Blog: Our Reality Show

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  • World Series: Game 6 Observations

    With less than two hours to go before the all-important game 7 of the World Series, here are some observations and stats from the all-too-wild game 6:

    1. Well, my Astros in 6 prediction went bust. And I’m not displeased, although that may be the sleep deprivation talking.

    2. Last night’s bartender (there have been quite a few during this postseason) complained that he can’t get “Baby Shark” out of his head no matter how hard he tries. My guaranteed antidote (though not necessarily a better choice): the 1-877-Kars for Kids jingle.

    3. I’d like to thank the sportswriters of America for joining me in dubbing this series “weird.”

    4. The best example of how strange this series is: It is the first time in 1,420 best-of-seven postseason series across MLB, NBA and NHL in which the road team has won each of the first six contests. (And Houston had an unbelievable 65-22 home record through the regular season and two rounds prior to the start of this series.)

    5. Examples of Game 6 weirdness: The first base interference call on Turner in the 7th; Alex Bregman and Juan Soto suddenly becoming their own bat boys; Verlander remains winless in World Series starts. And those are just the things you know about.

    6. Stephen Strasburg tied six other pitchers with his fifth win in the postseason. Max Scherzer can join the list if he wins tonight. Strasburg also is the first starter to go 5-0 in a single postseason.

    7. Soto’s three World Series home runs are the most by a player at age 21 or younger in a single World Series.

    8. Leading into game 7, the Astros have 28 runs in the series to the Nationals’ 27, even though the only one-run game was the first one. This is only the third time teams were separated by one or no runs entering game 7 since 1967.

    9. Zach Greinke and Scherzer are the first pair of Cy Young winners to face off in a game 7 in World Series history.

    10. The last time the World Series went to a Game 7, the Astros beat the Dodgers in L.A. Now they’re trying to avoid a similar fate on their home turf.

    “Play ball,” he shouts while yawning.

  • World Series: Game 5 Observations

    World Series game 5 observations:

    1, The weekend comes down to this: The Nationals haven’t won a World Series home game since Oct. 5, 1933.

    2. Not sure if it was the after effect of the waterlogged Marine Corps marathon, but this was a weird night even by D.C. standards. You know it’s weird when the president gets booed by a majority of the masses (with chants of “Lock him up” for good measure) and people shrug their shoulders afterward. An elderly woman sitting next to us said it was the best thing she’d seen all night.

    3. Additional oddities: A rainy monsoon-type morning turned into a beautiful evening, with temperatures in the 70s at game time; Scherzer was scratched two hours before due to spasms; two women flash Gerritt Cole in a publicity stunt and are “indefinitely” banned from all MLB games; calls for robo umpires are rampant following several missed calls at the plate; and the visiting team has now won all five games in the Series.

    4. Credit to the Nationals and the Secret Service: The lines moved well going into the stadium. Getting in took only a couple of minutes longer than it did the night before.

    5. You have to feel bad for Joe Ross, who was thrown into a starting role with Scherzer’s injury and was victimized by one of those bad calls. He then gave up a two-run homer and turned it over to the bullpen down 4-0.

    6. By now, everyone should know the odds of a Nationals reliever getting three outs in the middle innings are the same as containing a bull in a pen made of cardboard.

    7. The Astros fans travel well. I saw a number of shirts and hats at the marathon, and there was a considerable amount of orange in the stadium Sunday night. Their loyalty was rewarded.

    8. Cole looked like the pitcher who entered the game with 363 regular and postseason strikeouts, but it can’t be discounted that the Nationals played with fungo bats throughout the three-game homestand.

    9. I’m so glad it’s a travel day — for them, not me.

    10. Game 6: Strasberg vs. Verlander, who remarkably has never won a World Series start. Will my Astros in 6 prediction — seemingly unrealistic when the weekend started —hold up?

  • World Series: Games 3 & 4 Observations

    Observations about World Series games 3 and 4 (with a few travel side roads added for good measure):

    1. Due to our bucket list, 23-hour trip to Nashville, we did not attend game 3, the first World Series contest hosted in Washington, D.C. since 1933. And it sounds like we didn't miss much.

    2. In fact, game 3 seemed to mirror the first two, except the teams exchanged uniforms. After the Astros left a ton of runners on base in games 1 and 2, the Nationals could not get a critical hit when it was needed.

    3. Seeing Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit was a great first trip to the legendary Ryman Auditorium, but the buckets of drizzle and gloomy skies in Nashville apparently were foreboding signs of things to come for Washington's baseball team. (No frogs, thank goodness.)

    4. Travel Observation #1: If you're going to describe yourself as a cosmopolitan city (and we love Nashville), closing your restaurant 45 minutes to an hour early because you "ran out of food" and saying that's "the way we've always done it" is no excuse. (This is especially true if you are the only restaurant within short walking distance from three new hotels.)

    5. Travel Observation #2: If said new hotel is going to charge full price rates, it should have the amenities you come to expect when you pay full price. Telling your customers that you can't provide room service because you haven't built the restaurant yet (but have made no mention of this on your reservations website) may be factually accurate, but it's not a good look.

    6. Back to baseball: As hard as this Series has been to watch for this Astros/Nationals fan, it was beyond cool to be in the stands for game 4. But in reality, the game was sort of a dud, a grind it out victory for the Astros to tie the series at two games each.

    7. If voting for Gold Gloves took place today, Anthony Rendon and Victor Robles surely would win. Both made spectacular defensive plays in the Nationals loss.

    8. Otherwise, the Nationals seemed tight throughout game 4. The pitching was meh and several hitters could not get untracked. It made for a long night.

    9. Case in point: When Wander Suero has the best results of any of your staff, that should tell you something. All series long, I’ve said that if Suero actually pitches in the World Series, something is dreadfully wrong.

    10. Case in point #2: Fernando Rodney, age 42, pitching to Alex Bregman (possible AL MVP) with the bases loaded. I turned to my friend Eric and said we should leave when Bergman hits a grand slam. Next pitch: Dinger.

    11. We stayed for the rest of the game.

    12. My daughter-in-law, Conner, is running the Marine Corps Marathon in the rain. Major props to her and to my son, Nick, who ran a half marathon last weekend. After the week we’ve had, I’m struggling to get out of bed.

    13. It’s a three-game series, folks. I’m hoping my Astros in 6 prediction doesn’t come true.

  • World Series: Game 2 Observations

    World Series Game 2 observations:
    1. First inning aside for both teams, this was the pitching duel we expected to see for most of the night.

    2. The Nats bullpen has been the definition of "It ain't over til it's over" all season, so I was just as shocked as anyone by the implosion of the Astros in the late innings.

    3. Understatement of the year from Joe Buck: The Nationals bullpen has "some question marks."

    4. In the eighth inning, I was texting with an Astros friend and made a reference to the Nationals as "we," for which I was summarily chided. I proceeded to explain that my other team "had gone wee, wee, wee 20 minutes earlier while still at home." He was not amused.

    5. The entire night felt like a flashback to 2017, but now it's the Astros who are the fat cows and the Nationals who are the underdogs with destiny on their side.

    6. Nerd Fact #1: Verlander has walked the opening batter of a game on four pitches only three times in his career. One of those three was on Wednesday.

    7: Nerd Fact #2: The Nationals have scored 30 runs with two outs during this post season. (See #5)

    8. Nerd Fact #3: Michael A. Taylor has more home runs during the playoffs than he did during the regular season. And that's why baseball is a great game.

    9. Interesting perspective I hadn't thought of: The AL was a case of haves and have nots this year. You were either great or dueling with the Tigers and Orioles for the first pick in the draft. The NL was far more balanced and battle tested, with regular season races going down to the final day. You have to wonder whether that has had an effect on this series, at least so far.

    10. I love aerial coverage of domed stadiums.

  • World Series: Game 1 Observations

    World Series Game 1 thoughts/opinions/questions:
    1. That Soto kid might have a future in this. Hope liquor doesn't get in the way when he's legal to drink.

    2. Was this karma for the Astros' bungling of the assistant GM comments? Exception to that: A.J. Hinch’s response was thoughtful, appropriate, and spot-on.

    3. Nerd stat: Gerritt Cole was 19-0 in his last 25 starts prior to Tuesday. The last time he lost, the Nationals' record was 19-30. That's just crazy.

    4. It was beyond appropriate that Zimmerman scores the first run in the Nats’ World Series history. On a monster home run, no less.

    5. Springer’s blast reminded me of 2017. Zimmerman’s reminded me of 2005-2011.

    6. When Martinez brought on Rainey in the 7th, I misspoke and referred to the relievers as the Redskins bullpen. Thank goodness THAT wasn't the case.

    7. I'm tellin' ya, this feels like 2017, but with a different team.

    8. I love baseball, but my internal organs (specifically heart and liver) are ready for it to be over.

  • The Death of Elvis

    Forty-two years ago today, I was sitting in the lobby of a hospital in Tyler, Texas, swatting at flies. My grandfather was hospitalized with the emphysema that eventually would kill him, and my parents were in Los Angeles, looking again for a way to treat the chronic disorder that would contribute to my dad's death some three decades later.

    It was a typical, sweltering East Texas day in August, which was one reason the flies had moved indoors. I had ridden in the car some 30 miles from Longview with my grandmother and my aunt, hoping to see my grandfather. That was doubtful. Hospital rules prevented 12-year-olds from visiting patient rooms and he was not in any shape to come down to the lobby.

    So I sat there, bored out of my mind, killing flies.

    At some point late that afternoon, news started to spread that shook me to my adolescent core: Elvis Presley was dead at age 42.

    Adolescents in the mid to late 1970s were not supposed to be Elvis fans, and I certainly did not get any cool points from my peers. “Fat Elvis” had become a parody, a bloated yet hollow shell of himself even for those immersed in the 1950s Happy Days-Laverne & Shirley nostalgia of the time.

    But my peers didn’t understand what Elvis meant to me. At the time, I don’t think I understood why he meant so much.

    My dad and aunt were teenagers when my grandmother discovered Presley in his first appearance on the Louisiana Hayride. A year and a half later, on Dec. 15, 1956, my grandfather drove my grandmother (then 51) and my dad (then 16) the 60 miles east to Shreveport to see Elvis’ concert at the Hirsch Youth Center at the Louisiana Fairgrounds.

    I still have the program from that show, which remarkably was taped and released on one of the hundreds of Presley compilations in 2011. Listening to the low-fi affair still brings a smile to my face, knowing they were both there.

    My first rock and roll record was Elvis’ first album, bought by my dad in a record store on Ninth Avenue in Texas City. I remember sitting with my parents watching Aloha from Hawaii, the first show televised around the world via satellite. My first concert, at age 6, was an Elvis show at Hofheinz Pavilion. My second, at age 9, was his performance at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.

    In a weird way, Elvis felt like a member of my extended family, although I was woefully short on accurate information. I hadn’t liked his last few albums, not knowing they were cobbled together by his label because he no longer enjoyed recording. I didn’t understand why he had not been able to recover from his divorce, not realizing it was in large part because of guilt over self-inflicted wounds. I didn’t connect the dots when my parents returned from a trip to Las Vegas in 1975, having been disappointed in Presley’s concert because he looked and sounded “bad” — code, as it turns out, for overweight and stoned out of his mind.

    All I knew, at age 12, is that people aren’t supposed to die at 42 unless they are at war or in some type of accident. People don’t die while sitting on the toilet in their bathroom, especially when they’re only five years older than my dad and six years older than my mom.

    We left the hospital that day and went to Gibson’s, one of those catch-all department stores not far from my grandmother’s house. My grandmother bought me “Moody Blue,” Presley’s last studio album that came in blue vinyl, and I played it on my aunt’s turntable that night.

    Today, in the words of music writer Bill Holdship, Elvis has “now been gone as long as he was here.” And I have remained an Elvis fan, albeit one who — with the benefit of information — is more discerning and less a blind member of the cult. While I separate the schlock from the sublime, I remain in awe of his talent and charisma. I also am grateful for the way he brought my family together on a common subject for a lot of years.

    In retrospect, I also can thank Elvis for introducing me viscerally to the concept of mortality at what now seems like so young an age. I didn’t realize it then, but Presley’s death was the first time I understood life can be more fleeting than you imagine. And it taught me, not for the last time, that you just have to appreciate what you’ve got.

  • Good Friday Reflection

    Here is a beautiful reflection for Good Friday, courtesy of Greg Garrett, an Episcopal priest and author who lives in Austin. He posted it to his Facebook page yesterday.

    “The central lesson of Good Friday is the central lesson of life: Things fall apart. Things get lost. Things get broken. But, when things fall apart, there is also the possibility that something unimaginably good can arise from that circumstance. It happens more often than we deserve.

    “That possibility of grace doesn't mean things go back to exactly the way they were, even if we think that's what we want. Life is about change and transformation. Including our change and transformation.

    “Wishing you grace, peace, and insight around the things that are broken.”

  • Three Belated Mother's Day Stories

    Three belated stories from Mother’s Day:

    My mom’s mom died a week after her daughter was born prematurely some 77 years ago. Soon after, my grandfather joined the Navy and sent my mother to live with her grandparents in West Texas. While he was in the Pacific, both of mom’s grandparents passed away within a week of each other; she only saw her father a handful of times in the first five years of her life. And when he returned, it was with a new wife — a person devoid of almost all maternal instinct — in tow.

    Tragedy and loss are things my mom knew intimately before she could recall all the details, although her memory always has been sharp and specific, as has her tongue at times. My parents had a great love story that was not hindered or halted by my dad’s illness that consumed much of the last 34 years of their 43-year marriage.

    More than anything, my mom is a survivor who somehow has maintained her generosity of spirit. She gives a lot and asks for little in return. We agree to disagree on a lot, especially today’s politics, but what I admire most about both of my parents is they never told me what or how to think. They let me figure it out on my own.

    This past weekend, my mom was honored for her 50 years of membership in Alpha Delta Kappa, an international honorary organization for women educators that promotes excellence in the profession while embarking on a host of community-based altruistic projects. Because of graduation-related events here, I could not attend the surprise party on Saturday that drew teachers and retirees from all over the state of Texas.

    I called mom Sunday to wish her “Happy Mother’s Day” and to see how the ADK event went. She was getting ready — or fixin’, as she says — to go to a birthday party for her 4-year-old great grandson. She was genuinely surprised (hard to do with her) and touched by the outpouring she had received.

    No one I know is more deserving of such an honor. ADK has been part of her life for all but four years of my life, and I know how much it has meant to my mom. I hope she knows how much she means to all of us.

    ••••••

    Two weeks ago, our daughter Emma graduated from college. On Saturday, our niece Margaret graduated from American University.

    On Mother's Day, Jill and Margaret's mom Jennifer threw a graduation party for the two on a rainy afternoon in D.C. All of the family, plus significant others, a couple of the extendeds and a number of friends, joined in the celebration.

    As moms are wont to do, Jennifer and Jill went above and beyond for the event. The party was a huge success and a great way to congratulate both girls, the last of the six first cousins to cross the threshold into adulthood.

    Congratulations again to Margaret and Emma, and here's a shout out to the women who raised them (and the others as well).

    ••••••

    On Sunday morning, I went to get Jill coffee and breakfast as a small Mother's Day token. Because the D.C. weather has decided to take on Seattle/London characteristics — we beat a record for the most rain over a 365-day period this past week — the four-block walk required a raincoat and a quicker than usual pace.

    En route, I saw a homeless woman sitting in one of the narrow gaps between the buildings on King Street. She's a familiar face around here; you can often see her sitting on one of the benches, talking to people we think of as imagined but who seem real to her in that moment.

    Standing in the Starbucks line, I thought of my mom's altruistic work with ADK and Emma's insistence on giving her hard-earned money to those who are homeless or less fortunate. So I bought an extra coffee and croissant and gave it to the homeless woman as she sat in the rain.

    "Happy Mother's Day," I said.

    "Same to you," she replied. "God bless you."

    I have no idea whether she is or was a mom to someone. All I know is that she is someone's child. And none of God's children should ever go hungry, especially if they are looking for a dry place to sit on Mother's Day.

  • Flashback: The Showboat & Bayou Drive-In

    Thirty years ago, I was working to finish my journalism degree during the day while working nights as the city editor of the Texas City Sun. At the time, I’d been working in newspapers since high school, but knew I had to get my bachelor’s degree to have a shot at advancement (and a salary that paid a living wage).

    The schedule was onerous: Classes from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. and then work (if I was lucky) from 4 p.m. to midnight at a newspaper 40 miles from campus. It was 18 months of hell, and I looked for any shortcuts I could find.

    Segue to my first (and only) photography class. The professor was an adjunct at University of Houston, a photographer who worked for the Houston Chronicle and picked up coursework for extra money. He surveyed the class and told us all that we had two assignments to get an “A.” The first was to get a single photograph published in a newspaper or magazine. The second was to develop a package of photos with a narrative and make it available to one of the local papers in the area.

    Realizing I could finish the 18-week course in only a few days, I was quick to turn in a photo I had taken for a feature story. But the photo package with narrative presented a small, though not unsurmountable problem.

    At the time, I was working on a series of stories about struggling downtown Texas City, which was fading into oblivion as development moved toward Interstate 45. The Sixth Street economy first was hit during the Arab oil embargo in the late 1970s and the opening of Mall of the Mainland that year did the downtown businesses no favors.

    We had a staff photographer working on the Sixth Street package, so I wasn’t able to piggyback off that. But I did focus on one piece of the downtown downturn — the closed and decaying Showboat Theater — and combined it with a separate project: La Marque’s Bayou Drive-In that had been destroyed by Hurricane Alicia some seven years before.

    I’ve always been fascinated by movies and the theaters that show them. The love of film comes from my dad’s side of the family. My interest in the architecture of movie houses and the different pieces of how the film business works was a natural outgrowth of that love.

    As a child, I’d only seen a couple of movies at the Showboat, which closed at some point in the mid 1970s and tried to briefly — and unsuccessfully — open as an adult film house. As a teen, I spent most of my available nights at the Tradewinds Theatre, a two-screen “modern” building on 21st Street near the high school. I never worked there; instead, I watched movies constantly and begged for used posters from the theater’s manager.

    I remember going to a couple of movies at the three-screen Bayou Drive-In, which at its height in the early 1970s could hold 1,500 cars on a huge plot of land off Interstate 45. Drive-ins started falling out of favor with the arrival of home video in the late 1970s and early 80s, so it made sense when the owners did not rebuild after the 1983 hurricane.

    The Showboat was just around the corner from the Sun’s offices on 4th Avenue. At its peak, it was surrounded by local shops and department stores such as JC Penney, which for a long time had the only escalator in town. By the late 1980s, Penney’s had closed and moved out to the mall, and plans were underway to move the Sun’s offices out toward I-45 as well.

    In many ways, The Showboat’s fate mirrors that of many single-screen theaters in towns across the U.S. Closed for more than two decades, the building was demolished in 2000.

    Unlike many towns, however, the theater’s identity is still present. As part of a rejuvenation project for Sixth Street, it was replaced with a smaller replica of the original theater. The Showboat Pavilion, as it is known, hosts indoor and outdoor events.

    When I went to visit my hometown briefly last fall, I took a couple of photos of the pavilion before leaving. That's the only color picture you’ll see here. Thirty years ago, we were just starting to experiment with color photos in newspapers; today it’s commonplace. What’s not common is for people to read on newsprint anymore.

    I remember vividly trying to get permission to take photos inside The Showboat in 1989. A representative for the owners said I could go no further than the lobby due to liability concerns. Two doors had no glass and the lobby was trashed. A half torn poster of “Chinatown” from 15 years earlier was seen with film reels and discarded press kits on the tile floor.

    Walking around the drive-in property was easier, but none of the screens remained and the main concession area had been gutted. The photos you see here — for larger versions, go to my Facebook page — are the best of what I got.

    I wish I could tell you the obstacles from the owners prevented the photos from being better, but that would be an excuse I also thought about noting how I had one camera with one lens and one day to shoot, hoping against hope that I could convince my bosses to let me put the photos on the Lifestyle page.

    They did, and I was able to leave the class soon after with my A. While that was a relief, in terms of my health/quality of life/miserably needy GPA, I left knowing I had given the class the short shrift. I rationalized that photography was not for me, given my lacking skills and general distaste for working with film in a darkroom.

    But as anyone who reads this knows, photography has become my favorite creative outlet thanks to digital, even if my skills sometimes seem rudimentary.

    So, skipping forward too many years and chapters, here we are, looking at negatives that were scanned that provide us with a glimpse of hometown history and a mea culpa from a one-time student who didn’t try hard enough.

    A or no A, I wish I could get a do over so I could do this project justice. But that’s impossible, so I guess I’ll never know.

  • Interviewing a Musical Hero

    Anyone who knows me understands how much I value a good conversation. When that conversation is with a person I admire greatly — one of the most thoughtful, best songwriters in all of music — it's that much better. Thanks to Jon Dee Graham for taking the time to talk with me for Americana Highways; you can see the interview on my Music: Live & Otherwise blog.

    Now go contribute to the new album he's trying to make. You won't be disappointed.

  • A Honeymoon That Never Ended

    You might consider me a honeymoon child, given that I was born nine months and 20 days after my parents got married on March 27, 1964.

    Except there was no official honeymoon. My dad moved from Longview to La Marque after my parents got married on Good Friday and my mom went back to work teaching school on the following Monday.

    It's hard to believe that was 55 years ago, or that this photo of Mom and Dad was taken 15 years ago. It's hard for me to believe my father died almost 12 years ago.

    It's easy to believe their honeymoon, while never "real" in the sense of a vacation, never really ended either. All you had to do was see how they looked at each other.

  • Parkland: One Year Later

    One year ago today, 14 students and three teachers were killed at their high school in Parkland, Florida, in the deadliest school shooting since Sandy Hook. Three months and four days later, a 17-year-old gunman killed 10 people and wounded 13 at Santa Fe High School only a few miles from my hometown in Texas.

    As a freelance writer and photographer, I’ve written two cover stories for magazines on the aftermath of these horrific events. Published just days before the Santa Fe shooting, “Generation Why” focused on the March for Our Lives movement started by Parkland survivors that spurred student walkouts and protests all over the U.S.

    The second story, “After It All Falls Apart,” looked at the slow recovery that is ongoing in Santa Fe, a small school district forced to cope with the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey and the school shooting within a nine-month period.

    The stories were written for the school board and administrator audience but provide interesting perspectives for noneducators as well. If you haven’t had a chance to read them, I’ve provided links to text versions in the comments below. I’m interested in hearing what you think.

  • Parkland: One Year Later

    One year ago today, 14 students and three teachers were killed at their high school in Parkland, Florida, in the deadliest school shooting since Sandy Hook. Three months and four days later, a 17-year-old gunman killed 10 people and wounded 13 at Santa Fe High School only a few miles from my hometown in Texas.

    As a freelance writer and photographer, I’ve written two cover stories for magazines on the aftermath of these horrific events. Published just days before the Santa Fe shooting, “Generation Why” focused on the March for Our Lives movement started by Parkland survivors that spurred student walkouts and protests all over the U.S.

    The second story, “After It All Falls Apart,” looked at the slow recovery that is ongoing in Santa Fe, a small school district forced to cope with the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey and the school shooting within a nine-month period.

    The stories were written for the school board and administrator audience but provide interesting perspectives for noneducators as well. If you haven’t had a chance to read them, I’ve provided links to text versions in the comments below. I’m interested in hearing what you think.

  • Places: Stuckey's

    When I was a kid, we traveled back and forth from Texas City to Longview quite a bit to see my grandparents. It was the early to mid 1970s, and I always wanted to stop at one of the Stuckey’s that dotted parts of U.S. 59 as well as many highways in the South.

    My mom, who did the driving because of my father’s illness, refused to go because she didn’t want to have a battle with her children over the thousands of tchotchkes, sweets, and knickknacks that we would want and beg her to buy. (And to be honest, she probably would have had the same battle with my dad, too.)

    Now that I’m an adult and a parent, I get it. But I still have a thing for these places and have wondered how they’ve managed to survive all these years. (Buckee’s, the supersized stores that have popped up all over Texas, feel like Stuckey’s on steroids, but they don’t have the same dated charm.)

    The company started in the early 1930s as a lean-to roadside shed in Eastman, Ga., as a way for founder W.S. Stuckey Sr. to sell his pecans. According to a history of the company, Florida-bound tourists on U.S. Route 23 stopped to buy the pecans, and Stuckey’s wife Ethel created a number of homemade candies to sell at the stand.

    As travel on the nation’s highways became popular post-World War II, Stuckey’s expanded, eventually growing to more than 350 franchises across the nation. They frequently were paired with gas stations, restaurants, and nice clean restrooms.

    By the late 1970s, the company had declined to more fewer than 75 stores, but it has slowly grown back to just over 100 franchises.

    Earlier this week, I drove to South Carolina to work on a freelance feature story and saw a Stuckey’s on Interstate 95. While this little franchise was dwarfed by places like South of the Border, the familiar gas pumps and Dairy Queen were still inside. And the bathrooms were pretty clean too.

  • Meetings & Conferences Gallery Updated

    I leave tomorrow to shoot the Association for Career and Technical Education Conference in San Antonio. This marks the third straight year I've shot this event, and I'm looking forward to seeing a number of familiar faces.

    Meanwhile, looking back on last year's photos served as a reminder that it had been a while since I updated the Meetings/Conferences page on my website. Take a look at the updated version here:

  • ACTE Annual Conference

    Last week, I spent four days in San Antonio shooting the annual Association for Career and Technical Education Conference. At the end, I produced a 3-minute slideshow that was presented at the final general session and then updated it to provide an overview of the conference.

    The conference featured a keynote speech by Jenna Bush Hager on Nov. 29, the day before her grandfather, former President George H.W. Bush, passed away at the age of 94.

    To see individual photos from the conference, go to my Meetings & Conferences page.

    You also can check out the video below.

  • Freelance Story: Grief After Shooting

    Last year, I wrote a freelance story on how schools on the Texas Gulf Coast were recovering following Hurricane Harvey. The same week, 12 months later, I returned to Galveston County to report on another disaster: the shooting at Santa Fe High School that left 10 people dead and 13 injured.

    How the district is dealing with the aftermath of two large-scale traumatic events in a single school year is the focus of “After It All Falls Apart,” published in this month’s American School Board Journal. It is available to read in PDF form here and is also on the National School Boards Association website in text form here.

  • Ryan Bingham in Austin

    During a 10-day trip to Texas earlier this month, I was fortunate to catch Grammy and Academy Award-winning songwriter Ryan Bingham in an intimate acoustic show at the 299-seat One World Theatre outside Austin.

    These photos and a review were posted to the Americana Highways website, and you also can check out the review here. For more photos, go to the Concert Photography page here.

  • Charles Brown, Christmas and Friendship

    For 8+ years, I was friends with a member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame who grew up in my hometown.

    Charles Brown is responsible for two holiday standards — "Merry Christmas Baby" and "Please Come Home for Christmas" — that you've probably heard or will hear between now and Dec. 25. Between his versions, and the many, more famous covers of both, the songs are American classics.

    A feature-length blog entry on my friendship with Charles is now up, along with a sidebar on the songs' slightly murky origins. The entries are on a new blog — "Music: Live & Otherwise" — that I've started on my website. The goal is to compile everything I've written and will write about songwriters, songs, shows, and the effect they have on our lives.

    Take a look and let me know what you think. I'm quite proud of it.

  • RIP , Dr. Z

    When I was a kid, my uncle would let me read or give me his old copies of Sports Illustrated, a magazine I devoured because of the quality of its writing. Paul Zimmerman, aka Dr. Z, was one of SI's best — that's saying a lot — and one of the first bylines I looked for while dog earing a back issue.

    Zimmerman died yesterday at age 86, so I thought I'd share a sample of his work and humor by quoting from a piece on quarterback Dan Pastorini, the former quarterback of then woeful Houston Oilers.

    "A bright young quarterback on the worst team in the NFL. He’d get sacked five or six times a game, get his nose broken, teeth knocked out and wrists and fingers mangled—and the crowd would boo him.

    “It’s like being in a street fight with six guys," Pastorini said, "and everybody’s rooting for the six.”

    RIP, Dr. Z.

  • Eulogy for a Writer

    “As a writer I believe that all the basic human truths are known. And what we try to do as best we can is come at those truths from our own unique angle, to re-illuminate those truths in a hopefully different way.” — William Goldman

    If you took away all the writers I’ve met and seen over the years, all the novelists, essayists, screenwriters and playwrights I’ve admired, and left me with just the work of William Goldman, I probably would be OK with that.

    Goldman died today. He was 87, with a six-decade career that saw him pen acclaimed novels and essay collections, win two Academy Awards, and have his plays produced on Broadway. To sum up, his life was not a bad gig.

    He may not be a household name, but chances are you’ve seen or read his work — the original screenplay to “Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid”; the adaptations of “All the President’s Men” and “Misery”; the novels and screenplays for “Magic,” “Marathon Man,” and “The Princess Bride.” His books on writing for the movies — “Adventures in the Screen Trade” and “Which Lie Did I Tell?” — are indispensable.

    This is where the professional summation ends and the personal one begins. What I liked most about Goldman was his sense of humor, in large part because it was so similar to my dad’s and (hopefully) my own.

    I distinctly remember seeing “Butch Cassidy” with my father when I was a kid. One of his favorites, he could quote many of the punchlines, and “Think you used enough dynamite there Butch?” always brought a smile to his face. This was in the pre-cable days of mid-1970s, and network censors failed to fully take out Robert Redford’s “Ohhhhh … shiiiiiit!” during the waterfall scene.

    I turned to my father with the, "Did you just hear what I just heard?" look and he smiled. It's the first time I remember hearing profanity in a movie.

    In 1999, a special edition came out on DVD for the movie’s 30th anniversary. Even though I didn’t have a DVD player at the time, I bought it and watched it on my computer. It took me back to those days of sitting on my couch late at night with my dad, and I called him the next day to excitedly tell him about the “extras” on the DVD. 

    Several years later, when Ben was 8 or 9 and just getting into acting, the first “adult” movie I showed him was “Butch Cassidy.” The mix of humor and action helped turn him into a third-generation movie fan.

    Another memory: Ninth-grade World History class, taught by Mrs. Selman. At the start of the year, she told us she would read a book to us on Fridays. Many in the class rolled their eyes as she opened Chapter One of “The Princess Bride” and started acting out all the parts of Goldman’s cheeky fairytale; by the end of class, we could hardly wait until the next Friday.

    Years later, I don’t remember a thing about World History, but I will never forget Mrs. Selman reading that book, or seeing the tagline on the back jacket of her tattered paperback: “What happens when the most beautiful woman in the world meets the handsomest prince in the world, and he turns out to be a son-of-a-bitch?”

    It still is one of my best memories of high school.

    As these things can do, the news of Goldman’s death sucker punched me as Jill and I drove to Pittsburgh to see Emma. Our youngest daughter is performing this evening in an unofficial kickoff — or continuation, depending on your opinion — of the professional and familial tilt-a-whirl that doesn’t slow down until Nicholas gets married next February.

    With our kids now (almost) fully grown, we’ve been trying to simplify. We’ve gotten rid of or stored most of the things from our old house in moving into our empty nest. Kate, now a big movie fan herself, has most of the posters that were up in our old basement.

    The one movie poster in the new house — “The Princess Bride.”

  • Daily Photos and Happy Birthdays

    While shooting at a conference earlier this week, one of the attendees sat next to me at lunch and asked, “How long have you been doing photography?”

    This question usually comes up at least once or twice when photographing a multiple-day event, and my standard explanation is pretty simple: When I was working in newspapers and school communications, I had to know my way around a camera, but I became really interested in it about a decade ago. After getting laid off in 2013, I turned it into a business to supplement freelance writing income and it’s taken off from there.

    The attendee, like me a middle-aged man, nodded and asked several more questions about the subjects I like to shoot, the types of equipment I use, etc. As the conversation wound down, he asked, “What was the one thing that really spurred your interest in this type of work?

    That answer, too, is relatively simple: My dad.

    My father was a middle school art and history teacher for most of his career, but his first love — besides my mom — was visual arts. Drawing, painting, sculpture — he could do it all and make it look easy.

    Conversely, I can’t draw a straight line while using a ruler. My painting skills are such that I usually have to bring in a hazmat team to clean up while I go buy new clothes. And my sculptures all look like the mashed potatoes that Richard Dreyfuss used to visualize the mountain in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” (If you want that visual, I’m sure it’s on YouTube.)

    Nine years ago this month, I was spending several days a week in New York with our youngest son, who was in rehearsals for a show, and found myself navigating a series of two and three-hour gaps. Sometimes I’d go back to the apartment or find a Starbucks to work, but two or three times a week there just wouldn’t be enough time to get back or to be truly productive, so I picked up my camera and explored.

    I had never taken “fine art” pictures before, but soon found myself looking for the types of things that would attract my dad’s eye. A year-plus after his death, I thought it would be a neat way to pay tribute to him and found that it kept him closer to me. Soon I posted photos online and folks said I had a good eye for it, so I pursued it further.

    Why tell this story now? Consider it a late birthday present.

    As I returned to the task of editing conference photos this morning and realized how it’s been some time since I’ve updated the blog, I went to my “Daily Photos” folder from this month to assemble the picture you see here.

    On almost every photo, I see my dad’s influence, whether it was in capturing something he would like, or in photographing the lines I cannot draw or the paintings I can’t paint.

    In those times, I realize my eye is his and through my eyes (and others) he lives on.

    My father would have turned 78 yesterday. Happy belated, Dad.

  • Playing Catch Up

    "When it rains, it really pours... "

    Two weeks ago: Headshots for the MSA Academy, Nutcracker promo shoot, photography for Motion X Dance DC, corporate headshots and a two-plus day retreat on the Pennsylvania-Maryland border.

    Last week: Washington-Indianapolis game, three-day trip to Texas for a magazine feature, day-long conference photography in DC, engagement party for Nick and Conner in NC.

    This week: Writing, editing and catching up.

    Oh my. Feeling blessed.

  • The Bandit's Summer of '77

    As a 12-year-old overweight, socially awkward kid, I spent most of the summer of 1977 in a movie theater. My dad’s illness — spasmodic torticollis and dystonia — was at its peak four years in, and my parents continued to go from place to place looking for someone to help him.

    My parents spent a month that summer — the summer of “Star Wars” and Elvis’ death — in Los Angeles, where my dad was getting treatment. That meant that my sister and I went to Longview, where my parents were raised and where my grandparents still lived.

    Like many, I used movies as an opportunity to escape my woes, especially during those tumultuous middle school years. I saw “Star Wars” — who didn’t? — shortly after the movie was released at the end of May. But another film released that week captured, and kept, my attention, despite being shot in only 16 days on a $4.3 million budget.

    It was called “Smokey and the Bandit.”

    My dad was a big Burt Reynolds fan, as were a lot of people in those days. Reynolds was riding a streak of hits — albeit with the occasional flop — that made him the top actor at the box office for seven straight years. And he was a popular guest host on “The Tonight Show” that my dad — and mom, when she could stay awake — watched religiously.

    With shades of Three Stooges slapstick, “Smokey and the Bandit” is not art, but it hit my then-12-year-old self squarely in the demographic. Anyone could see the chemistry between Reynolds and Sally Field, my summer of 1977 crush. And it had other “classic” elements: Jackie Gleason’s “sumbitch”; Jerry Reed admonishing his basset hound, Fred, while providing the movie’s theme song (“East Bound and Down”); and the Trans-Am, which my dad was later inspired to buy in his first non-Cadillac move.

    I watched “Smokey and the Bandit” 15 times that summer, either at the Cargill Cinema in Longview or at the Tradewinds in Texas City, where it played on one of the theatre’s two screens for eons. For a long time, one of my prized possessions was an original one-sheet from the movie.

    Reynolds continued to do some interesting work after “Bandit,” which was the second highest grossing film of the year behind, well, you know. By the mid 1980s, though, the hits stopped coming. With minor exceptions — TV’s “Evening Shade,” the Oscar-nominated “Boogie Nights” — his career went on a slow fade to black.

    Today, Reynolds died of a heart attack at age 82, half a lifetime from the movie that made a 12-year-old boy laugh and laugh at a time when I really needed it. Thanks, and RIP.

  • Children & Immigration: Be Kind

    Not a sermon, just a thought:

    Growing up in Texas, I learned very early on that being a Democrat doesn’t necessarily mean you’re liberal. And despite what you may think you know about me from reading my posts, I’ve taken some of my heritage to heart.

    Where I draw the line, however, is when people who are traditionally marginalized by society are being taken advantage of, just because those in power feel like they can do so. And power, in this case, can mean policies, economics, or violence.

    My blood boils when I see children, the elderly and the infirm being taken advantage of by those in power. If you think about true democratic principles, these three are the ones we expressly elect our officials to protect.

    And yet it is not happening, especially with regard to kids.

    The “My Way” attitude of our current administration is one that could give two shits about anyone who does not provide service to ego or wallet. Anyone who is elected to office in this country should represent their constituents and do whatever they can to help those who are in greatest need.

    And yet it is not happening.

    Children, whether they are in the U.S. legally or not, are taken advantage of daily. Think about this: We don’t talk about kids who live in poverty, educated in schools that are overwhelmed and under-resourced, dealing with daily violence in their homes and neighborhoods.

    Those conversations certainly are not happening and, if they are, little to nothing is being done.

    Our current leadership is showing no compassion to the children at Casa Padre. They are too busy helping — either through action or inaction — build the walls around the king’s castle. And the heartbreaking imagery has overtones that almost are too disturbing to consider in our supposedly civilized nation.

    Almost. But you shouldn’t look away. Instead, look at those images and then go look at yourself in the mirror. Is this what you want for your country?

  • Barbara Bush: Balls and Class

    Things have been so busy over the past week that I haven’t had the opportunity to properly say something about Barbara Bush.

    I had the opportunity to meet Mrs. Bush when she toured NASA’s Johnson Space Center with her husband and India Prime Minister Rajiv Gahndi in June 1985. It was just a brief handshake and eye contact; security was extremely tight because Gandhi was under constant death threats. (His mother was assassinated in 1984; he would be killed by a suicide bomber in 1991.)

    Thirty-three years later, what I remember is that her handshake was firm, as you would expect. I remember telling someone it was firmer than her husband’s. And I appreciated that she looked me in the eyes.

    Today, reading Peter King’s Monday Morning Quarterback column while waiting for some work to be done on our soon-to-close house, I saw this anecdote that brought me back to that day:

    When their son, George W. Bush, was visiting his parents during his presidency, he put his feet up on a coffee table at their home, and his mom sternly told him: “George, get your feet off my table!” George Bush the elder said: “The guy is president of the United States! Give him a break!” She said, “No! He knows better!”

    Finally, surfing pages on Facebook, I saw the image below on a page devoted to Jason Isbell, one of my favorite songwriters. Isbell won a Grammy this year for “If We Were Vampires,” one of the most devastatingly beautiful songs about love and mortality I’ve ever heard. The person who posted the photo noted that it was truly a “Vampires” moment, and I could not agree more. (Photo from the Associated Press.)

    RIP, Mrs. Bush, and deepest sympathies to your husband and family. The tributes over the past week have served as a reminder that we were once kinder and gentler toward people we disagreed with, and I appreciate the chance to pay respects to a woman who had both balls and class.

  • The Story of Generation Why

    My oldest son received his master’s degree on Thursday. Less than 24 hours later, a 17-year-old gunman killed eight of his classmates and two teachers in a high school only 16 miles from my childhood home.

    The shooting at Santa Fe High School was and is disturbing for all the reasons you can imagine: Another senseless loss of lives. Another incident of gun violence in a country marred by decades of it. Another realization that, no matter how many steps local districts take, preventing someone determined to come into a classroom with a firearm is perhaps just … not … possible?

    My four children are 25, 21, 20 and 20. Ben and Emma were 16 months old when Columbine occurred. Kate was 2 and Nicholas was in first grade. We count ourselves lucky that nothing like this happened to them when they were in school.

    What does that say about our society?

    ••••••

    This school shooting was the third in eight days and the 22nd since the start of the year in the U.S. It occurred just three months and four days after 17 were slain at Florida’s Stoneman Douglas High School, which led to two student walkouts and the March for Our Lives events across the nation.

    I was at the March in Washington, D.C., taking photos and working on a freelance story about youth who were galvanized by the movement started by Stoneman Douglas students. I didn’t write the headline for the story, which looked at whether the Florida shooting could lead to a new era of civic engagement, but believe it is perfect.

    It reads: Generation Why.

    “Why?”

    That’s the burning question asked first and most often when something like this happens. We are on an endless search for motive, a trend that will be the path to answers. Camps form within minutes, if not seconds, on social media. The phrase “thoughts and prayers,” no matter how sincere in intent, now is considered a synonym for doing nothing.

    At the March, I interviewed more than 20 students and adults for a series of portraits that would accompany the story. (Some are in the magazine article; you can find the portraits in expanded form here.) I was struck by the kids’ determination not to go through life afraid of going to school.

    Despite our need to understand why something happens, we are stubbornly resistant to one-size-fits-all answers, which leads to an endless round robin of he-said, she-said rhetoric that does no one any good. It’s not guns; it’s people. It’s not people; it’s guns.

    Grieving quickly turns to shouting. Nothing happens. And we wait, knowing that it likely — inevitably — will happen again.

  • Lone Star Strong Cover Story

    Here’s a good Sunday read…

    In September, three weeks after Hurricane Harvey, I went to Texas to write a story and take photos on how schools were recovering. The result is the cover story of month’s issue of American School Board Journal.

    You can see the story and layout, which includes more than 30 of my photos, by clicking on this link. If you’d like to read just the narrative, go to this page on the National School Boards Association’s website.

    I've also done a narrated slideshow that the accompanies the story. Take a look below:

  • Another Mass Shooting

    I’ve thought long and hard about sharing this, knowing many of you will think it is my liberal take on gun control. Think about this: I’ve never shared anything by Occupy Democrats.

    Until now.

    Like others, this Facebook post  generated a great deal of discussion. I also had to make a few rebuttals:

    • On accusations of being too liberal: I didn't affiliate this man with a political party. I made no statements about guns or gun control. I haven't said a single word about a person's right to bear arms. I said he is a terrorist. And he is. End of statement.

    • Comparisons to the Las Vegas shooter: The Vegas shooter was, in my opinion, a terrorist. Anyone who commits or advocates for mass violence against innocent people is a terrorist. Period.

    • On division in our country: Why does everything have to be so divided? This shouldn’t be a time of us vs. them. We shouldn’t be keeping a mass murder scorecard: GOP 2, Dems 1 (or vice versa). That does no one any good. No one.

    • About automatic weapons in the hands of anyone with a permit: Limit them only to the military and law enforcement. Don’t put them in the hands of anyone else. Under any circumstances. That work?

  • World Series Win #1: Go Astros!

    I got out of a dark theater where I spent the evening shooting a show and saw the Astros were behind 3-1. The Dodgers were already ahead 1-0 in the World Series. Things did not look good.

    The pessimist in me said, “Oh, well...”

    I decided to listen to the bitter end, and even though I should have brought both Rolaids and Tums with me, something about this team is different.

    Congratulations to the Astros on the most unlikely of wins. And it is your first World Series victory to boot.

  • More Baseball (Sorry Not Sorry)

    • Halle-damn-lujah: One of my two favorite teams is going to the World Series!

    • Stat worth noting: Since the Wild Card went into play, no team has beaten both the Red Sox and Yankees to reach the World Series. Until last night...

  • ALCS: Is Fate With the Astros?

    The baseball gods seemingly want a Yankees-Dodgers World Series for the first time since I was a teenager. Of course, I remember my heart being broken by the Astros of the late 1970s/early 80s as this happened.

    The 1980 NLCS was a larger heartbreak than any teenage girl. (Not that many teenage girls gave me the time of day, but still...)

    So, to borrow the words of a famous Yankee, I hope and pray that it’s not “deja vu all over again.”

    But the baseball gods have proven over and over that the Marvel universe has nothing on them, so I’m not optimistic...

    Still, go Astros!

  • Cold Weather Memories of Hot Stove Times

    As 2018 begins, we’ve just passed the halfway point of the baseball off season, a striking reminder that another nine-month marathon is soon to be upon us.

    After all of last year’s drama— Farewell 2017, we survived ye — it’s easy not to think about baseball now. It’s not time yet, with temperatures ranging from toddler to tween and a nonstop barrage of college and pro football games on every channel known to man. (I’m still waiting for the Hallmark Bowl to fill in the gap between the Christmas and Valentine’s Day movies, BTW.)

    Regrouping from the holiday season, I started thinking about the unfinished business of 2017 and returned to this essay, which I started writing while on a plane to Denver the week after the World Series. I’ve noodled with it at times over the past two months, but never found the way to finish it. Because, like so many things that occurred last year, what happened just seemed too unreal.

    My hometown Astros — losers of more than 100 games for three consecutive years earlier in the decade — won the first World Series in their 55-year history, soon after my adopted Washington Nationals imploded in a way fans of Houston teams find all too familiar. They became the first team to beat both the Red Sox and Yankees to take their first American League pennant. They exorcised the Dodgers, long a painful memory from their days in the National League West, and won two of the most thrilling games ever in route to a 4-3 Series win.

    As a lifelong Houston fan, I couldn’t wait for the end, knowing the other shoe was about to drop. Heartburn and heartbreak have helped fans of Houston teams keep Rolaids and Tums in business for generations. If a Houston squad was finally good enough to find a way to blow it in spectacular fashion, they were guaranteed to do so.

    Until 2017, the most unlikely of unlikely years.

    ••••••

    Sports are embedded in my DNA by my grandparents, parents and place of birth. Growing up, football was the obvious game of choice, but any dreams and aspirations of being a star athlete quickly met the twin realities of poor coordination and tortoise-like agility.

    Given that we didn’t have many kids in our neighborhood — who would want to play with a clumsy turtle, anyway? — I mostly contented myself with throwing a football at neighborhood trees while playing imaginary games in front of nonexistent fans. Other than sandlot games with friends from another neighborhood, any attempt at playing in an organized setting was nothing short of a disaster.

    Still, I loved the game and read about football all the time, collecting books and manuals and learning about as many trivial aspects as I could. It was something I shared with my grandmother, who jotted notes about games and players on scraps of paper that she never threw away. (Earlier in her life, she also was rumored to bet on Saturday’s games before Sunday church.)

    From the late 1940s through the mid 1960s, my dad’s family took numerous trips to the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, 120 miles west of Longview, to see games. I still have most of the programs, and a prized possession is from the 1927 Rose Bowl that my grandfather attended. (Note: Stanford and Alabama tied 7-7 in a game — dubbed the "the football championship of America" — in a game that broke all attendance records at the time.)

    After I was born, in 1965, my parents and grandparents mostly contented themselves with watching football on TV. The Dallas Cowboys were rapidly becoming America’s team; it was easier then to cover up the hijinks Peter Gent later chronicled in North Dallas Forty (still a great read). Given that we lived near Houston, I rooted mostly for the hometown Oilers, even though they didn’t give us anything to cheer for at the time.

    Following the Oilers in the early to mid 1970s was the equivalent to being a Cleveland Browns fan today. And, for some time, Houston and Cleveland shared the same sad sack tendencies — complete with paper bags on fans’ heads — when it came to all the major sports.

    In Texas, baseball was just one way for people to occupy themselves between the Super Bowl and training camp.

    ••••••

    Despite being the fourth largest city in the U.S., Houston is a town of many communities. If New York’s five boroughs are the equivalent of 1,000 small towns, Houston seemingly has almost as many pockets, thanks to a lack of zoning that comingles homes and businesses on every street corner.

    This, in part, is what helps Houston keep its contrarian, frontier-like sense of individuality, but the community historically has been too spread out and too divided in its loyalties to truly get behind a team. Combine that with some historically bad decisions by team owners in all the major sports — the Oilers’ Bud Adams was the worst, although various Astros owners were close behind — and you could not help but feel like the bastard stepchild of the other major markets.

    For a brief, shining period in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Houston’s teams seemed to get their act together, only to fall agonizingly, frustratingly short in big games. The University of Houston became the only team in NCAA history to make the Final Four for three consecutive years and not win the college basketball championship. Not once, but twice, the Rockets lost in heartbreaking fashion to the Celtics (They won back-to-back titles in 1994 and 1995 when Michael Jordan, ironically, was trying to play baseball.)

    From 1977 to 1980, the “Luv Ya Blue” Oilers were arguably the second-best team in the NFL, but they were in the same division as the Pittsburgh Steelers, which won four Super Bowls during the decade. In 1981, Adams fired Bum Phillips and proceeded to go on a decade-long rebuild. Then, four years after the worst collapse in NFL playoff history, a 35-3 lead that became a 41-38 loss to the Buffalo Bills in 1993, Adams abandoned the town all together for Nashville.

    The Astros, which opened the Astrodome just a few months after I was born, were lousy for more than a decade before finally breaking through in 1980. Six outs from advancing to the World Series, with Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan pitching, they lost to Phillies in what is considered one of the greatest series in baseball history. The next year, they lost to the Dodgers in the playoffs. In 1986, they lost a Game 6, 16-inning thriller to the Mets with Cy Young winner Mike Scott waiting to take the mound the next day. The Phillies, Dodgers and Mets all won the World Series that year.

    The Killer B’s of the 1990s seemed to forget their bats every time they encountered the Braves in the playoffs, providing a template that the Nationals have followed to a tea. The Astros reached the World Series in 2005, were swept by the White Sox, and then proceeded to land in a baseball sinkhole.

    ••••••

    Given the aforementioned lack of coordination and athletic ability, combined with heaping dollop of nerddom, I’ve never had a large circle of male friends. The ones I’ve had, however, share a love for baseball.

    At this point, I could tell stories about several who are Mets fans, but I won’t. Just know that I love you despite holding a 31-year grudge against your chosen team, which brings me to the 1986 NLCS.

    Brian, a college friend from the University of Houston, and I went to many Astros games together, including the infamous Game 6 when the team lost to the Mets in 16 innings. I was writing a story for the Texas City Sun, my hometown newspaper, and Brian managed to sneak into the press box because he worked on the sports desk at the Houston Post at the time.

    Press boxes were much different in those days. Sportswriters smoked and drank during games; beer and hot dogs were free, as was the accompanying indigestion. Given that computers were in a nascent phase, and “portable” PCs were the size of small cars, most still scribbled their observations down in notebooks and called their stories in to the newsroom.

    I worked nights, and I didn’t write sports, but my then-boss said I could go to the game as long as I didn’t drink. Brian was under no such restriction, having somehow secured the game pass on a night off. When the game went into extra innings, I called John — my boss — and asked if I could have a beer.

    “Sure,” he said, scrambling behind the mounds of paperwork that were clogging his desk. “But just one.”

    In the 14th, I called John. The Mets had just gone ahead and it looked like the Astros were going to lose. He said I could have another beer. Billy Hatcher homered in the bottom of the inning to tie it again, so I finished the beer and called John again. He said I could have a third.

    Finally, in the 16th, the Mets scored three runs to take a 7-4 lead. The Astros came back with two in the bottom half of the inning, but it was not enough. Almost 5 hours after the game had started, the Astros — and Brian — were toast. I called John again and he was so disappointed in the result that he said I could stay.

    We remained in the press box until they threw us out. It was the last time I had that level of access to my hometown team. The next year, at age 22, I left the Sun for the first time.

    ••••••

    Flash forward almost two decades. I’d been gone from the Houston area since 1993, having moved to North Carolina and then on to Northern Virginia in 2001. In 2005, as Ben tested out coach pitch baseball, I was wearing an Astros cap and struck up a conversation with a fellow fan.

    Little did I know then that Eric would become the brother I never had. His love for the Astros stemmed from a brief family stint in Texas, and had never abated even though he spent the majority of his childhood in Vermont.

    The Astros were great in 2005, advancing to their first World Series, a highlight during a tough year. Jill’s mom died and my father continued his downward slide. Brian, in many respects the other brother I never had, had died by suicide the previous fall. Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and Houston was soon filled with evacuees who had no other place to go.

    I went to Houston as Game 1 started, wanting to be part of something and to meet a mutual friend for a toast to Brian, who should have been there. The place I had wanted to go, a bar he had taken me to in the mid 1980s, had closed the previous week, so we made do at a hole in the wall. The Astros were swept in four games, a fitting end to a melancholy year.

    I brought Eric a placard and a World Series cap. He promised to do the same for me when the Astros made it back to the series, not knowing then that it would take 12 years, another hurricane, and a last-minute trade for them to return.

    ••••••

    2005 also was the year the Nationals brought baseball back to Washington, presenting me with a dilemma. I still rooted for the Astros, and occasionally went to games when the teams — one lousy and one rapidly approaching bad — faced each other in D.C. Eric and I went to Houston a couple of times to see games and my family.

    After Astros changed owners and moved to the American League in 2013, in the midst of their historic rebuild, I found my allegiance slowly shifting to the Nationals. Even though they have become the new masters of playoff heartbreak, Washington fields a competitive team.  I’ve also been a National League fan my entire life — one of those people who likes small ball and strategy and hates the designated hitter — and had trouble dealing with Houston’s move to the AL.

    As Houston became more competitive, however, I slowly started to follow them again, rationalizing that I could root for one team each in both leagues. The fact the Astros and Nationals share a spring training facility made me even more interested, especially when I had a chance to go with another friend — Tony Jones — to Florida this year.

    The laid-back nature of spring training was a welcome respite from the start of a crazy year, and set the table for a season that was expected to be great for both teams. As a fan, I was nervous when the squads faced off in a meaningless spring training game, only to have the best possible result — a 6-6 tie after 10 innings.

    With our kids grown and our nest mostly empty, Jill and I purchased a half-season ticket package to the Nationals, and looked forward to seeing what would happen in 2017. I went to games with friends and clients, and Jill and I managed to catch more than 20 games together. We both enjoy the leisurely pace and the conversations we have with others at the ballpark.

    As summer progressed and the Nationals dominated their division, we hoped this would be the year they would get over the hump. Meanwhile, the Astros raced out to one of the greatest starts in major league history, only to fade after the All-Star break due to injuries to some of their best players.

    And then, in the dog days of late August, Hurricane Harvey hit. The Astros acquired pitcher Justin Verlander moments before the final trade deadline and, for once, put the wounded city on their backs.

    ••••••

    Two weeks after Harvey, I was back in Texas, working on a story for my former magazine about how schools were affected by the hurricane. Having grown up and/or lived in many of the affected areas, I was compelled to go back and see what had happened. It was the same feeling I had 12 years earlier, a need to return to my roots.

    My former boss, John, had retired several months earlier. His home in Dickinson, a community only a few miles from where I grew up, had several feet of water. My mom and sister did not have damage to their homes, fortunately, but the area was devastated.

    Twenty-five years after I left the Sun for the second time, John and I got together to reminisce about the old days. Our times there were so hectic, crazy, and fun that we had much to talk about, and it was nice — despite the hardships he and others were dealing with post-hurricane — to get the chance to renew our friendship.

    I spent seven days reporting and taking photos in Texas, following the trail of the hurricane, and needed a break by week’s end. I’d been watching the schedule and it looked like the Astros could clinch the division just before I left, so I asked John if he wanted to go to the game. Much to my surprise and delight, he agreed.

    We pre-gamed at 8th Wonder, a brew pub filled with memorabilia from the Astrodome and the teams of my childhood, that is located near the ballpark. Sitting in the padded, loud-colored seats that had been removed from the Dome, I thought about Brian and the memorable 1986 NLCS game, and texted pictures to Eric and Tony.

    The Astros won that day, clinching the division and setting the table for their memorable playoff run. I returned to Virginia and, with Tony, watched the Nationals lose a crushing game 5 to the Cubs. Baseball’s endless capacity for happiness and heartbreak was still in force.

    ••••••

    After the Nationals’ loss, my attention shifted solely to the Astros. Hopes were high when they won their first two World Series games in team history to go up 2-1 on the Dodgers. Eric and his wife, Mary, embarked on a memorable trip to Houston for game 4. The Astros lost 6-2 as the Dodgers tied the series at two each, but that didn’t dampen his enthusiasm. He also kept his promise, bring me back a placard, shirt and cap from the game.

    My son, Nicholas, and his new fiancée Conner were in town for Game 5, and we saw the end of the wild 13-12 Astros victory after attending an invited dress rehearsal for “Mean Girls” in D.C. Seeing my worlds — parenting, the arts and sports — comingle in a single evening was almost too much to take.

    The Dodgers came back to win Game 6, and Eric and I agreed to watch Game 7 together. Unlike the drama of the other series games, the finale was almost anticlimactic, except for the end result. A 5-1 victory lifted the 55-year curse, one that started three years before I was born.

    Eric and I stood in his front yard, almost unable to process what had just happened.

    Say what you will about the negatives of sports, how we seem more obsessed with games than learning, how precious resources go into high school Jumbotrons when they should be spent on other, more important things. But sports also have a unique ability to unite and bring people together in a special, almost unspoken way. I consider myself lucky to have these memories.

    So here I sit, two months later, waiting for it to start all over again.

  • Life in 7 B&W Photos

    I was challenged recently to post seven black and white photos of my life, with no people and no explanation. Here’s what I came up with.

  • Random Thoughts: Harvey's Aftermath

    Random thoughts about Hurricane Harvey in the wake of the devastating storm:

    • Tonight, Jill noted a common link to Harvey and Irma: The Washington Nationals, who played against the Astros in the final series at Minute Maid and are in Miami playing the Marlins through Wednesday.

    • Dear Looters: In case you're looking for a place to stay during the post-hurricane cleanup, I'm sure a number of people will be happy to reserve you a spot in eternal hell.

    • Non-Texans, give this a read. It's the best explanation I've seen yet about the evacuate/don't evacuate aspect of the storm.

    • I wish someone could write "Texas on My Mind" and capture some of the thoughts rolling through my head. Seeing the photos and reading the stories, I just can't find the words.

    My thoughts are with all of you.

  • Places #14: Houston’s Blast of Color

    While reporting and taking photos for a future story on how schools in the Greater Houston area are recovering in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, I decided to go to the George R. Brown Convention Center, the primary shelter site for the American Red Cross. Three weeks after Harvey made landfall, then dumped more than 50 inches of rain on the city and surrounding areas, the shelter still houses more than 1,000 people.

    Driving down the Avenida de las Americas, the street in front of the convention center, I was struck by the colorful strips of table cloths, shower curtains and painters drop cloth that are part of Arcade, three separate installations designed by Texas artists Sunny Sliger and Marianne Newsom of The Color Condition.

    The streamer sculptures, dubbed Hopscotch, Double Dutch, and Red Rover, were installed prior to Harvey and will remain up through mid-November. They provide a welcome respite from talk about the hurricane, as visitors can see them create new colors as the light changes and the wind gusts.

    On a hot and extremely humid afternoon, as reporters from Houston’s TV stations prepared to go live with stories on the status of the shelter, I saw a small child ignoring her mother’s admonitions to leave. I talked to another photographer (Mickey Lawrence of Urban Exposure Media) who was taking a break from storm coverage and had brought someone along to photograph the strips of colors and light.

    To see more of what I captured, go to the Places section on this website, or visit my Facebook album here.

  • So Long, Houston

    Eight days, six school districts, six family members, four bar stops, three Shipleys, two Whataburgers, two longtime friends, two hs football games, one Astros clincher, 1,200 miles driven.

    Til next time, Houston.

  • Following Harvey's Trail

    Earlier this month, I spent a week taking photos and reporting a story on Hurricane Harvey for an upcoming issue of American School Board Journal, the National School Boards Association’s magazine. Having written on the aftermath of natural disasters before, I wanted to understand Harvey’s far-reaching impact on communities and schools in the wake of the late August storm.

    Being there from Sept. 11 to Sept. 18 gave me the chance to follow Harvey along much of its 300-mile path from Rockport, near Corpus Christi, to the Louisiana border. At this point, cleanup was kicking into gear and schools were just resuming in many of the impacted communities, although it will be some time before those near the storm’s eye will be open again.

    In the hardest hit areas, the loss was overwhelming. Contents of family life spilled out into yard after yard and neighborhood after neighborhood, mixed with swollen sheetrock and the growing presence of mold. “Strong” was the byword used in many communities as they demonstrated an unheard of level of resilience in the face of an economic and environmental tragedy. The generosity of others — some fellow community members, some total strangers — was constantly on display.

    The story will appear in the November issue of the magazine, and I’ll be sure to share it here. For now, follow my camera on a day-by-day journey through a state that is injured, but not broken. And check out more photos on my Facebook photography page here.

  • Resilience + Resolve = Recovery

    As I work on this piece about schools and Hurricane Harvey, I can't help but think of those affected by Irma and the other natural disasters. But, having traveled along the path of a hurricane over nine days, I'm also convinced that Harvey was a one of a kind disaster. (I hope so, anyway.)

    I'm also convinced that Texans are folks who pull themselves up by their bootstraps, murmur a "f-this" (or some other, more religious equivalent), and move on to the next thing. 

    Some of you may think that "(Fill in the blank) Strong" is nothing more than hackneyed phrase by now. I get it, because why is it necessary to say something that is so evident in every community affected along the Texas Gulf Coast?

    You've got this, Texas. There are a host of other issues you need to address, but on this count, you've got this part down.

  • Happy Birthday, Julie

    A dozen of my Facebook friends have birthdays today, but none is more important than my sister's. Happiest of happys to Julie, who is now closer to 50 than 40. There may be no more AstroWorld in August, but a Dairy Queen toast will do!

  • 10 Years Later: I Miss You, Dad

    Ten years ago today, I wasn't there. I'd left Texas City the day before and returned to Virginia, hours after my father waved goodbye to us and slipped into a coma.

    Losing my dad, without question, was one of the most difficult things I've gone through in this life. I viscerally remember the multiple flights back and forth from Virginia to Houston after his final diagnosis. Falling behind at work, I remember working on a piece for a magazine while staying with him one weekend in the hospital. I remember the nights he was in such pain, as I simultaneously wished for it to end while selfishly hoping he wouldn't leave us.

    I didn't make promises to higher powers about changing my life forever if he could be spared. I walked around the hospital after that final goodbye, playing Alejandro Escovedo's "The End" on my iPod as loud as I could bear. I started working on a slideshow of dad and his grandchildren that I would show at his funeral. And I started thinking about the future, not knowing what it would hold.

    Often I've said I became a better father when my dad died, having recognized belatedly that life is finite. I started paying more attention to family instead of career, and began to chase after that elusive creative muse. What I learned most is that life is not about the things you have. It's about what you experience with those you love.

    I love you, Dad.

  • Home Sweaty Home

    So I get home from the long trip to a flat tire and no AC in the house. This is how I feel after the two-week travel extravaganza…

    Leaving Texas last week, I was more convinced than ever that Houston is the place where the phrase "body spritzing" was coined. If the AC doesn’t get fixed soon, I might have to reconsider that notion.

    And finally, speaking of Texas, I’ve reached the belated (and foregone) conclusion that Houston also is the epicenter of donuts, barbeque and Tex-Mex. #foodstaples

  • The Last Two Weeks

    Over the past two weeks, I've:

    • Shot and edited more than 1,000 photos at two conferences in New Orleans and San Francisco.

    • Written a column for one magazine and a paid-sponsorship feature for another. Also wrote a blog on Fathers and Sons and posted two albums of photos on my business page.

    • Officially (at least according to LinkedIn) marked year 4 of this solo business gig.

    • Visited a Louisiana swamp and Bourbon Street. (I'm not talking about the same thing, despite many similarities.)

    • Spent an invaluable week with my oldest son, showing him NOLA, Texas, and (long enough to snap a picture) Oklahoma.

    • Saw and spent varying degrees of time with my mom, aunt, sister, first cousin, and nephews/grandnephew. (Just saw one of the nieces in a literal drive by.)

    • Took a number of photos in Kilgore, where my parents first got together.

    • Visited my grandparents' gravesite and showed Nick the places where my parents grew up.

    • I did not leave the hotel these last three days in San Francisco, but with an afternoon to kill before my red eye back to Virginia, I went to the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park to see the Summer of Love 50th anniversary exhibit. Before leaving, I also walked through the National AIDS Memorial Grove, where I had a fascinating conversation with two college-age women.

    And despite a trigger finger that is rapidly approaching carpel tunnel status, I took my camera. It was nice, after all the work-related stuff, to let my eye roam free.

    All in all, it's been a great and productive trip, exhausting but emotionally recharging at the same time. I'm truly grateful to Jill (who's had a couple of interesting weeks in her own right) for having the love and patience to let me do these things.

    So that's the news from this end. Look for more photos here and on my Facebook page soon, and hope I sleep well on the plane ride home.

    Thanks for reading... How's your week been?

  • Fathers & Sons

    I really don’t believe in ghosts. But I do believe in spirits, both of the adult and ghostly variety.

    This summer marks the 10th anniversary of my father’s death, unbelievable because of what has happened over the past decade and because I remember it like it was yesterday. It’s also remarkable because it has been almost 10 years since my oldest child, Nicholas, was last in Texas.

    Nicholas, now 24, and I have bonded greatly over the past couple of years, developing the type of father-son relationship I always hoped and prayed we’d have during his long childhood absences marked by distance and divorce. Thankfully, circumstances lined up for him to join me this week as I trek from New Orleans to Texas to San Francisco, part of a 14-day jaunt that includes shooting two conferences on both ends, with a trip through my home state in between.

    With a month between leaving his job and starting grad school, Nick met me in New Orleans and came to Texas. The purpose of this part of the trip, determined long in advance, was to help my aunt — my dad’s sister and the last link to his side of the family — get ready to move from Pottsboro to her hometown of Longview.

    I’ve long wanted my kids, who’ve spent most of their lives on the East Coast, to come back to Texas with me to see and hopefully gain some understanding of my roots that run across this entire state. Being the oldest, and the one somewhat suddenly with time on his hands, it was logical for Nicholas to be part of this trip with my mom.

    After Nick spent two days in New Orleans, his first trip there, we flew to Houston on Thursday night and left in mom’s van for Pottsboro on Friday. My mom has separated all the photos from her nine grandchildren into boxes. Nicholas’ box, which she gave him, included many photos from when he was a baby/toddler and included my dad. Many he had never seen.

    As we made the trek up Interstate 45, Nicholas held the box in his lap, thumbing through the pictures on occasion. When we stopped at a gas station/convenience store in Ennis, one of the many small towns you pass on the long trek, the ghost/spirit made his first appearance.

    My dad was a huge fan of both superheroes and James Dean, and when we trekked into this kitschy store with its knickknacks, cheap souvenirs, and single beers iced in the open air, I spotted two metal signs above the cooler. One was the Superman insignia; the other was a photo of James Dean.

    We went to my aunt’s house and packed some of her things in the van. Nick and I made a mad dash to the Oklahoma border so he could claim he'd been to the state, then stayed up until 3 a.m. talking about life, childhood, relationships and adulting. (Yes, adulting.) The two of us and Mom left Saturday afternoon for Longview, where we stayed at the homes of my dad’s first cousins. Much reminiscing ensued.

    Yesterday, on Father’s Day, we drove around Longview, visiting the cemetery where my grandparents are buried. There, I realized something I had never thought of before: My dad was 52 — my age now — the year that Nicholas was born.

    After driving by the childhood homes of my parents, we then went to Kilgore, where I had my first chance to see the campus where my mom and dad first got together. (She was a Rangerette; he was the squad’s manager. Not a bad gig for a then 19-year-old.) We then drove back to Houston.

    In many respects, even though Jill and my other three kids weren’t with us, it was the perfect way to spend Father’s Day. Throughout the day, I received texts and calls from Ben, Emma, Kate, and Ginno (“adopted” child). Jill posted a beautiful, sweet message as well.

    Today, the last day Nicholas and I are together, real life is intervening. We are sitting in a Starbucks. I’m writing a freelance story (after processing all of this, of course); he is advertising furniture he and his girlfriend are trying to sell. We are, in many ways, adulting.

    When I started going through some of the pictures I’ve taken over the course of these past few days, I zoomed in on the one I took in that convenience store in Ennis. I knew the photo had a James Dean quote on it, but I hadn’t really paid it much attention. When I read it, however, tears came to my eyes.

    “If a man can bridge the gap between life and death, and if he can live on after he’s dead, then maybe he was a great man.”

    Thanks, Dad.

  • Places #5: Box 344 & The WPA Post Office

    The Longview Post Office, built during the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration and open since 1939, holds a special place in my family’s history.

    The town, about 125 miles east of Dallas, is where my parents grew up. The post office at 201 E. Methvin Street opened in 1939, the year before my father was born, and my grandfather was the assistant postmaster there until 1964, the year before I was born.

    Like many families, my grandparents used a post office box rather than home delivery. Even after he retired, my grandfather would dutifully drive the two miles or so every day or two to get the mail from P.O. Box 344. After he became ill, my aunt or another family member would get the mail for my grandmother, who never learned to drive.

    Earlier this month, my mom and I started the long process of moving my aunt back to her hometown.

    I’ve been to Longview only once or twice since 1989, the year my grandmother died. Each time I’ve returned, I’ve wanted to see what has changed since my childhood. The older, south side section of town where my dad grew up has fallen into decay. The post-World War II era Pine Tree area where my mom grew up has changed as well, though not as much.

    Remarkably, the post office remains the same, a step back in time.

    In addition to the post office boxes, which are the same as I remember them from my youth, a massive oil on canvas mural titled “Rural East Texas” remains in the lobby. According to the website East Texas History (http://easttexashistory.org), Thomas M. Stell Jr. painted the mural in 1942 “to celebrate the history of farming in East Texas and demonstrate how mechanization changed the agricultural industry.”

    Stell, described by the website as “a master portraitist who strove to connect his work with the viewing public,” was the WPA’s state director of the American Index of Design and a professor at San Antonio’s Trinity University.

  • The Summer of Watergate

    In the summer of 1973, I split my time between my parents' house in Texas City and my grandparents' home in Longview. Most of that time was spent with my beloved grandmother, who sat glued to the television every day.

    These were the days before cable/satellite/streaming, so daytime viewing options were largely limited to soap operas, game shows, and reruns of old black and white sitcoms and Westerns on the UHF channels. My grandparents' Zenith TV was noteworthy because it had a remote control, so you didn't have to get up and down to turn the channel, although the unreliable antenna meant you sometimes had to stand on one leg and hold your arm at a certain angle to watch a show.

    Instead of the ubiquitous "I Love Lucy," "Beverly Hillbillies" and "Little Rascals" reruns, my 8-year-old self was decidedly bored watching a bunch of men in suits speaking into microphones. I asked my grandmother a bunch of questions about the presidents, which had become a fascination for me because my elementary school was named after not one, but two of our country's former leaders (FDR and Woodrow Wilson). She patiently answered and said we always have to respect the office, no matter whether we respect the person occupying the top seat at the time.

    As my interest grew in the presidents, I took a minute to write a letter that summer to the White House. Normally I don't write fan letters, and my timing likely could not have been worse. But hey, I was 8 after all.

    Soon after, I received a form letter and a black and white photograph of the White House. Not surprisingly, a photo of our then-president was not enclosed.

    I thought about those summer days again this morning and wondered whether it's a case of history repeating itself. One thing is for sure, there will be no fan letters sent from my address anytime soon.

  • Places: Gruene Hall

    For some time, I’ve had this idea to do short visual stories on the places I visit across the U.S. I’ve been fortunate to travel quite a bit over the past few years, and find that I’m drawn to places that are a little off the beaten path. In most cases, unless you’re a local, you pass by them on the road without a glance.

    This new series of stories starts with a visit last fall to Texas’ Gruene Hall, where I saw Charlie Robison play the second night of his annual weekend Labor Day bash. It had been some time since I had been to Gruene Hall, located near New Braunfels in the Hill Country, and I wanted to showcase this unique Central Texas institution.

    Built in 1878, the 8,000-square-foot dance hall was designed to give tenant farmers a way to socialize on the weekends. George Strait got his start there, playing once a month while beginning his career, and the hall has hosted a who’s who of Texas artists, including Willie Nelson, the Dixie Chicks, Townes Van Zandt, Lyle Lovett, Robert Earl Keen, and Jerry Jeff Walker. Robison is a regular, as is his brother, Bruce, and they occasionally play as a trio with Jack Ingram.

    Gruene Hall bills itself as the oldest dance hall still operating in Texas, a claim disputed by some, and it’s charm comes from how little about it has changed. It has a high-pitched tent roof with a bar in front and a small lighted stage in the back. Signs from the 1930s and ‘40s still surround the stage and hang in the hall, which has side flaps that are used for open air dancing.

    This photos in this album were taken in real-time, so you can see how the evening started slowly and progressively got more full once Robison took the stage. If you ever get the chance to go to Gruene Hall, do so. It’s a piece of history you won’t soon forget.

  • Is Listening A Lost Art?

    I distinctly remember the first time I heard the “F” word. We were driving from Texas City to Longview on the dreaded U.S. 59 in my mom’s white, two-door Oldsmobile Cutlass. I was 9, maybe 10. My dad, his head on the 90-degree turn thanks to dysplasia/spasmodic tordicollis, was in the passenger seat and mom was driving. These were the days when the speed limit had just been lowered and mom, never wanting to break the law, kept the needle neatly positioned between the 5 and the 5.

    As frequently happens on long trips on divided four-lane highways, we played a slight game of tag with another car. We passed it, it passed us, and so on. I’m sure the driver in the other car had to be a little freaked out by the fact that, every time we passed, my dad was staring at him — involuntarily — through the passenger side window.

    Suddenly and without warning, I heard my dad explode with a resounding “F-U too, buddy!”

    I asked my mom what the “f” word meant, and she said it was a word that only adults use, and even then only infrequently. (Little did she know...) Giving my dad the stare down while somehow simultaneously looking at the road and in the rearview mirror, she proceeded to explain that it was a word I shouldn’t ever choose, especially in anger.

    “We’ve taught you to have a better vocabulary than that.”

    The lesson I took from this experience was that the word itself is not what’s important, but the tone of your voice is what really matters. What I didn’t understand at the time, but do today, was that my dad was hurt and lashed out. The other driver had no idea the kind of pain that he was in, no idea how embarrassed/emasculated he might have felt thanks to an insidious disease that would affect him for the rest of his life.

    Over the years, since becoming a writer/editor in my own right, I’ve learned to love and respect the power words have. But more important, I’ve tried to dissect and learned to appreciate the tone my voice has when I choose to use words in a certain way.

    Now, if I’m truly angry, I don’t use profanity. I don’t want people to get hung up on a particular word choice and use that as an excuse to not listen to what I have to say. Deep in my heart, I wish that others would choose words as carefully and listen when others with dissenting opinions are talking. My fear is that listening is becoming a lost art.

  • John Glenn: Not My Namesake

    The death of astronaut and former U.S. Senator John Glenn brought attention to the fact that my legal name is the same as his. Born three years after Glenn's space flight, I've spent much of my life explaining that I'm named after my dad and grandfather, not the astronaut.

    Here, I went into more detail...

  • A Hometown Tragedy

    Last week, while taking a break from photographing a conference in Las Vegas, a news story from my hometown caught my attention: A high school senior had committed suicide in front of her parents. She had been the victim of relentless cyberbullying over her weight and her appearance.

    Immediately, I flashed back to Blocker Middle School and the late 1970s. When you've been bullied, your emotions are on constant standby for time travel.

    ••••••

    I was bullied as a child. What people thought were innocent pranks about my appearance, lack of style, poor social graces, and general athletic ineptitude left scars that have taken decades to heal.

    Then, when you see something like this, something that happened in the hometown you left long ago, those scars are exposed again. You time travel back to the days when you were that fat child, that pimply, awkward, uncoordinated teenager who liked books, movies, drama, and writing. It comes back like it was yesterday.

    You are thankful for your loving parents, who were dealing with boatloads of crap of their own. You are thankful for your few close friends who accepted you for who you were. You are thankful for teachers like John C. Martin, for neighbors who became your extended family. You are thankful for those who, even if they didn't understand you, didn't judge. You are thankful that, no matter how bad things got at times, you had the inner strength to go on.

    You hope that your children did not have to endure the same things you did, knowing that bullies now hide behind their thumbs and their glare-free screens. You try to treat people with kindness, holding on to the manners you were taught. You try to look at issues and events from both sides — and there are two sides to every story — and respect others' right to their opinions, no matter how different they may be from yours.

    I appreciate the steps Texas City ISD took (making counselors available, sending a letter home to parents with other resources) in the wake of the girl’s suicide and pray that no copycat incidents — always a risk with this age group — occur.

    But don’t bury your head in the sand. The temptation some have to prey on others because of their own insecurity and inadequacy has never gone away. It's part of our history that, despite twists like social media, repeats itself again and again.

    When something like this happens, we feel the need to take action, but it always seems to be too little, too late. In Texas, two state legislators filed a bill last month that would require school districts to have cyberbullying policies. The law would require schools to notify parents when children are bullied. Anyone who electronically harasses or bullies another person under the age of 18 would face misdemeanor charges.

    Why these types of policies are not already in place in every school district in America boggles my mind. Why bullying is tolerated, by adults and children alike, simply makes no sense. And yet it is.

    The wounds heal. But the scars remain. #SuicideAwareness — 1-800-273-8255. 

    ••••••

    The essay above, posted to Facebook on Friday, generated a series of heartfelt, thoughtful, and affirming responses. A number of friends shared it, more than 70 (and counting) took the time to comment publicly, and a few sent private messages. (Read the thread here.)

    Here are some of my thoughts, based on what others had to say:

    • 2016, more than any other, has been the "Year of the Trolls." I spend a lot of time on the Internet and try my best to keep things positive, but I've noticed repeatedly that people pick up on a single word you say and use it as an excuse to rip. That is terrible for us as a society.

    • School districts and state legislators have hesitated to push policies and laws through on this topic out of fear of liability. I understand why, but a policy that requires schools to notify parents when they receive a report of bullying should be a responsibility that districts are willing to take on. In the grand scheme, doing everything you can to keep parents in the loop and invested in the well-being of their children is a baby step.

    • We’ve got to stop looking for simple, knee jerk answers (zero tolerance policies, banning all cellphones) to these types of problems. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to this type of behavior, which has been perpetuated for generations.

    • No place is immune from bullying, whether you’re in an industrial town in Texas, a rural community in North Carolina, or the hallowed suburbs of Washington, D.C. It won’t go away without a concentrated effort on everyone’s part, and that means support from schools, parents, classmates, community leaders, and politicians who have the chutzpah to stand up for changes. The problem sits in all our laps.

    • For many young people, compassion is not innate; if anything, the exact opposite is, especially when you're trying to find your way. It truly is heartbreaking to see a kid who's obviously struggling socially, because you know how others have the capacity to be so cruel in those types of situations.

    • Late elementary school and middle school is where so much of this damaging behavior begins. (Middle school was my personal “American Horror Story.”) Like many kids, I thought I could handle it myself, not knowing the damage I was doing to my psyche. I wish I had felt comfortable enough to talk to someone; I would have been much better off.

    • As an average, run-of-the-mill teenage boy who was a barking seal when it came to girls, the power they had was fierce. For the most part, I saw it for what it was and didn't let it bother me. But there were a couple of cruel heartbreaks along the way, where I thought, hoped and prayed that someone was different and was severely disappointed. That's why so much of this cuts so deep and so hard. I realize how much of my life I wasted trying to get the approval of people who didn't give a shit.

    • At times, I feel like we’ve thrown bullying into the same category as poverty — “Can’t do anything about it. Those people just need to step up.” We all need to step up.

  • Headshots: Alex

    It is headshot and portraits season, open to all ages. Check out these headshots of Alex, a recent college graduate now pursuing an acting career in Austin, Texas, at http://glenncook.virb.com/alex.

  • Life on the Road

    In a post earlier this week, I mentioned our crazy travel schedule and how thankful I am to have so many friends and family (biological and extended) willing to spend a little time with us on this journey.

    So here's a small photo summary of the last five weeks. (Roadmap not included.)

  • Family Time in Texas

    Growing up, my sister and I had only two first cousins. Thanks to a mini-baby boom on both of our parts, our kids don’t have the same problem. Between the two families, there are nine Cook-related first cousins.

    Unfortunately, given the size of the families and the distance between us, we don’t see each other much. Julie has taught her kids to send me off with, “See ya next year, Uncle Glenn.”

    What’s remarkable, though not surprising given their ages (9 to 20), is how much Julie’s kids change between visits, none more so this time than Matthew, her 16-year-old middle child. Matthew, who is autistic, has shot up over the past year and now is almost as tall as I am. He also is pursuing his black belt in taekwondo, the Korean martial art that focuses on head-height kicks, jumping and spinning kicks, and fast kicking techniques.

    On October 20 (fittingly my dad’s birthday), Matthew will take the test for his black belt after pursuing it for just 20 months, a remarkably short time frame but one that shows his dedication to the craft. When I was in Houston earlier this month, my mom asked me to take a few photos of Matthew in his class because I could not be there for the test in person.

    Here are some of the photos I took. Congratulations to Matthew for his upcoming accomplishment, Julie for maintaining the juggling act I know all too well, and my mom for all of the schlepping she does back and forth for the kids.

    See ya next year…

    Speaking of which, the last time I was in Houston in May 2015, my great nephew Lincoln was a newborn. Now he’s a 16-month-old toddler, constantly active and filled with innate curiosity.

    He also holds the distinction of being my mom’s first great-grandchild, and given that Calliope and Lincoln live with her in Clear Lake, the focus of much of her attention.

    During my visit, my mom asked me to take some pictures of Lincoln in “his natural habitat.” Nothing posed, just candids of a little boy. Here is the result.

    ••••••

    To see the photos from last year's visit, go to http://tinyurl.com/JuliesKids.

  • Happy 75, Mom!

    "So my Mom turns 75 today. Not sure how that happened, because she always says she was just so young when she had me."

    Pause. Punchline. Followed by, "Of course, calling your mom a liar in public is not polite."

    She's not really fibbing. Mom and dad were 23 and 24 when they had me. But this is the type of humor we share, a back and forth that has been a never-ending game of ping pong for years.

    I wish I could put into words the influence my mom has had on me. Perhaps the best way is to describe her as "my first, best teacher," who has shared her talent with countless school children, friends, and family for her entire life.

    I love you, Mom. Happy birthday. And may the ribbing continue for a long, long time.

  • Family Posts

    Two posts related to people I'm closest to in this life...

    I get a little quiet and contemplative every year around this time. My thoughts tend to get scattered — even more than usual — and I forget little things when a memory of him pops into my head, like I did last night when I realized the anniversary was today.

    No question, the simple passage of time has helped. So do the memories. I still have questions and wonder what he would think about so many things involving our lives and family.

    Today marks nine years. Where has the time gone?

    I miss you, Dad.

    I've been tagged twice in the "Love Your Spouse Challenge," in which you're supposed to post photos for seven days in a row to keep the Celebration of Love and the Promotion of Marriage going. Unfortunately, I'm not the most consistent when it comes to these types of things, so I thought I'd just do 7 photos in one day instead.

    Chances are pretty good that you've seen one or more of these over time. And if you know me at all, chances are pretty good you know how I feel about the woman I've spent the last 20 years of my life with.

    I love you Jill. Always have. Always will. ‪#‎loveyourspouse

  • RIP to "The Greatest"

    Here is one of my favorite photos, and one that never ran anywhere, all because I could not get the little boy’s name at the time. I was assigned to take photos and write a story about an appearance by Muhammad Ali at a Texas City hotel, where he spoke briefly and signed copies of “Prayer and Al-Islam” in 1985.

    Ali, who had been diagnosed the previous year with Parkinson’s Disease, was starting to show signs of the disease that would rob him of his rapid-fire speech. But he shook hands, visited and listened to everyone who was there, in awe of his aura. He also kissed a few babies, including this one.

    Running around taking pictures, I didn’t think to get the name of the baby, and went back to the newspaper to develop the film. When I I knew who the police officer was (Willie Mitchell) and figured that I wouldn’t need it. My boss disagreed and refused to run it, choosing instead what I still consider to be an inferior photo.

    Several days later, I took a copy of the photo to Mitchell and told him I was sad that it hadn’t run. “I wish you’d called me,” he said. “I could have told you who that was. It’s Thomas Carter’s grandson.”

    Carter was a city commissioner in my hometown and an English teacher at College of the Mainland. I took him a copy of the photo when I went to a commissioners’ meeting later that year. At some point, I went by his office at COM and saw it on his desk.

    So I guess it went where it was supposed to go.

    RIP: Muhammad Ali, “The Greatest.”

  • Happy Mother's Day!

    I'm fortunate to be surrounded and supported by wonderful women in this life. To no one's surprise on this day of recognition, two who come quickly to mind are Jill and my mom, Olivia.

    As moms, you both have done and continue to do so much for your children and countless others. We would not be the same without you.

    Happy Mother's Day, night, and every other day of the year. We love you!

  • Another RIP: Guy Clark

    Guy Clark leads an all-star cast in a performance of his "Desperadoes Waiting for a Train" on the Letterman show. Clark, the de facto songwriting leader of so many people I like, died Tuesday following a long illness.

    And the world just got a little smaller ... again.

  • Haggard, Springsteen & Times of Change

    My grandfather liked to say he was an “Okie from Muskogee,” having lived in the Oklahoma town for a period before moving to East Texas with my grandmother. I remember him telling me this numerous times, especially when Merle Haggard’s signature song came on the radio.

    Haggard, who died last week at age 79, wrote “Okie from Muskogee” in 1969 after he became frustrated with anti-military, pro-sex and drugs protests that helped define the Vietnam era. The song, released three weeks after Woodstock, became a Number One hit as angry, proud conservatives embraced and latched on to its lyrics.

    I’m not a huge Haggard fan, although I greatly admire his body of work and his ability to write about a hard scrabble life that included a stint at San Quentin, five wives, alcohol, drugs, bad business decisions, and battles with the IRS. Reading the many tributes written in the wake of his death, what I find most interesting is how he constantly evolved in his stances while tapping into the frustration of conservative whites piqued by changing morals and values.

    Interestingly, Haggard’s death came just a couple of days before Bruce Springsteen decided to cancel a concert in Greensboro, N.C., to protest the state’s passage of HB2 – or the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act. The law, passed during a hastily scheduled legislative session by an increasingly conservative General Assembly, discriminates against transgender people and the LGBT community.

    "To my mind, it's an attempt by people who cannot stand the progress our country has made in recognizing the human rights of all of our citizens to overturn that progress," Springsteen said in a statement announcing the cancellation. "No other group of North Carolinians faces such a burden."

    Driving through North Carolina earlier this week in a truck that had only AM radio, I heard “Okie from Muskogee” in tribute to Haggard and wondered what he would have thought of the state’s latest legal action. After all, U.S. politics are the most strident they’ve been since Vietnam, and Haggard already had come too close to the flames of controversy more than once.

    “I write from common knowledge, current knowledge, collective intelligence,” Haggard told author R.J. Smith about “Okie from Muskogee” in 2000. “At the time I wrote that song, I was just about as intelligent as the American public was. And they was about as dumb as a rock.”

    I wish everyone could evolve like that over time…

    The photos above are of my grandparents around the time "Okie from Muskogee" was released. The video below is of my favorite Haggard song, a duet with Willie Nelson on "Poncho & Lefty." (Seeing Townes Van Zandt, who wrote the song, in the video is a nice touch.)

  • Life: Fragile, Unfair, Everlasting

    Tonight, my 18-year-old son is performing for a paying crowd in his first Broadway show as an adult. About 50 miles north of Syracuse, the family of one of my high school classmates is mourning the loss of their 18-year-old son, an aspiring musical theatre performer who was killed last week in a head-on collision that was not his fault.

    Life is just not fair.

    Like many of you, through Facebook I’ve become reacquainted with many people I grew up with but haven’t seen in years. Chuck Leikham and I went to the same high school; he is best friends with David Watson and his wife, Mary, who I’ve known almost as long as I’ve been alive.

    Chuck and his wife, Kristen, have three children and live in Adams, N.Y. He has been in the military for much of his adult life, and now is assigned to Fort Bragg in North Carolina. Like many families in the military, they have endured long separations from each other.

    Their son, Parker, was deciding between colleges in Michigan, where he planned to pursue a career in musical theatre, when the van he was driving was struck head-on about a quarter-mile from his home. Parker had performed in local, youth, and school theatre since he was in second grade and had just finished a starring role in his school’s production of Beauty and the Beast the weekend before the accident.

    By all accounts, he was a terrific talent and beloved by the community and his classmates. A lineman on his high school football team, he was on the school’s “Whiz Quiz” team that won an international championship in 2014. He also was known for wearing bow ties.

    Two days after Parker’s death, a community candlelight vigil drew more than 800 people to the South Jefferson High School stadium, where his parents and siblings released 18 balloons in honor of his life. A local video company showed up to record the event, and after letting the family know they had a drone to capture the proceedings from overhead, his mother asked the crowd to make a bow tie for her son. The result shows the incredible outpouring of love and support for Parker and his family.

    Tonight, as we celebrate Ben’s opening preview of Tuck Everlasting, a show with beautiful music and the theme of eternal life, we’ll also say a prayer for a family that has lost its own shining star.

    ••••••

    Note: The family is trying to get Ellen DeGeneres to wear a bowtie in honor of their son and is asking for support from their friends on Facebook. Chuck wrote today that his son “loved her show and has much in common with her. Parker was all about love and tolerance.” To write in, go to http://www.ellentv.com/be-on-the-show/1058/

  • Shadows by the TV Light

    Several years ago, before my father died, we were tweaking each other about politics, something that happened on a semi-regular basis. Somewhat joking, he asked how I turned out the way I did.

    My response: Saturday night television.

    Between All in the Family, Maude, M*A*S*H, The Bob Newhart Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Good Times, and Carol Burnett — all of which aired Saturdays on CBS at one point or another in the early to mid 1970s — I was doomed. Call it the curse of King (Norman) Lear.

    By the late 1970s, however, many of those shows had either ended their runs or were winding down (M*A*S*H being the exception). Sitcoms were becoming increasingly dumb and — having reached the ripe old age of 13 — I had matured enough to look for something more.

    First up was Lou Grant, the MTM spinoff that took one of our most beloved sitcom characters and put him in a dramatic newspaper setting. It was thanks in part to that show that I became interested in writing and, especially, in reporting.

    The second show was The White Shadow, which ran on Monday nights from 1978 to 1981 and told the story of a former NBA player trying to coach a group of high school students in urban Los Angeles. Anchored by Ken Howard (himself a 6-foot, 6-inch former basketball player), The White Shadow was the first show that truthfully used sports, and the struggles teens from difficult environments face while trying to escape their surroundings, to such telling effect.

    Friday Night Lights is my all-time favorite TV series, but The White Shadow was its forefather. Between Howard and FNL’s Kyle Chandler, you had two tough, moral, flawed, and kind people in the center square. (Interestingly, both were referred to more often as “Coach” than by their character’s real names.) Both characters are people that you can admire, and even aspire to be more like.

    I had not thought about The White Shadow in some time, then read this morning that Ken Howard had died. Immediately, I saw his character interacting with Salami, Coolidge, Gomez, Reese, Thorpe, Goldstein, CJ and Vitaglia.

    But mostly I thought of the lessons that Coach taught me as a young, impressionable viewer. I then thought of my dad and the lessons he taught me, and then of the dad that I’ve tried to become.

  • Random Thoughts & Full Moons

    There have been multiple instances this week to indicate a full moon is out there looming like Jason from the Friday the 13th movies. That, or the zombie apocalypse is upon us.

    Either way, between the Super Tuesday results, the follow up debates, the discovery of a knife on the OJ Simpson property (now there’s a flashback), and all of the other things that have happened, it’s been a weird week. I had to check the meds I was on to see if side effects included hallucinations two weeks after use, but no luck.

    Here, just in case you’re curious, are the examples of said apocalypse, along with a few other random observations.

    • Despite our nation's ripe history of political satire, few things about the state of our country's politics are funny right now. What Trump says and charges, seemingly off the cuff, is frightening in many ways, but absolutely no laughing matter.

    It's no wonder that several musicians' whose work Trump uses to provide background music at his rallies have said, more politely than he would, "Thanks but no thanks."

    I think I've solved the background music problem, and managed to find a smile at the same time. Wonder if they'll play this at the convention when Trump and Christie are introduced...

    • Actual story in today’s Houston Chronicle: “A former teacher who believes Barack Obama used to work as a gay prostitute seems well on her way to joining the Texas State Board of Education.” Come on, Texas. Really? First, Ted Cruz and now this... WTActualF?

    • Further proof that we’re living in a strange world: I met someone this week who claimed mental illness doesn’t exist. Of course, his rant was accompanied by frequent sips of bourbon and attempts to use the f-word as a noun, adjective and verb.

    • Hint to employers: Your business culture is dysfunctional when staff members start suggesting the Betty Ford Clinic as a possible retreat site.

    • Back to national politics: If Trump, God forbid, does become president, his Secret Service code name could be "Agent Orange." Ted's would have to be "Booze Cruz." This advertisement brought to you by the Campaign for Sensible Leadership. Please vote.

    • Finally, amid the conjecture assaulting our brains, let’s end this week’s stroll down memory lane with a simple fact: Hard work doesn't make you successful. It greatly enhances your opportunity to be successful. There's a difference.

  • The Challenger: A Look Back

    Thirty years ago, running late to a 10:30 a.m. class, I walked past a TV set at College of the Mainland and caught a glimpse of what you see above you. The Challenger shuttle had exploded just 73 seconds after takeoff, killing all seven on board, including Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher in space.

    It was a sight unlike any other we would see until the Twin Towers fell 15 years later.

    McAuliffe’s presence on the shuttle was expected to bring some much-needed attention to the beleaguered space program, which was facing major budget struggles and dwindling public interest amid criticism of a bureaucratic management. Still, only one network — CNN — planned to carry the launch live.

    What NASA hoped would be a public relations coup soon turned into a tragedy few can forget.

    ••••••

    Growing up on the Gulf Coast, the space program was a large part of our lives. Fran Waranius, my second mom, was the head librarian at the Lunar and Planetary Science Institute (now Lunar and Planetary Institute), a research arm of NASA.

    One summer, when I was 15, she hired me to collate the Apollo mission prints she had salvaged in a dumpster dive at the JSC headquarters. NASA, trying to save space, had trashed all of the almost 100,000 prints.

    It was a memorable job, but not — I repeat not — a sexy one. Photo after photo of rocks and craters were broken up only on occasion by iconic images that had landed on the covers of every major magazine and newspapers. Fortunately, Fran let me keep any duplicates I found, and I still have them to this day.

    I also have photos of the Class of 1978, a group that featured Sally Ride, the first woman in space, and several of the Challenger astronauts who perished on that day. One was Ronald McNair; his wife, Cheryl, taught school with my mom at Roosevelt-Wilson.

    ••••••

    Three days later, President Reagan addressed a crowd of almost 10,000 at Johnson Space Center at a memorial service for the astronauts. The service was held in Houston because five of the seven who were killed lived in the Houston area at the time.

    Just days after my 21st birthday, working as a reporter at the Texas City Sun, I received a press pass to cover the event. It was my first chance to see a sitting president in person.

    The non-White House press corps had to arrive four hours before the service was set to begin. We were assigned small spots and told not to move. The Secret Service was everywhere. Four hours seemed like an eternity on three hours sleep, especially on a chilly, sunny morning.

    Reagan and his wife, Nancy, arrived with at least 90 members of Congress for the service, which was attended by 6,000 NASA employees and 4,000 guests. The NASA T-38 jets flew overhead in Missing Man Formation as a band from Lackland Air Force Base played “God Bless America.” The crowd sang loudly as the band performed “America the Beautiful.”

    It was as surreal as you can imagine.

    ••••••

    Somewhere, I still have the copy of Reagan’s speech and the program from the event, stuffed away with all of my other Fran-related NASA paraphernalia. But one quote from the speech stands out, and as I started writing this late on the anniversary day, I had to dig it out again.

    “Sometimes, when we reach for the stars, we fall short,” Reagan said. “But we must pick ourselves up again and press on despite the pain.”

    The shuttle program did press on, despite a 32-month hiatus following a sharply critical report by the Rogers Commission that focused on NASA’s flawed organizational culture and poor decision-making practices. The space agency was criticized again in 2003 after the shuttle Columbia disintegrated while re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere, killing all seven crew members, but no other major incidents occurred before the program was retired in 2011.

    Befitting a mission that was to put the first teacher in space, the lasting legacy of the Challenger can be found in many of our schools.

    Numerous campuses across the U.S. are named after the fallen astronauts. Their families established the Challenger Centers, a network that focuses its efforts on educating students in 40 towns and cities around the world on science, technology and mathematics. Today, the network has reached an estimated 4.4 million school kids.