The place where my parents met — Kilgore, Texas, taken in September 2017
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:
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.
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?
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.
• 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...
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!
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.
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 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.
Thinking about my family and friends in Texas as Hurricane Harvey strikes. Take care and stay safe.
Boxes for mail — Longview, Texas, June 2017
Flags, flowers and fireworks — Kilgore, Texas, June 2017
After two days away, returning with this picture of a seat from the late, great Houston Astrodome — September 2017
Ready to dive — Texas City, Texas, September 2017
The playoffs are here — Houston, September 2017
Pop art on display — Houston, September 2017
Crush of cans — Sweeny, Texas, September 2017
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Phone booth — Longview, Texas, June 2017
Alone in a crowd — Pottsboro, Texas, June 2017
Dragon in the sky — Houston, June 2017
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.
Defying gravity — Houston, May 2015
Spotted boots — Austin, Texas, September 2016
Track across the Red River — Colbert, Okla., June 2017
Blowing in the wind — Longview, Texas, June 2017
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
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?
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.”
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.
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.
Cactus stubs — San Antonio, May 2015
Old coins — Pottsboro, Texas, April 2017
1930s era Philco Radio — Lorton, Va., August 2016
Statue of Sam Houston — Houston, Texas, September 2013
General store — Geronimo, Texas, September 2016
Bottle tops — Austin, Texas, September 2016
Streaks of rain — Houston, Texas, January 2012
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.
Farm fresh eggs — Austin, Texas, September 2016
Paparazzi — Austin, September 2016
Lemonade stand nearby — Austin, Texas, September 2016
Geronimo General Store — Geronimo, Texas, August 2016
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.
Sun breaking through — outside New Braunfels, Texas, September 2016
Hand stitched cowboy boots — Austin, Texas, September 2016
Hey, neighbor! — Austin, Texas, September 2016
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...
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.
Mix of clouds — New Braunfels, Texas, September 2016
VFW Hall, built in 1917 — Geronimo, Texas, September 2016
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.
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.)
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.
General store — Geronimo, Texas, September 2016
Early 20th century courthouse — Lockhart, Texas, September 2016
Rays of light — near New Braunfels, Texas, September 2016
Putting away T-shirts — Gruene, Texas, September 2016
Vacant general store — Lockhart, Texas, September 2016
Downtown at dusk — Gruene, Texas, September 2016
Field of cattle — near New Braunfels, Texas, September 2016
Off to the races — Lockhart, Texas, September 2016
"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.
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
Checking his phone — Houston, May 2015
Riverwalk amphitheatre — San Antonio, Texas, May 2015
Tom Landry's gravestone — Austin, Texas, May 2015
City Hall entrance — Houston, Texas, May 2015
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.”
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!
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.
The Continental Club — Austin, May 2015
The shortest highway in Texas — Austin, May 2015
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.)
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/
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.
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.
Wall etching — mission near San Antonio, May 2015
Mission outside San Antonio — May 2015
Mission outside San Antonio — May 2015
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.
Perhaps it was the trip I took to the zoo earlier this week, or just the general state of affairs that prompted this...
I try not to get political on social media, other than the occasional tweak of how government runs (or more often, doesn't). But I don't know which is worse, the vitriol and hatred that continues to come out of Donald Trump's never-ending RSS feed of a brain, or the fact that Ted Cruz's campaign tag should be "Proven Hypocrite" instead of "Proven Conservative."
As a Texas native, I can't help but wonder what the electorate in my home state was thinking when they elected Cruz to represent them. If Natalie Maines was "ashamed" that President Bush was from Texas, what would she have to say about Cruz's candidacy?
Mission mural — San Antonio, May 2015
Early 20th century office building — San Antonio, Texas, May 2015
Doors to nowhere — Dallas, May 2015
Mission outside San Antonio — May 2015
And what it is ... is football. Happy New Year!
Many faces of faith — outside San Antonio, May 2015
Writing on the wall at the Texas School Book Depository — Dallas, May 2015
Wren is the beautiful daughter of Steve and Meredith Blanchard, two actors on the "Newsies" tour. In Chicago during the holidays, I mentioned to Meredith that I wanted to take pictures of Wren, who had just turned 2. We took pictures in Charlotte in January and again in San Antonio this past week between the Saturday matinee and evening shows. We're already making plans to do so again sometime when work out and I'm back on the road.
Art work in the Texas capital — Austin, July 2015
Christmas memories from over the years. Happy holidays to all...
Another night, another show: One of my pieces — a collage of photos I took during a visit to Texas earlier this year — is featured in an "Art Feast" exhibition at the Buchanan Partners Art Gallery at the Hylton Performing Arts Center. Thanks to everyone who came out to Manassas tonight for the opening of the Workhouse Associate Artists exhibit and to Kathy Strauss for asking me to speak briefly. The exhibit showcases the work of a number of very talented people who work in all different types of genres.
I love collecting bits of memories, the isolated stories about people, places and times past that inform and enlighten us in ways big and small.
Everyone has these stories. Some are better than others at telling them, and the world lost two of those people this past week: my mom’s brother, Randy, and Ed Tunstall, a career journalist I happened to meet while waiting for a morning train.
The news of their deaths during Thanksgiving week was a surprise, if not totally unexpected. Randy, who died at his home in Portland, Texas, last Tuesday, was 82 and had myriad health issues. Ed, almost a decade older at 91, also died at home on Friday, having moved back to his beloved New Orleans after his overall health began to decline.
Randy, an intensely private person, allowed only a three-sentence obituary to be published. Ed, whose journalism, communications and marketing career spanned six decades, was honored with a glowing, staff-written 685-word story in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, where he served as editor for six years.
Befitting the changing times, the story was published online first. New Orleans, which once had morning and afternoon dailies, has published its print edition only three days a week since Hurricane Katrina.
In many respects, relaying the basic facts about Randy’s life makes it sound like it was spent stranded in a turbulent storm. The child of high school sweethearts who married just after graduation, he spent his formative years in Baird, a small West Texas town about 20 miles southeast of Abilene.
Randy was 8 when my mom was born several weeks premature. My grandmother died a week later of complications from the birth, and several months later, my grandfather joined the Navy following the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Until he was 14, Randy and my mother lived with family members in West Texas while my grandfather served as Navy Seabee. When Pawpaw, as I called him, returned with a new wife in tow, they picked up the kids and moved to Longview on the other side of the state.
Randy’s relationship with his father, and especially his stepmother, quickly became strained and he left as soon as he could. At 18, against their wishes, he married his 16-year-old high school sweetheart and joined the Navy, serving as on an aircraft carrier in the Atlantic during the Korean conflict.
Like father, like son.
When Jill and I first moved to Virginia, I rode into work on the Virginia Rail Express, the commuter train located near our house. In 2003, I started noticing this couple waiting for the same morning train. Watching them walk in together, the gentleman appeared to be much older than the woman, but they were obviously smitten with each other.
After several weeks, curious about their story, I decided to introduce myself and met Ed and his wife, Renee. They had just moved to the area from New Orleans so — in Renee’s words — “he can follow me around for once.” I soon learned that Ed was then approaching 80, an amazing sight because his hair had never turned gray.
“All mine. Not dyed. Good genes,” he said in three sentences Hemingway would have been proud to write.
Over the next several months, Ed, Renee and I talked almost during the 20-minute ride from Lorton to Alexandria. As it turned out, Ed and I had several things in common — journalism, twins, and second marriages. Ed had “retired” from his third career due to failing eyesight and moved to Alexandria with Renee, who was working for a high-end cruise line, but he was still helping in the mailroom to stay busy.
Given that none of us had been in the area long, we became good friends. I peppered Ed with questions about his storied career — two decades at the Associated Press, including covering four NBA championships and John F. Kennedy while working in the Boston bureau; more than two decades at the Times-Picayune, a newspaper in one of the nation’s most colorful cities; and time as a journalism professor at the University of New Orleans. But mostly, we talked about sports, especially his beloved Boston Red Sox. I’ll never forget the look he had after they broke “The Curse of the Bambino.”
In some ways, Ed’s life story bridged a generational gap between my uncle and my grandfather. Born in the decade between the two, he also served in the military (although it was the Army, not the Navy). Like Randy, he used the G.I. Bill to become the first in his family to graduate from college.
Also, like Randy, life in his later years was not easy, especially as his body began to betray him. But they both soldiered on.
After the Navy, Randy earned a business degree from Baylor University. The Vestals and their two children moved a number of times during his career, first as a pharmaceutical salesman, then as a manager for a company that made cosmetic prostheses, then as head of the South Texas Lighthouse for the Blind until his retirement.
Randy and his wife, Merry, were together 61½ years until her death in 2013. He remained devoted to her and to her care throughout her lengthy battle with mental illness and then dementia, stubbornly refusing to put Merry in a nursing facility even as his own health became more fragile.
I wish he and my grandfather had been able to navigate their relationship better. The two didn’t speak for more than a decade and things were distant when they did. As my mom has said, “If either had married someone else, our family’s story would be much different.”
Even though our families did not see each other much, the love my mother and her brother had for each other was evident, never more so than in the years following my dad’s death and my aunt’s illness/passing. Watching them together this past May, when Randy and my cousin, Melissa, came to see “Newsies” in San Antonio, it was good to hear often-told stories one last time.
As a writer and photographer, I’ve always been fascinated what you can see behind a person’s eyes. What you could tell by looking at Ed and my uncle was they both knew the beginning, middle and end of the stories they were about to tell. Their eyes seemed to twinkle when an anecdote or story was in the cue.
For those with whom they held court, their stories had the feel of watching original back-to-back Thursday night episodes of “Cheers” and “Seinfeld” on NBC. Ed, like many journalists I’ve known, would have been very comfortable in the Boston bar with Sam, Diane, Norm, Cliff, Carla and Woody. And his stories would have given the writers plenty of plotline fodder.
As Renee said of her husband, “Life was an adventure and he was on it.”
Randy’s anecdotes felt like a pungent episode of “Seinfeld,” Mostly about “nothing” in life’s grand scheme, they always left you thinking even as you laughed. His comedic timing and sense of humor were priceless; I always held on for the punchline.
Last week, Jill and I watched the classic Thanksgiving scene from “WKRP in Cincinnati” and laughed until tears came to our eyes. Jill noted the scene’s pace and how it unfolded in a much slower manner than most of today’s sitcoms, all in the interest of the big payoff at the end. It made me think of my uncle and his stories.
That night I called my mom on the way home and she told me about Randy’s failing health. She said they had talked for an hour and a half and he seemed at peace with where he was.
The next evening, my mom called again to tell me the news. It wasn’t much more than the three lines that appeared on the funeral home’s website.
The rest of the stories, now hers to tell, will have to wait for another day.
Backstage at the Majestic Theatre — San Antonio, May 2015
Mission arches — San Antonio, May 2015
Yard decorations — outside Shiner, Texas, May 2015
Entrance to the Alamo — San Antonio, Texas, May 2015
Breaking the rules — Shiner, Texas, May 2015
Cloudy, windy day in downtown — Dallas, May 2015
Artist's valentine — Austin, May 2015
Football memories — Lorton, Va., October 2013
Scraps of family life — Lorton, Va., October 2013
Life is crazy enough when you have four kids in four schools in three states. Add in two conferences, a Knicks game, Billy Elliot's 1,000th show, Nicholas' prom, Emma and Jill's 10 mile race, and my nephew's airplane ride, and you have the makings of a crazy week — even by our standards.
Thursday: My mom and nephew arrived from Texas to take care of Ben. It's Eric's first trip here, and he seems a little intimidated. Looking good in my dad's UT jacket, however. With Jill and the girls in Virginia, and my mom and nephew Eric taking care of Ben in New York, I went to San Francisco for NSBA's annual conference. After the six-hour flight, I had an hour to go out with my camera before several 16 to 18 hour days.
Friday: My mom and nephew Eric attended the 1,000th show for "Billy Elliot," where Ben played Michael.
Saturday: In North Carolina, Nicholas went to his high school prom with his date, Gracie Strand.
Sunday: While Kate enjoyed a sleepover at her friend Stephanie's, Emma and Jill completed the 10-mile GW Parkway Classic.
Monday: While Jill and Emma recovered from their run, Nicholas went back to school after prom, and I prepared to fly on the redeye back from San Francisco, Ben and Eric enjoyed time together in the afternoon at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Tuesday: Before Eric and mom go home, I take him to see American Idiot before it closes on Broadway. Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes sit in the row opposite us. When I point them out, Eric notes that Holmes is gorgeous but asks me who Tom Cruise is. Youth...
Wednesday: While Ben was at the show, i was able to go to the New York Knicks game against the Toronto Raptors. David Drier, another Billy parent, invited me to see the festivities from his company's box. Cool way to watch a game, and the beer wasn't bad either.
With Nicholas back to North Carolina and Ben in New York, the girls traveled to Texas to see their grandmother, aunt, uncle, and five first cousins for almost a week. I went down to pick them up and we had a family trip to the Rainforest Cafe. The seven children were not deterred by the 90 minute wait for a table, despite the smothering humidity in Galveston.
Fifteen years ago, my youngest daughter and son were born (in that order). Until last year, they had never been apart on their special day. But that was impossible this year.
The twins' 15th birthday presented a special challenge, with Emma in Virginia and Ben on tour in Texas. So that meant an early morning (5:30 a.m.!), before school breakfast with the girl, and a plane ride to see the boy, who performed on his birthday and ate cake from his proud grandmother after the show (11:30 p.m.).
Eighteen hours to celebrate 15 years. Well worth it. Happy birthday, Emma and Ben!
The Austin run of Billy Elliot started on December 11, with Ben scheduled to perform on his 15th birthday with my mom and several of her friends in attendance. That meant I had to get on an early morning plane after seeing Emma — I can’t miss seeing my twins on their birthday, even if they are in separate states — off to school.
Little did I know that my time in Texas would be such an experience, or that it would be extended by several days due to a family tragedy.
Here’s a rundown of what happened on the trip:
• Dec. 11: Made it to Austin and was greeted by a traffic jam that would make my NOVA and NYC friends blush. And in this case, size did matter. I barely made it to the theater in time to give Ben a birthday hug before his call, then bought my sixth-grade English teacher a beer this evening before the show. Bid a fond farewell to yet another childhood myth. After the show, we had a cake for the boy that my mom bought in the hotel bar.
• Dec. 12: Touring the state capitol with Mom, Ben, and Ginno. Really a fascinating place.
• Dec. 13: Media day with stops at four TV stations and my favorite Austin music station. That was cool… Meanwhile, back home, Jill had to go to North Carolina where her Aunt Sybil was buried after a long illness. Thoughts go out to the McFarland and Mercer families.
• Dec. 14: Had a terrific time watching Kylend Hetherington's final show and seeing Ben again as Michael (a sweet surprise and a wonderful performance by both boys).
• Dec. 15: Tonight, the boy is on as Billy, with my mom, my sister and her family, my aunt and her friends, and several dear friends in the audience. But our thoughts are with the one who won’t be there. My second cousin, Kerry Bowman, was killed in a head-on collision while driving from Albany (a small town in West Texas) to Austin to see the show.
• Dec. 17: After an emotional week, Mom and I are sending Ben and Ginno off to Baltimore and heading to West Texas for my cousin's funeral on Wednesday. Many thanks to everyone who expressed sympathy and concern. Also, we need prayers for Jill's ailing father, who also is in the hospital and in increasingly failing health.
• Dec. 18: I’ve enjoyed crossing into West Texas with my mom over the past two days, taking pictures of small towns and sights along the way and learning more details about my roots. We drove through Baird, where she lived until she was almost 7, and made it to Albany for the visitation.
My mom is always good with the one-liners. Example: “They have an antique credenza in there. You don't see that often in a Dairy Queen.
Me: “Everyone is self-centered to a certain extent.” Mom: “That's called survival.” Smart woman...
• Dec. 19: A beautiful service was held for my cousin Kerry this morning, one that focused on the positive with nostalgia, humor, and honor. And a few stories untold, I know...
That’s when I made the three-hour drive to Odessa, where my Texas adventure came to a close. Of course, I had to narrowly dodge a huge tumbleweed amid 40 mph winds on Interstate 20.
The trip stayed interesting to the end, that’s for sure.
This was an absolute treat. The producers allowed Ben to go on as Michael tonight in Austin to mark Kylend Hetherington's final show as "Billy Elliot." Kylend and Ben are the only two boys in North America to play all three of the teen roles in the show — Small Boy, Michael, and Billy — and they share a special bond.
Kylend had asked if Ben could perform with him one last time, even though our son had not played the role since January. The producers agreed at the last minute, and Ben went on without a rehearsal.
And he rocked it...
Mission in miniature — outside San Antonio, Texas, May 2015
Nick is in North Carolina. My mom is in Texas. Kate is at work. Ben is in Boston. Emma and Jeremiah are continuing their tech week for Toy Stories. Jill is prepping for her conference in Phoenix and I leave for Denver tomorrow.
Did yesterday happen?
Gas flare — outside Shiner, Texas, May 2015
Skylines in contrast — Houston, May 2015
Three weeks ago, Jill and I were in Austin, and I convinced her to see Jon Dee Graham with me at the Continental Club. She enjoyed the show, so much so that she agreed to see Graham again with me on Tuesday night in a solo outing at Hill Country Barbecue in D.C.
An encore appearance with one of my musicians, twice in three weeks no less, is a first in our 19 years of marriage, so that’s saying something… But it also is deeply gratifying, given that our music tastes often differ.
Like many musicians I enjoy, Graham does not draw huge crowds (their loss) and his fans are ones who come to listen and experience the music. At a couple of different points, clusters of 20 somethings dressed in corporate suits and ties were shushed and shooed away because they were more interested in their conversations being heard over the music.
Despite the rude nature of some in the crowd, what impressed me most is that Graham provides the same quality show and songcraft whether he’s playing for 15, 50, 150, 500, or 1,000, solo acoustic or with his band the Fighting Cocks. That’s the mark of a true pro, and something others would do well to heed.
Go to “Fathers, Family, & Austin” to read my blog entry on last month's trip.
I've been fortunate to travel quite a bit over the past few months with Ben on the "Newsies" tour. Every once in a while, I get to mix business with pleasure. Above are new headshots I took of the boy during a break between shows last weekend in Durham. For more, go to http://glenncook.virb.com/ben2015.
Josh Burrage is one of Ben's closest friends on the tour. He hired me to take new headshots during the tour's stop in San Antonio last month. For more photos, go to http://glenncook.virb.com/josh.
Skyscraper — Dallas, May 2015
Reflection in copper — Shiner, Texas, May 2015
Continental Club — Houston, September 2014