Huntsville’s terrible beauty

Huntsville is pretty in the spring. It’s green and hilly, skirting the edge of the piney woods of east Texas. Yesterday I saw the first bluebonnets of the year, a burst of color alongside a city street. Wisps of redbud splayed across my path as I walked a wooded trail, and the smell of dogwood was enough at times to make me semi-drunk.

There’s history in the air, too. Sam Houston is buried here and although he died in 1863, his footprints are everywhere — from the university that bears his name, a grand monument in a storied old cemetery, a 15-acre museum and grounds to an enormous concrete statue on I-45 south of town. The general who won the battle of San Jacinto and served Texas as president, governor and U.S. Senator shares a birthday with the state he loved and led. Texas turned 180 years old yesterday. Big Sam would have been 223.

But there’s something else in the air here. It’s ominous and heavy and a little sickening. It hangs in the heart the way a meal you shouldn’t have eaten hangs in your gut, the foreboding of a price to pay, down the road.

Huntsville is the historic home of the Texas prison system. The place is ringed with sprawling prison campuses surrounded by tall fences topped by razor wire, guard towers at the corners. The names Goree, Ellis, Wynne, Holliday and Byrd are as familiar as city streets. Thousands of local citizens work in that system, and thousands of men are incarcerated behind those walls.

We’ve all seen prisons. They built one in my hometown back in the late 1980s. It’s hard to miss those fences, those towers, as you drive the roads of Texas. Most of them have the same look — clean and modern, well-kept and tightly secure.

But there’s one here that’s really spooky. It’s the Huntsville Unit itself, also known as “The Walls.” Just two blocks off the square, it has a three-foot-thick red brick wall from 15 to 20 feet high all around it — a huge, imposing structure right in the heart of the city. It’s the oldest prison in the system, once centered right here but now comprising more than 100 units scattered throughout the state. Those prisons, state jails and other facilities hold more than 148,000 inmates.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice, with a budget of more than $3.3 billion, long ago outgrew its headquarters, just across the street from the Walls. That old administration building now houses mostly computers. There’s a convenience store next to it, with gas pumps and a sandwich shop on a busy commercial street. A sign nearby boasts that they will cash those TDC release checks for you.

There are 1,700 inmates at the Walls, mostly docile, middle-aged men who’ve spent the majority of their lives behind bars. Death Row is up north now, at the Ellis Unit, where 253 prisoners currently await execution. When the appeals are exhausted and it’s time for that final act, they bring them to Huntsville — inside the Walls.

The Walls has just eight death row cells, but normally there’s only one inmate there, driven to Huntsville on the morning of the day the sentence will be carried out. He (or she — the state currently has four women awaiting execution) spends the day there, and sometime after 6 p.m. he’s taken to the execution chamber, strapped to a gurney, and in an adjacent booth the executioner does his work. There are separate viewing rooms, and separate ways in and out for the inmate’s family and the victims’ family members who choose to view the execution and hear the murderer’s last words.

This reads like a travelogue, a collection of facts about a place where something happens that most of us would rather not think about. I admit, it was a morbid curiosity that drew me to that old prison. I drove the street around it several times, stopped and took a picture or two. But what struck me more than anything was the peaceful beauty of the place, a quiet residential street with houses, trees and flowers. It’s easy to imagine children playing there — and on the corner, that terrible and terrifying brick wall with the guard tower. The next day, on a visit to the Texas Prison Museum, I learned that the death chamber is in fact directly under that tower.

The museum recounts dramatic events, like the time Bonnie and Clyde busted one of their friends out of prison, or the notorious “Trojan Horse” standoff and escape attempt by Alfredo Carrasco in 1974. A display case memorializes corrections officers killed in the line of duty, and an exhibit contains quotes and portraits of family members of murder victims as well as the murderers, all mournful, all poignant, some biting in criticism of the system, some resigned, some satisfied that justice was done. What they had in common was loss, senseless acts of violence and the state’s quiet but inevitable retribution, played out behind the walls that loom over this beautiful town, even on a spring day amid the dogwoods and redbuds.

It’s a heavy, necessary business, but one most towns are happy to stay out of. Huntsville had no choice.

Reflections on a fall

The barbecue sauce washed right out of my hair, and the leg will be okay in a couple of weeks, really. My college homecoming was nice. Very nice.

Funny, but that campus is where some of the worst embarrassments of my young life took place. It’s like that’s what college was for — learning how to just make an utter fool of yourself, get up, dust off, and go on. I think that was my major.

I was the freshman club pledge who had to take to one knee and sing “If I Loved You” to a certain upperclasswoman each time I saw her. I saw her at this homecoming. She still loves me. It’s mutual. You sing that song that many times to someone, you bond.

There was the intramural basketball game after I’d stayed up all night studying and writing a paper. I felt like I was running in waist-deep water while all the other guys were going full speed. At its best, my full speed was slower than theirs. In this game, my best play — before I fouled out in the middle of the second quarter — was stepping aside and letting one of their guys score an own-goal on our end.

Poor sap probably studied all night.

My recurring nightmare — acquired at this very college — was being in a play and not knowing my lines. Any of them. When the curtain rose and the lights went down and the house was full, I was clueless. That never actually happened here, but I was in a couple of plays and the possibility haunted me for years.

In this very building, I remember a great fall. I was in a pickup basketball game I should not have been in. There were two 7-footers and we were running full-court and when most of these guys shot, I was looking at kneecaps. The game was being played somewhere up there above the rim, where I didn’t even know the ZIP code. Then suddenly, as I was loping back downcourt, the other team’s 7-footer got a fast break.

“I can break this up!” I lied to myself. “I can knock the ball away before he raises it to his shoulders, at which point I won’t be able to reach it anymore! I can do this!”

No. No, I couldn’t. I just got in his way. We got tangled and rolled off the court, like a human train wreck. He was the nicest guy in the world, but after we disengaged all those arms and legs (most of which were his) he picked me up by the scruff of the neck (yes, scruff) put his nose about 2 inches from mine and said something to the effect of, “If I get a breakaway, there’s nothing you can do about it. I’m seven feet tall! Just get out of my way!”

I said something to the effect of “Yes, sir.”

How ironic that a fall was one of my chief memories of this building.

My college has a gargantuan airplane hangar that served as our basketball arena when I was there, back in the 70s, and now serves as a recreation center and a venue for numerous other activities. Tonight, it hosted a very nice homecoming/fundraising dinner for 900 or so graduates, families and supporters.

There was a big stage at the front, and after my sister (also a graduate) and I went through the line to get barbecue and tea, I insisted that we go to the front and walk all the way across the room, hoping to spot someone I knew. My wife would have discouraged this, but she wasn’t there. And sure enough, I did see an old friend — at the exact moment I walked into the support leg for one of the giant screens that had been installed on either side of the stage so the vast audience could see the speakers.

Apparently, as I stepped with my left foot, I was almost up against this horizontal, 2-inch square steel bar. So when I moved my right foot forward, it encountered the steel bar with roughly the same velocity that a baseball bat encounters a ball, with my shinbone serving as the ball. With a loaded plate and a styrofoam tea glass filling my hands, and momentum carrying me forward, I executed, for those privileged to be watching, what was undoubtedly one of the greatest falls they’d ever seen.

The first thing that hit the parquet wood floor was my chest. The plate of barbecue kept me from getting a concussion. My hand crushed the tea glass just as it hit the floor. I did a very respectable imitation of a bug hitting a windshield. Dick Van Dyke would have been proud.

I started to just lie there, hoping no one would notice. But when the president of the university runs up to check on you, it brings a crowd. I jumped up and considered pretending nothing had happened. But the spatter pattern was something like a 6-foot, juicy moth would leave. I had to just own it.

Everyone was very nice. I tried to be witty and assured them I was alright and not the least bit litigious. A minute or so later, when the pain really hit my leg, I did make my way to a table to catch my breath. But I went back and got more food, worked the room, and explained to a few old girlfriends why my shirt was covered with iced tea and my hair was full of barbecue sauce.

I leave with one succinct observation, not scientifically verifiable, but accurate to my experience: If you fall on your face in a room with 900 people in it, approximately 11 will laugh, 10 will jump up to help, 5 will immediately start cleaning up and at least 2 will offer you food. The other 872 will not notice.

If this is viral on YouTube tomorrow, I may tweak those numbers a little.

I kinda hope it is. It was spectacular.

We all came here from somewhere else

As I write this, I’m sitting in a Greek restaurant, across from a Thai joint, down the street from an Italian place. There’s a taco truck in the parking lot, a German Catholic monastery down the road, not far from the Amish craft store.

This place is owned by real Greeks (that’s why the food is so good). But a hispanic guy is the manager and several of the workers are young hispanic girls. There’s a white family in here, a few black people, an Asian couple with a two-year-old in a Ninja Turtle cape, a mixed-race couple (she’s black, he’s hispanic-looking). At the school where I did a reading program this morning, there were hispanic moms and dads, quite a few Asians, black people and a growing number who were hard to pigeonhole, racially. Black dads with white kids, Asian dads with hispanic kids, white dads with kids of every color.

It’s easy to see a time coming when race will not only not matter in this country — it will be impossible to determine. If America was designed to be a melting pot (and it was) it’s working. With many old racial barriers down and others falling, you can see that at some point, looking at a person, we’ll just see a person, not a black, white or brown person.

I’m looking forward to that day, blessed to see it dawning.

I’m a white guy, no less an immigrant than any of them. My people fled Scotland and Germany in the 19th century, escaping war and looking for religious freedom. The Native Americans have been here the longest, but they became refugees in their own land and suffered like few other immigrants have suffered. The black people’s ancestors likely were brought here as slaves and have fought for centuries to fully win their freedom. The hispanics are part of a wave of immigrants that has been waxing and waning for decades, but some of them have deep roots here as well (the southwest was, in fact, once part of Mexico).

War and economic opportunity have always driven immigration to this country. They still do. Now people come fleeing drug and gang violence, religious persecution, relentless poverty. They come looking for a place that’s peaceful and prosperous, where they can work hard and be rewarded for it. They want what Americans have always wanted: to be able to put their babies in safe beds at night, send them to good schools and give them a life that holds the promise of better things.

That has, by the way, always been the strength of America. People with good ideas and an entrepreneurial spirit have made this country what it is — prosperous and peaceful and cutting-edge.

We have a right, and a responsibility, to make sure immigrants — whether they’re refugees fleeing war, religious persecution or violence, or just brave people looking for economic opportunity — come here in peace and good faith. I’m all for making that process rigorous in a volatile and dangerous world. But it can’t be perfect.

Remember, the most costly act of domestic terrorism in our history was perpetrated by a white guy named McVeigh.

The solution to a dangerous world is not to shut the borders. Beside the fact that those who wish us evil will likely still find a way in, we must remember what America — the idea and the reality — means to the downtrodden in this world. The United States has always been a refuge for those who’ve lost homes, families, neighborhoods and livelihoods to that dangerous world. We remain, for many, the “last, best hope.”

What’s the answer? America is the answer. It’s important that we remember that, remain who we are — and elect leaders who understand and cherish that.

Big bag o’ sweaters

“Psst! Hey! Blue pullover with the big floppy turtleneck!”


“Yeah, you! What’s up with that neck thing? Are you a girl sweater? What are you, from the 70s or something?”

“Yeah. I was so stylish! My owner had blue eyes and they would just POP when she wore me! Then (snif!) one day she decided she was allergic to alpaca, and (gulp!) that was it. For a few years, I just sat on a top shelf and never got worn. Then last week, she drank a Mountain Dew at dinner and couldn’t sleep, so she went through the closet, and I wound up stuffed in this bag! How could she? After all we’ve been through…”

“Ah, knock it off. She probably just got tired of looking like an all-grown-up cast member from The Facts of Life.”

“Oh, aren’t you funny!” came a voice from farther down in the bag. “What are you, some kind of comedian or something?”

“As a matter of fact, I am! Can’t you see me? Don’t you know who I am?”

A hush fell over the bag. Nobody spoke until a houndstooth cardigan finally got up the nerve.

“C-Cosby?” he stammered.

“Yeah, that’s right. Couldn’t you tell from the 12 different colors? The oversized, overstuffed sofa look? That bunch-of-rags-tied-together style that was so popular for Christmas in 1986? It’s true (bursts into tears) — I’m a… Cosby sweater! I’m done! I’m toast! Forget the Woolite — I’m washed up!”

“There, there,” cooed a sky-blue cashmere number with pearls on her collar. “It’s not your fault. You didn’t do anything!”

“Thanks (sniffle). I know. It’s guilt by association. Now, my kind are in bags all over America, ready for that long, last trip to Goodwill or the Salvation Army. But even their clients won’t want me. They’ve seen the papers. They’ve heard the rumors.”

“Those aren’t just rumors, baby. Your comedian was not what he appeared. He fooled America all those years, making us think he was this great guy, this funny, wise family man, this icon of respectability — when all along he’d been slipping girls drinks and having his way with them! Shame on him!”

Pearl Collar got so worked up she almost popped a sequin.

“But why should the sweaters suffer? We’re innocent — and very cozy!”

“Oh, you’re not the only innocents to suffer. What about Fat Albert? What about Theo and Rudy and Claire? Look at his real family, his poor wife, his kids and grandkids. Thinking they had this big teddy bear of a dad, only to find out he was some kind of pathetic old predator — a male cougar.”

“Yeah, I know. He never considered the impact his, uh, hobby would have on them — or on the sweater industry.”

“He never considered a lot of things,” piped up a dyed cotton pullover from the bottom of the bag. “Think about all those guys who grew up listening to him, lying there during sleepovers, memorizing whole monologues off of his records. Now they’re in their 50s, and some of these guys can hardly have a conversation without biting their tongues when they’re just about to do a Cosby impersonation, drop in a quote or echo some line about having babies, drinking too much or getting a prostate exam. What about Noah? The Lone Ranger’s horse? His little brother? It’s funny stuff! And it’s all off-limits now!”

“Tell me about it. I feel like my life is over, but I still have so much to offer. I’m warm! I’m cuddly! I could save somebody’s life in an avalanche. Surely there’s a place, somewhere — Alaska, Sweden, Siberia — where they don’t see the news, don’t care if they look like a lying old wisecracking hypocrite?”

For a second, he almost expected an answer. But there was no answer, just a faint flutter of moth wings as the laughter faded.

Bird at the window

I don’t know how to keep this bird from beating himself to death on my front window.

I’ve closed the curtains, gone out there to scare him away, tapped from the inside, yelled from the outside. It does no good. He seems determined to come in, despite two days worth of what must be terrible headaches indicating otherwise.

From where I sit, it’s an almost constant “tap-tap. tap. tap-tap-tap” like there’s someone indecisive at the door. Someone who’s not sure they want in, not sure they’re at the right house, not sure who they are. At least the dogs across the road bark decisively at me when I go to get the morning paper — then when I get it and turn around, they give one last bark, puff up and strut back home, certain they’ve once again saved the ranch from pillage by an intruder.

This bird, though… I don’t know his mind, if he has one. Maybe with the cool, rainy weather lately, he senses winter coming on and believes my house is his best option for toughing it out. Too lazy or unskilled to build a nest, he wants to borrow mine. Maybe he wants to go south, and the house is in his way. (That option would mean he’s both vertically and horizontally challenged, since he could easily fly above or around it if he tried. But I’ve seen stupider creatures.)

At some point, like fall, I know he’ll be gone. Winter will be upon us both. He will have either found his place, or gone to tap on some other glass. Maybe someone will let him in.

If they do, I don’t think he’ll like it. He strikes me as an outdoor bird who just wants a taste of the indoors now and then. He’d miss his freedom and pretty soon, he’d be flying up against that glass from the other side, tap-tap, tap, tap-tap-tap until someone got annoyed enough to let him out.

There are some lessons there. I’m going to work on them while the fog slowly burns away.

Grass farmers

In more than 30 years of community journalism, it was my privilege to meet some pretty cool people.

Sometimes when I do a school program, the kids will ask me, “Who was the most famous person you ever interviewed?” I did get to talk to a few famous people (Ray Charles, George W. Bush, Rick Perry, Trevor Brazile, etc.) but the most interesting people I interviewed were not famous. They were just regular people with amazing stories, fascinating points of view, experiences that left the rest of us shaking our heads in slack-jawed awe.

I have a big, framed photo of one of them — an old gentleman in khaki pants and shirt, sitting in a beat-up kitchen chair leaning against the paint-peeling wall of an old house, eating beans and barbecue out of a tin plate. His hat, which looks like it has worn out 12 cowboys, is tilted back on his head as he sops up sauce with a piece of bread. People think he must be my grandfather.

He’s not, although there’s an uncanny resemblance. His name was Ellison Tom and he was a rancher in Andrews County, where I spent some of the most eventful years of my early career. The picture was part of a story and photo essay I did on The Roundup. Mr. Tom had surface rights to 100 sections or so of that part of West Texas, and twice a year he and a bunch of neighbors and friends would round up the cattle on horseback, because that was the only way to do it.

My wife’s landladies when she had been single were sisters, retired school cafeteria workers. They would fix lunch for the cowboys during The Roundup and drive it 20 miles out into the country, in a Ford Pinto wagon, so the guys didn’t have to come in. One day I went with them, did my story and took that photo.

A friend encouraged me to frame the picture and enter it in the Andrews County Art Show. I did, and it won — not just first place in its category, but Best of Show. I think it won because people around there had so much love and respect for Mr. Tom, and the photo just captured him.

I remember his words, too, although it wasn’t easy getting him to talk when the competition was a plate full of barbecue. He said I shouldn’t be overly impressed by the 100 sections (that’s roughly 64,000 acres) that he ranched. “You can put more cows on 100 acres in East Texas than I can put on 100 sections out here,” he laughed.

But I also remember him telling me he wasn’t really a rancher. “I’m a grass farmer,” he said. He said when he drove around his place in his old pickup, he always carried a little hand spade and a full water can. When he spotted a clump of coastal Bermuda grass, he’d pull over, get out, walk over to it and get down on his knees. He’d gently pull the runners outward, cover them with dirt and water the whole thing down with the water from the can.

That mental picture — an old rancher carefully nurturing clumps of grass on 64,000 acres of shinoak that gets 10 inches of rain or less a year — stuck in my head. In fact, it became my definition of optimism, hopefulness and persistence. Some people, no doubt, laughed — but he was deadly serious. What seemed like a waste of time to many people made perfect sense to him.

My wife was carrying our first child when I did that story, and although he never knew it, Mr. Tom’s example impacted the life of that little girl and those who came after her. If he could take that much time to encourage grass to grow, imagine the time and effort I should be able to expend to nurture my kids. I decided being a dad was probably a lot like being a grass farmer.

No matter how long my day had been, how trying, how filled with conflict and deadlines and mind-numbing repetition — I tried not to let anything prevent me from getting down on the floor with them, wrestling, tickling, reading, singing and laughing. What was more important? As I remembered from my own dad, those times were like drops of water on a child’s thirsty soul.

It’s easy to look out over the vast world of school and media and friends, think of all the things that influence your children every day, and downplay the role you play as a mom or dad. Don’t do it. Instead, take that few minutes when you first get home, that lazy Saturday, that ice-bound evening you’re stuck in the house, and use that time to nurture and encourage your kids. It’s worth the effort.

Then just imagine those brave clumps of green grass growing and thriving, spreading waving in the breeze, as far as the eye can see, brushing the bellies of the horses as the cowboys ride.

Out of chaos, order

E pluribus unim. “Out of many, one.” That’s our nation’s motto, or slogan, or official advertising jingle. I would verify that by looking at a dollar bill, but at the moment I don’t have one.

I would like to know the Latin phrase for “out of chaos, order” if there is one — E chaotus orden or E messedupness straightness or something like that (although I have no training in Latin, other than pig). It’s a fine motto/slogan/jingle and if nobody wants it, I may take it.

Creating order out of chaos has sort of been our theme this summer. In fact, if you think about it, that’s the theme of many days and nights throughout the year. If I had to name my occupation over the past few months, that might be it.

A word on behalf of my gender: Although a fair number of guys are carriers, like Typhoid Mary, when it comes to chaos, inwardly we crave order. The same man who could leave his tightie-whities in the corner of the bathroom until stuff grew on them, if you look a little closer (at him, not the tightie-whities — ew!) he’s the one whose tools are perfectly arranged on a pegboard in the garage, whose toilet paper always has to roll over the top, whose deodorant absolutely must be in the same place every morning.

We may crave order in different ways and different places than our fair brides, but we crave it. That’s why we dig mowing, whether it’s pushing a gas-powered rear-bagger or riding the acreage on one of those zero-turn mowers. Mowing is a relatively mindless activity (that’s possibly a key) that turns a patch of shaggy, unkempt grass into a manicured pseudo-golf-course. At some deep, primal level, we need/want/like that, even though we’re able to recess that gene when it comes to the house, the dishes and our ear-hair.

This year’s main event, in our family, has been moving. Our daughter and son-in-law moved in February, out of an apartment and into the house they now share with our grandson, who arrived April 2 (they followed a long-established family tradition of moving while pregnant). Our other daughter moved a few months later, out of an apartment and into a house, after her former roommate decided to get married. We were even considering moving ourselves for awhile there, until a change in my job situation made that unnecessary.

That’s a good thing, because for the last couple of months, we’ve been moving my in-laws out of their home of the past several years.

They went to a very nice assisted-living facility, taking relatively little of their stuff with them, because it simply would not fit into their small apartment. The house, garage, attic and shop sat there, waiting to be dealt with, until a buyer came along. With a certain deadline for the place to be empty, it was time to dive in, often under the watchful eye and direction of the owners.

My wife and her sister, both teachers, knew their time was limited to summer months. With the help of husbands, a brother who lives a fair distance away, and whichever adult child was available at the moment, they combed through possessions gathered over more than six decades of married life — sorting, giving away treasured items to grandkids and friends, and bagging, boxing or trashing the rest. A good deal of it was precious, priceless, irreplaceable. Much of it had value to its owners at one time, but had served its purpose and now had nowhere to go but out. Just out.

It wasn’t a Big Mess when my in-laws lived there, but all our activity made it one. The process of converting a place from a home back to a house is lengthy, complicated, messy. After several workdays, all the stuff seemed to be shouting at us, louder and louder, getting worse rather than better.

But every item a loved one claimed, every bag of knick-knacks that left in someone’s car during the two-day garage/estate sale, every pickup-load of recyclable metal, donated furniture or trash that pulled away quieted the chaos. It was as if the place was slowly, reluctantly giving up the ghost, donating its organs one by one until the life was gone out of it and only a shell remained.

The carpets and tiles have been cleaned, the garage is swept, the closets and cupboards are bare. Order has been created, out of chaos. It’s quiet, clean and still, and the new owners are ready to move in and breathe their life into it. I’m glad for that. The place needs to once again be filled with the trappings of humanity. The bones could use a little fleshing out. Order is overrated. Chaos is called for.

Besides, my lawn needs mowing.

What I did this summer…

Sweated, mostly, until last week. Then I spent an unexpectedly amazing week in Costa Rica.

Unexpected, because the country was just so much more beautiful — and beautiful in different ways — than I had imagined. Our son-in-law is from there, and of course he encouraged us to see it (he planned the trip, found us a place to stay and rented a van to drive us around and show us the sights) but although he’s really good at many things, bragging is not one of them. A knowing, “You’ll like it!” was the most we usually got from him. I guess he just hasn’t been in Texas long enough. We’re working on his bragging skills. (A new baby boy helps.)

My daughter, his wife, has of course been several times, and our younger daughter also visited a couple of years ago. They were both effusive in their praise of Costa Rica’s lush beauty and rich variety. I believed them, but for some reason, for this trip, I did no advance research, built no huge expectations. The summer had been so numbingly busy and hot, I guess I just didn’t have time for the thrill of anticipation. That’s a shame, because Costa Rica is the stuff that dreams are made of.

The amazing part was that it brought our entire family together for a vacation, and that snuck delightfully up on me. It was something that hadn’t happened for years and that I had thought might never happen again. The girls are grown, and our son, a college senior, had to finagle a week off from a National Parks Service internship in New Mexico. But this was our grandson’s first trip to his dad’s homeland, his first chance to meet his aunts and uncle, great-grandparents and a host of other relatives. We had a chance to go, everybody cleared the decks, and we went.

Now I’m the one who sounds like the Costa Rica Tourist Bureau. You’ve got to go.

We started with a national park called Manuel Antonio, where you walk about a mile through a tunnel of huge trees in a dense rain forest to get to the beach. Along the way, you can observe monkeys and sloths in the trees, various lizards, birds and colorful, exotic plant life. A huge, iridescent blue butterfly soared above to escort us as we entered, and it got better from there. The blue Pacific caresses a perfect horseshoe of a beach, sheltered in a cove surrounded by hills. Surfer-bait waves crash on rocks offshore, sending spray high into the cool ocean air. It reminded me of Hawaii.

On the way there, we crossed densely forested canyons with whitewater rivers in the bottom of them. On one bridge you can park, walk out, look down and see crocodiles parallel parked on a sandbar. Before the week was out, we saw pristine cloud forests, walked through the fog on the lava flow of a volcano at 10,000 feet, zip-lined for a mile 100 feet above the forest canopy, dined in elegance in a city of 2 million people, toured a coffee plantation, and more.

imageBut the most amazing sight, saved for the next-to-last day, was La Paz Waterfall Gardens, a private 70-acre mountain reserve that features walking paths through lush greenery, a vast aviary where you can hold a toucan and talk to huge, colorful parrots (they say, “Hola!”). There are orchid, frog, hummingbird, snake and butterfly exhibits and a big-cat habitat where through the glass you can go nose-to-nose with rescued mountain lions, cougars, panthers and ocelots. There’s also a wonderful restaurant.

But the whole thing is built around a descending chain of waterfalls — the Temple, White Magic, Encantada, Escondida and La Paz. When we saw the first one (the Temple) I said to myself that that was the most beautiful spot I had ever stood in. The others trumped that, cataracts of pure water tumbling over round rocks the size of school buses as they emerge in endless abundance from the mountain. The big one, White Magic (Magia Blanca) cascades 120 feet into a deep pool, putting out a fine spray that keeps everything and everyone nearby eternally soaked. The path takes you to overlooks at several levels and on both sides, through huge ferns, brilliant flowers, plants with leaves the size of a table. All the paths are thick with moss and wet with spray. If the views don’t take your breath away, the climb will.

My son-in-law pointed out that one of the waterfalls, Escondida (it means “hidden”), was not there a few years ago. It’s tucked away behind Encantada, and carries another branch of the river back into the mainstream. It was created a couple of years earlier by an earthquake. He said the river flowed brown and muddy for days, bringing down trees and rocks until it returned to its pristine, clear flow. A bridge at the bottom was destroyed — the steel temporary bridge is still in place — and quite a few buildings sustained damage. Gawking at a waterfall created that recently, trying to imagine the force unleashed there, is awesome and humbling. La Paz was easily the most breathtaking of all the breathtaking sights we saw in Costa Rica.

Even more wonderful than the sights, the food and the natural beauty, however, was the joy of just being with my family, seeing my wife, my kids and my grandson every day, and partaking of the gracious hospitality of my son-in-law’s family. We had already gotten to know his mom and siblings, who came for the wedding, but this time we got to meet aunts and uncles, cousins and grandparents. Our daughter celebrated her 31st birthday in her husband’s homeland, a day after our grandson turned four months old. He happily endured an endless stream of kisses from his aunts and his dad’s kin and went almost everywhere we did, riding comfortably in a harness on his dad’s chest. I observed that Costa Rican culture, like ours, has “baby voice” — that tone people take when they talk to an infant. I have it, my wife has it, and it turns out our Costa Rican family has it, too. There are no cultural or language barrriers: everyone is silly over babies.

It was an amazing, life-changing vacation, but visiting Costa Rica placed a burden on me, too. Now I love people there. I can’t just shrug off bad news anymore. I will never again read of a volcano eruption or earthquake there without wondering how it is affecting my people, my friends, my family — people of Costa Rica whose faces and names are vividly real to me now, anchored in a place I know, a place I’ve been. Before, I didn’t have that burden, but now I do.

But the richness of knowing them, knowing that place, is worth it. I hope to return to Costa Rica often, to kayak in a clear, cool river or backpack into the wildness, but also to taste Abuela’s arroz con pollo, sit and visit with Abuelo and play with the kids and grandkids, nieces and nephews yet to come. I want to savor museums and libraries and churches, to sit in parks and sip coffee, to buy fruit and sit and peel it and feed pieces to the little ones.

I’ve never had a second country, but now I do. It’s Costa Rica. I’ve got family there.

I wasn’t going to get political, but…

It’s true. I was planning to stay away from politics in this space. Then Don Trump happened.

I’ve never had much use for the guy, his suits, his billions or his buildings. I think people who feel compelled to put their name on everything they own are deeply insecure.

I’ve seen the promos, but I’ve never watched his little show where he fires people. I was an employer for almost three decades and had to let people go from time to time, but I never yelled “You’re fired!” at anyone. It’s a bad way to treat people. I understand that’s his schtick. He’s a loud-mouth, self-aggrandizing New Yorker with seriously weird hair.

(For the record, let me state that there are some loud-mouth New Yorkers whom I love, but both they and what’s left of their hair are real in a way Don Trump could never fathom.)

Because Don Trump has a bunch of money, he thinks he’s smart. So, apparently, do a rapidly declining number of other people. Like many 1) small-town, 2) Texan, 3) immigrant-loving, 4) veteran-respecting, 5) people who actually do have a filter between our minds and our mouths — I’m alarmed that this man could remotely be considered for the job of president of the United States.

I think we’re smarter than that, but my faith gets shaken now and then. I hope the public sees that Don Trump is a “reality” TV star who wouldn’t know reality if it was hiding in his hair. But he has name recognition, a familiar face and lots of money. If the White House can be bought, he can buy it.

The good news is, so far, he’s also got both feet firmly planted in his own mouth. It seems that if the other 47 Republicans running for president aren’t able to defeat him, he’s virtually a shoo-in to defeat himself.

First, he talked in a TV interview as if he believes immigration across our southern border consists of Mexico emptying its jails and dispatching people to the U.S. — like Castro did back in the 80s (it’s confusing, I know, Don — all those Hispanics). He said Mexican immigrants were mostly rapists, drug dealers and criminals — then added, as an afterthought, “… and some, I assume, are good people.”

It struck me an off-the-cuff remark by someone who has absolutely no idea what he is talking about. You can hear a more informed level of political discourse at any coffee shop in America.

Then last week, he popped off and said Senator John McCain is not a war hero. Seriously? John McCain is a third-generation Naval officer who graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy, flew jets off of aircraft carriers and was shot down while serving his country. He spent nearly six years in a North Vietnamese POW camp — refusing early release — and still suffers every day from the wounds he sustained in his military service and the torture he endured as a POW.

And he’s been elected to the U.S. Senate five times.

Trump is a second-generation real estate magnate who used student deferments and some kind of toe injury to avoid military service. While McCain has been serving his country, Don Trump has been serving himself at the buffet of freedom our veterans paid for with their blood.

No, you don’t have to have been in the military to be president, but a Commander-in-Chief should at least be able to recognize, honor and respect the sacrifices of heroes.

Don Trump can’t do that. He also can’t see those who criticize or question him as anything but idiots. Nor does he seem familiar with concepts like humility, diplomacy, listening, learning, seeking the counsel of smart people or thinking before one speaks.

He thinks he is presidential material. I’m pretty sure I know what he is. I’m also pretty sure if he gets on a ballot, he’s going to think everyone who doesn’t vote for him is an idiot.

I’m hoping that’s a large, large number of people.

The theater conspiracy

I want to express my deep alarm at the newest trend in theaters: extremely comfortable seats.

This trend, which happens to coincide with my entry into late middle-age, strikes me as a deliberate ploy by the theater conglomerates. They know their audience — from babies to baby boomers — and they know how to extract the maximum cash from them.

To get into the younger generation’s pockets, of course, they roll out lots of animation (my last two movies have been “Inside Out” — that one about all the emotions rolling around in that little girl’s head — and “Minions” — the backstory of “Despicable Me.”) The kids in their 20s and 30s respond mostly to massive destruction (earthquakes, climate change disasters, etc.) or dire futuristic scenarios where everyone fights with bows and arrows, rides around on flying horses and/or is blue.

My wife and I are selective. Now and then, a movie comes out with a lovely plot, like “Saving Mr. Banks” about the making of Mary Poppins, “The Book Thief,” “Walter Mitty” or the one about those two cafes in France that were across the road from each other “The Hundred-Foot Journey.” But those kinds of films are rare in the summer.

When it comes to popular fare, I admit, I like the Avengers, mostly because of Iron Man’s caustic wit. They provide more than enough massive destruction. And “Lord of the Rings” filled my fantasy quota — I couldn’t even make it through the endless sequels of “The Hobbit.”

And there’s the rub. At today’s prices, if I pay to see a movie I want to actually see it. Now that they’ve put in these ARMCHAIRS that allow you to kick up your feet and lie back, that’s about to become a major problem. The last two times I’ve been in a theater, it’s been one with those wide, soft seats.

And it’s been a $12 nap.

I really can’t tell you how that little girl got to the point where she ran away from home while the emotional bowling balls were jettisoned to the dumping ground up there in her head. And if they developed Sandra Bullock’s evil character in the Minions movie, I missed it. When I dozed off, they were hitchhiking to Florida for a convention. When I woke up, they were in London and the little guy was shouting “KING BOB! KING BOB!”

I liked that part. I just wish I knew how we got there. But the @#$&*! chair was too comfortable.

Think about it: You got up, did your chores, then drove to a mall. Maybe you ate lunch in the food court, milling endlessly past the free sample ladies, or walked a few miles past Foot Lockers, Victoria’s Secrets and kiosks with cases for your iPhone. You rode escalators, watched the grandkids in the play area, tried to count the coins in the fountains.

After all that, you’re tired. You’re full. And the theater is cool and dark.

Full, tired and cool is the trifecta for moviegoers my age. Toss that into an overstuffed chair in a darkened room, and what you get is SLEEP. It’s inevitable. It’s church without the disapproving looks.

They know that. Somewhere in a tall building, a team of youngish people in business suits were in a meeting room, drinking coffee and studiousy pondering my generation’s demographic when they lit upon this concept.

“I’ve got it!” Biff said. “Let’s lose about half the seats in the theater — they’re usually empty anyway — and put in naugahide La-Z-Boys. We’ll sell the old geezers a ticket, and they’ll sleep through the movie!”

“Yeah!” Mitzi replied. “They’ll see just enough to make them want to come see it again.”

“And the second time, they’ll need MORE CAFFEINE!” Trey yelled. “Concessions! Ka-CHING!”

I have to admit, it’s working. I just hope they disinfect the naugahide after every feature. All that drooling…