Thursday, November 11, 2010

A Mama’s Boy Remembers

Mom and Me. Full picture on Facebook.Mom and me somewhere I don’t recognize

Here is another of my speeches for Toastmasters. It is Speech Six from the Competent Communicators manual, Vocal Variety. I delivered it today.

I’ll warn you up front, this is a bit of a ramble. Memories tend to be. They all blend together over time, especially the important ones, forming a gentle patina.

Even though she had to quit high school and go to work when her parents died within six months of each other, my mom was one of the smartest people I’ve ever known. She was also one of the funniest, but you’d never know that by the jokes she told. Let me give an example:

Two painters were going though the countryside painting churches. Even though it was the Depression and they didn’t have a lot other than each other’s company, the never went hungry. But being people, they wanted more.

One day one of them said to his partner, “You know. If we thinned the paint, we could paint twice as many churches for the same cost. We’d make a lot more money.”

“We sure would,” Partner said. “Let’s do it.”

So the next church they painted, they thinned the paint. They were just finishing up and thinking about how much money they’d make when a thunderstorm blew up. The thunder crashed, the wind blew the rain sideways, and the storm washed all of the thinned paint off the building.

Looking at the havoc the storm had wrought on their work, they were devastated. “What are we gonna do now?” they moaned.

A voice from the clouds advised, “Repaint and thin no more.”

Mom’s sense of humor was gentle and consistent.

  • I remember her trying to cheer up the ICU staff—telling jokes and pretending to dance while she was dying strapped to a ventilator.
  • I remember her worrying that I would have to drive home after dark the night before she had open heart surgery.
  • I remember her making my girlfriends in high school laugh by making fun of her own outlandish garage sale jewelry.

She had this one necklace that had these two huge gold-painted balls dangling from a string of plastic pearls. I heard her cry out from the kitchen one day. I rushed to see what was wrong. “Oh, it’s nothing,” she said. “I just closed the oven door on my balls.”

Now there’s a visual that will give a teenage boy nightmares.

How do I know she was smart? Other than my dad, I admired two men who respected her.

Mr. Morrison, ran a construction company and owned several banks.1 He helped convince Lloyd Bentsen, the senator for whom much of US-59 is named, to go into politics. When the salt dome in Louisiana caught fire in the mid 1970s, Mr. Morrison called Senator Benson. “Lloyd,” he said. “It’s just like our goddamn government. First, they buy up all the oil, driving up the price so nobody can afford to drive.2 Then they put in back in the ground where we’ll never get all back out. And now they’ve set the sonuvabitch on fire,” he exclaimed slamming the phone back on the hook. We used to take bets on how many times it would bounce before it fell off his desk. That time it bounced three times before crashing onto the worn linoleum floor.

Mr. Morrison didn’t mince words. He fired his building superintendent three times one day. Then called him up the next morning and cussed him out for not showing up for work.

Mom was his sales manager. She was the person he consulted when buying or selling houses for more than a decade.

That’s one way I know she was smart. The way I know was my grandfather.

Granddaddy was a typical early-20th century German farmer. He defined chauvinism. When he was ready to retire, he called the family together to get advice on what to do with the farm. My dad and uncle Carole started to say something, but Granddaddy cut them off with a flick of his hand. “I don’t care vat you say. I vant to know vat Kay sinks I should do.”

This August marked the 10th anniversary of her death.

I still miss you, Mom.

But rather than closing on a down note, here’s another one of her favorites:

A cop pulled a man over for not signaling a left turn.

“But I did signal,” the man protested.

“No, you didn’t.”

“Yes, I did,” the man insisted. “Just ask my wife. She was sitting right here beside me. She saw me signal.”

“Well, ma’am” the cop said. “Did he signal?”

“Well, officer. If I’ve learned anything in 40 years of being married to that man, it’s never to argue with him when he’s drunk.”


  1. I really don’t know the extent of Mr. Morrison’s wealth. He lived in a really nice house, but his faded Olds was at least a decade old. That’s 10 years in the salt and chemical fallout of Brazosport, Texas. I remember him griping about the amount of taxes he had to pay on the sale of a bank. Mom told him, “I just wish I made as much as you pay in taxes.” I think he kept her around for perspective, too.
  2. As I recall, gas prices were astronomical—around a dollar a gallon, but that was when you could find it.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Book Review: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Image Grahame-Smith, Seth, (2010). Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. New York: Grand Central Publishing. Photo source:

Until I read Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, I hadn’t realized how much the readability of Seth Grahame-Smith’s previous book, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, was derived from the original. While I admired the near seamless integration of zombies into Alcott’s social commentary, I considered the result more of a collaboration than an outright theft.

In Lincoln, Grahame-Smith attempts an interesting technique. After setting up the situation where a failed writer—how’s that for another cliché?—comes into possession of Abraham Lincoln’s secret diaries, Grahame-Smith randomly switches voice and often tense by inserting sections from the diaries into his narrative. The result read like a tenth-grade history paper in which the author is desperately trying to meet the teacher’s length requirement. Instead of abetting the flow of the story, the device constantly knocks the reader out of the story.

Character development is lacking. Who would have thought anyone could depict Abe Lincoln as a flat, uninspiring character. If that was Grahame-Smith’s intent, he succeeded.

One of the best things I can say about the book is that I found no glaring grammatical errors and no blatant historical inaccuracies. Aside from vampires, and they are a given.

I can’t say if this is a good thing or not, but I was completely unable to categorize Lincoln, not that I’m a true believer in forcing art to fit into neat little boxes. Lincolnis not a vampire story, nor is it really historical fiction. It is neither folkloric nor alternative history, neither enthralling nor fatiguing.

None of this is to say you shouldn’t read Lincoln. It is a quick read and fairly entertaining. It passes my three question test.

Did I finish it?
Yes. This, in and of itself, speaks volumes. I don’t have much time to read for pleasure anymore, and I stuck with this book to the predictable end.
Was it worth the effort?
Maybe. As I said, it is a quick, relatively entertaining read. Granted, it feels like Lincolnwas written before P&P&Zand was published solely on the success of that book.
How many other books did I finish in the process of reading this one?
None. I did wander off into a couple of real histories—but they were only a minor distraction

Using a five-star scale, Lincolnrates a solid two stars. It’s worth reading in an airport or on a train, but save it for a trip.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Lion’s Share of Meaning

A Lion RoarsNever trust a hungry lion. Photo source: Richard Wiseman Blog

Today’s post is the text of a speech I delivered at Toastmasters today. I hope you enjoy it.

A word can mean so many things – anything, everything, or nothing. We argue over the meaning of words incessantly. Nobody wins.

Today, I’m going to talk about the intersection of semantics and lexicology – that lonely place where meaning lives.

Don’t be scared. That’s almost all the linguistic jargon I’m going to use.

Jargon is one of my favorite words. It comes from a French word that means “the twittering of birds.” In what John Ciardi, one of my favorite etymologists, would call “ghost etymology” (a word history somebody made up because it sounds good), I once read jargon comes from jargere, which the writer said means “to make a choking, strangling noise at the back of your throat.” I wish I could verify that particular meaning.

Every profession or clique has its own jargon — its own theives cant — designed as much to streamline communication within the group as to occult it from outsiders.

Instead of jargon, nomenclature, or whatever, I’m going to tell a story I like to call “The Lion’s Share of Meaning.”

But before I get to that, let me ask you a question.

Is it more important to be understood or to be right?

Robert Heinlein said, “If you’re arguing with your spouse, and it turns out you’re right, apologize immediately.” He also said, “You can be forgiven for being wrong a lot faster than for being right.”

Have you ever heard an argument so rabid as one between two people who agree with one another but use different words to state their points? Not unless it was one that arose from a broken understanding when people used the same words to mean different things.

These are often the arguments that lead to irreconcilable hurt feelings, to the dissolution of friendships, to violence.

Pride and Words are at the heart of these arguments. We seem to have an unquenchable need to be right. Sometimes it’s easier to say someone else is wrong than to prove we’re right.

And that calls into question the meaning of being right. What does it mean to be right?

The story that comprises the lion’s share of my speech comes from Aesop via John Ciardi.

What does “the lion’s share” mean?

Here’s how it started:

The lion organized a hunting party. After the party made the kill, the lion stepped up to the carcass and said, “As the King of Beasts and organizer of this hunt, I deserve half of the kill.”

The other animals grudgingly admitted that was the lion’s right. So does “the lion’s share” mean half?

No. As the other animals closed in, the lion raised his voice. “And my wife and children deserve half of what remains because they are my family.” Again, the rest of the hunters conceded the right of the lion’s family to another quarter of the carcass. So does “the lion’s share” mean three-quarters?

Not really. As the hungry hunters hunkered closer to the carcass, the lion said, “And I’ll fight anyone who wants any of the remainder.”

So “the lion’s share” doesn’t mean half or most or three-fourths. It means the lion wants it all. But if you use the phrase correctly, nobody will know what you mean. As John Ciardi advises, “Never be so right as to be misunderstood.”

It’s more important to be understood than to be right. It’s more important to understand what each other’s words really mean. Sometimes you may find, you agree.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Weekend Trip Back “Home”

Approximate Trip Routing Map by: Google

Suna and I planned a trip back to see some of my family this weekend. Unfortunately, life intervened in a minor way. Suna had a conference where she could see some of her old friends, and I had a leadership training session with Toastmasters Saturday morning. All that means we left about 16:00 for a four-hour trip to Brazosport.

Since we had plenty of daylight this soon after the Solstice, I decided to show Suna the little town where I lived my first four years of elementary school, Brazoria. I needn’t have bothered. I didn’t recognize anything about the town. Even the old school was missing. I could have been on Mars for what I knew about my home town.

A Chemical Flare at Dow

Feeling a little odd, we went on to the hotel and checked in. From the room, we could see a flare at Plant B, part of the huge petrochemical installation that forms the heart of the Brazosport economy. That and the smell of hydrocarbons in the air made me feel like I was home again—and remember why I left. Although in the name of full disclosure, I must admit I do hold Dow Chemical stock.

After looking out the window and unpacking, we decided to get a bite to eat. We went looking for seafood, but the closest place was closed.

The Hometown Café in Angleton, Texas

Right across from it was El Toro, a TexMex café we used to eat at when I was a kid. Like Brazoria, El Toro was nothing like I remembered. It has a full bar, great margaritas, and about three times the seating capacity. There is even a painting of Superman flying across the ceiling. About the only thing that is the same is that the food is every bit as good as I remembered. The portions are a little smaller, but that is a good thing.

Suna Visiting with My Family

By the time we finished eating and got back to the hotel, it was almost 22:00, and we were tireder than we expected.

We lazed in bed for a while this morning before heading to Angleton to visit my nephew, his daughter who was visiting from California, and her new baby, my great-great-nephew. How can that be? I’m not that old.

Suna Has a Gift for Bocce

Anyway, Suna wanted eggs for lunch, and my brother Jim recommended the Hometown Café. It doesn’t look like much from the outside. Really, it doesn’t look like much from the inside either. But the food is decent, the prices are good, and the service is friendly. Texas Monthly has even named it on to the 40 best small town cafés in Texas.

We finally arrived at my nephew’s house about 13:30—roughly 3-½ hours early—to find the party well under way. We chatted. We played a variant of bocce ball. We tried to stay dry and in the shade. We had a really good time. We ate some more. We visited.

Finally, we headed home. And here I am again—tireder than expected.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Father′s Day

Packaging for The Vampire Tarot Photo source: Cult of Personality

Father’s Day is one of those quaint traditions that I never paid that much attention to. I know it was important to Dad, so I always make a point of calling him some time during the day. Other than that, it′s always been yet another way for Hallmark to make money. No biggie.

This year, Tubaboy and Beccano chipped in and bought me The Vampire Tarot. It’s really cool—well thought out and beautifully illustrated. I’ll try to do a more thorough review either here or on Tarot Obsession soon.

Other than that, yard work in the Texas sun. It wasn’t that bad. It still hasn’t hit a hundred degrees yet. And once it does, the grass won’t grow enough to worry about mowing that often.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Wine Tour

View Larger Map Route from Live Oak (A) to Fall Creek (B) to Llano (C) and Back (D)

OK. “Wine Tour” may be a little bit of an exaggeration. We only stopped at one winery. But it was a wonderful day trip with a bunch of people Suna and I had never met.

The tour was organized by Congregation Shir Ami, the Jewish community who share the facility with us at Live Oak. I was a little apprehensive about not knowing anyone, but someone said, “We know what it’s like to be the outsider,” and the proceeded to make us feel like we belonged. They even insisted we join their group photo by the bus at Fall Creek.

We left Live Oak about 09:30, which meant we had to get up as if this Saturday were a work day. But we did it. We weren’t even the last ones to arrive. That is always something of an accomplishment for me. We spent much of the trip to Fall Creek getting to know those sitting around us and commenting on how much better even everyday sights look when seen from a tour bus.

Suna by Fall Creek Grapes

Fall Creek is a family-owned vineyard that started as a hobby after the owner’s trip to France. He decided he wanted to grow grapes. Making wine was the next logical step. Now they don’t have enough wall space to display all their awards.

The tasting included a number of wines. The sign said six, but nobody was counting. I thought they were all good, which means Suna didn’t like some of them. We bought the Sweet Red, the chenin blanc, a cabernet sauvignon, and a few others.

From Fall Creek, we traveled to Llano to have lunch at The Acme Cafe on the Square in Llano. If you have eaten there, I don’t have to tell you how good it is. If you haven’t, I don’t think I can. It certainly isn’t the hole-in-the-wall-small-town-Texas eatery it looks like from the outside. I would have never thought of stopping in if it hadn’t been part of the tour.

The Acme in Llano

Everything they served was ample and delicious. Much of it was unique. Suna said her chicken salad was the best one she had ever eaten because of the hand-made vinaigrette. It appeared to have more herbs and spices than oil and vinegar.

I played it safe with a burger. I added chili, sauteed mushrooms, and jalapeños. I was little apprehensive when the waitress just shrugged and didn’t make a note when I asked for my burger well done. I hate pink burgers (probably because I’ve been to meat packing plants), and I’m not afraid to send one back. It was perfect and delicious, but that may be the only way they know how to cook ’em. One of our cohort later complained that he sent three back because they apparently didn’t know how to make a burger medium well.

On the way back, we sang Broadway tunes. We sang with gusto if not pitch. Have I mentioned I hate show tunes? Oh, well.

It was a great trip, but I’m glad to be home with a new case of wine.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Dinner with Friends and Family

Beer in a Scarf

It has been one interesting week. I started off by delivering a workshop on writing assessment questions. Two days were devoted to learning the new LMS we’re implementing at work. iTunes ate my library, including all the apps on my iPhone when I synced to the rebuilt library. That meant I couldn’t get to my work email on the phone for a couple of day.

While all that was going on, I still had to keep up with doing most of my assessment analysis. I don’t have a good client database built for this, so I use Microsoft Excel, which is a real pain. This morning, XL (I like to call Excel XL because its files are always extra large.) quit opening. It just crashes on load. Uninstalling and reinstalling Office didn’t help, and the problem exists only with XL. I spent most of the day trying unsuccessfully to troubleshot this issue.

You can see I was mighty happy to see the end of the week arrive. I invited two of my work buddies, who were visiting from California, to dinner at Mesa Rosa with the family. Suna and I had a really nice time chatting and exchanging stories.

RB and CR both ordered Negro Modelo, which came dressed in these little scarves. Unfortunately, I failed to notice the side of the beer they wanted me to take a picture of was facing away from me. The front of the scarf, which you can’t see in the photo, is tied in a cute little scarfy knot.

Unfortunately, RB had to catch a 06:30 flight home, so we couldn’t hang too long. But we did have enough time to put the work week fully behind me. I hope we can do more next time either of them visits Austin or I’m in California.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Book Review: Brains: A Zombie Memoir

Becker, Robin (2010). Brains: A Zombie Memoir. Oxford Oxfordshire: Oxford University Press. Cover Courtesy of: Harper Collins, Canada

Robin Becker’s first novel Brains: A Zombie Memoir stands the zombie genre on its ear. Literally. The ear happens to be on the ground, and the zombie stands on it before popping the tasty morsel into its mouth.

Becker anthropomorphizes zombies in Brains. Her main character is a professor of literature who retains his sentience through the transformation. Granted, I’ve known several professors whom I thought might be zombies, but the only one I was sure of was a civics professor.

Once she makes this single break from the genre cannon, all bets are off. Becker writes in a morbidly campy style that she admits is unlike anything she’s done before. Brains is a light, enjoyable read full of snickers and an occasional belly laugh.

The only negative is that Becker sometimes tries too hard to make her jokes work. She stacks the one-liners four or five deep, oblivious to Johnny Carson’s rule—Never do more than three jokes on a topic. Perhaps this is a lesson to learn from her first novel; perhaps it is simply the professor’s character. I have known several who couldn’t leave well enough alone.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Spring = Compost and Roses

I’ve been neglecting this blog lately. Something about this winter has made it difficult to motivate myself to write anything. I blame Facebook. Facebook can easily suck up any available time you have for other pursuits.

But today, I have something to say.

First I feel bad about missing an obligation. I was supposed to work on the church today as part of a Hands on Live Oak thing. But the sun woke me up early, and I got up to make coffee and enjoy the stillness of the morning and the singing of the birds (which turned out to be the Aerogrow garden). Then I decided to do some work around the house instead of going to church.

James Earl Jones believed that you have to have some connection to the earth to be healthy. He had a shallow pit in one of his flowerbeds where he would lay and meditate. My connection is in the garden where I think more in terms of tending the soil than the plants. If the soil is healthy, whatever you plant there will be, too.

So my first project was to work the compost pile. It yielded about a half-yard of delicious, rich blackness. I also found that one of our variegated ginger plants had survived the winter intact. I’m hoping that the others come back from the roots. They are supposed to be cold hardy in this region. We’ll see.

Then Suna and I went to Home Depot to buy some plants. We got some coleuses and three rose bushes to replace the two that died last year:

  • Apricot nectar (yellow floribunda)
  • Iceberg (white floribunda)
  • Double delight (red and yellow hybrid tea rose)

This is the first time I have tried the Biozome roses, which are advertised to be “easier on the environment” because they need less fertilizer. We also bought some wild bird seed formulated for our region and a new feeder and birdseed for small birds.

Back at the casa, I turned turned the compost into the shade bed and area where we lost the two rose bushes last year. Then I stuck all the plants into the dirt.

So while I didn’t do what I was supposed to do today, I feel good about what I did accomplish.