Sunday, November 18, 2018

My Father's Father

I wrote the following for my dad on his birthday a few years ago.

I didn’t know my grandfather well, so I don’t have many stories to describe him. But I do have words, feelings, and memories. I remember his warm laughter, echoing throughout whatever home he was in. And when you heard his laugh, you knew that he was smiling. Even now I can picture is smile, broad and welcoming, eager to appear, waiting for someone to tell a joke.
I remember sitting on his knee. He smelled like a grandfather should, like peppermint and coffee. He would hold me there while we sat in the kitchen, all the other adults talking about things that I thought were boring. He would keep me entertained by whispering funny jokes in my ear. I felt safe and loved. I felt like I was the only grandchild in the world, even though he had several.
I remember all of his toys. The house was full of them. The railroad set that took up a whole corner of the basement. The pinball machine from the sixties that actually worked, and didn’t cost a thing to play. The Pepsi machine in the garage that didn’t work, but I thought was neat anyway. The clocks that populated every room, ticking the seconds and chiming for the hours.
I remember him visiting us in Texas, and watching him marvel at the beauty of our home in the woods. I watched him take in the beauty of something I took for granted everyday, and hoped that one day I would be like him and appreciate life every second.
I remember him teaching me words in Polish over the phone. We would have conversations in Polish, and I remember most of the words he taught me to this day, more than I ever let anyone know, because it was like a secret language between the two of us and I want to keep it that way.
I remember the way he would hug my dad, and put his arm around him. I couldn’t wait until I was tall enough for my dad to do the same to me. The three of us could stand around and tell jokes and smile. I can picture in my mind a photograph of all three of us, arms on shoulders, smiling, my grandfather’s smile the biggest.
I remember when we lost him, and how hard we all cried. It was the first time I ever saw my dad cry. But I was glad, because then I knew it was okay for me to cry, too. I wished that I had one more time to sit in his lap.
I see him at times when my father smiles. I can still hear him laugh. I am grateful that I knew him, for however short a time it was. And I am grateful that my father is so like his father, because both of them have taught me how to be a better man.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Caddo Mounds

Around 1200 years ago, a group of Caddo known as the Hasinai tribe established a settlement in the Piney Woods of East Texas. Over time, it grew to be a large village, with ceremonial mounds for worship and burials. The village was a center for trade, located on a well-traveled Native American route through Texas. The Caddo were part of the mound building cultures of North America.

A thousand years later, all that remains is a few small hills. Now there are tiny East Texas towns surrounding the site, most smaller than the Caddo village itself.

I've always thought that was weird. Growing up in East Texas, the places I considered big cities--Dallas, Houston, Austin--were far away and permanent. They'd always been the places with the most people. When you're young, you don't realize that things change. The way things are is the way they've always been, and they'll always stay the same. At least that's what we like to think.

But a thousand years ago, this site that now sits in the middle of nowhere was the big city. Young Caddo teenagers probably dreamed of leaving their small village and moving to the site near present day Alto, Texas. It was the place everything was happening. Traders from villages as far away as Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana came there to exchange their goods. Elaborate burial and religious ceremonies were held there. All the important warriors, priests, and political leaders lived at this site. It must have bustled with activity, something young people love.

There was a lot going on here.

Pictured above is the Low Platform Mound. Archaeological evidence shows there were no buildings on this mound, and no one is quite sure what is was used for. It's possible it was a place for community functions. I like to think it was a town square used for meetings and dances.

The mound in the picture above is the High Temple Mound. It was originally much larger than what we see today. According to the information at the Caddo Mounds State Historic Site, the mound used to be three times its current length and up to 35 feet high. Buildings for worship and government sat on top of the mound. Imagine living in the forests of East Texas and then coming to this city with its towering mounds. These were the skyscrapers of the first millennium.

From time to time, the buildings on top of the mound were ceremonially destroyed by fire. The ashes of these buildings would be covered with dirt, and new ones would then be constructed. Fire was an essential part of Caddo ceremonial life and their creation myth. It's possible there was a building with a perpetual flame, always burning, always signaling new life.

The largest mound (at least in height) at present is the Burial Mound. It was about 20 feet at its highest and over 90 feet in diameter. It contained around 90 bodies in about 30 burial pits. Burial in this mound was reserved for important community leaders.

The site was abandoned by the Hasinai in the 13th century, long before any Europeans set foot in Texas. The site had lost cultural and political influence by this time because the villages surrounding it had grown larger. Still, the site held some significance.

Alonso de Leon, Spanish governor of Coahuila,started a route that would eventually turn into the El Camino Real de los Tejas. The route was turned into an actual road by Domingo Teran de los Rios, the first governor of Spanish Texas. This "royal highway" went from Mexico City to Natchitoches, Louisiana.

The Caddo Mounds site was a rest stop on this route. The site was was frequently referred to as Paraje el Cerrito, which means Place of the Little Hill. This was due to the Camino Real going right by the Burial Mound at the site. Here's a photo of me on the Camino Real. You can see the Burial Mound in the background.

Did the Spanish travelers on this road know they were stopping to rest at what was once a large city? Maybe. Though the site had been abandoned for more than three hundred years, there surely had to be artifacts lying on the ground. The remaining Caddo tribe members must have known the history of the area and told stories of the city to these new European visitors.

Still, this site, and what was once here, became an afterthought. The site was excavated over the years, but was only really thoroughly researched in the 20th century.

It's always a sobering thought--things change, and the things we think are permanent are actually temporary. This city was the center of Caddo culture in Texas for five hundred years. And then it wasn't. It faded from significance to the Caddo, and then was forgotten to the world. I'll bet those who lived there thought that could never happen. But it did.

History simultaneously reminds me that I'm not as important as I think I am, and that what I do matters more than I think. It's a paradox I love to think about, and traveling to Caddo Mounds helped me do that.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

The Ring

Twenty-five years I went without a ring. I'm not much for jewelry. I flirted with a class ring, mostly because everyone else was doing it. I didn't like it. I wore it only sporadically, eventually not at all.

Then I took her hand in a small chapel with only our parents there, and we exchanged rings. There were tiny silver daisies on hers. They are her favorite flower. Mine was inscribed with ancient words: "I am my beloved's, and she is mine."

It helps me to remember I am no longer one body, but two. I am no longer my own. If I ever was my own at all.

It was annoying at first, having this band on my finger. I touched it, picked at it, moved it up and down my finger. I couldn't stand it. But I wore it to remind myself, to remind the world. I am no longer my own.

Only two years have passed, but now I feel my ring even when it is not there. Now I rub my finger where the ring should be. I do not feel complete without it. It is a microcosm of her. I do not feel whole when she is not near. I don't need the ring to remind me of this, but it is a good example.

I have felt God near a handful of times, just a few. Maybe that is all we get.

I remember that I am not my own.

When you see love that is sacrificial, a life poured out for another, God is near. There's no formula to make it happen, no way to predict it. But when you've felt it, the feeling never leaves you. You long for it again and again. You don't feel complete without it.

I absentmindedly reach for the ring and think of her.

I've spent my entire life reaching for something because I feel incomplete. Lately it's been the right things.

Friday, July 13, 2018

I Went to a Major League Soccer Game

So the first thing you have to know is I don't like soccer. Well, it's not that I dislike it. More like, I don't care. In my opinion, nothing much happens. And the game can end in a tie. I'm sorry, in soccer it's called a draw. But anyway, you can sit and watch a game for three hours and it ends in a tie. Nobody wins. Including everyone watching.

But I got free tickets to FC Dallas' match against the Vancouver White Caps. So I went, because I have an open mind and like sports. My wife came along, because she was interested.

Things got off to a rocky start almost immediately. The game was at 3 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon. The temperature was a cool 95 degrees and our seats were in direct sun. There's also a no-bag policy, of which we were unaware. I had brought my camera in a bag, and my wife's purse wasn't allowed, either. So after walking more than half a mile from the (free!) parking, we had to walk all the way back to our car, ditch our bags, then walk all the way back to the stadium. Needless to say, we were a little cranky by the time we got in the stadium.

We immediately found a concession stand and bought water and Gatorade to quench what was now an immense thirst. We stood in a corner of the a concourse, in the shade, because there were no benches or other sitting areas. Going to our seats in the middle of the blazing sun didn't seem appealing at the time.

Eventually, though, we got tired of standing, and found our seats. The game was already underway. I watched as the ball was kicked around. I don't understand anything about soccer strategy, so I quickly got bored. There was a pretty ruckus group of fans behind the goal that was nearest to us. They constantly sang and shouted throughout the half. There was even a band that played nonstop. It was awesome, and gave the crowd a party atmosphere.

FC Dallas scored a goal at some point near the end of the first half, but I'll admit, I pretty much missed it. I was looking around the stadium, taking in the sights, because I'd gotten a little bored with the game. I looked up in time to see the ball rolling into the goal. The crowd started celebrating, singing loudly and waving silk scarves with the team's logo on them. It was fun.

My wife and I left during the half. If you really love soccer, I'm sorry. But we were both really feeling the heat, and the thought of spending another hour in the heat, watching a game I don't understand just felt unbearable.

I'd like to go to another soccer game, but with someone who really knows and enjoys the sport. Maybe they could help me see the appeal. We had a pretty good time, but I don't think soccer is for me.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

The American Recordings: Delia's Gone

 "Delia's Gone" is a song about a narrator murdering his girlfriend. He never gives a specific reason why, other than Delia being "low down and triflin,'....cold and mean, kind of evil..." I'm pretty sure there are better reasons for shooting someone, but hey, it is what it is.

The narrator is in jail, relaying his story to the jailer. He is haunted by the memory of Delia, can even hear her footsteps by his bed. His words seem to show no remorse, but his dreams tell a different story.

Johnny Cash is known for his gritty crime songs. He pulls no punches, just tell a story the way a journalist would. There's no moralizing, no explaining. Cash just tells you what happened and how it feels to experience it.

Cash originally recorded "Delia's Gone" in 1962. It has more of the traditional Cash sound--the twangy, old country sound that made him famous. The American recording is more stripped down, just Cash and his guitar. I prefer the 2004 version by a wide margin.

"Delia's Gone" is the type of sad, lonesome song that I always identify with Johnny Cash. It's the perfect start to the American Recordings.

Intro: The American Recordings

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Johnny Cash and the American Recordings

In 1994, Johnny Cash collaborated with legendary producer Rick Rubin on an interesting project. Rubin wanted to record Johnny Cash, and only Cash. Just the legendary Man in Black and his guitar. They set up in Cash's living room and recorded the album, with the exception of two songs, which were recorded in Johnny Depp's nightclub the Viper Room.

The album was a critical and commercial success, leading to a career resurgence for Cash. He went on to record five more albums with Rubin, the last two being released posthumously.

Over the next few months, I'm going to break down some of the songs from every album. Some of the posts might be really short, and others might be long. It'll just depend on how much I have to say about each track.

The American Recordings are some of the most influential albums of the last twenty years. It brought Johnny Cash back into the national conscience and reminded the music industry that success could be simple. I'm excited to delve into the history, theology, and culture behind some of these songs. I hope you enjoy.

Next: Delia's Gone

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Book Review: Woe to Live On by Daniel Woodrell

Most people don't like ambiguity. It makes them feel uncomfortable, uneasy, and insecure. In Woe to Live On, Daniel Woodrell soaks the reader in ambiguity, never letting them find stable ground to stand on. The plot teeters and winds, never heading in a sure direction. The characters are good people who are thrust into circumstances that make them murderers. The setting of this novel is the murky waters of a vague morality which always surfaces when chaos reigns.

Woe to Live On is told by Jake Roedell, a bushwhacker in Missouri during the American Civil War. Roedell and his fellow bushwhackers roam the countryside, aiding citizens loyal to the Confederacy and harassing, robbing, and killing those who sided with the Union.

This time and place is as ambiguous as you can get. Neighbors turn on neighbors. Family members fight among themselves. Even Jake's gang isn't black-and-white, as there are several fellow bushwhackers who would gladly kill him given the chance.

Jake himself is hard to get a read on. He is devoted to his adopted brother and best friend Jack, a fellow bushwhacker, but has turned his back on his father, who chose to side with the Union. Jake spares a former neighbor from execution, but casually shoots a young boy in the back because "pups make hounds." Contradictions like this abound with all the characters.

Again, Woodrell isn't afraid to make the reader feel uncomfortable. He's not trying to make you feel good about the characters or even the narrator. He's like a journalist, just reporting what he sees. It's up to the reader to decide what is right and what is wrong.

Woe to Live On is an interesting novel that explores the gray areas of the American Civil War, friendship, and nationalism. Woodrell presents a different kind of Western, one in which there aren't good guys and bad guys, but rather desperate people facing terrible choices.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Book Review: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

This is a weird book.

I just have to say that to start. I had a hard time getting into it at the beginning. Because it was weird. But once you get past that, this novel is amazing.

The story is about Abraham Lincoln visiting his son's grave the night after the funeral, told from the perspective a few of the spirits haunting the cemetery. Saunders drew the narrative from a historical tidbit about Lincoln actually visiting the grave several times.

It's written like this--half of it is historical quotations from books (more on that in a moment) that set the scene, the other half dialogue attributed to dozens of characters that come and go with really no rhyme or reason.

I know it sounds insane and hard to follow. And it is. But after about forty pages you find the rhythm of the story, and it all just makes sense.

So those historical notes from other books. Some of them are real. Most of them are fiction, written by George Saunders himself. But they're so well done that you can't tell the difference. Maybe the most entertaining is a section where several different "historical" accounts describe the moon on the night of Willie Lincoln's death. Almost every account describes the moon differently, which is something you'd expect from real historical accounts. But Saunders made them up.

And then the other half of the book. It's told by these spirits. You get a paragraph or more of their voice, and then an attribution below it so you know who is talking. That's it. Like I said earlier, it's a little weird when you begin reading. It's hard to figure out what's going on, and who's talking. But eventually you settle into the structure, and it actually becomes a fast read.

So then there's Saunders' writing. I'll only use one example, but man, there are a few lines in this novel that will take your breath away, that will make you weep. Such as:

"His mind was freshly inclined toward sorrow; toward the fact that the world was full of sorrow; that everyone labored under some burden of sorrow; that all were suffering; that whatever way one took in this world, one must try to remember that all were suffering (none content; all wronged, neglected, overlooked, misunderstood), and therefore one must do what one could to lighten the load of those with whom one came into contact; that his current state of sorrow was not uniquely his, not at all, but, rather, its like had been felt, would yet be felt, by scores of others, in all times, in every time, and must not be prolonged or exaggerated, because, in this state, he could be of no help to anyone and, given, that his position in the world situated him to be either of great help or great harm, it would not do to stay low, if he could help it."


"I was in error when I saw him as fixed and stable and thought I would have him forever. He was never fixed, nor stable, but always just a passing temporary energy-burst. I had reason to know this. Had he not looked this way at birth, that way at four, another way at seven, been made entirely anew at nine? He had never stayed the same, even instant to instant.

He came out of nothingness, took form, was loved, was always bound to return to nothingness.

Only I did not think it would be so soon.

Or that he would precede us.

...I am not stable and Mary not stable and the very buildings and monuments here are not stable and the greater city not stable and the wide world not stable. All alter, are altering, in every instant."

This book is riddled with passages like those above. It's really beautiful.

Take the time to read this novel, because it's worth it. It'll be a struggle at first, but it's worth it in the end.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Book Review: Norse Mythology

I've always like mythology. I prefer the Greek tales to the Norse ones, but the Literary Disco podcast discussed this book on a recent episode, and I like to read what they do so I can follow along. I don't know why I prefer the Greek myths to the Norse. Maybe they're a little more Western in nature, with more linear plots and characters I understand better. Norse mythology has always seemed random and confusing to me.

With that being said, Neil Gaiman has done a great job with this collection of Norse myths. He writes in a unique style--it's contemporary, yet classic. Somehow it works. The myths are placed in almost chronological order (well, as best you can place myths in order), helping you understand the context of each tale a little better.

I haven't read anything else by Gaiman, but he seems to have a playful, witty voice which pairs well with these stories. The Norse myths don't take themselves too seriously, and Gaiman went with that, keeping the writing light while staying true to the original texts. This book is a must-read for fans of Gaiman or mythology.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Book Review: Washington's Spies by Alexander Rose

Centered around a group of friends who become spies for George Washington during the Revolutionary War, Washington's Spies gives an in-depth history of espionage in the early days of the United States. Alexander Rose does a tremendous job of painting a portrait of America at the time of the Revolution, building the world in which the spies he writes about inhabit. The result is a book which educates you on not only military and espionage history, but the culture of the colonies which rebelled against Great Britain and why they did.

Rose expounds upon each spy's background and personality, which in the hands of a lesser writer would come across as tedious and exhausting. But Rose is able to pull interesting tidbits and quirks from each person, giving the reader a full understanding of their personality. Granted, he had a lot of material to work with, because these spies wrote quite a few letters, but it's still an impressive feat.

If you have any interest in history, this book will appeal to you.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Book Review: Uncommon Type by Tom Hanks

Look, I'm a fan of Tom Hanks. So this review is biased. When I found out about this book of short stories, I knew I was going to buy it. I asked for it for Christmas. I didn't even read a description or a review. I just wanted it. I knew it might be a risk, because sometimes celebrities are bad writers. But I was committed.

First, I'll get to my rating--this book was really, really good. And that made me realize why I'm such a fan of Tom Hanks.

He's an amazing actor, receiving Oscars for his roles in Philadelphia and Forest Gump while also getting robbed for his roles in Saving Private Ryan and Apollo 13. And Castaway. And Road to Perdition. Basically I believe that Tom Hanks should have about eight Oscars, okay? And then there's classics like You've Got Mail and That Thing You Do.

Which brings me to the That Thing You Do soundtrack. It's also amazing, and Hanks produced it through his label Playtone, which is also his production company that produced hits like My Big Fat Greek Wedding, The Polar Express and the television series Band of Brothers.

This is my point--Tom Hanks produces nothing but quality. I'm sure he's had some misses, but overall, everything he does is first-class. This book, and these stories, are no different.

As for the title, every story in this collection involves a typewriter. Sometimes it is a minor part of the story, and other times it serves as the plot itself. Most of the stories revolve around average, working-class people experiencing a life-changing event or going through an interesting part of their life. A man has an exhausting three week romantic relationship with a friend. A recently divorced woman moves into a new neighborhood. A child goes for his first plane ride. Only two stories take place in exotic or fantastic places--an actor experiences sudden fame after being cast in the latest action blockbuster, and (one of my favorite chapters in the book) a billionaire goes back in time and falls in love.

The entire collection is steeped with Hanks' playful tone and occasional gravitas when the situation turns serious. Hanks seems genuinely interested in every character, never using them as tools to move the plot forward or as simple caricatures. It's almost as if he's just recording events he witnessed or experienced himself.

The best books make you wish they never ended. Uncommon Type does that, and I hope Hanks returns to the world of literature sometime soon.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The Mermaid of Salado

Once upon a time, there was a beautiful Native American woman named Sirena. She loved a brave in her tribe very much, but he didn't return her affections. One day, as she sat by the riverside, crying and wishing her love would be requited, a magical catfish swam nearby and heard her. It offered her a deal--it would make the brave love her, but only if she promised to return to the river on every full moon and swim with it. There was one condition, however: if another human ever saw her, she would become a mermaid permanently, forever.

Sirena agreed to the magical catfish's deal, and she soon married the handsome brave. They lived happily together for a while, and she held up her end of the bargain with the catfish. Everything was wonderful until one fateful night. Sirena's husband came to the river, and there, by the bright moonlight, saw his wife swimming. She instantly became a mermaid, forever, and her tears feed the cold spring that feeds the river to this day.

The town of Salado sits near that spring, and they've built a statue to commemorate the legend.

I've visited the statue of that mermaid twice. Once when I was twelve, and while wading in the chilly waters of the spring, I slipped on a rock and fell. I wasn't hurt, but I did get soaked. I found it again on a trip to Salado, when I took the photo above. The statue had been moved down river by flooding, and I couldn't find the spring. The water was still cold and crisp, though.

I've always thought this was a sad story. Sirena only wanted to be with the one she loved, and the deal she made with the catfish wasn't terribly bad. The only reason things went wrong was pure circumstance and chance.

We've all had that happen, where things don't work out because the universe is random. You're late to an interview for your dream job because of a flat tire and you don't get hired. That love letter you wrote is never delivered. You meet your soulmate the day before you move to a city five hundred miles away.

Sirena makes me think of true love and how sometimes it ends badly. Her story makes me appreciate what I have, and that's why I like to visit her when I'm in the area.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Greatest Generation Aircraft

My father used to take me to the airport when I was a little kid. We would watch jets and airplanes take off and land for a few hours. Airplanes have always been something we both loved, a connection we always had together. So when I found out about Greatest Generation Aircraft, I knew I'd found the perfect Father's Day gift.

Greatest Generation Aircraft gives you the chance to fly in a genuine World War II airplane, a Douglas C-47 Skytrain. The C-47 is a DC-3 modified for military use. It was primarily used to transport troops during WWII. The DC-3 was one of the most popular airplanes in the 1930's, and is credited with popularizing air travel in the early 20th century.

Greatest Generation Aircraft flies out of a tiny airport near Fort Worth, Texas, but it's a little intimidating when you get there. Unless you're accustomed to flying in private jets. GGA takes up shop in a small airline's terminal, and you have to wait for the whole party to arrive. The group
    that runs GGA are friendly, accommodating, and knowledgeable about aircraft.

   My dad and I had a couple of questions. How did they get parts for repairs? How old were the
   pilots? We pictured a couple of 90 year old men with bad eyesight flying us over Fort Worth
   while we hoped no one had a heart attack. The good people at GGA assured us that all the pilots
   were capable and that the plane was in good shape, considering it was over fifty years old.

   There's no AC in the C-47, so GGA only flies in the spring and early summer. They also do
   Christmas flights in December. The seats are all on one side, instead of lined on the side like they
   would be in an actual military plane. GGA had to make some modifications to satisfy the FAA.
   As you can see from the picture below, it's like riding in a giant metal tube.

The guy behind me isn't my dad.

It's also loud. Really loud. You have to yell, just to hear the person sitting next to you. You also feel every single bump, pitch, and move the plane makes. It's a little unnerving at first, but you get used to it after a few minutes. I tried to take this picture with the cockpit behind me when we hit a little turbulence:

It came out a little blurry.

In the end, all the turbulence and heat are worth it, because you get great views of downtown Fort Wroth and the surrounding area. It's a one of a kind experience, a chance to experience history and see the world from a few thousand feet.