Monday, August 31, 2009

My Aunt Johnnie: A Tribute


Actually she was my great aunt, sister of my grandmother Ollie. Aunt Johnnie is a woman who loved a good story as much as anyone, with a gentle laugh I'll always remember. Sometime years earlier, grandma Ollie and she had some sort of falling out. Sometimes I'd hear uncles say derogatory things about her. Daddy just said the difference was between her and grandma, and nobody else's business but theirs.

One early story was shared by my grandma. Aunt Johnnie was little girl at the time, maybe 4 or 5 years old. She had wandered out into a corn field. Someone sighted her coming towards them, and what they saw made them scream. "Johnnie you put that down right now! NOW!" She dropped it and it crawled away. "It" was a rather large rattle snake. She had been dragging it by its tail and it had coiled back and was about to strike.

Aunt Johnnie finished the story. "I didn't know what a rattle snake was. Good thing it was a cool day. Apparently the snake had come out to take in some sun. It's a wonder I wasn't bit. Momma wore my butt out for that."

Her husband Luther had been gassed during WWI. He suffered with chronic problems with his lungs for the rest of his life as a result. One day at a family gathering, he was sitting there. He had false teeth and I noticed he didn't have them in. He grinned at me. "Want to see what those teeth look like?"

I nodded yes, moving closer.

"Here, I got em here." They were wrapped in a piece of cloth. Unwrapping them slowly, he proceeded to set them on the table. I moved even closer, to get a good look. He set them on the table. CLACKETY CLACKETY the teeth opened and closed making a loud clacking noise and I jumped backwards. They were trick teeth and they sure tricked me. He laughed out loud, and red faced, I joined right in.

Back in another time, Aunt Johnnie and Uncle Luther lived in Amarillo, Texas. My daddy finished the tenth grade which was as far as school lasted in Petty in North East Texas. The photo of that old school house is the one I chose to post above. Grandpa wanted him to work on the farm but daddy would have none of that. He was planning to move to Alaska to make his way there. Then he received a letter from Aunt Johnnie. She told him he would not do so well without an education, and asked him to come to Amarillo to stay with them. "You'd have to get a job to pay your way, but you can stay with us and finish your highschool.

Well he did, and entered college there where he studied until WWII broke out. It was in Amarillo that he met my momma, who worked there for American General Life Insurance. He saw her in the second floor window working as a typist and when he got off from his job at a service station across the way, walked over and yelled up to her. On the spot he asked her out. She said no, but he kept coming back, and finally she said yes. Which created a minor problem because he already had a date for that night. No problem because it was momma he wanted to go out with.

Daddy always felt a great sense of gratitude towards Aunt Johnnie. She came often to visit us, more so after Luther died. During those visits, she showed her own wit and intellect, encouraging me to take my education seriously. When I had my accident in my senior year, she came to sit with me. She discouraged talk by some that I should just wait and make up what I had missed the next year. She and my parents agreed I should use homebound training and I'm so grateful for that.

She slowed down a bit as she got older. I recall one day when she was about 85 or so, complaining because when she mowed the front yard, she had to rest a bit before tackling the back. "Must be arthritis," she said. The last time I saw aunt Johnnie was when she came to visit my mother in Louisiana. She arrived with Aunt Willobeth, and my cousin Alice Jean. We had a wonderful visit, then went to walk through Hodges Gardens before they headed back. Sadly all three are no longer with us. Alice had an accident a year or so later and did not survive, taken way too soon. Aunt Willobeth died just this past year. Aunt Johnnie lived to be 101, active until near the end. She was around long enough to touch not only daddy's life, but my own as well.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Why Grandpa Was a Sharecropper


This is a story passed along to me, filled with the frailties of our human condition. It seems important to tell such tales. If we only focus on a past through rose colored glasses, we miss the true human drama that our ancestors experienced that in many ways are exactly the sorts of things we encounter today.

First a note about my grandpa on my daddy's side. He was not a tall man, and mostly I remember him with his white hair, and the dark glass which covered one eye he had lost when he was young. I remember us sneaking into the bedroom when he was sleeping to stare at the empty socket where an eye once had been.

Grandpa had a fierce temper and would argue with a fence post. My mama was the same way, and they tell the story that everyone was walking on pins and needles over what would happen when the two first met. Well true to form, he snapped at her, and she snapped right back. What followed was a ferocious battle of pure stubbornness of epic proportions. Suddenly they both broke out laughing and were as close as any two people ever could be after that.

But this story is about a much younger grandpa, a man who did not get many breaks in life, spending much of his younger years as a share cropper trying to eke out an existence raising and picking cotton on shares with the landowner. How had he come to this place? The story began with his father, my great grandfather.

Grandpa Jimmy had been part of a large family as were most in those days. His daddy was fairly well to do, with real estate holdings in the Paris, Texas area. He loved my great grandma by all accounts, and all should have been well for him, but for a sometimes cruel fate. Great grandma took ill and died soon after. Grandpa was terribly lonely when a young woman in the area began to pay him some attention. The story I heard was that she was 16, which would be shocking now, but not so much back then. He was totally infatuated by her and soon they were married.

Now his new wife had her own family to worry about. Quietly and carefully she began transferring resources over to her family members. Then great grandpa died and a young grandpa Jimmy was on his own. Without education or resources, the only choice was sharecropping, and that is what he did. He later met grandma Ollie and they began raising their own large family not too long after.

One story of note I've always held onto. My grandma Ollie was generally a quiet woman. Most of my memories of her were of her insistence in her later years of not having anyone interrupt her when her soaps were on. Also of the great family gatherings where she and the women would be busy in the kitchen, the men sitting around the table swapping lies, and us kids crawling under the large dining table between legs, both chair and table legs, and the humans jabbering above us. It was our fortress or our getaway, depending on what the game called for. Then we all would gather around for a wonderful dinner, much of the produce raised in the garden and chickens slaughtered from the back yard.

Well there was a younger grandma too. On one occasion, they had been told to vacate the shack where they were living. Grandpa left to try to find work elsewhere. While he was gone, grandma heard a noise outside. A crew had arrived and informed her she had to get out that moment because they were going to tear the place down. She reminded them the boss had given them two weeks, but he was not interested in negotiating.

"Just a minute then," said grandma Ollie. She walked into the house. Out she came, a shotgun under her arm. "If you don't git out of here right now, I'm going to pepper you," she warned.

The crew leader's eyes got really big then. "We...we'll be back soon. With the sheriff!"

"Couple a days and I'll be gone anyhow. Just leave us be." As they told the story, her voice never raised, but was cool as a cucumber. Grandpa found another job and soon they were gone.

Later in life, grandpa Jimmy and my uncle Hilyard went into business together repairing shoes. We used to visit my grandparents about once a month or so. Then one day, grandpa went to the doctor because of severe headaches. It turned out to be brain cancer. They found it too late and he was going to die. I'll never forget those days. We visited him in the hospital, and then he was out for a time before going back to die. There was an old custom that I think really had value all its own. We all gathered, then he called us in, one at a time. This was not an ordinary visit. This was a ritual, one where he thought carefully what he wanted to pass on to each one of us.

My turn came. "Yes grandpa?"

"Come here and sit on the bed beside me." I walked over and sat down as he instructed. I was ten years old. "Won't be long, you'll be growing up and going to work."

I nodded.

"Your work is a piece of who you are. Take pride in the job, no matter what the job is. If you're working for a boss man, make him look good by the work you do. There's more rewards to work than just a paycheck." I thought he was done, but he motioned for me to hold on a moment. "You got some of the stubbornness of your mama. I like that." I grinned and so did he, then he motioned me to send the next one in.

When he died, we all took our turn sitting up with the body. It's an eerie feeling sitting in a mortuary late at night with a body all alone. But there I was, ten years old, doing my duty. The casket was open and most today would be worried what it would do to the child. But I'd seen my other grandpa and slept in the room adjacent where I could see his body stretched out on a kitchen table when I was five, so this was small stuff. I remember the drive to the cemetery, then all of us gathered around.

At that young age, death was still something uncommon. I'm much older now. Death is no longer such a stranger. So many since have died. Aunts, uncles, cousins friends, my parents, my soul mate. From each I've learned and grown however. I remembered grandpa's advice. It served me well in my working years. Seems it really was good advice.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Blessings in Disguise


March 13, 1965. My brother was working on his camping merit badge for boy scouts. My friend David and I agreed to camp with him on our farm twelve miles outside of Tyler near Overton. We drove our family car with the equipment, David following behind on his motorcycle. All I recall was that it was a Yamaha. Hidden away in the gear was a bottle of vodka the two of us had secreted away for the evening after my brother went to sleep. Dad drove the car back that Saturday afternoon and we set up camp. Soon enough my brother had fallen asleep and out came the bottle, and soon enough neither of us were feeling any pain.

The bike was stripped down for cross country riding, and that started to appeal to us. David looked over at me and said, "I need a battery for this headlight. With it we could do some cross country out here."

I replied, "Hmm, wonder where we could get one."

"They will be working late at the bike shop tonight. Tomorrow is a big race in Louisiana. Let's ride in and get a battery there."

I stumbled over to where my brother was sleeping, telling him we would be gone for a bit to get a battery and would he be okay? He mumbled something still asleep which of course we interpreted to mean yes. We pushed the bike out to the road, I climbed on the back and pushing the pedal the bike roared and we were off.

Let's be clear what was happening here. We were driving a motorcycle without a light along the Old Overton Road which winded about like a serpent until we got to the Kilgore Highway. Too many police were on that highway since it was the main thoroughfare for people going to buy alcohol from Tyler where selling booze was prohibited. So we cut over to the Old Kilgore Highway to ride the rest of the way into town, then cut back down back streets headed towards the bike shop located on Troup Rd. We were making this journey at a considerable speed. Driving down one back street, at what I would guess to be around 55 to 60 MPH, I looked around David, realizing to my horror that there was an intersection there with a car stopped at it. His eyes were watering and he hadn't seen it.

"Look out!" I screamed and he hit his brakes. We spun sideways and CRUNCH went the leg caught perfectly between bike frame and the car we had hit. Later a perfect imprint in the frame could be found where my leg had been. I was lying on the ground with my leg pulled up under me. Perhaps it was the shock, or maybe the considerable amount of alcohol in my system, but I really didn't feel much pain. I knew instinctively however that the leg was pretty badly broken.

A crowd began to gather. Some well meaning samaritan offered to help me straighten my leg. "Please don't," I said.

Leaning forward he says "Here if we just..." and he starts to reach for the leg. Now I was an instructor in Red Cross First Aid. Doubling my fist I promised to knock the crap out of him if he did not back off. A bit offended, he did so.

Meanwhile, there was David, feeling no pain, wandering around. The police arrived and he began to smart off with them. Bad mistake because he was immediately arrested for DWI. An ambulance arrived and I carefully instructed them on how to properly pick me up so as to do no damage. "We know all that. Just hold on and let us do our job, okay?" I shrugged as they moved me onto a stretcher.

"Take me to Mother Frances," I told them. "Can you guys call my dad too?" I gave them the number. Still buzzing, "Oh and can you turn on the sirens? That would be cool." They shook their heads, but turned on the sirens and rushed me to ER.

So here I am lying there waiting for the doctor to decide what to do for me. Our family doctor had arrived soon after I did. Lying there, I see my dad walk in. Oh, did I mention that the week before I had gotten three tickets. Two were for running stop signs, the other for speeding in a residential neighborhood. The officer had chased me a considerable distance before I saw him. A group of us were going off campus to lunch. At one point I had been going eighty, but the fastest he was able to clock me on this venture was 45. We raced across a shopping center parking lot, coming to a stop along the highway. One of my friends looks back and says, "There is a cop behind you."

Okay he is always saying that so I laughed and said, "Guess we are going to have to outrun him then." I never had looked back. Meanwhile he believes we are stopped for him. He is getting out of his car just as I peel out spraying him with gravel. Okay, so finally I saw him. Great timing huh?

He pulled in front of me, jumped out of his car with his hand on his holster, and ordered me to get out of the car. He was furious and screamed at me for a few minutes before settling down enough to get about writing the tickets.

No, I had not mentioned that had I? Nor did I mention it to my dad. I had been borrowing money from friends to pay the tickets and made my buddies swear not to rat me out. So there I was just a week later, lying in the hospital with a seriously messed up leg. Dad knows that we were drinking and that David was taken in for DWI. With no small amount of trepidation, I open my mouth. "Um Daddy? In my wallet. No way I can make court date now. I have three tickets that need to be paid in traffic court." His face is starting to turn red, and I can see his fists clenching. He was worried about me and furious with me all at the same time and if he had taken a swing I can't say I would've blamed him.

However he controlled his temper, quietly removing the tickets and putting the wallet in his own pocket. "Don't want anything to happen to it here," he said.

Then came some X-rays and a very concerned doctor standing by me. Dr. McDonald asked me, "how much did you have to drink tonight?"

"Between us we had a fifth of vodka," I told him.

"Frankly, I'm not sure how much use this leg is going to be for you after this. We're going to have to put a pin in there and use weights and try to keep one touch point and hope it fills in." He shows me the x-ray. "See that? It is a triangular piece of bone that fell out. It's going to dissolve. But we are going to put this point..." He showed me the part of the upper part of the femur above the knee. "... against this part of the femur next to your knee. The weights will keep the bone from slipping." He took a deep breath. "Trouble is, I can't put you under with all that alcohol in your system. It's going to hurt a lot."

I took a breath and nodded. They wheeled me into the operating room and then I felt them sticking a rather large pin in one side of the bone, then another to the other side. He was right. It was the most excruciating pain I had ever known up to that point. For two weeks it remained, with horrible spasms on occasion tearing out pieces of the muscles along my leg where the pin came out. Mostly though I was so heavily sedated with morphine and demerol that I just floated in and out. One night I heard a call for Dr. Red. Suddenly there were nurses running about. It was a five bed ward, and looking towards the window I could see flames. Seems the power system had caught on fire. They didn't have to move me though, and another shot of meds sent me back to the twilight.

After two weeks, a specialist was brought in. They put me under and replaced the pin in the knee itself. Progressively they were able to use less pain meds over time. I was moved to a semi private room on the fourth floor. A homebound teacher came to help me with my lessons since this was my senior year of high school and I did not want to repeat it.

This entire event, involving a three month stay in the hospital, followed by two months in a body cast, then another month in a wheel chair and then crutches for another six months, proved to be a profound blessing. It was my first experience with stillness. A parade of patients shared my room, and I could talk with them and often learn from them. I got to study human nature up close. Outside I watched the trees form their leaves. For someone with no patience, I had to develop some because there was no choice. I graduated from my high school in a hospital bed. The principal and school superintendent showed up along with a newspaper photographer to record the moment.

I attempted to have a relationship with a candy striper there. Yes, I was gay, but I sure was trying not to be, and looking back, I was pretty lonely and needy at that time. Years later we connected again, but on a basis it should have been in the first place, friendship. I love the way in my older life circles like that are completed, but that is another story. Though I drove the nuns there crazy, and to a degree perhaps the staff as well, it was to be the first of a number of life lessons that would propel me towards a sense of self knowledge that had alluded me before. I had more years of drinking to do, but the seeds had been planted. The leg turned out pretty well too, though it was bent out a bit, a condition that only a few years ago led to the need for a knee replacement.

One last thing. My friend had an aunt who lived right here in the Twin Cities area where I eventually would move many years later. Her aunt had written a poem which captured my heart. I cannot promise I can quote it exactly, but the gist of that poem has stayed with me over the years.

The Tumbleweed
Blown by the winds of destiny
Into the hands of fate.
God, lay your hands upon that tumbleweed
Bless it and give it it's liberty
Bless it at any rate.
For I too am a tumbleweed
Blown by the winds of destiny
Into the hands of fate.

Thank you to my friend's aunt, who gave me through her niece words to hold me up until I could find my own way.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Choices and Consequences


Today I read that the South Carolina legislators are considering articles of impeachment against Governor Mark Sanford. As I thought of all that has transpired in his life, there is a clear morality play being performed before our eyes, one that teaches the importance in the choices we make.

First we hear that he has disappeared and no one can find him. From that we learn he has gone to South America where he was engaged in a love affair with someone other than his wife. Remember the love letters read for all the world to see? I thought at the time, this man really loves that woman. It was clear from his amateurish proclamations. Amateurish I thought, but nevertheless genuine.

Upon returning, he was faced with a choice. Should he go to the one he loves? That would have been my choice. Or does he try to clean up the mess and reconcile with his wife. What followed were statements from key republicans and by the governor that took on the feel of a really bad soap opera. He had sinned, and with his friends at C-Street, he would reconcile with God and his wife. He made a second decision as well. He reimbursed the state for his plane fare, and insisted he had taken no state money.

His wife agreed at first to give it a shot, but ultimately decided against reconciliation. By now, Sanford had lost both his love in South America and now his wife as well. Then a study showed he had used considerably more state money for private use. More calls were made for his resignation. Another choice. He would remain in office. As in the first choices, power triumphed everything else. Power vs Love. He had made his choice.

So here we are today. The state is considering articles of impeachment. Even if he prevails, his power is forever compromised. He wanted it all. However his choices have left him with far less than that. Power really does corrupt in so many ways it seems. One thing for sure. We will not hear him preach anytime soon about moral values. Perhaps had not the preaching been so virulent early on, the fall might not be so far on the other side. In a way, still another choice gone awry.

Trail of Tears: Being a Liberal from Texas


Most folks know I grew up in Tyler, Texas. Now for those not familiar with Tyler, suffice it to say that it is a part of Texas where liberal politics can appear to be something of an endangered species. The town abounds in Baptist churches. I used to joke saying there was one on every corner. That was an exaggeration of course, but not by much. I grew up attending Glenwood Methodist Church, but after growing up landed in the Tyler Unitarian fellowship.

Just recently I went back to Tyler. That little fellowship is still thriving after all these years. A magnet for liberals of all sorts, huddled together to ward off the cries of intolerance. When I was president of the fellowship, we learned our small church had actually been investigated by the Texas Department of Public Safety. Ours was not the only one. A Dallas Unitarian Church was also investigated at the time. They were concerned about possible "un-American activities" and of course they should have been. We dared be opposed to the Vietnam War, talked about liberal notions, and even had a pastor who called for the legalization of pot. Our parties were the best in town, with dancing, plenty of alcohol, occasional pig roasts out by the lake, and always enlightened conversation. One older couple who spent time at the home with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. A labor leader who had a cross burned in his yard. We always sang I Am Woman by Helen Ready in these early days of the women's movement. Great debates would rage over the efficacy of socialism, or perhaps deeper matters of spirituality. My friend introduces me to her cat named Owsley. I smile knowing that is the chemist who made much of the LSD out on the west coast. We are talking of the sixties and seventies after all. All ideas were subject to discussion and active debate. In a real sense we were a family all our own in the truest and best sense. Incidentally the investigation was leaked, and a legislative committee clipped the wings of the overzealous DPS for those investigations.

I remember campaigning for Sissy Fahrenthold for Governor of Texas. That year the foregone conclusion was that Ben Barnes was the appointed successor to power, but we rallied behind this liberal feminist from Corpus Christi. Seriously, we spent hundreds of hours knocking on doors, answering and calling folks on phones, and silk screening hundreds of posters to put out all over town. I also worked my heart out for George McGovern that year and became the coordinator for voter registration in the East Texas area.

Now Sissy did pretty good, and got into a runoff that year against a conservative rancher named Dolph Briscoe. Everyone was surprised when Barnes did not get into the runoffs. But Texas was a conservative state, and despite our best efforts, Sissy lost in the runoff and Briscoe went on to be governor. Tyler was so conservative, the locals were mostly amused by our efforts. Occasionally some red neck would unload on us, but mostly they just chuckled.

Yet looking back, we produced some darn good liberals from our part of the world. Bill Moyers grew up in Marshall. U.S. Senator Ralph Yarbrough, Federal Judge William Wayne Justice, and head of the Texas Civil Liberties Union Bill Kugle were all from Chandler, a small town on the outskirts of Tyler. From nearby Minneola hailed later to be San Francisco mayor Willie Brown. When he was the leader of the California Assembly he came to Tyler. I was appointed as driver for him and actor Robert Culp when they appeared for the East Texas Fair to campaign for George McGovern.

On occasion I took a lot of crap off folks for my politics. I think that is why we were such good liberals. It is hard to stay one in that environment unless you learn to take care of yourself, and your beliefs are stronger for having been required to defend them. In this day, when I think of how far to the right Texas politics has moved, I'm reminded of my friends back at that Unitarian Fellowship. Some are still there all the way from when I was a member. Together they keep the flame of liberalism burning in spite of it all. In my book they are heroes.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

My First Act of Activism: The Great Leash Law Debacle


Lassie sat quietly, tongue hanging out in the Texas heat in the St. Augustine grass that covered our yard in the East Texas town of Tyler. The road in front of our house was a blend of oil and tar mixed with dirt. It would be paved in another year or two. Running across it as fast as we could, the tarry mix would continue to burn for a few minutes after crossing in our bare feet. All the children had black soles on their feet, the price for going barefoot on our block. The collie-shepherd mix sniffed my leg, then wagging her tail gave me a big juicy slurp on the lips while we sat beneath the pecan tree trying to catch a cool breeze.

"They are what? That is just wrong. Lassie is used to running free!" How many other children had dogs named Lassie in the mid fifties when Lassie was the hottest show on television. I leaned into Lassie, giving her a big hug. "Don't worry Lassie, I'm not putting any leash on you.

Hank nodded. "My dog is a roamer. It would kill her to have to stay tied up or in a fence."

"What can we do? They have to know this is just wrong."

Hank said, "maybe we can call somebody?" Into the house we rushed, looking for the phone book, searching for the number for someone with the city. Finally we found it, and I began dialing a number for the city manager.

A woman answered the phone. "May I help you?"

"Yes ma'am. We need to speak to the city manager."

"Whatever for? How old are you?"

"About the proposed leash law ma'am. It's just plain wrong and unfair to the dogs. I'm 9 years old but I'm a citizen too!"

She was laughing now, and I was getting irritated. "Well he isn't in right now, but I'll leave a message for him."

"Can he call me back?"

"Oh I don't know. Here what is your number."

I gave her my phone number and waited. And waited. And waited. Finally I called back. "Oh he is so busy right now. I'm sorry." No she wasn't. It was clear to me this guy wasn't calling back at all. So I called my friend.

"Hank, they are blowing us off. What next?"

C'mon over and let's talk about it." Out the door I ran, screen door slamming behind me. Hank lived the next block over, so I cut through the back yards and moments later was knocking on his door.

"C'mere, I've got an idea," he said. "Look what I found. Something I had put away in my closet."
It was a tiny printing press with type that could be laid out for mass production. A toy he had gotten for Christmas.

We were busy little bees the next few days, printing up thousands of little leaflets proclaiming

DON'T LET THE LEASH LAW PASS!
CALL YOUR CITY COUNCIL TODAY!
(we had an image of a dog below that)

All over town we traveled, sticking them in mailboxes, on telephone poles, on store fronts, anyplace people might see them. If someone was outside, we would approach and explain what it was all about. Some laughed, but some applauded us. "Most grownups don't know what's going on with city hall. Good for you two."

Well they say you can't beat city hall. We sure didn't. The leash law passed. In the spirit of our founding fathers and mothers, with characteristic revolutionary zeal, we refused to honor the law, and our dogs ran free. We had to watch them more closely though to ensure the evil animal control people didn't snatch them. Four years later, I would be passing out literature for John F. Kennedy's bid for president. In another ten years, I would be marching in protest of a war in far away Vietnam. But it all began sitting under a pecan tree in front of our red brick house in Tyler, Texas. Years later I can still see those hydrangeas and rose bushes in the beds nearby, feel the gnats as we swatted them away. And of course Lassie, running to knock me down, then showering me with nuzzles and licks, then lying down beside, her head resting in my lap. I've come to appreciate how precious a gift memory can be.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Today, only a few photos






I just did not feel like writing today. Instead, I'm posting a few photos I've taken. It's the best I can do today.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Faith Run Amok: Time for Reason?


Robin and I woke early this morning, giving us a chance to talk about all sorts of things as she got ready for work. Okay, I love her so much, but...

Here is where the reader goes, "Oops, this writer is entering dangerous territory!"

But she is one of those people who gets an idea about why something is as it is, not based on reasoned fact, but because she just "knows it." Today we were talking about honeybees. A study shows that the bees were hit by a multiple attack by different viruses and that is why so many bees recently have died. This is science. She looks at me and says, "well Monsanto is experimenting with hybrids that do not require pollenating. Then there is microwave and radio wave pollution. That weakened the bees so they were susceptible to the viruses."

"How do you know about this? Did you read it from some study?"

"People have been talking about it in my forum. I know it's true though." There are forums where the conspiracy never rests I've learned. Everything from chem trails to the eternal 'they' who are out to get 'us' of course.

"How do you know it?"

"It only makes sense." She looks at me exasperated. "I just know that's what it is."

Now I'm the one ready to scream "Arghhhhhhhhhhh."

But see, she's not alone. The world we live in is filled with these faith based pronouncements. Someone makes it up, then others repeat the mantra in a world where no conspiracy can be too large, or any plot by a drive for one world order too extreme. I turn on television, only to hear some guy ranting that health care legislation supports killing grandma, or that Obama is not really a U.S. citizen. "How do you know that?" the announcers ask.

"My Congressman said so."

"You know that it is not in the legislation. His birth certificate has been verified."

::holding fingers in ears chanting:: "I can't hear you! It's not true. I know it isn't. I just know."

It's like we stopped living in the real world and began a massive game of make believe. "He's a Communist and a Nazi!" Never mind that the two are mutually exclusive by definition. Do not interrupt me with those pesky facts.

Now we can disagree on certain things. I believe that government can and does provide useful functions that are good for the common welfare. You may be one who believes any government is bad government. We can disagree and that is cool. But what is NOT cool is arguing your position with made up facts. When a sizable number of people are playing this game of make believe while the other side is trying to adhere to facts, no conversation is possible and compromise is out of the question. Seriously, how do you compromise with a fairy tale?

How long might it be before these zealots of faith drown out and convert sufficient numbers to march with them. Here history provides some ominous warnings. One is the original bonfire of the vanities. The most famous was in 1497 when a priest Girolamo Savonaroma led a revolt against the Renaissance of that time burning great art, books considered immoral like Boccaccio's and out of fear it was said by some that the great artist Botacelli threw some of his own art into the fire as well. Faith distorted by fear and hate replaced reason on that day. Periodically these exercises of intolerance and faith based non-reason have arisen throughout history.

I long for another age of reason, similar to the one that took place when our nation was founded. I long for a place where proven science holds a loftier place in society than belief stated as fact. At one time religion was held separate from the political. Our founders knew the dangers of mixing the two. Sadly much of today's discourse comes from that forbidden blending. Fox News and Rush Limbaugh and Tele-evangelists create their own realities, dispensing to an unthinking mob. Can't we distinguish fact from belief? Creationism is taught as science, but creationism is a function of faith not science. To put it on equal footing with Darwin is absurd.

I long for another age of reason, for in this polarized world, it offers our only hope in compromise and becoming one people again.

I long for another age of reason. Imagine reporters reporting facts. Long conversations with friends without elaborate conspiracies and distinguishing fact from hunch.

May it be sooner rather than later. Or if I"m wrong, could the reptilians come and devour me now?

Monday, August 24, 2009

Teachers Making a Difference


It's impossible to share who I am today without a genuine tribute to some remarkable teachers along the way who gave me life skills to last a lifetime. What better place to tell their stories (and mine) than right here right now.

The first teacher was Miss Stidger. I have no clue what her first name was. My first grade year had been difficult. Just before school started, I broke my arm falling out of a tree. A cast covered all but the tips of my fingers. My handwriting was atrocious, made even worse by the fact that age 3 my parents had switched me from left to right handed. So my first grade teacher had told my parents in front of me that I had "developmental issues". Her gauge for this conclusion? My writing skills. It was not a good year at all.

But then came the second grade, and Miss Stidger was my teacher. She engaged all of us in the learning process. She read to us the story of Hansel and Gretel. I was so impressed I went home and rewrote the story, adding my own embellishments of course. It was 5 pages long and I took it to class. Miss Stidger shared it with everyone, and praised me while I turned red as a beet. This was something I was not accustomed to hearing at all. I sure liked it though. When she read to us, she made her own adaptations as well, and acted it out in ways that held our attention. She made school worth attending, something new at that point. The really bad teasing for me would not start until the next year, so this was the one year I really enjoyed school. I still struggled with hand writing and still do to this day. But from her I learned that there was more to life than good penmanship, and that I was not a failure. More important, her gift to me was the love of reading and of the imagination. Those are gifts that last a lifetime and for which I am so grateful. The following years socially were excruciating, but by reading, by using my imagination, by writing my own stories, a better world could be created than the one in which I lived. Some years later, I graduated from high school. My photo was in the newspaper, for I had graduated from a hospital bed, a result of a motorcycle accident. After I was released, one day so many years later, Miss Stidger dropped by my house for a visit. It was a happy reunion, and a chance to thank her for being just the woman she was.

Move from elementary school to eighth grade at Hogg Jr. High in Tyler. My English teacher was Mrs. Lowe. I don't remember her first name today, and not sure if I knew back then. She was tough as nails. On the first day she said, "We are going to learn lots this year. At the top of my list is grammar. Here is a copy of the grammar guide I need you all to purchase. You will know it cover to cover before this year is out."

She meant it too. We did lots of writing. Even our tests were often essay tests, and she expected the same level of perfection with grammar in tests as she did in our essays. If I made a grammar mistake, I would be required to look up and write the grammar rule and turn it in to her.

But it was not just grammar for us to learn that year. She would not abide by sloppy thinking. "Something is not this or that way just because you say so. Show me. Prove it to me." Occasionally she would engage us in a particularly fiery topic. In a time before women's liberation, one of the hottest was the day she announced "Women are superior to men. Look at Madam Curie. What a mind. What a person. What do you all think?"

The boys lined up of course to defend their sex. I was trying to stay silent and unnoticed. One said, "Of course men are superior. Look at who all has been president? Who are most of the scientists? Who are our leaders?"

"What makes men better? Just because our society is skewed against women does not make them better. Each defender of the male sex got a book report to write for not using adequate reasoning. The girls in class did not fare much better. Either they went along with what the boys said, or tried to argue for women without any facts to back them up. They got reports as well.

Then she looked over at me. "What do you think?"

All eyes were on me and I hated it. I opened my mouth. "I don't think it is that men or women are superior. It is more individual and some individuals do better at some things than others. Madam Curie was a very good chemist, but could she run a country? Another woman might be able to run a country better. We haven't had a chance to find out yet." Actually we still haven't but I've a hunch I was on the right track there. "I know some girls who play softball much better than I do. We are all human, and each have our own sets of skills."

She smiled. That time I got it right, and she added 5 badly points needed to my score. She was teaching us skills in presenting ideas cogently and requiring us to think critically. Critical thinking I believe is one of the highest of attributes and too many teachers miss the mark in teaching students then and now.

In High School, my junior year Bob Wyche taught me American History. Then my senior year he taught World Political Geography. It is this latter class I want to talk about. It was not only about political geography. It was an excuse to take us out of the provincialism of Tyler, Texas and to expose us to the world of ideas. We learned about the Greek philosophers. We did indeed talk about politics and how geography influences our politics. We were expected to read a lot outside of class. Every one of us had a subscription to the New York Times, where part of each day's class would dwell. He invited speakers from ivy league universities like Harvard and Princeton and Yale.

One assignment stands out in my mind. "Pick two newspapers, any two newspapers. Read them daily for a month. Then I want you to write a five page comparison of the editorial opinions of the two papers, using nothing but their choices of wire articles on the front page. Do not use or reference any editorial articles at all." What an exercise! We were learning to evaluate news stories, not just by what they shared, but what the paper decided not to cover. Critical thinking 101. He succeeded as well in taking us to another realm, a larger world of ideas that were not framed by local churches or the Tyler Courier Times. After class he would meet several of us at Heaton's Irion Drug Store in Bergfeld Center. There at the soda fountain ( we had those back then) we would convene the daily session of the History Club, which was not just about history, but a chance to discuss and explore all sorts of directions and ideas out loud. Like a b.s. session, but with a higher standard of academic discourse. Like our very own salon, not official in any way, but there the learning continued.

Finally I must mention Werna Harrison, my senior English teacher. Every day we were called to write. The first day she passed out texts she had purchased herself for our use. On the first page: Creative Writing: A College Text. We wrote essays and press articles and short stories, even stage plays. Part of each class was involved in discussing and critiquing our work. She was meticulous and demanding. Many found her quite odd, and the students broke her heart that year during the senior skit. But it was Werna Harrison to whom I owe a huge debt of gratitude. Ideas not written down are lost forever. She gave me skills that would keep me sane for many years, then give me great pleasure after that.

We all have our own stories of people who made a difference in our lives. I have others as well. But these stand out among all my teachers over 12 years in Tyler, Texas. Thank you each of you for making a difference.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

A Light at the End of Our Tunnel


Being poor can really suck. For the last few years, we have been working to pay off credit accounts, fearful of layoff, and frankly extra money for the simplest of things has not been there for us. As payments on the bills have gone down, we still needed to hold onto anything extra, just in case.

Starting in September, my social security begins. It will supplement my pension and take a huge burden off both of us. Let me describe just what that means. Ordinarily we stayed home, watching a movie on television. Perhaps a trip to a local park, but careful on the gas usage. Our meals were things that could be made to stretch the food dollar. Just recently we went to a movie. It was the first one we had attended in years. Next month we are going to Renaissance Fair. We could not afford it before and both of us are giddy by the prospect of going. Even before the first check has arrived, there is a lightness in our step and a discernible shift in our attitudes. In some ways this apartment had become like a prison to us. Ironic that it will be only our second Renfest together. We will go in September, exactly ten years since we attended our first. It was only our second date, and by the end of the day, we knew we were going to be a couple for the rest of our lives.

Now much of the new income is spoken for. A sizable piece goes to paying off the remaining credit card bills. A good hunk goes into savings. But there is some allocated for good old fashioned play. Is it an accident that both of us are dieting now? I'm not sure but what there is a correlation. We will need energy to get about and live an active lifestyle again. Just today we were laughing and chattering back and forth in a way that we really haven't for awhile.

As I reflect on our experience, I think of how fortunate we are. She had a job and I have a pension. I supply the health care through my retirement for both of us. What of those who are losing their homes, their jobs, their insurance? How about those souls out on the streets homeless? By the standards of much of the world, we are quite wealthy, victim as with many of pursuing credit as a means of instant gratification. Yet the gratification we are feeling now is the liberation from those "corporate ties." If the American economy depends on credit, I'm afraid I'll have to let them down. I was ready to make this journey years ago. Now Robin is on board too.

Of course there is always the chance she could get laid off. Then it would be tight for us again. But now we have begun to build resources to weather that possibility.

So my word for today is gratitude. Perhaps hope is another. Today, life is good, and I am smiling.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Peace in my Day


I'm always addressing peace in the abstract. Some days it is more a matter of bringing peace to my own tiny sphere. That's not always easy, because my health has been atrocious and even my aches have aches. Nevertheless it can be done.

Today I began with a quiet meditation, emptying my mind and just be-ing. That seemed to be a good start. There were chores to be done, but I did not tackle them right away. Instead I journeyed through my various online communities,wrote emails, all in a rather leisurely manner.

One thing that has worried me a lot is my weight. I've begun many diets, most lasting only a few days. Besides the weight, my feet are swelling up, and lately I have been plagued with persistent chapped lips. So after my morning wakeup tab, I replaced my drink of choice with old fashioned water. My suspicion is that the water may help both the lips and the swelling, because colas have tons of sodium in them. I also decided to begin eating small portions of healthy food. If I am doing something, anything, then there is a peace that comes with that.

I took Lucy for a walk today. Mostly I've just been taking her out back, throwing the ball for exercise. Goodness I put on that leash and she was so excited. We could not get out the door fast enough. The rain today did not materialize, so aside from a persistent breeze, the weather was quite lovely. The walk was nice, but unfortunately not pain free. Sciatic pains plagued the entire journey up my left leg. Undaunted, we walked and it was worth it all just watching a very thrilled dog go through her paces.

A degree of peace has come by just cutting back how much I have the talking heads of the news turned on in the house. I tried that for a few minutes, then switched to some light classical music. Television no longer is a good source of news anyway. Though she does not run from her liberal bias, some of the best and fairest commentary today is coming from Rachel Maddow. Her stories are well researched and she presents them in a fair way. She does not simply accept the word of the spin doctors, but actually challenges them, always with facts on her side.

So sitting here listening to Mozart, sipping on my glass of water, I feel real contentment. I must have done something right. I have found peace in this day. Perhaps I will try to repeat the experience tomorrow, and maybe even walk a but further.

L'chaim.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Emptiness


Most days my brain is firing constantly, awash in emotion, memories, ideas. As if to work overtime in case something might be missed. On some rare days though, I wake up and find only emptiness. Today is one of those days.

Now that may seem to be a bad thing, but I don't really think so. Oh it is firing sufficient to do my daily activities, and just a few minutes ago I played a video that left me smiling with tears in my eyes. But right now, for however long it lasts, there is a blessed emptiness, no long train of thoughts leading me forward. It is a time to rest.

For some religious, this kind of emptiness is sought out as a treasure. There are a host of exercises, meditation techniques to achieve this state. For me, this occasional morning or day will suffice. All night last night, I dreamed about strategies for my novel, and came up with some good exercises. I got up at least half a dozen times. This time my creative exercise occurred as I slept, and now the brain needs the rest it missed. Not to worry, I've made notes, so the ideas will not be lost.

So, in such a state of emptiness, there is not much to report on for today's blog. Perhaps it will be a day to seek happy moments, maybe take a nap, write a chapter. There are many gifts in life. I think emptiness is but one.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Dog Days of August


I'll be so glad when this month is over with. August has never been a good month for me. First there is the heat and I never was very good with hot weather. Fortunately this year was a mild summer, for which I am most grateful.

But it is still a month in which I have suffered a lot of loss. Early in the month there is the anniversary of my Daddy. He and I had a troubled relationship. I'll never forget the events that led to his death in 1967. First, my Uncle Wilburn died in a car wreck. I traveled to Dallas as I mentioned before. Then my Aunt Vi died just one week later. Back home I came, and we all drove on to Arkansas for her funeral. Before returning to Dallas, my Daddy and I worked on the corral. We had a bitter fight and both of us were furious with each other, and I left without making peace. He called once a few days later, but our conversation was strained and no reconciliation followed. I could be terribly vindictive and unforgiving in those days. A few days later, I was called to the phone, told to sit down. Momma was on the other end, crying. Daddy had a heart attack. He had worked out in the sun all day the day before. He felt bad the next morning, and he had a massive coronary. The doctor had been called and he rushed over to our house (they did things like that back then) but to no avail. He was gone. It would be years before I sorted it all out, and made peace with Daddy in my own heart. I used a contrivance of sorts, sitting down in front of an empty chair, listing all the things I had done wrong, not dwelling on what he had done but my part in it all. Then I asked him for forgiveness and that was it.

The year was 1988. Four years earlier Mom had a cancer scare, but it turned out not to be malignant. This time she was sent to Houston to the medical center again. She looked me in the eyes. "This time it is for real. I can tell." I believed her. We spent the next several weeks talking about almost everything. The cancer was advanced and it was just a matter of time. Difficult times as we constantly were in negotiations with the doctors who were more focused on maximizing their profit. Her cancer doctor was good, but her heart doctor was the primary care physician and he was a classic jerk.

I recall one day he walked in. "We are going to have to send your mom home. Her medicare gave out a week ago, but I'm going to try to talk them into covering this week." Okay that made me furious. I knew he was lying. As a government employee I knew they don't just cut someone off without some sort of notification. I said nothing to him, choosing instead to go directly to the hospital administrator.

"Yes, may I help you?" asked the administrator. I explained what the doctor had told me. His name was Dr. Burger, but we had secretly started referring to him as Dr. Booger. "He said WHAT? Medicare will cover the costs. That just is not true. I'll talk to him about it."

I thanked him. The glare on the doctor's face the next time I saw him was priceless. He still wanted to send her home. But under their care, she now had a bed sore and was depleted of fluids. This had to be fixed first. Then they sent her to live with me, requiring her to ride an ambulance to the hospital daily for treatments. Seems insurance would pay them more this way. One day she went back for treatment. The cancer had spread and the smell of rotting flesh from inside her lungs permeated the apartment. Her fluid levels went back to where they were before, and she had broken a rib during a coughing spell. She would be re-admitted.

The Cancer Doctor was now the primary physician. He called me over to talk to me. "What kind of treatment did she get while she was home. She was dehydrated when she came in. How did her rib break?"

Okay, I've worked public welfare almost all my adult life and I knew where he was headed. My face turned beet red and I was angrier than I had been in a very long time. "Listen, I know exactly where you are going with these questions. I was with her during the evenings and weekends, and had a professional caring for her while I was at work." My voice was controlled and trembling. "In addition to my care, my ex was involved. She and momma were close, and she was there to pitch in. She is a registered nurse who currently cares for elderly patients. Before I left this GOD DAMNED HOSPITAL before, she was dehydrated despite your "best care" and she had a bed sore to boot. Unlike you people, we got a special mattress to prevent cold sores. I guess it was too damned expensive for you all to do that. I assume she broke the rib while coughing. She really is very fragile you know. I've fought you assholes from day one just to get her the care she needed. Don't you dare insinuate one thing to me, or be prepared for a fight you didn't bargain for!"

He put his arm around my shoulder. "I'm required to ask those questions. I believe you and ask you to forgive me. With me, you're not going to have to fight anymore. She is on my floor now. She'll get the best care possible and won't be going back home again. We need to talk. This cancer has gone too far. She is not going to survive much longer. But we will make her comfortable. If anything does not suit you, let me know. If we can we'll fix it."

He kept his word. Funny, I can remember Dr. Booger's name, but I can't remember his. I know I really appreciate all that he did. One thought about momma. Even after breaking her rib, she never used pain killers. "I'm just lucky I guess. I've never had problems with pain." She really didn't. She would have dental work done without anaesthetic. Then one day I arrived and she felt wonderful. I wondered out loud if she were about to surprise everybody with a recovery. "No I'm afraid not. I do feel good today, so we can talk. But I don't have much time left. " I began to cry, and she held me close. "Watch out for your brother. He's not going to take this well at all. I love you both so much." Then she went back over the details of her funeral, how to handle the estate, where to find the will she had written. Late that night the call came from the hospital. I rushed in, and for the first time she was put on Morphine. I called the family who gathered from all over. We watched all day, and then that night while the others were gone to get a bite to eat, Peggy told us it was time. Peggy, Marlowe, and I joined hands with her in a circle with Momma and she took her last breath. The story was not over though. I got home and found a notice her insurance had not been paid and had been cancelled. I quickly wrote a check and mailed it that morning. Fortunately they kept it open. It happened in the second week of August, just a week from Momma's birthday and the anniversary of Daddy's death.

Then there was Skip. My first true love. He was a true soul mate. in 1997 he suddenly collapsed. Rushed to the hospital, he disappeared into a coma from what turned out to be viral encephalitis. For two weeks we waited and watched and I stayed by his side. At first it appeared he was going to get better, then another virus hit him and it became apparent that he would not have viable brain function. I talked with his sister and the decision was made not to keep him on a breathing machine.

One night I made arrangements for a favorite song he had helped write be played on public radio. I went by the studio for After Hours, gay programming for Houston. WE offered our love and prayers over the radio, where the nurses had put near his good ear. He was deaf in one ear. During the broadcast nurses told me they saw a tear form. It was a late night program, so I went by Charlies afterward to get a bite to eat. I got home about 2:00 AM and as I walked in the door, I heard the phone ringing. It was the hospital. Not much time remained and they needed me right away.

When I arrived, Skip's eyes were open. He could not talk, but he was able to follow me around the room with his eyes. It was time for us to talk. "Sweetheart," I began. "I love you more than the great outdoors. You are my love, my life. If it were possible for you to get better, I would be so grateful. But if that is not possible, and you need to move on, I understand. If it is your time, then you need to know I'll be okay." Well that seemed to be a bit of a lie at the time, though I did survive. "I'll love you forever, in this world and the next." There was a faint flicker of his eyelid, and I knew he had heard me. For the next several hours I held him, moistened his lips, talked to him, told him how much I loved him and his breathing became increasingly shallow and then he was gone. I called the nurse.

"He's gone I see."

"Yes," I said through the tears. "The rest of the family is outside along with the family priest."

She smiled. "I saw them. Look, I've watched you sit up here day in and day out at his bedside. Frankly most of us only dream of someone to love us that much. Who is here for you?" I mentioned the family outside. "No I meant for you."

"I'll get ahold of some folks later today."

"Right now, I'm here for you. Give me a hug." She held me for a few minutes while I sobbed. "I'm going to give you ten minutes with him before I call them in." Profusely I thanked her, making a note to bring her flowers later on. Then out I walked and in came the family and the priest and all that would remain were the memories. He died on August 17.

Lots of memories arise on anniversaries. My particularly tragic memories happen in August. No wonder I'm out of sorts.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Love Lasting a Lifetime


What is your happiest moment in a lifetime?

I asked myself that this morning, and there was no pause whatsoever. For the older readers you know how sometimes things get lost up there for a while and a file search in that marvelous computer that is our brain is initiated? This memory was right up front, with no search required.

It was September 4, 1975. The occasion was the birth of my daughter. There was her momma Peggy. For days before we had been trying everything to get her to deliver this baby. Exercise, jumping. Then there were those pesky contractions, coming closer and closer together. She would call the doctor. Wait an hour and call me back. But they would have stopped. Finally it was decided she should come to the hospital and have induced labor. We were already running overtime.

That moment we arrived at the hospital and were given a room, suddenly the emotion of it all just overwhelmed me. I became dizzy and had to sit down for a few minutes. Today we would have a brand new baby daughter! Peggy was hooked up and a drip started. Midway into it all she decided to have an epidural injection. Peggy at that time was an obstetrics nurse and knew what to ask for. She was feeling no pain, and as they were wheeling her into delivery she was talking about craving Mexican food. “Some tacos really sound good!”

I called back, “Have the baby first, then we can talk about tacos.” I was shown the way to the waiting room.

Now this was another generation, and while the idea of Dads being in the delivery room was starting to catch on about that time, it had not quite made it to Mother Francis Hospital in Tyler, Texas yet. So I sat and waited. A few minutes later a nurse came out to me. Bending over, she whispered in my ear. “Don’t say anything, just get up and follow me.” Rounding the hallway she said, “I could not say it there because it is against the rules, but if you wish, you can come into the delivery room.”

“Wow, I’ll say!” I must say I was breathless with excitement. Standing by, I watched bit by bit, my daughter emerge into this world. As they cut the cord, she was totally covered in slimy ick. Her face was contorted into a scream about to happen, and then the scream itself.

She was the most beautiful baby I had ever seen. In this moment, we shared together a love more powerful than anything we could imagine. This one small baby, being bathed to clear off the gooey mess to show a bright pink skin underneath, had captured our hearts forever. Her name would be Jennifer, named after Jennifer Warnes who I had seen years before in the west coast cast of Hair.

Over many years we had such happiness. Even though Peggy and I were not meant to be a couple, we were united in our love for this young girl. We went to dance recitals, band events, tee ball and softball where her mom, always the athlete of the family coached the other girls her age. Later it would be football games with her in the band at Elsik High School. She stayed with me when her mom went on vacation and went with me when I had time off.

One year we traveled to Arkansas, spending time camping and fishing and hiking. In one restaurant we saw a stuffed animal. “What is that? She asked.

I looked at the jackrabbit with deer antlers attached. “Hmm… it’s body looks like a rabbit.”

“Yeah, but the antlers are like a deer!”

“You are so right. Hmm… what do you get when you mix a rabbit and a deer?” ::pause:: Grinning I said, “It must be a Reer!”

She started to laugh, and when she got home, she told her momma, “We saw a reer!”

“A rear?” She responded.

Jennifer was fun to travel with. We would sing songs along the way, or play games like Doodlebug or Out of State License or just talk about anything. Recently I found an old tape from when she was 6 years old singing Chantilly Lace and “Doe, a deer, a female deer”… On that trip we rewrote the song to Reer, a female reer, Re a drop of golden sun… We made trips to Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona. We also for a time traveled around the state staying at Texas historical sites.

Another memory was from her 8th grade year. She entered the History fair with two of her friends. Together they put on a video presentation with musical accompaniment in a tribute to Scott Joplin who was born in Texas. She won the fair and traveled to Austin for the state competition. They finished third which I thought was wonderful. Her heart was broken though, expecting to win the event. Sometimes she could be as competitive as her mom.

This of course only scratches the surface. She was a beautiful sensitive child and exceptionally good. The memories still bring a smile to this day. But also a few tears as well. Hindsight is 20/20. I made two mistakes as I look back. First, as long as I did not have a permanent partner, I saw no need to tell her I was gay. That proved to be a big mistake. She was close to grown when I told her. She just sat there and cried her eyes out. From that day on, the relationship was strained. She did not come over that much anymore, and after Skip moved in, not at all. When Skip died, I was furious with her and everyone else. This was my soul mate, and how could people I loved be so uncaring. I felt so alone at that time. I should not have shared that with her, but I did. I have a confession. I’m terribly human. Mea culpa.

Then there was the second mistake. I should have dealt with the transgender thing when she was young as well. I was well on my way before Skip passed away. Her momma was opposed to my transition, but as we talked about it, she felt and I agreed that she could talk to her first, and then I would sit down with her. Okay that was the third mistake. After her momma talked to her, she called me up. “I talked to her. She is crying her eyes out. She does not want to talk to you. I told her if she didn’t want you in her life, I’d still be there for her. She is going through photos now cutting you out of them.”

So we began talking about our happiest moment. In that one conversation I lived my worse nightmare. That tiny baby I held in my arms, that little girl who had always been there, declared me persona non gratis. The rest of the family except for a few soon joined in.

So I still took my responsibility seriously. I continued child support payments after she was 18 and for four years of college. No letters. No phone calls. No news. I learned later she went for five years, but I had no way of knowing at the time. I wrote her every month or so, just to let her know I still loved her. A couple of years ago I got a letter filled with hate asking me to no longer contact her. I have honored that request.

Today, even as I write these words, tears are flowing. That connection of love formed when I first saw that little baby in that delivery room so many years earlier still burns freely. I may be gay and transgender, and sometimes or perhaps often stupid, but I am human. How does one end the love of a parent for a child? In my case, that is impossible. I miss her terribly. I had to do what I had to do. The same is true for her I’m sure. But the love, it’s forever for me. I can’t imagine it any other way, reciprocated or not.

“That love is all there is,
Is all I know of love.”
Emily Dickinson

Monday, August 17, 2009

Lakehouse Reunions


I sat in front of my computer trying to decide what I would write about today. Closing my eyes, memories came forth of family reunions on my mother's side. A smile crossed my face and I knew this would be the subject for today. While not exactly the same every time, here is generally how it would work. My dad would announce he had a two week vacation. We understood it would not be the full two weeks, because invariably into the second week he'd get a call to come back to work, and we would have to pack up and leave. But for little over a week, we would be together as family.

On more than one occasion, Mom would call her brother and ask if we could stay at his family cabin at the lakes. Let me explain. He along with his brothers had purchased a sizable portion of land outside of Newton, Texas near Jasper. The family lived mostly in Newton and Leesville, Louisiana about 50 miles away. The word would spread. Often my aunt Mary in Pine Bluff would then come down to take another room in the cabin with us. The weekend would be a family reunion.

Now this is no small family. Mom had several brothers. Claude was the one she contacted. But there was also W.L., Mickey, and Bill. She also had several sisters, including Nolia (pronounce Noh-Lee), Vi, Ethel, Mary, and Jean. Plus their spouses and kids everywhere.

Early in the week it would just be us. Dad would wake us up each morning around 4. We would lay out trout lines, then fish, then run trout lines, then fish some more until the sun was up good. Then we took all our fish back to the club house and clean them outside, and freeze them. On this property there were 6 lakes. One was specifically for skiing, all were good for fishing, and the clubhouse lake had a pier and swimming area as well. Another lake had a series of adjoining cabins not unlike a motel unit where all rooms connect. It also had a pier, but mostly for fishing. The lakes were well stocked. He also raised deer, buffalo, and elk on the land and the property was surrounded by a deer fence. It all was finished off with some pastures for Santa Gertrudis cattle and occasionally some Longhorns.

After cleaning the fish, we would have a huge breakfast, followed by a short nap. Then outside to the lake to swim to our hearts' content. No lifeguards here. This was another time. There was also the stories. Always the stories. We were cautioned not to cast towards the many water moccasins on the lake. "If they get mad at you, they will come right into the boat with you." Whenever we boated past one, I would shutter.

My aunt Nolia lived in a large two story ante-bellum style house near the lakes. We would go visit her and she would invariably serve a giant meal, all home grown. She herself could only eat things like oatmeal since she had no teeth. I can remember the oatmeal on her chin, which she would periodically wipe off. She and her husband Loyce would keep up the property and farm and tend to the animals. They had a wide porch that completely surrounded the house, where we kids would run and play to our heart's content.

One day my cousin Johnny, my little brother, and I walked out into the field where the cattle were. We were oblivious for a time when I looked up and saw the big old bull snorting and pawing. We turned and ran for the fence. We barely made it, tossing my brother literally over the wooden rails before that giant bull running right towards us pulled up and stopped. My uncle ran out and chewed us out good. Then he relaxed a bit. "Lemme tell you something. If you ever have a bull running you down and you can't get out, find a big tree. "

"Climb it?" I asked.

"Nope. see a bull can't turn real fast. To gore you he has to get to you. You can get on the other side of that tree before he does." Funny, all these years later I remember that story. We had our own cattle back in Tyler, but never a mean bull so I never got to use it. Though it does remind me of a funny story with our bull I'll tell another time.

So finally reunion day would be there. What we ate varied. Most often though it was either a fish fry or a crayfish boil. Family was everywhere. It was a hoot listening to my Momma and her family. First though you need some background. They grew up on a small farm in Arkansas. My Momma was the black sheep, getting herself preached into hell when she was 17. She went off on her own and cut her hair short and smoked cigarettes and got a job, back before any decent woman would do any of those things. The family religion was Assemblies of God. Aunt Ethel and her husband A.G. and kids all became evangelists, and Uncle W.L. was a preacher and evangelist as well. All were well versed in Bible. They would spin stories of their childhood, telling the rest of us what saints they were. Then Momma would speak up. "You can lie when you get home, but I know better. Only difference between me and you other hellions was I didn't hide it and pretend to be what I was not."

They would laugh, conceding she probably had a point."You got a point Rachel. You took licks for me more than once." Uncle W.L. would then roar, "but most of the time you had them coming too." Mom would laugh then. They all had loud booming voices and the laughter could be infectious.

The were all in the lumber business, so some talk would go to that. Then it would be time to eat, and someone would be asked to say a prayer and we got to listen to 15 to 20 minutes of prayer interspersed with halleluyahs and praise Jesus's and if we were lucky maybe even some speaking in tongues. Then someone would clear their throat (usually Momma) and there would be the invariable joke about how lunch was going to be supper if this prayer didn't end. Food would be served, then more stories. On occasion another game would be played.

In this game, entire conversations would be carried out, using nothing but quoting Bible passages. I didn't think you could even include a risque joke or bawdy humor this way, but darned if they didn't pull it off. I never took them too seriously because they were family and I knew their poo stank. There would also be lots of singing, something held over from their childhood when Grandma would pull out her guitar and they would sing on the porch back in Arkansas on Sundays to entertain themselves. Of course as soon as possible we kids were making our way to the lake to swim. Some of the older ones would do some skiing as well.

At night, Daddy and I would run some more lines. We always caught lots of fish, and there would be enough to pack up on ice to bring home for several more meals when invariably he got that call from his boss.

Funny thing is I don't fish anymore. I've gotten all soft in my older age and hate to kill them. But it was never about catching fish anyway. It was a time to get away from the city. There is no meditation that can compare sitting in a boat staring out onto the water, listening to the frogs and later the crickets, with no city noises, only the ducks flying overhead or the chirping of birds or occasionally the gobbles of wild turkeys on shore. It was a time when we could watch the passages of the sun, be a family together. We did not get to see our Daddy much growing up, and when he was home he was often tired. During these reunions though we saw another person, one we wanted to see more of. Momma was happier too, home with family, a family she once had to leave those many years before.

Today, who knows what became of the clubhouse and the lakes? I heard rumors some of the kids were fighting over them after our uncles began to die. Whatever happened, in my memory, it is exactly like it was back then, where the children can gather over the summer and family can be renewed. I can't be there of course, because I am today's outcast. But they will never take from me the memories of that time.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

A Time to Start Over, A Time to Grieve


It comes in everyone's life periodically I think. A time when full realization gives way to a reassessment over how one lives day to day. As long as I can remember, I've been involved in various causes for what I saw as improvement in the way things are done. Think gay rights, environmentalism, social justice issues. In some areas we made outstanding gains, and it was good to play a part in that process.

One thing however has become increasingly apparent. In the United States of Corporate America, the individual no longer matters. We now have the best Congress the corporations, now referred to as Dear Leader.corp can buy. It was with little effort and disarming ease that the corporate millions succeeded in destroying the first attempt to tackle health care reform in decades, replacing a public option with a co-op that in a relatively short time will just be one more insurance corporation, putting the screws to ordinary Americans, well like me. 72% before wanted this health reform. Now in a manner reminiscent of 1984, Americans are being re-educated to follow the corporate line. Dear Leader.corp succeeded in getting our president to acceding the corporate pillaging of our pharmaceutical costs and now has surrendered the one hope to control their greed through the public competitor.

In light of all this, it is time for me to reevaluate my own choices. I'm leaning towards the notion of bringing it all back home. Focus on my garden and my writing and making sure in every way possible I can be freed of corporate strings. My father died at age 48, my mother at age 70. I am 62 years old with a finite amount of time left on this earth before I become just one more blip among billions who lived and then died. It is time to seek my happiness, my passions, and my joy. Reflect on the beauties of the natural world in which I live, enjoy my annual garden, take walks with intention, spend time with my beloved partner and our animals. It is time to seek laughter wherever it can be found. It is time to experience the esthetically beautiful, and have long extended conversations with anyone who cares to listen and appreciate. Most important, it is time to stop fighting windmills. That must now belong to the generation that follows.

It will not be easy to separate of course. Politics has been part and parcel of my life for longer than I care to remember. There will be a period of grief. But the fact is this. We are now under corporate rule, with a Congress who serves their needs. On a national scale we have lost. Now only our own personal spheres have some hope of redemption. With but a few years left, I'm committed to working on my little space in the world. In my world there is room for morality. In the greater world, amorality is the calling card. Enjoy it you selfish blood sucking vultures, and though I do not believe in hell, I pray there was one where your carcasses could rot. For the rest, for my friends, seek peace and love. Can't beat that combo with a stick.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Tales from my Father: A Snake in the Barn



Okay, time for another tale my Daddy told me when I was young. I mentioned before he wove a beautiful story and this was no exception. He told the story as a true one, though over many years, who really knows.

It begins with a farmer towards the end of a long day in the fields in Northeast Texas. Jim had been picking cotton all day as he headed for the barn. Wiping his brow, all he could think of was Ma’s stew which had been simmering all day. Even out at the barn the delicious aroma snaked its way to him, his mouth watering like one of Pavlov’s dogs, even as he opened the door to the barn to put away his tools. He left the cotton on the trailer to take to the gin tomorrow, but the mules had to be tended and taken to their stalls. They weren’t paying much for cotton, and he was calculating in his mind how he was going to be able to make lease and cover the cost for things they needed that could not be grown in their garden.

He had put the mules in their stalls, watching them slurp water to cool down from the long hot day. Outside the crickets were beginning to sing their tune. Jim smiled, knowing it had been a good day and now it was done and stew was waiting and, well it really wasn't such a bad life. He turned to head for the house when he heard an ominous sound. He froze immediately, looking carefully around him. There was the rattle again and he knew that could only be a rattler and that snake was upset and letting him know it.

Peering over his shoulder a few feet away he saw a giant rattler. He guessed maybe five or six feet but it’s hard to tell when they are all coiled up like that. Slowly he moved away, reaching for long handled hoe. Stepping around, he tapped the hoe causing the snake to strike. Immediately he struck down with a ferocious blow, separating the head from the rest of the body. The body was still moving, squirming about as they prone to do. Breathing a relieved sigh, he headed for the house for supper.

As he walked through the door, the scent overwhelmed him. The stew looked so delicious, and his wife had just stuck cornbread into the old wood stove. “Ma that smells delicious!”

“It’ll be ready in a few minutes. How’d the picking go Pa?” They called each other Ma and Pa even though their children had long sense grown up and moved off on their own.

Running his fingers through his grey hair, he responded, “Went pretty well. Had an unwanted guest out in the barn though.” He told her the story about the rattler. “One of the bigger ones I’ve seen.”

“So why don’t you go out there to the barn and cut off those rattles. Be a good story for the grandkids don’t you think?”

Pa rose up nodding, and grabbed the sharpest knife he had before heading out to find that snake’s body and retrieve the rattles. It was dark now, so he carried a lantern to see where he was going. Inside the rickety old wooden structure, he looked till he saw the snakes body still moving a bit in a pile of straw. He walked over and grabbed the tail and swoosh cut off the rattles and went back inside.

The meal was delicious. Soon enough they were done, and because farmers are up at the break of day, very quickly both were dreaming sweet dreams. Early the next morning, Pa heard the rooster crowing, and they both got up and after a full breakfast of farm fresh eggs, bacon, and toast from home made bread, he was ready to head out to hitch the wagon and go sell his cotton. The doors made their customary creaking sound as light filled the inside of the barn. He looked and saw the snake he had killed the night before. He took a second look and a chill went down his spine. This snake still had his rattles. “How could…” he said out loud. “What the…” Full realization crept over him. The snake was not the only one in the barn last night.

photo: Nathan Williams (my grandfather)

The Age of Stupid


Am I the only one who feels like someone has unleashed an epidemic of stupid in the world and our future looks more and more like a new revised Dark Ages? Recently Robin and I watched a movie on television. The story had to do with two people who had been put to sleep in an experiment and they only awoke a century later. One was an ordinary sort of guy, the other was a street hooker. To their dismay, when they awoke, the population around them was incredibly ignorant. We learn that while educated individuals were deciding not to have children, those not so educated had been propagating like rabbits. The gene pool had been dumbed down and these two hapless souls were the only smart ones around.

Every day I turn on television, only to have my senses assaulted with another round of stupid. Nowadays an ordinary medical directive has become a “death panel” out to kill grandma. Some fool when interviewed said Obama could no longer be president because he had chosen thirty-two czars and that was unconstitutional. Well, we have a free press and they will correct the record? Not hardly. We have Glenn Beck enacting an attempt to poison the Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. A Republican Senator meanwhile tells his audience that indeed there is a death panel in the medical reform bill and they should be alarmed. He is supposed to be the moderate one too! Late news flash. They took it out of the bill which means STUPID was victorious!

No matter where I turn, truth is distorted to where it is hardly recognizable. People choose a political stance and then ape the lingo for their side without even knowing what they are saying. Obama is a Communist! Give me a break. Do they have a clue what a communist is? Or they use communist and fascist in the same breath. Um, the two are not the same!

In this day and time, reasoned discourse seems to have given way to hysteria. We have an entire segment of the population who chooses a leader based on whether they want to have a beer with him.

This was the year that Walter Cronkite passed away. The torch of responsible journalism has been dropped into the water and drowned, replaced instead by ratings and conflict that really isn’t but will be by the time they finish with it. Up is down, green is read, and the news is dead. I really profoundly miss responsible journalism. I long for sensible reasoned discourse and rational debate. Why is it so hard to disagree agreeably? What could be so wrong with reasoned and fact based discourse?

I wonder to myself. Have we again fallen prey to technology that moves faster than we do? With the internet, hundreds of cable channels, and I might add fewer opportunities for people to actually talk to each other face to face, have we lost as a society the capability to separate truth from hogwash? Is critical thinking dead? If not, can we bring it back to prominence sooner rather than later?

And if not, can I volunteer for one of those death panels they are talking about? I’m not sure I’m up for another dark ages.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

My Life as a Communist!


“Tell the truth!”

Sweat poured down my face.

“Are you or are you not a Communist!”

Well, okay it wasn’t quite like that. But it sure felt like it. The year was 1955. A popular show at the time was “I Led Three Lives”, the story of Herbert Philbrick, counter espionage agent for the FBI after infiltrating the Communist Party. This 8 year old loved the show and I was not alone. One of my classmates liked it too, and each week she and I would compare notes about what we saw and heard. What was really cool was they had special codes, and called each other comrade. So it was that our plan was hatched.

She and I would form our own Communist Party. It would be a secret organization of course. To keep our secrets we needed a code. We devised a crude letter replacement code that served beautifully. Then we set out to recruit other comrades into our secret organization. It was all great fun. Quietly we would pass messages to each other in code, and we called each other comrade.

Until that is, we were busted. The teacher for some reason was deeply concerned that her students were going around calling each other comrade. They determined soon enough that we were the ringleaders. After she had spoken with him first, the two of us were sent to the principal, with her following behind. Our interrogation began.

“Why are you calling each other Comrade? “

::Mumbling:: “We were just playing.”

“Did you hear this sort of talk at home? Do your parents call people ‘comrade?’ “ Imagine that. They wanted us to rat out our parents.

“No it was just a game. We saw it on television.” The teacher holds up a code sheet that had been passed.

“What is this?”

“ It’s a secret code we made up. It’s part of the game.”

“Do your parents play this game?”

“NO! IT’S OUR GAME!” We explain more fully about the television show and how they do this and we thought it was cool. We then get a half hour lecture on the evils of Communism. They call our parents where after getting home meant another lecture about not joining organizations we don’t know about and more evil’s of Communism.

So you are telling yourself, surely I learned my lesson, right? Well not exactly. I became curious about what it was about this communism was all about. We had classes on it of course. But the classes were prefaced with words like evil and dark and enemy. We also had bomb practice. The alarm would go off and all us kids would scramble under our desks covering our head. Yeah, that will sure protect us from a nuclear bomb. They used to interrupt programming daily on television too. "This is a test of the emergency broadcast system." They've started doing that again. I think it is stupid, more a device designed to keep the public on edge and frightened, and it fails in that, succeeding only to ruin the ending of some movies from time to time or knock out the punchline of a joke. Anyway, I needed more information. Daddy bought us a collection of books called Great Books of the Western World. It was a great collection of works by the great philosophers, scientists, economists, and authors of western literature. One work in the list was the collected works of Marx. So it was that I read Das Kapital by Marx. I guess I was around 14 at the time. Still curious, I went to the bookstore to purchase some writings by Lenin.

“Why are you buying this book?”

“I want to read it.”

“Does your mother know you are buying this book?”

“No, but I earned the money on my paper route and I’m always buying books I like.”

“Do your parents read Marx and Lenin?”

No, but how am I going to learn about it if I don’t read about it?”

“What is your home number?”

She calls momma who abruptly tells her I can buy what I want. Begrudgingly she sells me the book.

Many years later, I met my first Communist. He was with a traveling group of balalaika players from the Soviet Union. He did not have horns nor breathe fire, and in a few minutes of quiet conversation seemed quite ordinary. . Like most dreams of a political Shangri-la, Communism was thwarted by greed and desire to hold onto power. But my question is this. Can we really be so much better when we try to get a third grader to rat out their parents? Is it really democratic to give the third degree to an adolescent trying to buy a book? Are we so frail that reading the ideas of competing systems is considered dangerous?

In spite of them, I read their ideas, and found some that were good and some that were impractical. I am not a Communist. But I played one in the third grade;-)