Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Mark of Maufrais

On my way to work at UT every morning, I step on a durable reminder of one of the most significant days of my life. Literally stamped into the concrete sidewalk at every corner all the way from Shoal Creek up to the University is the word 'Maufrais'.

MaufraisThe subject of much speculation among Austinites new and old this mark is is actually the name of the concrete contractor who poured this sidewalk and countless others in Austin, beginning in 1892. A number of sidewalks, especially in West Austin, were poured by the Maufrais Concrete Company during the post-war building boom that created the Tarrytown, Windsor Road and West Enfield neighborhoods.

As Austin writer Rob Hafernik observed in his concise and informative piece about the history of the company, "Just in the space of one good dog walk, I see the word a dozen times or more."

Well, we don't see the name Maufrais when walking the dog in our neighborhood, but when I lived in Clarksville many years ago, because I was required to see it on every corner between my house and the bus stop, I was unable to escape an unpleasant memory of what is my now-distant past: my arrest.

Yes, dear Reader, I was arrested in March of 1975, for possession of marijuana. I was just eighteen at the time, living with a co-worker on a tiny, dead-end street in far southwest Austin called Maufrais Lane. Ironically, there were no curbs or sidewalks on this street. It was a semi-rural area, with open fields next to freshly built subdivisions, technically outside the city limits. This key fact was both the reason we were arrested and the reason that the charges were ultimately dropped, though it was considerably more complicated than that.

In this era of plausible deniability fostered by our leading politicians and financiers, it seems foolish for me to admit that I was ever arrested, especially because nothing every really came of it. Nothing, that is, if you do not count the most dramatic and significant 'life lesson' that I took away from the experience; nothing but a dream denied and innocent trust abandoned. I will not claim to have been ignorant of my situation nor to have been simply duped by an unscrupulous roommate. I was certainly taken advantage of for being far too trusting and willing to go along with things I knew to be simply foolish, if not outright dangerous.

My roommate, Jim, was an old hippie, Vietnam war vet and committed pot smoker. This fact alone didn't bother me, for after graduating from high school in 1974, I too had 'discovered' pot. To say that I took to it would be something of an understatement, but it was, for me anyway, a vice that was both expensive and still quite hard to come by. Though the subjects of (my) drug use and addiction are worthy of reflection and comment, I will not here complicate the story by trying to resolve or even approach those rather controversial subjects. Another time and another place, perhaps. This is the story of the bust.

A little background to the story is required first, however.

Jim and I lived in a small two bedroom frame house at the end of Maufrais Lane. It was an old farm house, with a detached wood frame garage in back next to a long-abandoned plank-covered well. Beyond the back fence the land was still being farmed by the man who owned the house we lived in and the company we worked for.

Both Jim and I worked as welders for a small machine shop situated a few hundred yards up the road at the head of Maufrais Lane called B&M Converters. The owner was a big strong ex-GI named Marvin who ran the shop with the help of his British-born wife Betty. Together with another good old Texas boy named 'Old' Jim, Marvin, Betty, 'Young' Jim and I worked together in an un-airconditioned tin-roofed shed. For eight to ten hours a day, we cut open, cleaned out and re-built automobile torque converters.

Of course I knew nothing about these devices when I was hired. I know virtually nothing more about them now, thankfully. For the two years that I worked at B&M, however, I knew every type of bearing, stator, hub and welding bead required for every kind of converter for every kind of car on the road in 1974. That's something like 250 different models. That is also the number that I managed to forget in less time than it took to pack my bags when it came time to leave. Like many other sets of useless information acquired and abandoned in the years since, it is mostly gone, but not entirely forgotten.

The function of the shop was to take old, presumably worn out but not destroyed torque converters, cut them open, clean them out and rebuild them for re-sale to the many transmission shops and car dealers in and around Austin.

A torque converter is, quite simply, the clutch in an automatic transmission in an automobile. Don't ask me how it works. I know it has to something do with fluid dynamics and pressures. The insides of the devices bear this out. Having seen the guts of countless thousands of these devices in my short career with them, I can tell you this: at the very center is a circular set of what look like electric fan blades, called the stator. Over time, the stator wears out, which causes the car to acquire that lurching sensation--you know the feeling--that we get when the car is at a standstill but like an eager dog on a leash, doesn't want to remain so. When the stator wears out, the torque converter must be replaced, but that doesn't mean it can't be repaired.

Enter the B&M torque converter rebuilding shop. Torque converters look like steel doughnuts with a polished steel hub emerging from where the hole should be. The back side has bolt holes to attach it to the transmission, and there is a welded seam right round the circumference of the converter where the two halves were put together at the factory.

Marvin's job was to cut them open. He would mount the converter, still dirty, heavy and full of noxious burnt oil, on a lathe and cut it open like a filthy clamshell, spilling out the dirty blackened oil on the floor but retaining the guts.

It was my job to take them apart, remove the broken bits and 'file' the cleaned parts from in the inside in various bins in and around the rebuilding station. I spent the first half of every day over a fifty-five gallon drum three-quarters full of dirty varsol (a chemical cleaner not far removed in the cracking tower from kerosene or turpentine) being recirculated top to bottom with a endlessly whining pump. The broken stators were literally tossed out the back door into a huge pile of oily junk (EPA?) while all the springs, bearings, pins and shims went into their respective bins.

'Old' Jim--which is what we called him to distinguish him from my roommate was the master re-builder. He came in for just half the day. Like a surgeon with the special skills, he held himself apart from the rest of us as the 'brains' of the operation. To his credit, he did know his shit. The number of parts and pieces was staggering, but he knew them all by heart and hand. Re-building these devices may not be rocket science, but there is no doubt that the precision and skill of the re-builder was the core of B&M's business. If they didn't come back, we did good business, and Jim made sure they were built right the first time.

'Young' Jim's job was to re-weld the seam that Marvin had cut to start the process. This he did by mounting the re-built steel doughnut on another lathe with a automatic wire welder that completed the seam with just a start from the operator. Low though the skill to do that job might have been, my job required even less, so I was yet one rung down from 'Young' Jim.

Nonetheless, I managed to acquire some skill and thus escape perpetual part cleaning job for half the day by learning to use the heli-arc welder to patch holes in the seam weld and attach the polished steel hub to the doughnut hole.

The heli-arc welder looks and works something like a powerful electric arc pen. Unlike the wire welder, which required just a start and stop, the heli-arc required serious attention to the flow of liquid white-hot metal filling the gap between hub and hole. Rotating the piece in front of my on a wheel, with head down in a full face helmet, long sleeves, pants and boots, I was forced to remain focused on the bead even as I got stung by bits of molten sparks. After the weld cooled, I tested them by submerging the the converter in water and forcing air into them; bubbles meant more work.

I was still in my work clothes and greasy boots, smelling like varsol and writing in my journal after supper in the kitchen when it happened.

It was about ten p.m. Through the window over the sink I could see headlights coming down our road. First one set, then two, then three and four. Even a single set of lights on our road would have been unusual; Maufrais was a dead-end and our only neighbors were already home. The lights came up the road fast. Though paved for the first half, the half in front of our house was still the typical Texas caliche, so we could hear the crunch of the gravel as they roared up to a stop.

Even seeing this, I was only able to stand up and move a couple of feet to the center of the kitchen when the cops came bursting in through both the front and back doors simultaneously. I obeyed their orders to freeze, was handcuffed and placed in a chair in the middle of the kitchen. Jim, who had been in the bedroom, was also handcuffed and placed in a chair in the living room.

The cops began to tear the house apart, almost literally, all the while shouting at us, trying to intimidate us. In the kitchen, they pulled out all the boxes of cereal, bags of flour, coffee and sugar and dumped them all on the counter and the floor. The entire contents of the pantry and the refrigerator were dumped out on to the floor while I watched.

Where is it?" they screamed, over and over, as they tore through one thing after another. In the bedrooms they pulled out all our clothes and threw them around the room. They pulled up the mattresses and cut them open. One cop went up into the attic and actually fell down into the living room when he stepped off one of the ceiling beams. The six foot fall though a cloud of sheetrock dust barely dented his fat ass, and this blunder just made him, and the whole group that much madder.

They were angry with us because it was clear to them, almost from the instant that they burst in, that this wasn't the big bust that they were expecting. We din't know it at first, but they were expecting to find huge quantities of marijuana in our house.

After half an hour of literally frantic searching, they hadn't turned up so much as a single joint. This wasn't because we didn't have any. We just didn't have that much. We had less than a single ounce--known as a 'lid' back in the day--in a wooden salad bowl on the top of the refrigerator. It wasn't really hidden; that's just where we kept it. We didn't have that much because, contrary to the expectations of the Austin Police department, we were not dealers.

So, to the oft-repeated and most angry screams of "Where the fuck is it?" I could only say that I had no idea what they were talking about. And, in part, this was true.

Handcuffed and scared shitless in my now ransacked and damaged house, surrounded by armed, sweaty and angry policemen, I was seriously wondering what they could be looking for. Our lid? Seriously? Did it take eight cops in four cars to dispatch two scared hippies with a single ounce of shitty marijuana casually placed in a wooden bowl on top of the fridge? And, why couldn't they find it? Did they really need my help?

Or, were they looking for something that wasn't there? The reason they didn't look in the bowl on the top of the fridge was because the quantity of dope that they were looking for simply wouldn't have fit in that bowl. They were looking for tons of pot.

Police incompetence is another topic that is outside the range of this now lengthy recollection, so in the interest of brevity I shall let it remain so. Nonetheless, faulty 'intel'--as the Bush warmongers were fond of saying after their incompetence had been revealed--was at the heart of our little bust. The inability of the APD to find any dope was not unlike the inability of American troops to find WMD's in Iraq; you can't find what isn't there.

In our case, as I've said, there was something there, but nothing like what they'd been told to look for. The police had been told, by an informant, that we were major dope dealers in Central Texas, with literally tons of marijuana stored in our house on Maufrais Lane.

But if we really didn't have such quantities and weren't even actually dealing dope, how did they get that idea?

It turns out that all it takes is a combination of odd circumstances, bad luck and poor judgment. And stupid though it may have been to even possess marijuana back in the day when anything over a gram was considered to be a felony, the poor judgment that led to the bust was not confined to Jim and me.

The police more than anyone in this little melodrama embodied the entire collective failure of sense by choosing to believe a story told to them by an informant; a crazy pill-popping addict that Jim had foolishly befriended at a bar one night. Even more foolishly, Jim brought this strange cat home for a friendly smoke and a place to crash. The guy only stayed the night and was gone, but while he was there, he'd gotten some very strange and very wrong ideas about who we were and what we did for a living.

Again, the importance of the fact that this all took place on Maufrais Lane comes to bear on the story. It so happens that, at the time, although this half-paved strip of road was a named city street and had even a street sign, it was not actually inside the Austin city limits. This had but one serious consequence. Even though we had city water and electricity, we were not 'eligible' for City trash pickup. This meant that we were obliged to collect our trash in large plastic bags and haul them to the dump every week.

Well, obliged though we should have been to the task of taking the half dozen or so bags to the dump every week, recall that we were just a couple of dope-smoking hippies at the time. Taking trash to the dump wasn't high (pardon the pun) on our list of things to do every week. Especially because were were actually working hippies, with little ambition to clean house after a long day amid varsol and welding sparks.

So, the trash bags accumulated. We couldn't keep the bags outside, because the raccoons would tear them open and strew the trash around the yard, so we took to keeping them in a little utility room next to the bathroom in the back of the house. The room wasn't hard to find, by the way, but the cops didn't even open the door to it for at least a half an hour. Perhaps they just wanted to toss the flour on the floor before looking in more logical places, but for whatever reason, it was the last place they looked that night.

You'd think it would have been the first place that the police would have looked, given the fact that their informant had ostensibly told them where to look. The informant, when taking a piss the morning of his brief stay with us, had cleverly 'deduced' that the mountain of trash sacks he'd 'discovered' in the utility room were actually sacks stuffed full of high grade cannabis. Never mind that the dope we'd shared with him was of such poor quality that we'd paid no more than ten dollars for it, he'd pegged us as big-time drug dealers.

No doubt he enlarged on his story to make the case for lenient treatment on whatever charge they'd brought him in for, but even a causal visit to our little house at the end of Maufrais would have revealed to the police that we were neither drug dealers nor big-time anything. The ramshackle house and beat up old Chevy that Jim drove would have been ample evidence that their informant was selling them a load of bullshit.

In fact, this very failure to do any sort of basic investigation prior to the bust led to the fact that all charges were dropped in the case. Eventually, they found the bag of pot on top of the fridge, but not until they'd already loaded us into the squad cars and were about to take us downtown. One of the police came out of the house holding the half-full baggie exclaiming that he'd 'found it' but you know he and the rest knew it was just the opposite. What they had found, he hoped, was enough to make it look like they knew what they were doing when they planned the raid.

Ironically, this was the second time that they 'found it' The first 'discovery' came when they actually opened the door to the back room and found the trash bags. This was a critical moment for them. One of the officers brought out a bag into the kitchen and held it up for me to see.

"Gotcha" he claimed triumphantly, pulling his buck knife out to slice open the bag. Despite my waring--no, because of it--he only smiled as he cut out the bottom of the heavy sack, expecting to see me cry when my dope poured all over the floor. Instead it was he who had the surprise of seeing--and smelling-a load of maggot-infested garbage pouring all over his shoes. He looked like he wanted to puke. I laughed.

Don't laugh at the police. This just pissed them off more, as you might imagine. It certainly didn't turn us into big-time drug dealers that they were looking for and that was making for a bad night indeed. Lucky for them, they managed to find our little stash.

Lucky for us, they screwed it up in the end.

It turns out that the warrant issued for the raid was in error. The cops, it seems, had taken the time to come by and 'investigate' prior to the raid, but in doing so, they had parked on the wrong side of the street, and thus wrote up a description of our neighbor's house, complete with their address instead of ours.

Six months after the arrest--and one day after I made the final payment on the $2500 lawyer fee--the case was dismissed with a single swift strike of the gavel. Though I've always wondered about the timing of that event, I've never looked back. In that instant I was spared a lifetime of explanations and recriminations. Jim skipped town without paying a cent or even finding our that the charges had been dropped. For all he knows, he's still a wanted man in Texas.

For my part, I resolved not to let it happen ever again. I kept my job at B&M, but I cut my hair and moved into my own apartment on South Congress. By year's end I had moved 'back' home with my parents--who were now living in England--and had started a whole new life.

Although the Mark of Maufrais might have been placed on every curb in West Austin by city ordinance, I believe that it was really placed by there the synchronistic forces of the universe, as reminder to me about where I've been and where I want to go.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Maddie's Birthday Dinner

If this is indeed the 'restaurant of the future' you may count me as among those who prefers to dine in restaurants of the past.

Speaking of, we took Maddie out for her birthday dinner last night to a restaurant called The Melting Pot, which is a fondue joint that combines the communal dining experience, say, of Benihana with the do-it-yourself process of making s'mores around a campfire. Definitely fun, but not necessarily haute cuisine.

Nor was it meant to be, of course. With this in mind we actually had a very nice meal. The only trouble was digesting all that cheese, wine and chocolate. I had to sleep sitting up and it was no better for Valery or Maddie, who don't even suffer from the acid reflux that bedevils me every time I have a late meal.

To top it off, after the waiter cleverly extracted from me the fact that I work at H_____, when the bill arrived, it was zero. Now, we had just talked with the owner, who took the time to come by our table and see how we were enjoying it, but he never gave a hint of his generous intent.

After all, I usually never allow my association with the business to come up because I don't want it to seem like I am angling for special attention. I prefer to pass judgment on a restaurant based on my experience with the food, not the service. Not that service isn't important--the reader will doubtless recall plenty of previous posts stake out my position on service--but if and when the food doesn't measure up, even getting it for free won't improve the flavor.

The post facto indigestion notwithstanding, the food was quite good and I'd have said so even if I'd had to pay for the meal. Of course, the server got the best deal, since I left him nearly what I would have paid had I been presented the full bill, but the owner gets high marks for the gesture. These days I can't afford to return the favor, quid pro quo, but I will certainly welcome him to H______ with a special treat when and if he comes in!

Mighty Cone



We spotted this surreal sight as we left the restaurant last night.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Lightning Still Strikes

Looking at the fabulous photos taken recently by my family and friends, I am prompted to write about what I feel is important about photography in the digital age.

I am the son of a photographer. I am reminded of this fact every time I raise the camera to my eye and enter the viewfinder. Interestingly, even though my choice of digital camera recently was in part based on the fact that it has a 'live view' LCD screen (it even tilts--woo), I almost never use that feature. I am driven by instinct, not necessarily training, to lift the camera to my eye and look through the viewfinder. In a way, this mental exercise of looking, coupled with the physical act of pushing the shutter button down to receive that satisfying, endorphin-releasing click or ka-chunk is the very reason for doing it.

The wonderful thing about digital photography is that now, 'doing it' is no longer the cost-prohibitive and resource grabbing process that it was when I first learned the craft. My first real passionate episode with a camera came in 1968, when we lived in san Antonio and Bill worked at a camera store downtown.

One day, I walked all the way from South San Antonio where we lived all the way to his store. I have no idea how or why I was allowed to do this. I can't imagine doing it without telling Lynda, yet why she would allow me to walk that far I'll never know. It took me about three or four hours, and my route took me along what, in retrospect and taking into consideration that I was only about twelve--seem to have been some major highways. I don't recall being afraid, but tired and thirsty at times.

Along the way I remember looking at the highway overpasses and thinking how neat it would be to take pictures of them. I have never forgotten this inspiration; there isn't a 'spaghetti bowl' anywhere since that I haven't openly admired and secretly desired to possess in a photograph. In my life and experience, the urge to possess images is a force that I now recognize as a basic human desire. For me, the means to express and therefore resonate with beauty has, since that day, taken the form of photography.

Bill gave me my first camera that day, as well as my first roll of film. The camera was a Kodak Retina, and I kept it for many years despite using but once or twice after my first time. The principal reason for the lack of use was, to be honest, actually due to a lack of money. Given the camera and a roll of black-and-white film that comprised twelve pictures, I set out burning with the inspiration from my walk, and would have made it back to the highway had it not been so far away. In fact, there was a more intriguing subject on the way.

The subject of my first photo essay, would that it had been just that, was of what I believed to have been a old abandoned nunnery. I know this sounds incredible and I doubt that I still have the photos to prove it, but somehow, there in central San Antonio in 1968, I managed to find it. It was a ramshackle old frame building with a series of barracks-style rooms built round a central courtyard. My small size enabled me to wriggle in through the locked gate and into the overgrown courtyard. I wasn't the first to do this, obviously, but it was remarkably free of vandalism. Inside the rooms I found metal bed frames and sometimes, wooden desks and chairs left behind when the residence was abandoned.

If I remember all this with such seeming clarity, it is, I believe, because much of it is recalled through the curious lens of the viewfinder. Bill taught me--if not that day, on countless others while simply holding one of his cameras and 'playing' with it under his careful supervision--to pay close attention to what I saw when looking through the viewfinder; to be aware of in advance what the lens was about to capture meant focusing clearly on what is presented to the eye in that tiny, seemingly abstract frame. This is, of course, how one is supposed to prevent telephone poles and the like from 'growing' out of peoples' heads, but it is much more metaphysical than that.

The act of focusing is more than physically dialing the lens down to the right size, just as capturing the light is more than physically opening or closing the aperture or setting the shutter speed. These physical acts have corresponding mental constructs that, in essence, define the act and art of photography.

In the digital age, the connection between the physical and mental aspects of the art has actually been strengthened, broadened and deepened. What was once a narrow channel is now a wide open if often tumultuous sea. Talk about a sea change.

I took a dozen photographs of that abandoned nunnery in San Antonio in, oh, about twenty minutes. Given the time it took to get there and back plus some extra farting around while there, I'd estimate that it was not much more than an hour before I returned to the camera store to show Bill what I'd done and ask for some more film.

He was surprised, and even pleased, but not so impressed that he could shield me from reality. He explained to me that it would cost several dollars--please recall it was 1968--to have the pictures developed and printed. Add to that the cost of the film, and well, it was apparent that this was not going to be as easy as it looked. Needless to say I didn't get another roll of film that day.

I did get many more rolls of film over the years, however. Bill and I spent a good deal of time together on photo shoots of old abandoned buildings, demolition sites and rundown houses. I wasted a lot of film during these outings and many more of my own, but as often as not, like Bill, I simply took pictures through the viewfinder in my mind's eye, resisting the urge to consummate the act with a shutter click. Digital photography changed all that.

The means are still changing rapidly, of course, so there are many aspects of the medium and the future that are up for debate. Principally, the digital age has freed me from concern over cost and waste. Now I give in to the desire to take ten pictures when I would have only taken tow or three before. The result is more freedom but at the cost of an encroaching tyranny of excess. Not just excess of numbers, but of subjects as well.

I mean, how many pictures of flowers and bees can we take before we've seen and taken enough?

Surely there must be something else we can be doing with our new found freedom. Despite the temptation, the human aesthetic compulsion to take pictures of nature and the works of man, these are needs of the art form in its infancy. We are now participants in its adolescence.

So, take out all the flowers and bunnies and rain and what do you have left? What's left is a lot. What's left is the moment, pure and simple.

The photographs that will remain, the ones that suspend time and capture a moment in time are still the most compelling and enduring. The images that will emerge as memorable and thus worth keeping even in this digital deluge of the twenty-first century will be simple images, instances, really, of moments in time; 'things' saved like lightning in a bottle, contradictions in terms.

It makes perfect, simple sense in the same time it takes for lightning to strike.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Unsold Millions

The other day I suggested, only half tongue-in-cheek, that GM give me a car as a way to reduce their bloated inventory and improve their image. Suggestions that I wouldn't really want a GM vehicle notwithstanding, I have seriously been wondering since then just how many cars are actually sitting out on dealers' lots, unsold and, these days, increasingly unsellable.

The question is difficult but not unanswerable. Wolfram Alpha doesn't come online till tomorrow, so for the next twenty-four hours or so, so it will simply be a matter for my speculation. Through the news of the past few days, however, I've just acquired a tidbits of information which might hint at the answer.

Chrysler just announced that it will close 789 of it's 3200 dealerships across the U.S. This is sad news, of course, for those dealers and their employees, but it shouldn't be a surprise to them or the rest of, should it? After all, the dealers are the ones who have had to look out at a sea of unsold cars and trucks every morning, listening to their reduced sales force literally begging customers to buy something, anything, please, here and how.

So that's my question: just how large is that sea of unsold cars and trucks?

Well, if we estimate that each dealer might have as many as 500 vehicles in inventory, waiting for a buyer who will likely not come for months, if at all, then there could be as many as half a million unsold Chryslers out there. And suppose they each had a thousand cars? A million!

It's more than that, of course. Just the other day, GM announced that it was doubling down on Chrysler by closing 1000 of its 3189 US dealers. That's another half-million to a million vehicles that need, literally, somewhere to go.

So, between the two of them, GM and Chrysler are going to have to move between one and two million cars! That still leaves uncounted the something like another two to four million automobiles that the remaining 4500 plus dealers are holding. The total, by my admittedly rough calculation, is that there are between three and six million unsold cars and trucks in the U.S. And that's just GM and Chrysler!

If you were to add up all the rest, all the Fords, Toyotas, Nissans, Hondas, Hyundais, Subarus, and on and on, why that little three to six million is just a drop in the bucket. Worldwide, these numbers are absolutely crushing.

And these steel-glass-and-rubber behemoths aren't like the zillions of Blu-Ray players and Walkmans that Sony didn't sell last year. Cars just won't stay 'new' in the box in a warehouse for a year. If the car dealers don't sell them soon, I think that they are going to have to simply crush and melt them, the way a farmer plows under a field of withering drought-stricken corn. While we might miss the corn more than the cars, it is a shame to see all that effort go to waste.

Again, I humbly suggest: just give 'em away!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

My Daily 2%

It occurred to me yesterday that spam--of the email variety, not the potted meat--might actually have a useful function.

It is estimated--by folks who ought to know--that 98% of all email traffic is spam. Even with all the spam that we have grown 'used' to getting, at first glance, this figure seems astonishing. After all, I manage to get a lot 'done' with email. I hardly pay attention to all that spam, thanks to the very effective filters in Gmail. I do still get a lot of spam though. Often I empty the 'spam box' two or three times a day, and when I do, the numbers are ridiculously high in comparison to my actual messages: something like two or three hundred to one. Right now there are 360 spam messages waiting for disposal. I suppose I could wait for them to automatically be discarded, but there is something I find satisfying about deleting them daily; sort of a virtual sweep and mop.

That sweep and mop is not confined to my email. Email offers an interesting statistical model and potential measure of the 'real world. It seems to me that the 98% number--or better, the 2% that remains when the crap is deleted--could be used to describe the experience of being conscious itself. If you really think about it, it seems obvious that most of the information that flows over, around and through us is simply wasted energy, the spam of the physical world.

This ratio may be exaggerated, but I think that 2% sounds about right when it comes to measuring the useful information that I get and am able to make use of every day.

So, where is my 2% today?

Construction and Destruction

Ever since I was a boy, I have been fascinated with two sorts of monumental human activity, the construction and destruction of buildings, both large and small. By lucky coincidence, for the past several weeks or so I have been treated to the sight of both on my morning walk to work at UT.

My first sight of a site comes just after I crest the hill on 24th street and start down toward Waller Creek and the Geosciences Building where I work. This two block long construction site is the new Experimental Sciences Building (ESB), and as of today it is now just over a story high. That doesn't sound like much, but in fact the new building has just emerged from a six-story-deep pit. The massive hole from which it is today rising was dug in part to remove all the toxic chemicals that had been poured down the drains since the first ESB was built back in the 1920's. It's sort of a UT version of Love Canal.



The relentless pace of the new building is amazing. As I walk by, there must be two hundred men hard--and I mean really hard--at work, dragging, pounding, cutting and muscling large loads of wood, metal and concrete into impossibly precarious and precise locations over a vast and complex site. I can see carpenters constructing the framework for the concrete workers to place the giant metal molds for the new floor that will be poured later this week. Two twenty-story tower cranes loom over the site, blasting air horns every time a load is dragged up into the space overhead.

Heavy rumbling tractors move around the perimeter of the building's rising framework, hauling huge loads of lumber and steel rebar into place for the next floor. Ironworkers tie off the framework for the internal columns while suspended in space. More men build the rebar cages on giant rigs set up underneath the cranes, some lifting the two-inch thick metal bars on their shoulders while others lace it together with wire too thin to be seen from a distance. Invisible to my eye, that wire is nonetheless capable of binding together the internal structure of an entire building. I am ever impressed by the fragility of permanence.

Watching the intensity of the activity that surrounds construction, it is hard to imagine that the result is actually impermanent; what looks solid is astonishingly easily torn down. In fact, just about three months ago, this very site was still undergoing destruction.

If construction is carefully controlled chaos, destruction is deliciously defined violence.

First, giant 'nibbling' machines were brought in. These are mechanical shovels outfitted with huge crab-like hydraulically powered pincers on the end of long, pivoting steel arms. These nibblers began with the top floors and literally ate away at the structure, pulling it down and smashing it so that the long-trapped rebar was released in tangled masses like so much fishing line dumped on a muddy bank.

Men with long fire hoses spayed jets of water on the jaws of the giant building-eaters as they crushed and pulverized every last pipe, duct and wire in the structure into manageable bits. Other men with massive shovels scooped up the loads of debris and dumped them, five scoops per load, into a procession of trucks that ran by the site of the site continuously every day for a month or more.

Though I obviously recall well the process that brought the old ESB down, I do not have to wander far to see more of the same. Just a block a way, the old Chilling Station #4 is coming down in much the same way.



You'd think it would be most economical to literally take the building apart piece by piece, carefully recyling the valuable materials inside like steel, aluminum and copper, while saving and re-using parts of the machines inside that still function. This is not the case. While there is indeed a crude separation of the materials into basic groups like metal and concrete, there is nothing particularly careful about the way these elements are removed as part of the deconstruction process.

The building is literally being torn down, pounded and smashed with seeming abandon, starting with the upper floors. Today, after just a couple of weeks, all that remains is the steel framework, piled high with metal, concrete and brick debris on top. No massive crew is required here. Just a couple of guys seem to be working on the site, using a giant nibbler and a front-end loader. It makes sense, though. Destruction is dangerous but not terribly exacting work.

They've cleared away most of the rubble from the sides and the interior is cleaned out. A hydraulic lift, once used to move massive pieces of equipment in and out of the cooling station remains attached to one of the steel I-beams that make up the ceiling. It is all that is left of the functionality of the building, a purpose now given over to another, even more massive and of course, modern cooling station built in behind. The open space that the destruction space will leave is welcome, but not likely to last long.

No doubt a tower crane will soon rise on the spot, anticipating the erection of yet another permanent yet very impermanent building.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

My Free Car: A Proposal for GM

I've got a new promotional idea for GM. Give me one of your cars.

This is neither as nutty or as selfish as it sounds. To begin with, I have to admit that I've never actually owned a GM car of any kind, and this for a reason. I've always had the impression that GM products are, have been and will continue to be--how can I say this most delicately--pieces of shit. Now this impression may not have been valid, though it does seem that GM's precipitous tumble from the summit of the manufacturing world might have something to do with the steady decline in quality of said products and consumer perception of the same during my entire lifetime. GM management may of course choose to challenge that presumption, but it is safe to say that it would take considerable coercion on their part to convince me otherwise.

Like, for example, giving me a car. That could work. For both of us.

For my part, I am willing to go the extra mile so to speak, and actually talk up GM. Really, I will! Not only with I no longer refer to your products as pieces of shit, I will actually endeavor to speak positively about them and your fine, if somewhat scaled back and hopefully now humbled organization. I figure this is a good time for this proposal, what with the change in management and the summer-long shutdown looming and all the rest.

So, for you, GM this deal I'm offering could be a real alternative to say, going out of business permanently. I know you've been thinking about it. Why you've just launched the 'Rally for America' advertising campaign where you picture good and loyal Americans wearing baseball caps inside out in their good-faith attempt to rally the economy all while driving brand-new GM pieces of, erm, valuable transportation and earth-sustaining lifestyle-projecting family-friendly vehicles. Now, if you would just give them away, we'd have a deal.

I don't mean another of those ridiculous zero down, zero interest 'deals'. I mean zero dollars as in free. As in what lunches are not but GM cars ought to be. I think you ought to simply give the piece...erm, until you clear the lots of the--literally, no kidding--millions of unsold and potentially unwanted cars and trucks. These are the same cars and trucks that you built 'on spec' so to speak over the past year and now find yourself with so many 'extras' that you are shutting down production for nine weeks this summer. Nine weeks? Surely you saw the signs back in October of last year? Oh I know you did because that's when you started asking for money, claiming you were 'too big to fail'.

Well, news flash: GM has failed. It is over. Stick a fork in 'em ma, 'cause they're done. I'm hoping the new management will realize this and decide to simply give away what's left of the old pieces, erm, inventory in favor of a new start.

I don't know what that 'new start' will be like for GM and companies like it. For 'starters' though, I can guarantee it won't involve a whole lot of steel and glass. Have you car guys in Detroit been watching the Science Channel lately? There are some guys out there with some new ideas, and new materials for you to consider.

And, as long as you're considering, where and when can I go get my car?

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Sit, Loki, sit!


It has been about two weeks and the new member of our family is beginning to settle in to his new home in our house and hearts. It's an entirely new experience for me, one that I am really enjoying even though I have no idea what I am doing.

Valery bought a book about Border Collies from which I have already learned a great deal about the consistent care and focused training Loki will require in order to live successfully with us. I really think we've made the right choice with him but we really have to do some work here in the beginning. Actually, training him correctly will be a lot more like fun than work, even though it requires being consistent and focused--like work--because his energy and enthusiasm make the activity an exciting and rewarding for all of us, the dog included.

The first thing he is learning is how to sit. He already does it on command about ninety percent of the time, and clearly understands it as a command. As a puppy he requires constant reinforcement to make the connection between commands and actions, and as new dog owners, we require a similar reinforcement to make the connection between our desires and the dogs actions. He really does get it when you tell him, but I have learned that we've got to tell him, constantly and in a consistent, uncompromising way.

Anyone who tells you that there are similarities between raising a child and training a puppy has probably never done both successfully. It would be nice to think that our experiences with child rearing would come in handy for this exercise, but raising a dog requires a different, more basic set of skills. We decided to follow the book on training this one. Fortunately, there is one.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Dodging a Bullet

Confessing to being a thief, as I did in my previous post, has engendered more romantic thoughts of my rebellious, pirate side and prompts me to now admit that I am also guilty of committing an even worse--though equally innocent, if you will allow it to be so characterized after hearing my story--'crime' in my youth.

I shot my brother David in the navel with a sticker.

Many tragic stories have been told about the misuse of guns by foolish children, and as I contemplate this tale I am thankful yet again that it is a tale of foolishness and not anguish; a lesson learned without more serious consequences. I am the one who 'dodged a bullet' that sunny summer afternoon in the mid-sixties in Abilene.

All I remember of the actual day is that it was hot. The sunshine floods my memory of the moment, seared in my brain as one of those fading kodachrome snapshots, yellow and overexposed. This isn't surprising, as it was nearly always hot in Abilene. Most of my recollections of that place and time are of summertime, when I had a great deal of free time and a virtual absence of supervision.

These were two commodities of which I had an apparent abundance that fateful day, much to my brother's belly button's detriment. Oh, and I likely scarred him mentally for life that day as well, but this post is about my mental scarring, not his. Doubtless in response to this memoir I will hear more of his recollection, but for now, I press on to enter my long overdue mea culpa into the lublic record.

The weapon I had in my hand that day was a BB gun. It was a pistol, manufactured by Daisy, who still make BB guns today, though I very much doubt they have they model I got for my seventh birthday in 1963. The reason for my doubt has to do with the design and consequent killing power--or lack thereof--that this particular gun presented to me and my safety conscious parents.

While many BB guns are powered by compressed air that is 'pumped' into a chamber by repeated cocking of a lever or part of the barrel, my Daisy pistol was actually spring-powered. It resembled an old fashioned Colt 45 six-shooter, but the revolver was in fact, fake. The BB's were loaded into a holding chamber on the side of the gun, six at a time. Cocking the gun was a matter of sliding a bolt on the top of the barrel back until it locked. As the bolt slid back, the spring was compressed and one of the six BBs from the chamber was supposed to drop into the firing chamber at the back of the barrel, just in front of the spring, which had a small metal plate attached to the end to cradle the BB and push it forward when the spring was released via the trigger.

It was all very mechanical and remarkably low powered, which was no accident, and not necessarily ironically. The choice of this model was a compromise between my intense desire to have a gun, and my parents' intense desire to keep weapons of any kind out of my hands. As such it was a good compromise: it satisfied neither of us completely.

At first, however, I was more than satisfied. Thrilled is a good word for this feeling. I can recall my heart soaring as I opened the package at the table that day. I remember that it was my seventh birthday. I recall having the party at the kitchen table then going outside to play with my friends and my new treasure.

I also remember that my best friend at the time, Paul, was not impressed, and with good reason. He lived 'in the country' which, in Abilene, simply meant outside of town. Looking back, even living in town was a remarkably rural experience. Nonetheless, Paul was true country boy in a way I never was nor will be. He knew about guns. Of course, he had fired and even owned 'real' guns, so his opinion mattered a great deal. However, despite knowing the truth of its relative value, to me that Daisy was a 'true' gun. It was my first. In a way this is important because it was also a symbol of my parents' trust.

This story, then, is about how I dealt with that trust and what I've done with the lesson learned that day.

At first I had a hard time believing it it was real. So impossible did it seem that Lynda and Bill had both relented and spared the money for this birthday present that I can still remember placing it by my bedside before going to sleep, then waking up in the morning having convinced myself in my dreams that it was just a dream, only to be astonished anew when my eyes rested on it in the light of a new day. That was the first and last day for such joy.

One of the parts of the compromise that was most unappealing to me was the paucity of the ammunition. Tough I suppose it is a bit of an exaggeration, I recall being given something like a dozen BBs in a little clear plastic pouch. Since a full 'load' comprised just half a dozen of the little copper colored metal balls, I exhausted my arsenal in just two rounds and had to resort to retrieving them from the burnt straw colored grass in our front yard.

This was easier than it sounds for two reasons. First, the gun was so underpowered that I could literally see the BB arcing out of the barrel through the air toward the ground. 'Tests' conducted with the gun muzzle's proximity to pieces of wood and glass that the emerging projectile would neither embed in the former nor break the latter. Second, the bright copper color of the BBs was easy to spot in the withered grass and dark red dirt of West Texas.

Nonetheless, twenty four BBs do not last forever, and it may not even have been an hour before I was back in the house, asking Lynda when she would go buy me some more. Well, of course, when was a bit presumptuous. If was more like it. I was sent back out to play with my new weapon sans ammunition but not without imagination.

I soon discovered that other things besides BBs would fit into the loading chamber, hence into the firing chamber and barrel of my little pistol. Things like little rocks could be worked in, but I soon discovered that finding pebbles of exactly the right size and shape was hard to do, even in our gravel-filled driveway. Not so hard to find, and, as it turns out, easily manipulated into the 'right' shape without much effort were stickers.

If you live in Texas or have, you know what I am talking about. We called them stickers, but they are actually seeds. These are those big, old nasty, spiky, hard white, spine-covered balls of foot-pain inducing hell that hide in the grass, attach themselves to your socks and pant legs, then stab you and inject their horrible poison into your bloodstream.

Ok, I am really exaggerating about the last bit, but there's no doubt that after no more than simply being poked by one of these stickers, your skin will itch for far longer than the simple act of touching it deserves. Just plucking one out of your sock can mean several nasty pokes to your fingertips, so try and imagine, if you will, what it would be like to have one shoved, nay, rammed into your belley button with such forch that it literally disappears into that fleshy knot. Though it may not be an absolute center of your nervous system, it is certainly close enough to the solar plexus that the zing is not something you're likely to forget.

I doubt he's forgotten it. I certainly haven't.

I can only hope it is something one can forgive. I took one of those very nasty if not actually deadly stickers, loaded it into the firing chamber of my trusty little Daisy pistol and fired it, point blank, into my very trusting little brother David's navel.

Despite what I considered to be a demonstrable lack of firepower, the Daisy nonetheless managed to deliver the substitute ammo with enough force to drive the sticker into his tender, four-year-old flesh. In an instant, he was howling and all I saw in the moment before he went hurtling into the house was the spot of blood that appeared on his belly button. I was certain I'd killed him, but his screams and my mother's recriminating chords at soon convinced me that he would live, even as I feared that I would not.

Despite her desire to do so, it is to Lynda's credit that she did not shoot me with or even hit me over the head with my stupid little BB gun, much though I deserved it. Instead I had to endure several of the most horrible lectures about my lack of responsibility and the dangers of guns from both her and Bill. Bill solemnly placed the gun on the very highest shelf in the pantry as I watched, sorrowful less for my actions and more for my loss.

The physical damage to David's navel was, I am glad to say, minimal. I cannot speak to the emotional consequences of my act, if he even remembers the incident with the intensity that I do. Though deserving of a prominent place in my memory, it may not be the same for him.

Life went on, of course. Eventually, I was allowed to have the Daisy pistol again. I even went on to to get another gun--a powerful rifle--by convincing Bill and Lynda that I had learned a lesson. I had, indeed, but what I never told them was exactly why. You'd think the trauma of the actual event would be enough, but it was actually the dream that I had that night and for many months and even years afterward that affected me most.

In this dream, while caring for my brother, I picked up him around the waist to carry him from one room to another. As I picked him up, I squeezed him too hard, and his eyes popped right out of his head. The futility of trying to replace his dangling, useless eyes was overwhelming, flooding my heart with an irrepressible fear and anguish. Fortunately, the metaphor was just that.

Stealing the Cheese

When I was still in high school, I worked as a busboy at a restaurant in Austin called The Barn. Though I still could not tell you why I did it, one night when I was working there, I stole a ten-pound block of swiss cheese.

I certainly didn't do it for the cheese. That cheese was terrible, sharp and grainy, a poor excuse for the 'appetizer' it was supposed to be, especially when paired with the steamed white rolls that we served with it. But because eating it was taboo, that cheese was transformed--not unlike transubstantiation, if you're are inclined to believe that sort of thing--into a precious food with actual flavor. That flavor was imparted in major part simply by the act of obtaining it; always surreptitious, ever sly, eaten on the move and with as little mouth motion as possible to avoid deadly detection.

Honestly, the risk was way overrated. Although I never saw anyone get fired for eating that crap--or any other crap, including the 'bus tub buffet'--it was the legend that kept us on the down low, so to speak. It certainly made the low life crap that we were eating (especially the b-t buffet) seem somehow--against all odds and our tastebuds themselves--flavorful. The taste of risk, even an imagined one, is, it turns out, a better condiment than salt, butter or cream. Though the combination of the last three ingredients no doubt makes anything taste better, it was but a dash of perceived danger that made that disgusting block of swiss cheese seem like something actually worth stealing.

What else could have been going through my mind?

I don't think I did it on a dare, since I don't remember telling anyone. I also don't remember planning it. Had I attempted to plan the act, I would have thought too much about it in advance and failed to go through with it, No, I would remember if had it been anything other than a typical spur-of-the-moment crime. Of the type that often do damage far out of proportion to their real-world severity, I was lucky to have escaped all consequences for it. This is, of course, an post-facto rationalization. I willingly accept the fact that it was nothing more than a petty crime. No matter the motivation or the absence of consequences; no matter that it was just a dumb kid thing to do, I did it.

I didn't get caught, though, and by only the very thinnest of margins. In the best tradition of improving the view through the soft lens of hindsight, I see my escape as a warning, a lesson learned and truly never forgotten. I think it safe to say that I am not a thief by nature. I cannot claim to have never stolen anything. Besides the cheese, over the years, there have been a few candy bars in pockets and mints too. And, I once ran out of Denny's without paying for a chocolate malt. Though the potential for irony be much increased with such statements, I believe that I am only being honest when I say that I haven't stolen anything else that I can recall.

It's laziness, really. I think it much easier to work and earn the money to buy something than to plan for, take the risk of and live with the consequences of theft. I suppose you could say that I am perhaps deterred by international banking laws which prohibit me from moving large sums of money to and from 'offshore' bank accounts, but still argue for my moral bankruptcy by observing that I have no money with which to do so. True. Beyond that, however, down through the long line of property crimes all the way to big, nearly rotten hunks of swiss cheese, I may claim innocence. At the last offense, I admit the stupidity if not the criminality of that act here today.

I stole the damn cheese. I saw it in the reach-in cooler as I was on my way out. The last one out,lights were being clicked out all round me by the manager, who was closing up behind me as I left. He was in the other room, locking something because they knew the staff would steal it if it wasn't locked up. So paranoid! Yet here was this erm, lovely block of cheese, and in a flash I had removed my coat and wrapped it around my prize. As casually as possible, I made my way to the exit, calling to the manager cheerily.

Unfortunately, my hasty exit was prevented by a locked front door, which required that I wait for the manager to come perilously close to my heavy secret. I don't recall how I held that awkward load, nor can I remember whether or not he actually saw what I was attempting to conceal in the near dark of the closing restaurant. Oddly, as if he'd had a sudden intuition, he asked me to stay for a minute while he locked up the kitchen. He directed me to sit a booth near the door and wait.

"Here," he said. "Set a spell while I go lock up the back. Say it's cold out there. Oughten you be wearin' that jacket to your car?" He said this as he turned away and disappeared in the dark, so luckily I didn't have to answer.

I sat with my bundled contraband next to me on the black leather naugahide of the booth seat, waiting with sweaty palms as he made noises in the dark, wishing my anchor was smaller, lighter. I was wishing that I hadn't done it, hoping that he hadn't noticed. If wishes were horses, I'd have ridden right out of there.

Suddenly he was back, looming in the light over the booth, holding a tumbler full of an amber liquid. Was it scotch, or bourbon? I don't know; didn't know there was a difference then. It could have been marsala wine for all I knew. Before I knew it he slid into the seat opposite me and began to talk about honesty. The words are lost to me in the haze of fear that possessed me--rightly--for the ten minutes or so it took him to down his nightcap. I do recall the sad look on his face as he talked, desperately trying to read his intent. I burned with fear, wondering if he was going to call me out or if he expected me to reveal my secret. Reveal my burden I did not, and he soon shooed me out into the cold night without scolding me for carrying my jacket instead of wearing it.

Looking back, it occurs to me that he may have been the one to reveal something that night, something that quietly became part of who I have been, and who I am today.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Riding Around in a Bookmobile

The other Reader of this journal has asked for more stories about Lynda during the time we lived in Abilene, so while I am on a book 'theme' of late, I thought this would be a good time to recall what I can of my experiences riding around in a Bookmobile in Abilene with Lynda.

The Bookmobile was a large rectangular van, not unlike a modern day bread truck, with high sides and a rather narrow beam, with a single person-sized door in the back instead of the wide double doors of a delivery truck. Using a set of stairs lowered to meet a footstool placed on the ground, patrons would enter the Bookmobile from the back and pass down a single narrow aisle with bookshelves on either side from back to front.

The driver's area was visible from the 'stacks' but a low partition divided the two spaces so the only way out was also the way in. At most, three people could browse the stacks at a time. There was a passenger seat up front too, which is where Lynda sat while the Bookmobile ground it's gears around the west Texas plains in search of readers. There were no other seats. I sat on the floor in the aisle when the truck was rolling and the minute we were 'in port' so to speak, I got out to play.

Though hard-pressed to recall what year and for how many summers we did this, I know that moment must have been when I was still in elementary school. I had no particular interest in the books at that age. At the very least, books were already such a routine part of my life that the thought of reading more of them than absolutely necessary was definitely not what got me to riding along in the Bookmobile. Recall, dear Reader that I actually grew up in a bookstore. So, why did I hit the road with my Mom in a truck full of books?

Part of the reason I went along was simply my devotion to Lynda. I don't know how else to describe it. The Reader already knows that I am--or was--a Mama's boy. This journal was started in part to record and illuminate that very fact. I've already written about how I accompanied her on sales calls many years later, but my travels with Lynda really began here. Those travels really do go way back. From an early age, I developed a willingness--for want of another, better word--to accompany her to various places such as the store, the laundromat and the library. I went places with my Dad, too, just not as often. He took trips to the Bank, the service station and the hardware store.

Now, I can't say that I enjoyed the trips to the store all that much. Going to the laundromat was just flat out work and no fun at all. The library was another matter. This place I loved to go; and still do. And in the early sixties in Abilene, because the public library was one of the only public buildings--other than banks--that was air conditioned, it was literally the coolest place in town on a hot Texas summer day.

Another, less tangible but no less important reason that the library was also a 'cool' place to go was due to Lynda's friend, Len Radoff. Len was the Librarian at the Abilene Public Library during part of the time that we lived there. Although I do not recall all the details of how they met in that intellectual hothouse that was Abilene in the early sixties, I know that Lynda's dearest, closest (and dare I say oldest friends?) were Len and Lisel Radoff. They were--are--more like family than friends. Their daughter, Lesley have known each other now for something like forty-five years. She and I spent many days playing with sticks together in their back yard or ours; battling with 'swords' up and down the staircase of our house while our parents rattled on endlessly in the living room or kitchen about art, books, ballet, opera and politics.

I should point out that Len is like a favorite uncle, someone I always enjoyed being around. He is a very funny man, with a delightful wit and a love of play that no child can resist because he is always and forever will be a child at heart. He is also the most well read person--man, woman or child--that I've ever known, or even know of, including Lynda. Though Mom was a voracious reader, she had trouble sharing the information she gained from it with me, at least when I was very young. She could get exasperated with me, but Len had no such barrier. A more patient man in the world there is not. He treated me with such respect, intellectually, even at such a young age, that I can trace at least part of my love of learning, books and discovery to his gentle influence. Certainly he got me to read more books by persuasion than Lynda did by coercion during those summer-long book reading contests sponsored by the Library.

You know those contests, where the book list is updated weekly and a little tally is kept in the lobby so you can follow your progress and compare it to the other kids? It's likely a thing of the past now. It was meant to keep us off the street, and it certainly did that, though it was the air conditioning as much as anything that encouraged me personally to go regularly. For my part, I routinely read--was forced to read?--more than the ten or so books a week that comprised the minimum to compete and often ended up at or near the top of the list by the end of the summer. However, there was no prize that I can recall, so perhaps I never actually 'won' the damn thing. Who knows?

The trips in the Bookmobile were, for me, mostly about freedom. Freedom from the house and the absence of chores was a powerful incentive for me, I guess. I recall that each time the old van rattled to a stop in the parking lot of some new little town, I barreled from the back, looking, hoping to discover something new and exciting. Alas, there was precious little of that commodity in these dreary places. It doesn't take many visits to many small Texas towns to figure out that the great plains are not much on variation. At least there were plenty of horny toads and grasshoppers and ants no matter where we went. I managed to entertain myself in the dozens of ways that bored little boys do when left to their own devices out of doors.

Who knows, maybe I even read a book or two while riding around in the Bookmobile. I don't really remember. The Bookmobile adventure, if I can call it as much, certainly took a good bit of my attention during those long boring and very hot months of summer. It beat vacation Bible school, or so I'm told.