dark in the park. Or whatever.

King’s “It” features the scariest, evilest clown in modern literature. The novel is set in Derry, Maine, a favorite King locale that doesn’t actually exist. (There is a Derry in New Hampshire, the state where I was raised until nearly a teenager.) The Derry that King describes is broadly reminiscent of the small New Hampshire town in which I lived, near Concord, the state’s capital. Enough strange and sad events occurred there during my youth — a girl strangled on Good Friday, 1964 by her insane aunt in her home on the next street over from ours, a suicide by shotgun a block away, another classmate gone missing and found murdered months later — that “It” resonated in that place deep within, where we try to keep our childhood fears buried. Besides, I have never liked clowns, so King’s novel only reinforced my antipathy.

King, who lives in Bangor, Maine, once did a fine favor for my middle daughter, Mere. When she was in high school she wrote King a fan letter. Weeks later a box showed up at our house, postmarked from Bangor. The box had previously been used, with the original recipient’s address marked out in black. Inside was a limited-edition publisher’s copy of the fourth Dark Tower book, “Wizard and Glass,” and a personal note from him. It was obvious that King had found a used box, packed this personally and trudged down to the post office to send it to a 16-year-old fan. Mere had written King that she lived in Lufkin and loved to drink Orbitz, which she describes as a strange fruit drink with little floating tapioca balls in it.

King wrote:

“Dear Meredith Borders, there's still plenty of the magic in the world. Your letter proves it. From a fellow Orbitz junkie, Stephen King, 2/3/98.” King later mentioned my daughter’s hometown in his next two books, in one describing a fellow “mucking out horse stalls in Lufkin, Texas.”

Where was I? Oh, “11/22/63.” That, of course, is the day President Kennedy was shot, news I received while in Mrs. Mahoney’s third-grade class in Allenstown, N.H. In King’s novel, a recently divorced English teacher in —yes — Derry, Maine, discovers a way to travel back in time and possibly change the outcome of certain events, such as a father in Derry killing several members of his family, and the death of a young president. I couldn’t spoil the ending for you if I wanted, since I’m only about one-fourth of the way through this 850-page turner. King can spin a good yarn, so this is a needed break from dense histories and biographies.

Early on, King mentions Moxie, a Maine-based soft drink that I tried and failed to enjoy as a child. It’s a bitter carbonated concoction invented in the late 19th century. Moxie might explain why Maine residents have a reputation for being a bit curmudgeonly — unlike the sunny folks of the great state of New Hampshire. I’m kidding about all that, of course. Moxie, from what I recall, tastes somewhat like root beer without sweetener. The beverage is still produced, though the company website admits Moxie is an “acquired taste.” Sort of like Orbitz, I suppose. Floating tapioca balls?

My daughter Mere is now a full-time writer and editor. She got her start writing reviews of horror movies for her own blog. She clearly did not inherit her love for booger movies from her dad. She now gets paid to write and edit for Badass Digest, an Austin-based website that reviews pop culture. She works very hard. I’m obviously quite proud.
I believe Stephen King played no small part in her success, though he likely will never know that. That’s why returning to read one of his books, set in a place so eerily similar to where I grew up, is a fascinating, if somewhat scary, ride.

I just hope no clowns show up.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Yard-Art Santas and Paperboys

My favorite Christmas card each season doesn’t come from a store. It is a photograph, printed on 4x6 paper, of a yard-art Santa Claus somewhere in East Texas. The photograph is invariably, wonderfully weird. For nearly two decades, by my count, O. Rufus Lovett has been distributing these photographs to his friends and colleagues. Someday I will gather them up from the various boxes where they are stashed and frame them into a single display.

Rufus and I have been friends for nearly a quarter-century. We met when I spent a year at Kilgore College as yearbook adviser and college photographer. Rufus has been the photography instructor there for more than three decades. His work is in museum and gallery collections throughout Texas. He is a contributing photographer to Texas Monthly and a number of national magazines, and has published two fine photographic book collections. (Google him to find out more.) I look forward to receiving Rufus’ cards each year.

This year’s offering features the torso of a blow-up Santa, with just his beard and belt visible, a pair of twine keeping him upright. Past versions include a Santa who appears to have been lynched on a front porch, the photo shot from behind; a forlorn decapitated Santa head hanging on a white-washed wooden fence with “God Bless America” painted across the pickets, a deer stand visible in the background; and a Santa mask fastened to a chain link fence guarding an electrical substation.

My friend Rufus has a keen eye for yard-art Santas. There is bound to be a book somewhere down the road.

As of this writing, three days before Christmas, I have received two other Christmas cards. (I suppose this should sadden me, but since I never send out cards it would be presumptuous to expect any in return.) One is from my attorney, the other from my newspaper carrier. The former told a few funny family tales. The latter wrote a thank-you note and included his address.

I suspect my carrier would not be opposed to a Yule stipend, which will be mailed to him forthwith. He is an excellent carrier who tosses a copy of the Wall Street Journal in the exact same spot on the driveway every morning. I have a soft spot for newspaper carriers, of course. Selling papers launched my checkered newspaper career.

A photo hangs in my office showing me and two other teen-aged boys standing next to a bicycle loaded down with a canvas satchel crammed with newspapers. It was taken in the fall of 1968, when I was 13. Downtown Longview was my oyster, especially at Christmas. The week before Christmas was a time of anticipation as I rode my route, peddling papers downtown, from the Brass Rail to the Bramlette Building, down Cotton Street to the car dealerships along Spur 63, back up the hill to the black neighborhoods hugging the south side of the city’s center back then.

At Christmas I was hoping for tips, much like the carrier who chunks my paper here each morning. The Brass Rail was the mother lode, a smoke-filled bar on Methvin Street, filled each afternoon with men playing 42 and spitting sporadically at the brass spittoons on the floor. One florid-faced fellow wearing a snap-button cowboy shirt gave me $20 once, a few days before Christmas — my best paperboy tip ever. But even the folks who struggled to come up with a dime a day for the paper kindly tipped the paperboy at Christmas, a quarter here, a buck there.

The memories of being a paperboy stick with folks of my generation and older. I have talked to people running for the U.S. Senate, for governor, men who are now successful in the corporate world. Nearly every one of them at one point had a paper route that they remember fondly. (Gender note: I know there were female youth paper carriers. I just didn’t know any, nor have I met any since. As adults, yes, but the afternoon paper route job was definitely male-dominated during my tenure.)

These days, my thoughts around Christmas are invariably reflective. Another year is about to pass. Lately, I ponder how best to spend my remaining years, however many or few that turns out to be. I can’t tell you I have come up with an answer, but it lays heavily on my mind.

Clearly, I am blessed, with my bride, children, family and friends. I need nothing. I want to know how to give back, how to make a difference. To me, that is part of the spirit of Christmas, discerning what admittedly small contribution I can make to our part of the world in the time I have remaining. It’s not just giving money, though that doesn’t hurt. It is figuring out how best to serve.

Friends, I hope you have a truly Merry Christmas. God Bless.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Blessed Rain, And Landmarks on Road Home

I sat in my office this morning and gazed out the window at a rare sight. Rain came down in gentle sheets. The live oak trees across the avenue seemed to be smiling. So was I. For the first time in the six months working on campus, I had to use my oversized comic-strip umbrella to walk from the parking garage to the office. Hours earlier, in the pre-dawn darkness I happily got soaked on my morning walk.

Perhaps the drought is over. We can only hope and pray that the experts predicting a second year of cracked earth and barren pastures are wrong. For now, gray skies and a soaking rain are a treasure — after nearly a year of incessant blue and the most brutal summer in memory. In Austin, the temperature topped 100 degrees one out of every four days in 2011. Now that’s just absurd.

It is startling ¬— and heartening — to see how quickly things begin to green up — as we say in East Texas — once a bit of rain arrives. The small city park down the street from my house looked like a dust bowl when I moved into the neighborhood in mid-October. Brown patches of grass and expanses of dirt lay below the live oak trees clearly in distress. Now, though winter is knocking on the door, grass is sprouting all over the park. One has hope, at least temporarily.

I was walking to work in the rain and heard one student complain to another about the inconvenience, that her feet were soaked. “Hush, child,” I was tempted to say. “Don’t you know what a precious gift rain is these days?”

Driving back to East Texas, as I do most Friday evenings, I look for the landmarks that mark my four-and-a-half hour journey, up to Waco on 1-35 where I cut across on state Hwy. 31, bordered by pastures, and furrowed blacklands awaiting the spring crop. If it is still daylight, there will be two horses tethered to a fence post on the north highway shoulder, somewhere near Kerens. The owner has taken advantage of the state’s grass for at least a couple years, since I have been regularly making this trek. Apparently, alarmed motorists have called the sheriff’s office, thinking the horses have gotten loose because recently a crudely painted plywood sign appeared at the gate stating, “Horses are tied up!” Good to know.

I always look for the four toilets filled with faded plastic flowers at the driveway entrance of a ranchette outside Hubbard; that marks the halfway point back to Longview from Austin. The pond in the front yard of the ranchette has nearly disappeared in the drought, but the toilets have held up well. I have been tempted to stop and inquire about the provenance of this commodious yard art.

A few miles west of Corsicana on the south side of the highway lies a small white-frame house with a detached garage and a chain-link fence. “DIVORCE,” reads the sign planted at the driveway’s edge, along with a phone number, and the attorney’s name nailed on a board beside the front door. I wonder if he gets much drive-by business, an unhappy spouse whizzing by, seeing the sign and whipping into the driveway ready at last to split the blanket. Probably not.

On the loop in Athens, two old Metropolitans cars are parked in a pasture occasionally populated with cows or round bales of hay. They have been there, advertised for sale by a sign on the fence, for at least a couple of years. I keep threatening to take a photo of them when the light is right. The combination of pasture, cows, cars and aesthetically accommodating sky might make an interesting photo. So far, I haven’t found the perfect light. I hope I capture that scene before the cars are sold.

By the time I get off that loop and turn left to return to Hwy. 31, I’m just over an hour away. It’s tricky driving from here to the other side of Tyler, speeding up and slowing down as I pass through the small towns of Murchison, Brownsboro and Chandler — watching out for the local law invariably lurking about, trying to nab someone who forgot the speed limit just dropped from 70 mph to the double-nickel.

I will make that trip again after work Friday, music playing, my mind meandering, heading back to the family I love. I hope it is still raining.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

With Blackbirds On The Wires, He Dances Alone

My commute to work is no longer arduous, for which I’m grateful. However, much of it capably vies with similar stretches in Texas metropolises — for the ugliest urban landscape not yet declared an EPA Superfund site. I will put far North Lamar Boulevard up against any ugly roadway in Texas. Its unrelenting parade of failing strip centers, garish signs, tilting utility poles and potholed parking lots has little to recommend it aesthetically. Pawnshops abut Indian restaurants, which nudge up against auto parts stores, which share a wall with a wig salon, next door to a discoteca. And so forth, for miles.

At night, the lighting resembles a poor man’s Las Vegas or Times Square, garish and jarring. North Lamar would be a fine location to shoot scenes for a film noir, featuring a hard-bitten sleuth who spends too much time eating bad Chinese food and drinking cheap whiskey neat at bars with names like Mike’s Stay Awhile. Some signs displayed on the hodgepodge of freestanding buildings along the boulevard were sloppily painted by amateurs over the signs of the previous and doubtless now-broke tenant. They advertise transmission repair, fortunes told, money loaned, fortunes lost.

I travel this route twice daily during the workweek, at dawn and dusk in these pre-winter solstice days. Lamar Boulevard is congested both ways, but it beats taking MoPac or I-35, the two main arteries. Of the latter, the late and sorely missed columnist Molly Ivins once said, “The key to happiness in Austin is to never, ever drive on I-35.” This, indeed, is sound advice that I follow faithfully. The only reason I get on I-35 is to head back to East Texas, and that is only because there is no other route, at least starting out.

The most intriguing intersection on the North Lamar route is at Rundberg Lane. Spindly Bradford Pear trees line the patchy grass between the concrete sidewalks and asphalt road. The grass is turning green again after a few welcomed bouts of rain, but the trees look diminished by the heat and drought. Who isn’t? Two corners contain seedy strip malls. The ubiquitous Sonic Drive-In and Walgreens anchor the other two corners. At 7 a.m. and 6 p.m., when I am passing through, the sun is either barely peeping over the nearby interstate horizon to the east, or sinking below the modest subdivisions that begin a few blocks west. The line of taillights waiting to get through the traffic signal invariably stretches in both directions for hundreds of yards to the next set of signals. So I have had plenty of time to study this intersection.

Dawn and dusk are when the blackbirds hang out at Rundberg and Lamar, literally thousands of them darkening the trees, lining the utility wires, streaking the pole signs with their droppings. Roll down a window, and the air is filled with the unmelodious conversations the blackbirds are having among themselves. I worry about the folks sitting at the bus stop benches. “Look out below,” I’m tempted to shout, “Incoming!”

In the evenings, the birds — and the motorists stuck at the light — often are entertained by a young thin black man wearing earbuds, dressed in a brightly colored tracksuit. He spends evening rush hour dancing and singing exuberantly, smiling and gesticulating at the drivers, most of whom look straight ahead with that “Ignore the Panhandler” gaze big-city dwellers learn quickly to adapt. There is a panhandler at most every urban corner here, with a cardboard sign, battered backpack and a defeated look about them.

But this man isn’t hip-hopping for money, not that I’ve observed. He doesn’t approach cars with his hand out but simply dances along the sidewalk quite adeptly, smiling broadly all the while. Some days the man dances in front of the Sonic; other days he gyrates near the store on the opposite corner. Every day, he is harmonizing with the blackbirds as he dances alone at Rundberg and Lamar. I wonder what he listens to, what type of music gets his feet to tapping, his hips shaking.

I have tried to figure out why the blackbirds gather at this spot. Web searches indicate the birds gather en masse at promising sources of food. But this intersection contains the barest remnants of nature, a sad, dying display of trees and grass strips. The air is foul with vehicle exhaust. Sirens blare, horns are honked, and a man dances alone to music only he can hear.

I’ll likely never know why the blackbirds gather at Rundberg and Lamar, each dusk and dawn. Or why that man dances as we all head home after work, both providing a few seconds of entertainment to the appreciative few. That’s OK. Some mysteries are best left unsolved.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Black Fridays and Blue Laws

“So this is Christmas, and what have you done,”
— John Lennon.


Black Friday recently passed with multiple violent incidents, including a woman pepper-spraying people in order to forge ahead in line to buy a heavily discounted Xbox gaming device. A West Virginia man died after collapsing in a Target. Frenzied shoppers stampeded past the man as he lay on the floor. Elsewhere, folks got in a tussle over $2 waffle makers. Across the country, people began lining up on Monday for openings of big-box retailers with limited offers of big bargains. Spending several days in the elements in order to save a few hundred bucks on a big-screen television is a catalyst for bad behavior, I’m thinking.

Thanksgiving used to be a shopping-free zone. Sure, restaurants opened to serve those unwilling or unable to cook. Convenience stores sporadically opened their doors, usually by late afternoon, to sell beer, Tums and cigarettes. But for the most part, the merchant class took a break. That seems to be rapidly becoming a quaint, unobserved tradition.

Black Friday was named because the cash registers ringing — or more accurately these days, beeping —put merchants into the black, profit-wise. Now Black Friday is sliding backward into — I don’t know — Gray Thursday Night?

What a terrible name to start the holiday shopping season: Black Friday. Yeech. It conjures images of evil acts, sorcery, even vampires, which seem to be all the rage these days. Perhaps this poor choice in capitalist marketing partially accounts for the increasing incidents of bad behavior. Or maybe there is a growing segment of the population that cares more about getting a good deal on a DVD player than making someone sure someone doesn’t get trampled to death.

So much for peace on earth and goodwill toward men. Don't be surprised to see Santa in the mall armed with pepper spray.

When I see some poor sap bundled up against the elements as the temperatures plunge into the 70s in Texas (to steal a line from KUT, the local NPR station), talking to a television reporter for the annual story on how long he has been camping out to be first in line at Best Buy, I wonder, “Do these people not have jobs? And if they are unemployed, why are they spending their money on a big-screen television?” Maybe this is how they spend their allotted vacation days. Personally, I would rather go hiking in the mountains or alongside a white-capped river. I also wonder about bathroom breaks, the need to shower more than once every four days (at least for me and everybody I hang out with), and other weighty matters.

These violent incidents breaking out across America over Christmas shopping make me grumpy and inclined to keep all the decorations in the closet. My wife and I already have pledged to keep spending modest and try to find a place to serve others on Christmas Day. Not because we are wonderful people — at least I’m not — but because all this spending and hoopla just don’t seem right anymore. There is a reason for this season, and it sure isn’t standing in a mob outside a Walmart at 3 a.m. waiting for the doors to open, standing along with several hundred other testy shoppers, hoping not to get trampled.

The trend this year is for stores to open on Thanksgiving evening, after the Detroit Lions have been clobbered in another Turkey Day tradition: The Lions lose while a nation snoozes after overdosing on tryptophan from all that turkey. Then we’re all supposed to wake up and head to the stores.

Not me. I am old enough to recall when many stores in Texas had to stay closed on Sunday because of blue laws. (I had hoped to provide the etymology of blue laws, but said to fuggedaboutit. Nobody really knows.) Somehow we managed to survive no-shopping Sundays unscathed and rarely felt deprived that we could not shop ‘til we dropped after church. Sure, sometimes it was inconvenient, like when one had to buy Pampers at triple-price at Circle K because we didn’t make it to the grocery store on Saturday. But I don’t think we’re any better off as a society, now that stores are opening on Thanksgiving, before the turkey and dressing have cooled enough to put the leftovers in the fridge.

As for me, I’ll just stay home Thanksgiving night and watch UT play Texas A&M. Whoops. Forgot that isn’t going to happen anymore, at least for a while.

Another tradition crumbles. What’s next to tumble? One shudders in nervous anticipation.