The place where my parents met — Kilgore, Texas, taken in September 2017
Currently showing posts tagged Texas
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...
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.
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.
First day of school photos. Houses flooding. Stories of everyday heroes. More rains coming. More tears flowing. The same ole' political snark. Richard Nixon 2.0. Strong will amid desperation and determination.
"I read my news feed today, oh boy..."
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
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.
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
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.”
Cactus stubs — San Antonio, May 2015
Old coins — Pottsboro, Texas, April 2017
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
Mix of clouds — New Braunfels, 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.
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
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
Checking his phone — Houston, May 2015
Tom Landry's gravestone — Austin, Texas, May 2015
City Hall entrance — Houston, Texas, May 2015
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!
The Continental Club — Austin, May 2015
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/
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.
Mission outside San Antonio — May 2015
Mission outside San Antonio — May 2015
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
Many faces of faith — outside San Antonio, May 2015
Writing on the wall at the Texas School Book Depository — Dallas, May 2015
Art work in the Texas capital — Austin, July 2015
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
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
Today is one of those days in which you celebrate and shake your head at the same time when you look around and see what is occurring in this country.
Gay Marriage Decision
I know many people who are thrilled and overjoyed by the Supreme Court's ruling today, and many who believe that the institution of marriage should remain as it has for centuries. My two cents: At least in this instance, it's nice to see that "all" truly means everyone, regardless of race, creed, gender, socioeconomic status, or sexual orientation. For once, we got the "all" right.
Homeschooling Mom and State Board
A note to my home state: I don’t shock easily, but I could not help but be infuriated by the announcement that Texas Gov. Greg Abbott wants a homeschooling mom who has never sent her children to public school to chair the State Board of Education. WTH? In a word: ridiculous.
A Bumpy Ride
I used to love Frontier Airlines (my 2nd favorite behind JetBlue). It was an older airline with decent legroom even in coach, and a nice selection to watch on TV.
Things have changed, and not for the better. The TVs and legroom are gone, and the new seats look nice, but they're like sitting in the bleachers. Also, the only thing you get on the 4-hour nonstop flight from DC to Denver is water. You pay extra fees for checked luggage, carry-on luggage and seat assignment. A soda (at least you get the can) costs $1.99.
I realize most airlines are struggling now as the industry consolidates rapidly. But this is ridiculous. Customers are not cattle; if I wanted the "frontier" experience, I could audition for "City Slickers 4."
Skylines in contrast — Houston, May 2015
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
Birds on the water — Houston, September 2014
Barbecue pit — Houston, September 2014
Under U.S. 59 — Houston, September 2013
Contemporary Art Museum — Houston, September 2014
Statue of Sam Houston — Houston, September 2013
Yard statue — Houston, September 2013
Art inside and out — Houston, September 2014
No parking, no blocking — Houston, Texas, September 2014
Typing the news — Dallas, May 2015
Sound advice — Austin, May 2015
After a two-week hiatus, the Daily Photo returns. Here is "Watering the flower," taken earlier this week in San Antonio.
Circular saws — Salado, Texas, May 2015
The latest in the "Art & Dance" series featuring cast members from the 1st National Tour of "Newsies." These shots were taken on a break between shows in mid-May outside the AT&T Theater in Dallas.
For more of these photos, visit my Facebook page here.
Anyone who knows me also knows of my love for Shiner Bock, a beer made by a family-owned brewery in a tiny Central Texas town between Houston and San Antonio. Knowing I would be in Texas this month, I made plans to take a tour of the small brewery with my good friends Eric Kleppinger (who came down from Virginia) and Bernadette Jusinski.
We made the 90-mile drive from San Antonio on a drizzly Tuesday morning, took the short tour (the brewery is in the middle of an expansion), then stopped by the gift shop and Howard's all-encompassing convenience store for a sample of the local goods before departing. A pilgrimage well worth it...
For more photos from the tour, visit my Facebook photo page here.
Thanks to the numerous friends and family far and wide who came to see "Newsies" during its four-week run in Texas. It was great to see so many of you and I know Ben enjoyed the opportunity to get acquainted (and reacquainted) with everyone. Hope to see you (and others who weren't able to make it this time) soon! #newsiesontour
My sister, Julie, has five children, one stepdaughter, and — as of earlier this month — her first grandchild. When I was in Houston last week, my mom asked me to take informal portraits of my nieces, nephews, and new great-nephew. Take a look at this handsome and beautiful bunch…
When my wife Jill asked, on the spur of the moment, if I wanted to accompany her on a quick two-day excursion to Austin, I jumped at the chance even though I just returned last week from a 12-day trip to Texas.
Austin is one of my favorite cities, and given that Jill never had been here, I thought it would make for a nice opportunity to show her around. Little did we know that the flooding that has pounded much of Texas and Oklahoma for the past several weeks would hammer the state capital the day before we arrived.
The last time I was in Austin was in December 2011, when the entire region was in the middle of a draught. But since early May, devastating thunderstorms have left Texas waterlogged. Sadly, at least 17 have been killed and another dozen were missing as of Tuesday evening in Texas and Oklahoma. Thousands in the two states have been forced from their homes and too many to mention have no power. More than 30 counties in Texas alone have been declared disaster areas.
We flew into Austin, our plane arriving more than an hour late due to delays in Houston, another city also struck hard by flooding. The downtown hotel where we are staying is about a mile from North Lamar Boulevard, where the majority of the damage in the city occurred when Shoal Creek overflowed its banks on Monday.
While Jill went to her meeting, I decided to take a look around, and walked down to North Lamar. Cleanup was ongoing at the Shoal Creek Saloon and a Goodwill store, where employees reported four feet of water. Remarkably, a 7-Eleven had reopened its doors for business — despite serious damage — after more than 30 workers came to help.
By late afternoon, Shoal Creek was within its banks again, so I walked along the five-block trail from Ninth to Fourth Street amid the mud and silt. Debris, trash, and broken trees lined the trail. An dumpster could be seen across the way; the car that overturned nearby had been removed. A food truck was stuck, partially turned over, in the broken trees.
Walking to the end of the line, I took out my iPhone and captured the images at the top of this entry. Crows, still covered in mud, washed themselves as the remaining water pushed through, at times rapidly even as it receded. I saw three snakes — probably water moccasins — curled up on the banks near Fourth Street and took my leave.
It wasn’t what I was expecting when Jill suggested we go on this midweek trip. It was a beautiful day, although the ground remained so saturated that it was almost unbearably humid. We leave on Thursday morning, just before the rain is expected to return.
For more photos, go to my Facebook page here.
Train station — Lometa, Texas, December 2012
Christmas in an apartment building — Austin, Texas, December 2012
Scream face in stone — outside Austin, Texas, December 2012
Lighted parking lot — Houston, February 2012
Opposite directions — Kemah, Texas, February 2012
Home state — Texas City, Texas, September 2010
The story goes something like this…
In early 1955, my 14-year-old father went over to his girlfriend’s house on a Saturday night. A few minutes after he arrived, and was sitting on the girl’s living room couch with her parents in the other room, the phone rang in the hallway.
It was my grandmother, and she wanted to talk to Dad.
My father was mortified — the Methodist version of teenage guilt in the 1950s — but dutifully went to pick up the phone.
“Turn on the Louisiana Hayride,” my grandmother said. “I just heard this guy perform and he’s coming back in a little while. He’s going to change everything.”
The “guy” was Elvis Presley.
Music has always been a huge part of my life, even though I can’t sing, dance, or play an instrument. A good song, no matter the genre, appeals to my artistic sense as a writer and storyteller. Finding a compelling, talented new artist or group brings with it a sense of discovery and wonder.
I have a profound appreciation for artists of any kind who are willing to lay it on the line for their passion. This is true for my children, and is one reason I believe so strongly in being honest through my writing and imagery.
I get my love and appreciation of music from my father and paternal grandmother, who died in 1989 at age 83. In addition to being a packrat and chronicler of life, my grandmother was an explorer when it came to music. When she was almost 80, I came home from one day and found her watching “The Last Waltz,” the 1976 documentary of The Band’s final concert. She thought it sounded interesting, although she had trouble understanding Bob Dylan.
Grandmama could whistle a symphony or add a jazz-like hum to a country song. She loved to sing at church, and her cousin Bessie told me she loved to dance, especially during her single years in the 1920s that she rarely discussed.
In the 1950s, the radio was always on, and Saturday nights — with few exceptions — were devoted to the Louisiana Hayride. The show was broadcast from the Shreveport Municipal Memorial Auditorium, 60 miles from where my grandparents lived in East Texas.
For more than a decade, the Hayride was second only to the Grand Ole’ Opry in importance among country and western singers. Elvis, who famously was rejected by the Opry for being too, well, out there, was signed by the Hayride and made numerous appearances on the show from late 1954 until December 1956.
Presley, as we all know by now, was different, and it was during this time that his fusion of country and western, gospel and rhythm and blues became early rock and roll. His presence and influence on teens, especially during the late 1950s, was undeniable. It certainly had a lasting effect on my father, who collected Presley’s music along with every other artist from that era that he could find.
Dad, especially in his later years, seemed to regress to his teenage days in his tastes. When I was growing up, his eclectic record collection was housed in a six-foot wide, coffin-like wooden cabinet that held the somewhat flimsy turntable on the right side.
The albums included some of the era’s more modern music — The Beatles, Rolling Stones, even AC/DC and Aerosmith — along with Rodgers & Hammerstein soundtracks and a little too much Mario Lanza and Johnny Mathis for my taste. After my Grandmother died, Dad begrudgingly moved into the CD era, but would still turn back to obscure 45s by singers and doo-wop groups from the late 1950s.
Still, Elvis seemed to top them all.
The first concert I remember attending — at age 6 — was an Elvis show with my parents, grandparents, aunt and uncle at Hofheinz Pavilion in November 1971. Three years later, for my second concert, the mom of a childhood friend took two of us to Rodeo Houston to see Presley perform before a then-record crowd of more than 44,000 in the Astrodome.
The first album I owned was the Camden budget release (remember those?) “Burning Love and Hits from His Movies, Vol. 2,” purchased in part because my father loved the single. (The movie cuts were not the best, hence the budget release.)
Like my dad, I was hooked by “Burning Love,” the last single Presley placed in the top 10 before his death, but sadly, I didn’t realize that publicly declaring my love for the song was cause for me to lose cool points on the elementary school playground. (In my defense, I was smart enough to know that jumpsuits are definitely not the fashion statement any second-grader wants to make, no matter the era.)
Several months later, seeing my growing interest in Elvis and wanting to bond with his son, Dad took me to Parker Music on Ninth Avenue in Texas City, thumbed through the albums on the rack, and pulled out Presley’s 1956 self-titled debut. He bought it that day and later gave it to me as a present.
To really understand what made Elvis the king, he said, I needed to go back to the very beginning.
1956 was a crazy year for the former truck driver from Memphis, between constant touring, multiple (and controversial) television appearances, and making the movie “Love Me Tender.” Even if you’re not a fan, watch the documentary Elvis ’56 and you'll see how that one year changed everything, both for Presley and for those who listened to him.
By year’s end, Presley had outgrown the Hayride, although he had one more show in his contract. The show, held at the Hirsch Youth Center at the Louisiana Fairgrounds on Dec. 15, was attended by tons of screaming fans, including my father and then 51-year-old grandmother.
The story, like one about my grandmother’s Presley discovery, was somewhat legendary in my family. My grandmother went for the music; my dad went to look for girls. Because neither drove, my grandfather begrudgingly took them, complaining all the way.
My grandmother recalled the show fondly, although it was tough to hear amid the screaming. And apparently my dad found the girl, because her name is written inside the 50-cent program that my grandmother bought.
We still have the program, which would be worth about $200 except for the girl’s printed address in ink on the center spread, but my father could never remember what happened to her.
Twenty-one years later, on Aug. 16, 1977, I was sitting in the waiting room at the Tyler Chest Hospital when we got the news. My grandfather was hospitalized with the emphysema and COPD that killed him four years later. My aunt and I were waiting for my grandmother to bring him to the lobby.
“Elvis is dead.”
I was stunned. I didn’t know what to do or say. My grandmother and aunt took me to the Gibson’s in Longview that evening and we purchased “Moody Blue,” the blue LP that was Presley’s last major release. There were some decent songs on it, but it was nothing like the stuff I heard from 1956.
Over the years, I’ve remained an Elvis fan. If you can sift through the dreck, and there is plenty of that, you will find so much music that is worthwhile. In the earliest sides, going back to the beginning, you can see the influence that continues to resonate today.
There is so much to choose from, and it has all been packaged and repackaged so many times that it’s tough to find out where to start. But a couple of years ago, I found something special.
The five-disc box set, “Young Man With the Big Beat,” features the complete 1956 masters, as well as alternate takes and three short live shows, one of which was previously unreleased. That show happens to be the Dec. 15 concert at the Hirsch Youth Center in Shreveport.
The audio quality is not the best, but every once in a while, I put it on my CD player, close my eyes, and am transported to the auditorium with my dad and grandmother.
And that means more than you know.
About the Photos:
Top: Cracked plexiglass on top of the Elvis picture at Sun Studios in Memphis, September 2013. Upper middle: Photos taken of late 1920s programs saved by my grandmother. Middle: Photo of Presley in Dallas is part of an exhibit at Graceland, his Memphis mansion. Lower Middle: Elvis-related memorabilia collected by my family over the years. Bottom: The original 1956 program and the cover of RCA's "Young Man With the Big Beat."
Love for sale — Houston, September 2013
Budding pineapple — Clear Lake City, Texas, September 2013.
Family artifacts, from my visual story "A Chest of Small Treasures." For more on this, go to http://glenncook.virb.com/visual
Barbed wire guarding the water tower — Albany, Texas, December 2012
December 2012, outside Austin: The Hamilton Pool and Nature Preserve, located on the convergance point of the Perdernales River and Hamilton Creek about 25 miles west of Austin, is a collapsed grotto and canyon formed by thousands of years of water erosion. Cultural remains dating back 8,000 years have been found at Hamilton Pool. Tonkawa and Lipan Apache tribes were attracted to the lush vegetation, abundant wildlife, and natural shelter provided by the grotto.
Since the 1960s, Hamilton Pool has been a favorite summer swimming spot for Austin visitors and residents. The reserve consists of 232 acres of protected natural habitat featuring a jade green pool into which a waterfall flows. The pool is surrounded by huge slabs of limestone that rest by the water's edge; large stalactites grow from the ceiling high above. The ceiling and surrounding cliffs of the grotto are home to moss, maidenhair fern and cliff swallows. The Ashe juniper (cedar) uplands of the preserve are home to the endangered golden-cheeked warbler.
Unfortunately, the area has been hit by a drought that turned the waterfall into a trickle when I visited the area with my mom and Ginno Murphy on a gray mid-December afternoon. But there is no denying that this is one of the most beautiful sites I’ve seen in my home state.
My mother was born on August 15, 1941. Her mother died a week later, leaving behind an 8-year-old son and an infant daughter. My grandmother’s purse and other belongings were swept up and put into a cedar chest that now sits in my mom’s house.
When my mom was not quite four months old, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. My grandfather, then almost 30, joined the Navy. He could have stayed home and helped raise his two children, but he chose to leave them with family and go off to war instead.
I don’t know why he made that choice. Perhaps it was the patriotic fervor that Pearl Harbor brought, a feeling that we collectively experienced again on 9/11 when we realized that the United States was indeed vulnerable to attack. Perhaps it was his chance to get out of the Texas oilfields. Perhaps it was his chance to leave his grief behind.
The few pictures and patches give us a glimpse of what he looked like then. I still have an opened hand grenade shell, and some of his standard issue Navy stainless steel flatware with the initials U.S.N. carved on the bottom side. At the bottom of the cedar chest is a glass heart that he carved from the shattered window of a Japanese zero, his dog tags and a few other pieces of memories.
He described how basic training in California was the best time of his life, in part because he loved San Diego, in part because he had a freedom he had never experienced before.
When the subject turned to his role in the war, he did not talk about it — perhaps out of modesty, perhaps out of fear.
Who were his friends? What type of work did he do? What was it like to be one of 55,000 Seabees on the beaches of Okinawa? Did he know anyone who died?
Those are the typical questions any kid would ask. And ask I did. But he just nodded his head and changed the subject.
With my mom, uncle, aunt, and first cousin after my dad's funeral in 2007.
We know what happened to the family my grandfather left behind in early 1942. My mom and her brother sent to live with her grandparents, who died within a week of each other when mom was just 4, and then to a kindly aunt who took them both in until my grandfather returned with a new girlfriend in tow. They married after the war, moved to East Texas, and stayed.
My uncle and his father did not speak for 13 years, in part due to battles over my grandfather’s new wife. My uncle says that, aside from a few stories that you would hear in any junior high boys locker room, my grandfather did not say anything about his wartime service.
“He just didn’t talk about it. I don’t think he could.”
My mother says I shouldn’t feel bad that he never spoke about the war. He didn’t say much to her about it, either. He didn’t say much about anything, in fact.
I think it’s more a reflection of the man than of the time he served in the military that we don’t know more about this period in his history. Soldiers of that generation did not talk about their experiences in war. It wasn’t until “Saving Private Ryan” was released, 12 years after my grandfather’s death, that members of the “Greatest Generation” finally felt empowered to share feelings that had long been repressed.
Today, 23 years after his death, my mom still speaks in somewhat hushed, reverent tones about the man whose expectations of others exceeded his ability to give and receive love. But the details of his life, outside the outline used in his obituary, remain a mystery. Just like the purse that sits at the bottom of the cedar chest, untouched with the same contents it carried 68 years ago.
It’s fitting that my favorite television show is ending its run with episodes tonight and next week, and I won’t be there to watch it. After all, I have seen only two or three episodes of “Friday Night Lights” in real time any way.
And that’s OK, because I never really wanted to watch the show when it started.
I’m a big fan of H.G. Bissinger’s 1990 nonfiction book, which told the story of a northwest Texas and the obsessive fans who rooted for the Odessa Permian football team. I also enjoyed the 2004 film based on Bissinger’s book, but had no interest in a fictionalized TV version.
I didn’t, it turns out, want to go home again.
My family is scattered across the state, from the petroleum-fueled Gulf Coast to the barren West Texas town of Albany to Longview’s piney woods in the east. Football was, is, and forever shall be the center of everything in many of these tiny communities.
That last statement is overly simplified, of course. It's just like the one from the person who says, “The only reason you have December, January, and February is to celebrate Jesus’ birth and to mark the time between the playoffs and the start of spring practice.” (I know that statement isn’t true because I spent almost a decade in North Carolina, where people live for December through February because that’s the heart of ACC basketball season.)
Texas was my home state for 28 years, and for much of that time, the town I grew up in felt stifling. Why look at fiction when I could recall my reality in bright, living, humid color?
The show’s pull loomed large, however, as its first season ended, appropriately when I was traveling back and forth to Texas to see my dad, who was dying of cancer, So I purchased the first season on DVD, but never could watch it. I couldn’t commit.
Then, two months after my father died, I saw a few minutes of the Oklahoma-Texas game at a restaurant and thought immediately of him. He refused to miss any UT game that was on, sitting in his chair in his Longhorns coat, a football fan until the end.
After Oklahoma won by 7, I thought again about growing up in Texas. The next night, I went and found those DVDs. Four bleary eyed days later, fueled by insomnia and the fictional Dillon Panthers, I was ready for season 2.
Fortunately, that season was cut short by the writer’s strike, in part because it had an ill-advised plotline that everyone agrees was a mistake. Still, even in its most ludicrous moments, the show had passages that were absolutely sublime.
The beauty of “Friday Night Lights” is that it’s not just about football, but life in a small town. It is not afraid to deal with issues of class, economics, and race — all of which are facts of life in any small community.
Most of all, it captures the little details so beautifully – the rebellion, confessions, religion, community, mistakes, and connections between neighbors, family, and friends. The marriage between the coach and his wife feels real. The other characters, all with flaws and redeeming qualities, sometimes in equal measure, are archetypes of those we all know.
I know this now having watched all 76 episodes in marathon stretches, always after it has been released on DVD. I usually buy the season on the day it becomes available, intending to watch right away, but inevitably I repeat the season 1 pattern. I dance around it, then watch in a single gulp.
Because season 5 was released before the show started this summer on NBC — its last three seasons were a split arrangement between the network and DirectTV — I’ve already seen the final episode that ended the series run in a typically classy fashion. As the last two episodes approach on television, however, I’ve continued to reflect on “Friday Night Lights” and what it has meant to me. Why does it make me cringe with memories and smile privately at the same time?
I guess, because when I’m watching from a couch 1,500 miles away, I have a little piece of home — the home where I grew up — with me. As I raise kids of my own, I’m finding more and more that that little piece is a big thing.
My 3-year-old son and I went to see my parents in Texas. It was his turn to ride on a plane. Benjamin wasn't nervous; he entertained rows 18-30 with tales of swimming ("If you don't move your feet, you'll sink like a stone!") and said landing was "just a big bump." In Texas, Benjamin and his grandfather shared a common love of toys, and Granddaddy gave him several Superheroes to take home. On our way back, he played with the plastic toys, then leaned up, smiled, and gave me a kiss. For a brief moment, I was his Superhero.