Monday, June 30, 2008

Naughty Words

Everybody associates the late George Carlin with the 7 words you can't say on television. He's known best in my house as the narrator of Thomas the Tank Engine.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

There's nothing like the smell of beignets in the morning

I had breakfast this morning with gentle reader Doug from Calgary. It was nice of his company to send him down here, and it's always nice to meet online acquaintances in person.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Of Families and Frontiers

DW's family reunion last week was a success, as some of the gentle readers of this space can attest. None of the uncomfortable scenarios I feared materialized, and my blood pressure remained normal the entire time. I would like to send all good karma, positive energy, and prayers to the family of one gentle reader whose grandson was struck by a motorcycle shortly after the family returned home.

This was a reunion of DW's parents and siblings and of my FIL and his siblings. My FIL's family on both sides has been in Utah and Idaho since the 1840s. The earliest of those were genuine frontier settlers--ranchers and farmers, mostly--whether they intended to be (in the case of the Mormons) or not (one ancestor's family stopped in Almo, Idaho, on the way to California and just stayed there). Some of DW's relatives currently work the land, and my FIL is an agricultural economist, but DW and her siblings grew up in urbanized settings, with only occasional exposure to the arduous physical labor of ranchwork. When I was a kid in Oklahoma, our yard bordered on a cattle farm, but I knew absolutely nothing about the work that went on back there. Neither of my parents and none of my grandparents were involved with agriculture of livestock, so I have less of a connection to the land than does my DW.

The mythology of the Old West and the westward-shifting American frontier, of course, have always served as part and parcel of the definition of who and what white Americans are, realizing, of course, the violence and injustice in taking much of that frontier from its native inhabitants. Also, the ideal of the American small farmer has been a part of our politics since Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton disputed the nature of our country. The taciturn dirt farmers; the cattle ranchers; the oilmen; the gunsligners; the pious Mormons; the prospectors; the dreamers; the hustling preachers; the evil railroad and mining companies--these all form a part of our collective national self-image, I think, though clearly not part of the reality in the lives of most Americans of my generation. We are reminded of that past by the mythology of the West and by artifacts like the accordion that DW's grandfather took on the trail to pass the time while he tended sheep.

During the reunion of this family with its own roots in what was once a frontier region, and in the days subsequent to that reunion, I just happened to read two fabulous books that address boundaries and frontiers, albeit in very different ways. I liked Cormac McCarthy's The Road so much that I purchased his Border Trilogy, and I finished reading All The Pretty Horses (1992)yesterday. The plot has teenage ranching Texans running away into Mexico, then returning home, in the 1940s. In the Texas these boys knew, property transfers (in this case, horses) were effected with contracts and lawsuits, while in the Mexico they came to know, such transfers were effected with arms and official corruption. The northern Mexico of McCarthy's story somewhat resembles HBO's Deadwood, an outlaw encampment where might made right and life was cheap. All The Pretty Horses ends with our protagonist riding off into the sunset, into an uncertain future in a disappearing frontier.

At the Salt Lake airport, I spotted a copy of Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air (1997), a firsthand account of the May 1996 Mount Everest disaster. Ironically, perhaps, I began reading the book over the Wasatch Range and the High Uintahs--tall mountains, for sure--and got through about half of it while flying at an altitude only slightly higher than the summit of Everest. Krakauer--an adventure sports journalist--was a member of one of the ill-fated expeditions that climbed to the highest point on the planet on May 10, 1996. As a hypoxic Krakauer descended, an unexpected storm blew in from the South, stranding several climbers at altitudes where human beings are not naturally equipped to be. Krakauer and his fellow climbers found themselves at the frontier of human survival; there were nine deaths, including the leaders of both expeditions. The clouds, viewed from above, appeared innocent enough, but they brought a thunderstorm/blizzard with hurricane-force winds. A series of bad decisions delayed for several hours the final ascent of the two expedition parties at the center of the story, most notably the failure of the leaders of those parties to ensure that ropes were set up at a potential bottleneck very near the summit. The leaders also failed to set a firm turnaround time to ensure that climbers would not run out of supplemental oxygen, whether or not they reached the summit. However, a few climbers assumed a reasonable turnaround time, turned around short of the summit, and survived. The highest peak I've ever hiked is 10,000 feet, and, after reading this book, that may be the highest this lowlander ever hikes.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Notes on a Road Trip

Your humble correspondent's in-laws are holding a family reunion in Logan, Utah, this week. It's been quite nice thus far, with none of the dueling banjoes or visits from the sheriff's office that would not be surprising in an any meeting of your humble correspondent's own maternal family.

I had a surprise! sneeze Wednesday morning in the airport garage--I'll spare you the gory details, gentle reader--but the end result was that I flew from Baton Rouge to Salt Lake City a la commando.

The flight from BR to Dallas was uneventful and so boring that I composed some bad political haiku.

president barack
springtime for america
allergy season

arizona john
eternal desert summer
sincerely, george bush

Your humble correspondent played golf for the first time in his life yesterday, and actually enjoyed it. Thanks to gentle reader Bill and my other brothers-in-law for talking me into going.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Monday, June 09, 2008

Fathers and Sons, Postapocalyptic Version

On the recomendation of gentle reader Craig, I read Cormac McCarthy's dystopian father/son novel The Road. Civilization as we know it was destroyed by nuclear warfare several years before the story takes place, and few survivors remain. Among the survivors are a father and son who are constantly on the move, seeking warmth, food, and survival. The unnamed father in the story is a jack of all trades, a la McGuyver, who can make use of anything he can scrounge. He protects his son against cold, illness, predatory gangs of survivors, and a dangerous desire to share the duo's limited resources with other desperate survivors. The son is the father's sole reason for living, and the father is the only other person in the son's life.

The son was born shortly after the nuclear winter began, and, therefore, knows nothing of the world as we know it apart from what his father has told him about it. The son also relies on his father for explanations about the harsh ethics created by their dire circumstances. I kind of related to this aspect of the story, especially when the son would say "it's okay" whenever the father would provide explanations. My oldest son frequently says, "it's okay," as he works to calm himself following a disappointment such as me not taking him on an airplane whenever we drive past the airport (not always successfully, as he destroyed the armrest in my car the other day). Much like the father in the story, I worry about my childrens' futures after my own death. They are entirely dependent on the adults in their lives in order to function in the world, and, barring a cure or a miracle, they will always be largely dependent on other people. They are particularly close to me and always have been. I'm sure they'll fare well without me being around, but the concern will always be there.

Additionally, some poignant moments in The Road involved the father either watching the son sleep or putting him to sleep. Our boys are ages 9 and 11, and we have the same bedtime rituals we had when they were infants. Those rituals have always been almost sacred to me.

ETA: I recommend this book to any gentle readers who might be expectant fathers. You know who you are.

T uses anything that looks like luggage to feed his fantasy of driving to the airport and boarding an airplane. He mostly used plastic first aid kit boxes, but brought out my old briefcase once or twice. He's happy as a clam riding around town with those containers in the car, at least until we drive past the airport.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Good, Bad, and Ugly

The good: I finally finished reading Joseph O'Connor's fabulous novel Redemption Falls a couple of nights ago; I took a hiatus from the book to work on my house. This book took so long for me to get through in part because the writing is so gorgeous I found myself reading some paragraphs three or four times. For example:

There is a place to which he goes when the dread bubbles up. A Republic that exists in the air. A realm of queenly women encountered by lakes, Drovers and cowboys. Redcoats and pikesmen. King John the Conquerer and the Old Woman of Ireland. The Jesus of the hymns, and shipwrecked sailors, and the wild colonial boys. And he wanters this country of inherited song, lifting its rocks of rhyme. Here is the Holy Virgin, sweet Star of the Sea, spinning gold with Black-Eyed Susan. Cotton-Eye Joe strumming a lute for the Trickster, their faces grave as gravestones. John the Baptist in the Jordan, singing "Revenge for Skibbereen"--and he ast his gal for water, but she gev him kerosene.

The novel is set up as a narrative interspersed with primary source documents. The central characters are Irish-Americans, displaced from Ireland, then displaced by the American Civil War. Redemption Falls is a dump of a town in the "Mountain Territory," and a few of the characters find some sort of redemption at the end of the book. The main themes of the book, however, are tragic love, death, war, and belonging. There's also a search for a blood relative that hits a bit close to home.

The bad: DW and I watched CBS's Swingtown last night to see if it was as bad as we thought it would be. The show is in the so-bad-it's-good category, so we may tune in next week out of curiosity. After one commercial block, our screen went black. DW asked whether the show was so bad that it had already been cancelled. The conceit of the series is that a middle-class suburban family in 1976 moves to a wealthier neighborhood, across the street from a couple who happen to be swingers. The parents from the family that just moved in go to a party at the swingers' house and decide to pop quaaludes and swap partners. I've never swung, but I suspect that most people wouldn't engage in swinging just because their new neighbors ask them to. The show reminded me of what a former coworker said about baby boomers: They did too many drugs in the 60s and ruined recreational drug use; had too much sex in the 70s, got too many STDs, and ruined recreational sex; drank too much in the 80s and ruined drunkenness; and made too much money in the 90s and ruined greed--what's left for us?

I was 13 years old in 1976, so bits and pieces of the show wrang true. In one scene, two teenage boys get caught looking at porn, and the dad tells his son just don't let his mother catch him with that. When I was 12 or 13, I found my dad's tiny porn stash behind some bullets in his closet (funny juxtaposition, that) and converted it for my, um, use. I mentioned that to my mom a few years ago, and she said, "so that's what happened to it." It struck me as hilarious that my parents had a son in puberty and didn't think to check my room for the missing stash of naughty stuff.

The ugly: The 1970s clothing on Swingtown. Ew.

Sunday, June 01, 2008


It's a mystery to me why I'm trying to track down my birthparents, aside from wanting health information and genetic history. I think I might have dropped it by now but for my irritation at the notion that I am legally barred from just calling up and getting my birth records like anybody else could. There's an adoptee rights rally scheduled for July 22, in the park directly across the street from my office. The National Conference of State Legislators will be in town, and there's a big push on in several states for open-records laws. Maybe I'll go; it's certainly more pragmatic to walk across the street than to march on Washington or Austin.

Yesterday, as we were preparing to check out of our hotel so we could pick up A. for a weekend visit at home, I suddenly contemplated all the disappointment my kids have experienced over the years. I briefly sobbed. They've had a great deal of joy also, and they enjoy their day-to-day lives. I wonder whether my deal yesterday had anything to do with my search for my own origins or my profound disappointment in my own family of origin the past decade or so.