This essay thing

Essay writing consists largely of people’s observations as they discover what others have known all along.

That doesn’t invalidate the craft. I can, for example, now place my daughter’s take on parenthood next to mine — written when she was a baby, leading us for the first time through experiences she is now having. I’m delighted to read hers, as are, no doubt, the thousand or so who follow her blog.

Observing and sharing are the soul of essay writing, whatever its form. And wherever we find ourselves on life’s journey, our observations are at least valid, almost always a launching pad for a reader’s own memories, and at best fresh and unique.

This process does not stop, by the way, until the journey stops. We are, all of us, constantly winding our way into places we’ve never been.

My wife and I have, for example, only in the last few years discovered what it’s like to take care of elderly parents. To liquidate the homes we grew up in, to sell, keep, throw away or otherwise disburse the accoutrements of our young lives. It’s hard, and even though it’s universal, that does not make our thoughts as we go through it any less valid. Who knows? Maybe we’ll see something others missed.

I recently traversed the Cascades for the first time, gasping at the beauty of the sheer, snow-laden cliffs and the gushing rivers. Is this, I wondered, why they call them the “cascades”? Am I the first to wonder that?

I also learned how quickly the climate can change. One minute you’re watching Bavarian dancers around a maypole in sunny Leavenworth, and scarcely an hour later you’re in a blizzard at Stevens Pass. A sign says the Pacific Crest Trail is just ahead, and snowplows have piled up the winter’s precipitation alongside a highway that was clear just a few miles back.

It’s nothing the Donner Party didn’t already know, but it was news to me.

I am, at 61, just now developing a taste for coffee — thanks, probably, to having a son-in-law from Costa Rica and two children who did tours of duty as baristas. We visited a coffee plantation in Costa Rica two summers ago and all I could enjoy was the aroma. If we went back now I would be sampling and savoring — albeit still with cream and sugar.

It’s common among people my age to drink coffee, but for me it’s new and kind of exciting. When coffee gets old I may have to investigate beer…

Also, I only recently learned that the word “peninsula” comes from the same linguistic root as a certain part of the male anatomy. Perhaps most of you knew that all along — but it was somewhat of a shock to me. Now there’s an entire geographic feature that I will never be able to look upon quite the same way again.

Florida! Please! Show some modesty!

On a tamer note, I and my bride (who knew about the geographical thing all along and took it in stride) are just two years into the grandparent experience, in which many of our contemporaries have been immersed for years. We are constantly sharing what we believe to be unique, awesome, wonderful observations with them — and as they politely smile and nod we realize they’ve been there, done that, and have a whole closet full of t-shirts.

Never mind. We’re going to keep on marveling at the wonderfulness. It’s fresh for somebody.

Man on a mission

Three-year-old boys wake up every morning and begin a search-and-uh-oh-I-need-to-be-rescued mission.

People my age were not designed to have one of these — it’s a privilege mostly reserved for the young and energetic, who can get onto and off of the floor without so much groaning, popping and creaking. But like medicine, in measured doses, it will cure whatever ails you.

Three-year-old boys are high-energy dynamos, dominoes waiting to be knocked over. They live life at 90 miles an hour and narrate every step. They devour reality, but seldom actually live in it. While you and I see them as small people, they see themselves as the largest, most powerful creatures on the planet.

They’re Iron Man, Captain America, Superman and Batman rolled into one. They can fly — just listen to the jet sounds — and when they run they make their own whooshing Ninja noises. There’s nothing they can’t climb, outrun or conquer. They learn something new every minute, and make up twice as much.

God built them close to the ground so that when they fall, it rarely results in injury. Although they sometimes cry — particularly if Mom’s around — for the most part they just inventory the boo-boos, pop back up and continue the mission.

If I fell, just once, the way ours falls 20 times a day, they’d take me to the ER, and from there to a nursing home.

Three-year-old boys eat a lot, and the feeding process leaves so much debris behind that you wonder if anything actually made its way into their digestive tract. Then they exercise their new-found ability to go to the bathroom and it’s confirmed that yes, some did. Quite a bit, actually.

Three-year-old boys bounce back and forth between inexpressible delight and unfathomable sorrow, sometimes only seconds apart. When you get down on the floor with them, delight kicks in. They will dash through the house and attack you from behind a hundred times in a row, and have no doubt that you’re really surprised, every time.

Wrestling is a sacrament, pillows are made to be tossed, and low pieces of furniture like chairs, couches, beds and tables are designed to be climbed upon and leapt off of.

Couch cushions, Mom’s purse, your toolbox, their toy box, food — it’s there to be deconstructed, unloaded, taken apart, examined, tasted, tossed. If you happen to have a soft bed, a trampoline or some other space you can safely toss a three-year-old into or onto, you can do that almost infinitely and he will never get tired of it.

But at three, more and more often, things seize their attention and hold it. The toy they’ve had for months suddenly becomes something else in their imagination and it’s the coolest thing ever. A book that was just an object to toss around is discovered to have actual writing and pictures. A stuffed animal gets a name, and a role, and becomes a constant companion.

Three-year-old boys are, above all, interactive. You read, sing and talk with them, not to them. They’re not interested in being entertained, but in entertaining. They don’t want to watch you do stuff, they want to help you. They want a job. They mimic you so perfectly it’s scary.

Three-year-old boys can get grouchy when they get tired, but if you promise them they can play in the bathtub — with rubber ducks and Miss Piggy and Elmo — they’ll gladly let you coax them into getting clean and ready for bed.

And if, by chance, you find that calm story about sleepy bears, and you read it often enough, and slowly enough, sometimes three-year-old boys will yawn a time or two and go right to sleep on your lap. Once they go, they’re gone, because they sleep just as hard as they play.

The only thing you can do at that point is rock them as long as you can, soaking up all the love, the joy, the energy, feeling the heat they’ve built up during the day dissipate into the atmosphere. Then you take them to their bed, kiss them on the cheek and bid them softly to have dreams as sweet as being awake was.

And you wonder who learned more that day, you or him.

Yeah. Everybody ought to have one of these.

The well-watered times

Some people thought it was the end of the world. I thought it was the center.

There was a lot to love about my West Texas hometown. Beautiful sunsets, fields of cotton as far as the eye could see, clouds sailing overhead like great fleets of ships — as well as a beautiful old theater, a big swimming pool, a bustling square. I grew up believing we had the best schools, the best basketball teams, the prettiest girls, the nicest people, the happiest dogs, the best Mexican food.

About the only thing we didn’t have was a lot of rain.

I don’t think I ever saw an issue of the newspaper that didn’t have a weather- or farm-related story. When we had a big rain, happy little frogs splashed across the top of the front page. In church, every prayer invoked the blessing of rain on our crops.

I never understood the songs about rainy days being bad days. Rain made us want to dance in the street — and we probably would have, except for the way most of us were raised to look upon dancing.

Rain was the stuff of life, a reminder that God did care for us — some years more than others. When He wanted to, he could shower blessings down on us, in soaking waves of sweet water from heaven.

Rain saved the crops, filled playa lakes, recharged the aquifer, baptized everything clean. After a big rain, I would make little boats and sail them in the wide gutter in front of the church across the street, then chase them as they joined tributaries, flowing down to the park where they fed a small lake that seemed like an ocean to me.

That, of course, was a long time ago. After more than 30 years living near Fort Worth, the West Texas rains of my childhood are just a vivid memory. But a love of rain is in my DNA.

For a couple of decades, we’ve made our home on not-quite-three acres west of Azle. Some years, dry winters coughed their way into dry springs, as we wondered if anything was going to leaf out, or if it was all just going to burn down to dirt in the summer sun.

Other years, the rain came in great cloud-borne buckets, and there were floods. I took pictures of guys canoeing into their garages, seeing what they could salvage off the top shelves. I remember standing on an old bridge, watching big round bales of hay take float, feeling them bump as they bounced underneath me on their way into the lake.

I guess I’ve learned not to get too down in the dry times or too high in the wet times. But I still believe, like the old water park commercial, that “good times are wet times” — and this year is one I’ll savor for a long, long time.

Every flower, every blade of grass, every tree on our place has all the water it needs right now. The irises put on a show this spring, and the azaleas, the Carolina jessamine and all the flower pots dazzled with color. Vinca and Asian jasmine have filled in every bare spot, trees are lush and the English ivy is climbing the walls.

For awhile, I thought my new redbud tree had missed the party.

I planted it in late winter, carefully placing it in just the right spot, mulching it and watering it thoroughly. But while all the other redbuds, all over town, were in glorious display, mine still hadn’t leafed out.

I thought about ripping it out of the ground and taking it back to the nursery. Instead, I stopped by one day, told the owner what was, or wasn’t, going on, and asked her what to do. She told me not to give up on it. Scratch the bark and see if it’s green inside. Water it, she said. Give it time.

She was right. First one bud, then another popped out and leaves began to unfold. It didn’t bloom this spring, but it’s put on a foot of new growth and big broad leaves that shimmer in the dappled sunlight. I can’t wait for next spring to see it join in the chorus of blooms.

It will always remind me of the well-watered times. And next spring, if I need to water it, I will.image

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!”

“Me?”

“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.