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  • Fathers & Sons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Thanks, Dad.

  • Humidfest in Texas

    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.

  • Fenway Turns 100

    This year's NSBA conference is in Boston. Usually, I try to arrive the day before activities start so I can get my bearings and see some of the town, because that's something you don't get to do often when working 16-18 hour days.

    Today, I was lucky. I had a chance to tour Fenway Park, which is near our hotel and is celebrating its 100th anniversary. The free tour of the stadium was a welcome surprise as we start coverage of the conference, and a chance to see an American icon.

  • Nicholas, Kate & Elon

    For the first time in a long time, I had a passenger on my semi-annual vigil to Elon to see one of Nicholas' shows, and Kate and I decided to hang around overnight to spend time with the oldest child and walk around campus. Here are photos from the extremely fun trip; check out the remarkable scenic design project that Nicholas completed on "The Grapes of Wrath" (bottom left). I wish you could have seen it. Really, really impressive work.

  • Texas: Adventure and Tragedy

    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.

  • After The Flood

    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.