Tuesday, December 27, 2011

End of a Year: Dreaming in 3-D

Marty invites you to put on the 3-D glasses
for his latest film.
 A couple of weeks ago I did something that was forbidden to me one year ago when I was still Van Winkled. I went to the Century 21 Cinema and took in a newly released film.

My son and I bought tickets and a box of buttered popcorn. We settled back in our chairs and put on 3-D glasses for Hugo.

What's in the Box?
There's a scene in this latest Martin Scorcese's movie (based on the Brian Selznick hybrid novel/graphic novel) that makes me think of what it's like to revisit this blog after choosing not to post for several months.

Hugo Cabret and his intrepid girl partner, Isabelle, explore a room in the house of her mysterious Uncle Georges (Ben Kingsley). There's a wardrobe looming tall in the room and, guess what? The two youths detect a secret panel in the top.

After a precarious bit of balancing on a chair, Isabelle opens the panel and, yes! there's a wooden box secreted there. As Hugo watches from below, Isabelle eases the box out but uh-oh! it's heavy and suddenly! the chair topples, the box hits the floor, the lid separates, and papers fly all over the room.

Hugo: The box reveals its secrets--all the thoughts and visions of one man.
A discovery is made. Each sheet of paper is a sketch for costumes and scenes from early movies.

Revelation: Uncle Georges is the once-famous French moviemaker Georges Melies.

This is startling news because Melies, after early successes in the movies, is thought by some to be dead. No one has heard anything from him since shortly after the Great War when he quit making movies.
Uncle Georges intrudes upon the scene. A defeated and frustrated artist, he has responding by withdrawing and hiding away the wellsprings of all his work--these pieces of paper meticulously filled with ideas and sketches.

He picks up a piece of paper, looks at the children, and crumples it in his hand.

Van Winkle Redux
Coming back to this blog is a bit like opening Uncle Georges' wooden box. In this case the box is stuffed with posts someone diligently produced for 52 weeks when he was sequestered from all news, weather, sports and entertainment.

The person who posted here called himself "Van Winkle" and further protected his identity by never naming where he lived or worked.

One year ago: Blog readers could see my shoes, but not my face.
Van Winkle knew almost nothing about what was happening in the larger world (except for a few leaks that got through to him), but he was a fairly persistent observer of the minutiae of his life.

I can go back and read about his impressions of his ficus tree, holes in his T-shirts, a concrete cherub named "Reginald" on his patio, his dog Bullwinkle, a red piece of paper snagged in a bush in his front yard.

He also relived intensely at times his youth in Alaska, and he made more than a few attempts at finding what is humorous in the surrounding commercial and social side of America.

I'm fine with what Van Winkle wrote. I'm not going to react like Uncle Georges and try to destroy my posts or hide them away and try to forget them. However, I've begun to look back on my experiment with a deepening perspective as I try to answer the question, "Was it worth it?"

Trying to Reclaim the Old "Normal" 
I've had most of the autumn of 2011 to reintroduce myself to the world of news.

Like a fisherman setting out again on the news sea, I've been able to reel in as much (or as little) of Reality as I wish.

So I indulged myself...

As you probably know, there's been quite a bit going on, even in just the past 60 days:
  • Politics (the rise and fall of Herman Cain! Rick Perry's oops! Newt's surge in the polls!)
  • The economy (payroll tax holiday debates! Black Friday! Internet Monday! Mega Monday!)
  • Historic (the U.S. leaves Iraq, North Korea has a new leader, Steve Jobs dies)
  • Sports (the Angels buy themselves a super team, Tiger Woods finally wins a major)
  • Entertainment (Mel Gibson's record divorce settlement, the new iPhone introduced  us to Siri)

The Future?
Even though I don't want to go back to my unnatural state of one year ago when I, in effect, buried my head ostrich-like in the ground, I have reached the following conclusions: 
  1. Reality, as constructed by what we call "news," is not so great. More, it's not even particularly necessary for successful living. There are other realities all around us, realities that teach, nurture, and inspire.
  2. News is a product that is constantly shoved at us. Producers of the news shrewdly choose what they think we will grab us most emotionally. This is not the same as choosing what is news-worthy.
  3. Because news appears to be "free" it is easy to consume too much of it.
  4. Is news free? I don't think so. It taxes us emotionally and intellectually.
  5. Most news stories will soon be forgotten. They are not worth following in the first place.
  6. A few news stories do have historical import, but it's not necessary to watch them unfold and be analyzed to death day by day, hour by hour. One would do well to catch them at the beginning and at the end.
  7. There's a news paradox: The most useful news usually isn't in the headlines. What we really need to know tends to be the small bits about human triumph and tragedy. These stories are typically reported by lone journalists, not well financed news crew with vans with a satellite dishes on top with a feed to a network anchor.
  8. Big news (essentially useless) tends to drive out small, useful news--to our own detriment and diminishment as human beings.
So, based on what I learned during my newsless experiment, and what has happened since, how do I propose to move forward with my life in 2012?

Ah, that is a good question. A little voice whispers in my ear, "Save it for another post...but this time don't wait so long..." - a.h.


Thursday, October 20, 2011

Baby Baby: Thoughts on a Crowded Planet

Is it coming to this? Packed in tight, togetherness...

As I very slowly get caught up on some of the news I missed during The Van Winkle Project I still haven't looked at the newspaper I saved that heralds arguably the biggest news story of 2011: the death of Osama Bin Laden.

That's where I thought I'd be today. My nose and eyes and mind tipped toward Pakistan. But history surges ahead.

Rather than moving backwards in time, I'm reading about the inglorious, cell phoned to the world death of Colonel Gaddafi.

I suspect that though this event will lead to larger things--some kind of shaping of civil war riddled Libya into a country again--the news reporters will move on to the next dictator to fall and the next. The world is not yet in short supply of these bad guys to topple.

Frankly, as far as I'm concerned, there are other things that interest me, worry me, play upon my emotions more than that drainage ditch outside Surt or the mysteries of how the Navy SEALS got Bin Laden.

Pop! Goes the Population
The other day I read a news article that suggests that while I was "asleep" there was possibly the "mother of all" stories going on--and I don't mean the "Arab spring" or the Japan earthquake.

This story wasn't a one-time thing. It was happening every day. And it's still happening.

There are about to be 7 billion humans occupying this planet.

It's Not Getting Crowded In Here, Is It?
One way to think of the earth's new population landmark is that it's just a mildly interesting statistical moment, not something alarming. Ever since the rate of the overall  population growth began declining to where it is today ( a steady 1.8% annual increase) it's been easy to assume that everything is well. After all, in the days before contraception and awareness humans reproduced themselves at a higher rate.

What this overlooks is that we're reached the steep end of a long-time growth curve and even a 1.8% global population increase adds another 212,000  people to the planet every day.

That's like twice replicating the population of where I live (Abilene, Texas) every day of the year for the foreseeable future.

At this rate, every 13-15 years there we find ourselves with another one billion people on earth.

What really caught my attention in an article I read was this: when I was born back in the 1950s the earth's population was a paltry 3 billion. This means the world's population has more than doubled in my lifetime.

Is it noticeable? You bet it's noticeable.

Virtually every place in America I remember either visiting or living in during my youth has been radically altered whether it's Anchorage, Alaska or Houston, Texas. Where there used to be open land, one finds houses and strip malls. The cities bulge outward in all directions. Cars and parking lots and big box stores that I never imagined in my youth abound.

And that's just places in the relatively uncrowded U.S. of A.

There goes the rain forest...
Of course, crowding and a loss of aesthetics is not the real problem with an ever-increasing population. There's still enough land to put the people and when that becomes too scarce we can build upward and stack people in upthrusting skyscrapers as my former writing teacher John Hersey imagined in his cautionary short novel, My Petition for More Space (1974).

The real problem is that humans, in their pursuit of the kind of lives they believe will make them most happy, have become a hugely resource intensive species.

We need staggering amounts of fossil fuel, metals, timber, and water. We also need a disproportionate amount of the planet simply to place our waste products whether its in the air or on the land or in the seas.

And there's the bit that isn't discretionary. We can't help the fact that somehow, some way 7 billion people have to eat and get along with each other.

The Special "K" for Earth
I've learned that there are people who think of human population growth as the number one problem facing us. Not global terrorism or nuclear proliferation or global warming. They warn that the earth realistically can only support so many people. After that bad things are bound to happen.

One of the bad things is called the "Witches' Hats" theory. It's named after the orange marker cones used in driver's test. As you drive through a winding course, knock down too many cones and you fail the test and don't get your driver's license.

Likewise, governments who fail to provide enough basic services to their bulging populations are like bad driver's who topple witches' hats. The citizens will eventually revolt and overthrow them.

If you have too many people to feed, shelter, and keep healthy, you have a formula for political unrest. Some have said that bread prices that rose 70% and a population that went from 18 million to 80 million in only fifty years explains what happened in Egypt earlier this year.

If you wear the "witch's' hat," you worry that a crowded world is a world that is less likely to be a peaceful one.

Does this mean we're doomed? I won't automatically assume so. I also encountered this opinion:

"Overall, this [population increase] is not a cause for alarm — the world has absorbed big gains since 1950," said Bongaarts, a vice president of the Population Council. But he cautioned that strains are intensifying: rising energy and food prices, environmental stresses, more than 900 million people undernourished.

"For the rich, it's totally manageable," Bongaarts said. "It's the poor, everywhere, who will be hurt the most."

I also should take into account that the 1.8% world growth rate is an average. Some nations are not in danger of overcrowding, especially in Europe, where the population growth is actually nearing negative: more people are dying than are being born. This causes a different set of social issues. There are not enough young workers to keep the economy growing or to support the retirement of the old people.

It could be that eventually the great areas of population growth will eventually reach a point of mirroring the development of the "rich" countries and start to reach zero population growth. In other words, we're not doomed to a growth curve that keeps pointing to the sky, but in the best case could be headed toward one that plateaus and finally starts to drop as the orange and green lines in the U.N.'s 2004 projections show. It's an alternative to the dreaded RED LINE of population Armageddon...

But what if none of that really matters? What if  this is not really about how many people may or may not be too many in the future, but about already having too many people?

This is a debatable point...

The optimists say that the magic number of people the earth can sustain or "carrying capacity," which is symbolized by the letter "K," is 10-12 billion people. But it's just a guess. Much depends on technology and innovation and how they can leverage available resources as well as what kind of standards of living people are willing to find acceptable.

The pessimists, on the other hand, say, "Just look around. Is this the kind of world we want?" We passed "K" long ago. The magic number was 5 billion people.

Please Take a Number, Get In Line
Somewhere today there is a woman with baby number 7 billion inside of her. That child we be born in less than two weeks. What kind of life will it have? Will it be able to even imagine what it was like to move around on this planet when there were only 3 billion people on it?

Are you old enough to remember life before this?

For us middle-aged people who still recall our youths, we have a message to pass on. I don't want to tell others that it was even close to a perfect world then (I have only to think of our American apartheid and the Cold War), but as humanity's work and play space starts to get ever more crowed, we now have problems I for one never dreamed of.

Back in the days of yore no one talked about smog, and the rain forest was still standing and as a child I walked along a beach and didn't see crap washed up onto the sand and I never would have considered it normal for anyone to take 40 minutes or longer to drive 10-20 miles to get to work.

There's now 7 billion reasons (and another billion more coming up in 2025) for me to think these problems have the potential to get worse, much worse. - A.H.


Friday, October 14, 2011

The A,B,C's of the News - C is for (Sorry) Charlie Sheen

Today I conclude my brief foray into learning about what is probably some of the least consequential news of last year. 

Casey Anthony? Innocent? You're kidding! Brett Favre? I'm sorry to even know about what that man did.

And now we come to the last of the news not worth knowing.

Charlie Sheen.

My only excuse for this exercise of diving to the bottom of the fetid American cultural ocean and indulging in several hundred words of bottom feeding is that it's a matter of avoidance behavior.

As I contemplate getting caught up on the real news of the last 365 days, or at least some of it, I find myself hesitating. The death of Bin Laden, the Giffords shooting, a Japan earthquake and nuclear reactors gone wild, Arab revolutions, famine in the Horn of Africa.

It sounds so heavy.

It's much easier to delay with C: Charlie Sheen. Tabloid junk food. Come to Daddy.

Gesture of the Jester
I have come not to slam Charlie Sheen nor to criticize him. There's little point. In a way, I think we want there to always be a Charlie Sheen around.

Kings desire a jester. In between wars, public executions, wrangling over laws and resources, the goofy clown provides a welcome lightness.

Enter the fool.

I've also come to believe that we Americans in particular need someone who counters our basic tendency to idolize people who are good looking or gifted or both. The antidote is a star who tanks. Acts outrageous to the point of alienating the very people who made him or a star. Haven't we been through this before?

Britney Spears.

Like Brittney we may eventually re-invite Charlie back into our passive viewing lives. Celebrities spoiling on the shelf become an obsession. Like an ex- we can't get over.

Perhaps this explains why in my own tenuous exploration of old news I found it unexepectedly easy to settle down on a patch of google and try to figure out what people meant when they told me Charlie Sheen had a "meltdown" in February.

Some of them even opined that Charlie was seriously crazy.

And they didn't think this before? Fancy that.

So I learned about Charlie's taunting and mockery of Chuck Lorre, the creator of Two and a Half Men, of Charlie's proud claim of "epic partying," his less doubtful assertion that he is now clean and sober, of his prediction that his army of loyal followers will lead him back into his cherished spot on the number one comedy show.

That was about the extent of what I uncovered. It left me shaking my head. This was definitely tabloid fodder, but beyond that who cared?

The most interesting thing to me was that I learned Charlie was the highest paid actor on TV, making $1.8 million an episode (and demanding a raise to over $2 million as recompense for the grief his meltdown had caused him).

This is truly an astonishing figure but so is $100 million paid by the Eagles for Michael Vick, a guy who was recently in prison and one of the more despised people in America because, you know, lots of people love their dogs.

The man who wanted to be a clown...
Perhaps the reason I was so unimpressed by Charlie saga was that I didn't see any of this unfold in real time. And I didn't augment my bare bones information by playing any videos or recordings of Charlie being Charlie during interviews and on talk shows. I'll just have to take people's word for it.

Charlie, a guy who had already pushed every boundary practically known to man, including beating on women, had finally found a way to reach a point of no return. No wonder Charlie was shocked. Based on all his past indiscretions, he thought he could get away with anything.


"Based on the totality of Charlie Sheen's statements, conduct and condition, CBS and Warner Bros. Television have decided to discontinue production of Two and a Half Men for the remainder of the season," the press release said.

Now I understand. Charlie had reached the fabled point of "totality." A partial mess is fine. Become a total mess and you're exiled from laugh track land.

Still, I think it was the right decision. I discovered that Charlie actually called Thomas Jefferson a "pussy". That's where Mr. Sheen personally crosses the line for me. Anyone who would say that about the man who put together the best home library in early America, is worse than a Philistine. He has a very small mind. More, it's clearly empty. Charlie, you pussy and clown, try reading a book. - A.H.

Jefferson's library recreated at the Library of Congress


Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The A,B,C's of the News - "B" is for Brett

All I wanted to do was learn more about Super Bowl XLV which was played back on Feb. 6 in the new Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas. 

Even though I was supposedly Van Winkled and "asleep" at the time, I already knew very well that the Green Bay Packers had won. There had been no way keep that news from assaulting me.

There's something about sports that makes Americans less than reticent. On Super Bowl day we wear our team favorites on our sleeves even more than we do politics, religion, or favorite musical groups.

Nick Collins intercepts. Puts the Pack ahead 14-0
The day after the game, the cheeseheads (including those West Texans around here who had temporarily adopted Wisconsin and yellow and green as their ideal), were very happy. As for the Steeler fans you could tell that there was no joy to be had.

That still didn't convey to me what I really wanted to know. Had The Van Winkle Project caused me to miss a really great game? Something on par with that miraculous drive by the Giants a few years ago when Eli Manning connected on fourth down in traffic, leading to the game winning touchdown against the previously undefeated Patriots?

So eight months after the fact I read up on the game. Final score: 31-25. Analysis: a good game, not a great game.

It seems the Packers, (a 10-6 regular season, number six seed playoff team, no less!) were in control all the way, with the exception of when the Steelers made things tight in the fourth quarter. In the end the Steelers were done in by a fumble and Ben Roethlisberger's two passes that were intercepted, one early in the game being returned for a touchdown.

Was this really it for Brett? A retirement that sticks?
Somewhere during my clicking around on the web I experienced my own kind of interception. I saw a link to Brett Favre, the Packers' once great quarterback.

Oh yes, I suddenly remembered. One of my speculations when I began the Van Winkle Project had involved Favre.

I already knew that "the quarterback who has trouble retiring" was coming back for another season with the Vikings. He had nearly taken to the Vikes to the Super Bowl the previous year.

How had Favre held up? How had the Vikings done? Had he finally retired? For good?

Instead, of answers to these questions, I learned about the Brett Favre sexting scandal.

B: Brett - Dateless, Desperate (and armed with a cell phone)
All one has to do is google Brett Favre and his status is at last impeccably clear. His website is labeled:

Only this August Brett retired. Yes, folks. Really!

This website also has a banner headline "The NFL's Winningest Quarterback" (is "winningest" a word?) and many tabs that offer the opportunity to buy memorabilia or even have Brett send your friend a birthday greeting.

But let's not linger over Web 2.0 marketing.

Back at our google results one also learns of the bad news that was facing Favre a year ago when details of the sexting news broke at deadspin.com.

Brett Favre’s Cellphone Seduction Of Jenn Sterger 

Ms. Sterger. Harrassed, but she never met Favre.
And because stories like this sometimes refuse to die, it does not surprise me one wit that my research indicates that months later there was more air exhaled into the media balloon:

- An NFL investigation found a violation of  the players' code of conduct and hit Favre with a $50,000 fine in January. 

- Two female massage therapists for the Jets sued Favre for sexual harassment because they too were sexted (is that the past tense of the verb?).

- Jenn Sterger, Jets "game day hostess", who had been the original source of the accusations made an appearance on Good Morning America in April.

What do we now know? This was no fairy tale or shakedown. Back in 2008 Brett was hitting on women. He was using a mobile device.

He proudly filmed digital images of his reproductive organs and sent them to the object of his lust.

What a way to impress a gal. It might have made a caveman envious.

The best explanation for this kind of sleazy behavior heard didn't come from Brett. It was someone with the Jets who observed that the guy was a long ways from home. "Maybe he was lonely." And doesn't everyone know, the more lonely you are, the more pathetic you can be?
Judgment Day
There's really nothing to say for or against Mr. Favre at this point.

He's another athlete who was sold to us as a person of note. A fiery competitor. Also, we were led to believe, a family man and a soft and fuzzy Wrangler's jeans kind of guy off the field.

Consider how he "courted" his long-time girlfriend for 12 years before marrying her. The birth of his two daughters. This info is at: http://www.favre4sale.com/ along with wonderful opportunities to try Brett's jambalaya recipe and buy lots of neat stuff!

You see, Brett's from Mississippi. Doesn't that just scream family values? Listen to one of their Congressmen (who defeated the 10-term Democrat during the 2010 mid-term elections while I was asleep). Rep. Steven Palazzo says:

A born and raised Mississippian, I’ve learned that two of the most important issues to our state are family and the Christian faith. I understand the importance of traditional Mississippi values, and I plan to keep all of these values in mind when I represent the Fourth Congressional District in Washington, D.C. Because of my beliefs and the shared beliefs of those in our wonderful state, I will fight in Washington to protect life, the sanctity of marriage, and our Mississippi values.


Dad and family, including the loyal wife who happens
to be a breast cancer survivor.
This week our son is supposed to deliver a monologue in his 8th grade theater class. Perhaps knowing that this particular 13-year-old has zero interest in any sports, the teacher selected a short speech that he could deliver with true feeling.

                    Our son's monologue script. Highlight added to facilitate memorization.

The gist of it is, why do we idolize people beyond their obvious physical gifts that they manifest in competition? Why assume there's anything else worthy about the person other than a strong arm or good reflexes or 300 pounds of muscle that can move other mountains of flesh?

In other words, the athlete as role model is a misguided proposition. I'm willing to bet Attila the Hun was a great athlete. And who knows? He may have been more articulate than some of these folks we shove microphones in front of and ask for their post-game thoughts.It wouldn't be all that hard. But Attila as role model? Forget about that!

Of course, I don't want to be quoted on any of this. I'm not trying to be a role model for anyone. But I will tell you one thing about my cell phone usage. I always keep it above waist level. - A.H.

Friday, October 7, 2011

The A,B,C's of the News: "A" is for Anthony (Casey)

It's been almost a month since I woke up and allowed myself the freedom to once again know what's happening in the world.

The earth turns and I confess I find myself yawning. I'm not really following any of the going-on's as closely as I used to. I'll save the why and wherefore for another day.

Then there's how I'm relating to the recent past.

Surprisingly, at least to me, I've felt very little in the way of  a burning desire to find out more about what I missed from Sept. 11, 2010 to Sept. 11, 2011.

In fact, my ultra-long "lost weekend" feels like a burden.

I'd fallen behind and felt like I had all
this catching up to do...
I'm like a student who didn't do the required reading. Now he's contemplating slogging through a stack of textbooks and reading and absorbing hundreds of pages so he can take a make-up exam.

Maybe I'm just going to sigh and take an "F".

I did have one little indulgence this week as I dipped into what I figured would be 3 small stories, one each from the world of news, sports and entertainment that occurred during the past 365 days.

I thought I could learn about these not-too-great matters with a few computer keystrokes. If it wouldn't take too much time, then, yes, I might be motivated enough to learn my A, B, C's...

A: Casey Anthony Trial
I didn't know many of the particulars of the case since the body of Caylee was found in 2008 and that had been time enough to forget. I did remember how the media had seized upon the situation (Mom with missing child and contradictory accounts given to the police) and showed signs of turning it  all into a soap opera with breaking news crawls and talking heads analysis.

Each time I saw something like that on a TV screen when I was in an airport or store I walked on past without paying attention.

So I didn't know that throughout the spring of 2011 the judicial system and the media had been ginning up for a real, live televised courtroom proceedings that Time magazine would call the "social media trial of the century."

I lived through and watched many hours of the O. J. Simpson trial back in 1995. That was bad enough. I'm glad I slept through this one.

My quick Wikipedia catching up with the Casey Anthony saga told me about a foul odor emanating from a car trunk, garbage bags, a heart shaped sticker on duct tape, and an on-line search for "chloroform." There was also something about a removable swimming pool ladder.

The main thing--that every good story or movie needs--was the "shocking" verdict. Not guilty. Perfect! It allowed the entrance of indignation, furor and controversy and what happens now!

A not guilty verdict must have been a media ratings dream...

Learning about all this (besides nauseating me) led to a link to another trial that took place while I was asleep.

Nine years ago the body of missing Washington intern Chandra Levy was found in a park where she had gone jogging. Suspicion first fell on her lover and boss, Rep. Gary Condit, who soon left office. The last I heard the crime had not been solved and I assumed it never would be.

What I learned this week was that a man who had done time for assaults in the park where Levy's remains were found was put on trial last November. He was convicted. He was sentenced to 60 years in prison in February 2011. All of this happened while I was Van Winkled and I not even a murmur of it got through to me..

Unlike Casey Anthony there was no physical evidence connecting Ingmar Guandique to the body.

Unlike Anthony an enormous time had elapsed before the police fingered him as a suspect.

The only real evidence against him was it seemed he had an apartment near the park, had attempted to rape two female joggers there in the months before Levy disappeared. And he had told a fellow convict that he killed Chandra Levy.

Why did one jury convict this man and another jury not convict Casey Anthony who admitted to hiding her daughter's body, but confessed to this only after multiple stories (one claiming a kidnapping) fell through?

She finally settled on an improbable scenario of a drowning accident in the family pool and she didn't know what to do, so she lied, hid the body, and never mind that she didn't even report her daughter missing for 31 days, there was no murder. Got that? It seems even more exotic than O.J.'s "Columbian drug dealers" who his defense theorized sliced up Nicole and Ron Goldman.

I didn't sit through the Levy and Anthony trials. I don't know the answers to why the outcomes of these two trials were so different. All I have is the pictures.



COMING NEXT: B is for Brett: QB Enters the Sexting Hall of Shame.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

A Grave Time - Report From Austin No. 3

Last weekend when I went to a conference in Texas's weirdest city ("weird" in a good way) I realized something. We were sleeping beside the dead.

Located on the east side of I-35, across from downtown, the Oakwood Cemetery is the oldest city-owned cemetery in Austin. Some of graves date back to just before the Civil War. One story is that the cemetery was started out of grim necessity when victims of a Comanche raid were buried on what came to be called Swede Hill.

I woke early after our first night in our cushy bedroom, took the down elevator, and went for a stroll in the parking lot. I peered over the low stone fence, then I hurried back to the room. I looked at our son and I said two words: "Photo shoot."

Not to sound morbid, but it has occurred to me that my year-long project in imitation of Rip Van Winkle gives me something in common with the dead.

The dead have no idea of what has gone on in the news of late. Or the news of past decades. It has passed them by and left them with no worries. Only endless sleep.

We went out right at sunrise so we could take advantage of morning magic hour with the golden light pouring in low over the stones.

The cemetery was in a state of disrepair. We didn't see any graffiti, but many of the markers had fallen down.

Numerous formerly stately tall trees had been sawed off at about the height of a man because they had presumably died, been blown over by the wind, or been lightning struck. No new trees had been planted in their stead.

The rest of what we saw showed the effects of time which brings rain and gritty winds and buffs the stone surfaces until once important words start to dissolve like lozenges that have been held a long time upon the tongue.

And I wondered, "Is this what happens to grief?" Does baby Richard who lived only 3.5 months during one awful year of the American Civil War eventually fade along with his name and the dates so that the sorrow may always be there, but its rough edges and deep cuts are now worn away?

I'm not the only one who has meditated on such "grave" matters: Austin Chronicle.

As we continued walking, looking, photographing, I found that I could be moved by a name and a few words. As was the case with Lillie when I peered close and read the full inscription:

"A Beautiful Flower
by Her Heavenly Father
From Earth to Heaven."

The marker was precise about how long Lillie was with her family. She died on April 9, 1867. That made her seventeen years and five months at the time of her uprooting. A teenager who never lived long enough to fall in love and marry and become someone's wife...

There was time enough to wander further into Oakwood. A friendly cat came up and began to follow us. Even though it's home seemed to be among the dead, it was not macabre. It only wanted to be petted.

Austin's other major resting place, the state cemetery, is not far away. It is better maintained and contains many more of the famous than Oakwood, which confines itself to a few former governors and an unfortunately named oil heiress, Ima Hogg, of Houston fame.

I have to say, though, that I like Oakwood and it's feel of being something like Roman ruins. There are no pretensions here. The grass is not green and  the tallest monuments raised by the wealthy in defiance of Death have either toppled or appear starkly defeated.

It's an honest place. - A.H.


Thursday, September 29, 2011

Sandra Bullock Licks Her Lips - Report From Austin No. 2

As I was saying last time...I was at a statewide meeting of creative writing teachers in Austin, Texas over the weekend.

On Saturday morning I sat on a panel that discussed using research in creative writing. I shared how I was drawn to research because over the course of more than 140 posts on this blog I faced the prospect of having very little to write about of significance.

In a sense this has always been a blog, as they used to say on Seinfeld, " with the potential to be about nothing."

That's because for one year The Van Winkle Project required that I subtract from my life all information about anything happening beyond the great horizon.

What did that leave a "sleeping" man with that he might comment on that might be of interest to others?

A) He could talk about his memories and mire everyone in the muck of  his nostalgia.

B) He could focus on mundane daily activities and minutae and turn the blog into a quasi-journal slash diary no one cared about.


What I finally decided to do was try to strike a balance by writing on some days about significant moments in my past and on other days about interesting observations from my present life. But, I told the panel, I still needed more.

Take a bow research. The starring role, played by my best 21st century friend...

Most of the time before posting I found myself digging around and satisfying my curiosity about  various matters. I then included that information in my posts.

Example: I wanted to write about the concept of "brevity" and how we value it in this era in which are days are already packed with too much to attend to. So there are shorter songs (you can count jam bands on one hand), shorter sermons, faster advertising pitches, and texts and tweets instead of emails.

This led me to remember the word "brevity" as it's used in the cult classic film The Big Lebowski. Hmm. Let's read a bit and refresh our memory about that movie as well as see what others say. And while I'm at it, what did the Spartans think about the idea of paring things down to a minimum, especially in their speech?

Voila. I had my post, The Whole Brevity Thing.

I call this kind of posting sensibility "value added." I figure only the person writing a strictly humorous blog should get a free pass from having to offer readers value added. (That's because making us laugh is an unimpeachable public service on par with helping little old ladies cross the street, i.e., already valuable enough.)

The rest of us bloggers, right up to Roger Ebert with his million viewers, owe our readers something useful, if for no other reason than as non-monetary compensation for taking up their valuable time.

What might constitute value added on a blog post?
  • A recipe.
  • A practical tip.
  • A factoid, piece of quotable trivia.
  • An interesting story from history.
  • A great quote
  • A ponderable insight.
  • A link to something cool.
  • A great photo.

So in the midst of my utterly subjective thoughts about how to blog, here's my value-added for today.

If you ever visit Austin, Texas and are looking for some excellent dining in the medium price range, try Bess Bistro on Pecan.

The restaurant is in the basement of a former bank where the vault used to be.

Friday night found us dining for the first time at Bess where we met Telmond and Jackie, a wonderful Austin couple in their eighties. They fell in love 60 years ago as UT students a few blocks away on the campus. Jackie was an Austin gal. She told us she used to live just a little ways down Sixth Street from the former bank now Bess Bistro. She remembered what Sixth was like before became the street for clubs and live music, a veritable Bealle Street of the Southwest.

Not that it matters (but quotable trivia) Bess Bistro is owned by actress Sandra  Bullock.

No  blind side here.
Sandy knows good food!
What's the dining experience like?

The most expensive dishes are in the low thirty-dollar range. There's plenty of items one can order for under $20. The cuisine is comfort food or food you've heard of, all of it coming with a twist. Like how my ribeye steak was served with braised brussel sprouts. Or the quail that arrives on a bed of grilled greens.

We found everything to  be delicious, all the way to the finale. You've got to have the beignets with chocolate sauce for dessert. Killer! - A.H.

COMING: A Walk on the Grave Side, Report From Austin No. 3


Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A Novel Idea - Report From Austin No. 1

I was in Austin, Texas over the weekend.

The occasion was an annual gathering of creative writing teachers who come from around the state to swap ideas and share their work.

I had the honor of reading a chapter from my new novel Evangel which is currently a lost puppy in search of the loving leash of a publisher.

Evangel is not a satirical novel, although at times I must say I find what the Christian faithful say and do in real life to be humorous. I often have the same response when I read the Bible. Am I the only one?

That trickster Jacob fooling his old man with a bunch of animal skins so he's as hairy as his brother Esau. Hilarious! Or there's that ultimate action hero who happens to be a half-dipstick short on intelligence, especially when it comes to women who whisper in his ear and give good massages. I speak of mighty Samson.

The New Testament is  richly humorous, too, not all sober and finger wagging like Mitch McConnell talking about the deficit. In the days before the story of Jesus turns grim and bloody his twelve disciples offer a combination of earnestness and not-getting-it that could be worked into a set of stand-up.

- Did you hear the one about Peter trying to walk on water? No, seriously, folks. He thought this was a good idea. And he can't even swim! I mean I'm afraid of heights, so I should think of jumping off a cliff?

- The other day I heard James and John were trying to book the best seats in a  place called heaven. Isn't that a little premature? Like getting your Super Bowl tickets a few thousand years early?

It's not that I don't take God seriously. I do. It's the humans in the Bible (as well as those currently walking the earth) who tend to make me laugh. I assume their creator laughs, too. Fortunately, though, the rest of the story is that the God of the Bible stops laughing just long enough to save humans from themselves. That's comedy, not tragedy...

The Sermon on Sex
There are no rules for how one goes about reading for 18 minutes from a novel. I thought it best to search for a chapter that perhaps would offer some liveliness and warm the corpuscles of the audience in the Double Tree's highly air conditioned Wildflower Room.

Ah, yes, let's try pages 92-103, what I refer to as the "Sermon on Sex" chapter.

In this section Pastor Frankie Wey offers a challenge to the married couples at On the Rock Temple Fellowship, a megachurch in Pinebridge Meadows.

"Why does the devil have all the sex?" Dr. Frankie asks rhetorically from the stage as he addresses 3000+ people. "I say it's time Christians stole back sex from Satan who has taken it and perverted a beautiful gift from God!"

To improve intimacy and strengthen marriages Dr. Frankie goes on to ask each married couple in the church to commit to the ultimate self-help regimen:

Have sex every day for seven days.

The husbands and wives are to report back the following Sunday and share the results.

This scene in my novel has roots in a real challenge a Grapevine, Texas minister issued his congregation in 2008. You can read about this notion of "putting God back in bed." here.

The "Seven Days of Sex" pastor in Grapevine, Texas also preached a sermon
earlier this year with a real Ferrari on stage.

In the sort of me-too'ism that's has long been rampant among American churches, which are just as subject to trends and fads as any other quarter of society, other preachers around the country have tried out the idea. Below is a billboard that sparked controversy when an Alabama church put it up, not because of the one-man, one-woman message, but, well, the preacher was talking about sex in church!

"Wine of Love" by Natalia Morez 2002
If you're a fiction writer and you hear about something like this, including preachers providing a public exegesis of (blush) the Song of Solomon, you think, "I've got to try this out with my characters and see what happens!"

Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth: for thy love is better than wine.

Because of the savour of thy good ointments thy name is as ointment poured forth, therefore do the virgins love thee.

Draw me, we will run after thee: the king hath brought me into his chambers: we will be glad and rejoice in thee, we will remember thy love more than wine: the upright love thee.

I am black, but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, as the tents of Kedar, as the curtains of Solomon.

Hot stuff! Somebody ought to write about it... So I did. - A.H.

COMING NEXT: Sandra Bullock Licks Her Lips - Report From Austin No. 2