A Sequence of Days


We are all time travelers. It’s just that most of the time, the limit of 24 hours per day, 365 (and ¼) days per year in strict linear succession is pretty rigorously enforced. Once in a while, though, we get to transcend those limits. I had such an opportunity this past week, reminiscing in the company of old friends. I had a visit on Monday from someone who was a very important part of my life back in the early 1970s. On Tuesday I traveled to Dallas and spent time with a few of my favorite people from my graduate school years in the last half of the 1970s. Then Thursday night I met up with some dear friends from my undergraduate years in the late 1960s. Time has treated all of us differently. Our experiences apart from each other occupy far more days and years than the ones during which we were interacting on a daily basis. And yet… the reasons why we became friends remain apparent. Sure, we evoke the past by sharing stories, but we also listen with interest to stories about things we were not a part of, and by sharing those stories we catch up the threads that continue to bring us together, year after year. See you again soon, guys!

(IMAGE: The timeless stairway of Dallas Hall at SMU.)

The Maze


Last week when we had the big rain I discovered a place where a footpath crossed Waller Creek about a half mile from my house. On that particular day, of course, the crossing was flooded, impassable.
Today on my morning walk I went back. The entire creek bed in that area had gone bone dry, so crossing on the footpath was no problem. I ended up on the University of Texas intramural fields. These fields happen to be home to Austin’s largest colony of Monk Parakeets (aka Quaker Parrots) and I was having a lovely time watching the birds flying back and forth between their massive communal nests in the stadium lights.
It wasn’t long before I realized that I was inside the outer perimeter of the fields, which seemed to be fully enclosed, except for exactly the place where I had entered. Determined not to go back, I kept pressing forward. It was like a giant maze! I seriously contemplated climbing the chain link fence. I could see the outside so clearly, but I kept running into locked gates or, worse, fences with no gates at all. Then I found a gate open that probably shouldn’t have been. This led to an actual walkway. And up ahead, I saw a student with a tennis racket entering what appeared to be a gatehouse. If that student came in, surely I would be able to get out. The fence on the front side of the gatehouse had a locked gate. So did the fence around back. The only way out was through the gatehouse. I walked in. “Hey,” I said to the student behind the desk as I nodded and smiled. Then I was out through the front door and free.
Did I mention that after years of searching I had finally found a parakeet feather?

The Interview



One of the icons of American journalism, Ben Bradlee, passed away yesterday at the age of 93. Bradlee’s name will be forever associated with the Watergate scandal; as executive editor of the Washington Post at that time, he made key decisions that brought the scandal to light.
In early summer of 1970, with my fresh BA in political science from SMU in hand, I reported for my job interview at the Washington Post. My recollection is only that I was interviewed by “the editor” of the Post. Whether it was Bradlee or a more junior editor, I honestly don’t recall. But I do know this: It was the damnedest interview I ever had. We sat in the editor’s private office and we chatted. I recall no probing questions, just the kind of friendly queries someone who really wants to get to know you would ask. I was relaxed and actually kind of enjoyed the whole experience.
It was only after I left his office that it hit me that this man now knew more about me than my own mother did. Whoever that editor was, he was a grand master of the art of interviewing.
Did I get the job? Not exactly. I did get a call in which it was suggested that perhaps I was still too “green” for the Post. I was instructed to report instead to the Roanoke Times and World News in Roanoke Virginia, one of the papers owned by the Post. It was a great gig, and I often wonder what would have become of me if I had stayed on the journalism career track rather than taking that sharp turn into anthropology.

(NOTE: The photo above is one I took in rural Virginia while working for the Roanoke Times.)

Tea for Two Sisters


Tuesday is my night for Zen Writing Group at the Austin Zen Center. Our “prompt” tonight was a short video showing two Japanese girls (some people said mother and daughter, I saw two sisters) at a traditional tea ceremony. Both audio and subtitles were in Japanese. Here is what I wrote: 

“I’m thirsty.” Angie said. “I want a Coke. Buy me a Coke, sister.”

Maxine was looking after her younger sister for the afternoon. Their parents had left Maxine enough money to go down to the McDonalds and buy a Coke, but Maxine didn’t want to go.

“I’m not buying you a Coke, Angie,” she said. “You drink too many Cokes anyway.Go make a cup of tea instead.”
 “Are you kidding me?” Angie just stood there with her hands on her hips. “I don’t drink tea… not that hot stuff anyway. Besides… I don’t know how to make it.”
“Well, you should learn, Angie,” Maxine said. “Come on, nuisance. Come in the kitchen and I’ll show you how to make a cup of tea.”
Angie rolled her eyes, but she followed Maxine into the kitchen, resting her elbows on the counter, her chin in her hands. She would watch.
“First,” Maxine said, “we need water.” She turned on the tap and out came the water. She filled the electric kettle, placed it back on its base and and flipped the switch to “on”.
“How does the water get into the tap?” Angie asked.
“Oh.” Maxine said. “I think it comes from the lake.”
“How does it do that?” Angie wanted to know.
“Pipes. Pumps. Filters – lots of stuff.” Maxine explained.
The two girls stood there, arms crossed, looking at the kettle, waiting for it to boil.
“Where did the kettle come from?” Angie asked.
“Target,” Maxine replied.
“Where did Target get it?”
Maxine sighed. “Probably from China, nuisance little sister. Don’t ask so many questions.”
“You mean people in China made our kettle?” Angie was looking at her reflection in the side of the kettle, making faces. “How did it get here?”
“Probably on a ship,” Maxine said. “In a big box inside a ship, I think. Then in a truck to get to the Target store. And people put it on the shelf. And we bought it.”
“What about the electricity to make the kettle get hot?” Angie said, poking at the electrical cord with her finger.
And so it went. The water, the kettle, the electricity, the tea, the little paper bags the tea was in, the ceramic mugs, the spoon, the honey. Angie kept asking and Maxine – getting into the game after a while – kept answering.
Finally Angie and Maxine sat down at the table with their two mugs of tea. Angie stirred her tea thoughtfully. “You know,” she said, “that’s a lot of stuff that went into this cup of tea.”
“Yeah,” Maxine smiled. “A lot of stuff.”
Angie sighed. “But I really did want a Coke.”

Blog Redux

Just Passing Through, 8 x 10

A year ago, I had just returned from travels abroad, during which I had diligently blogged and sketched my way through Spain, France and Nepal. Realizing that my journey is not just about travel, I am declaring a resumption of the blog, to include at least occasional sketches and artworks. The new blog title – “Simulacrum” – is meant to convey something about my intention to write and draw and paint in ways that will evoke, however imperfectly, something nearly true about this world we share.

The novel I have recently completed – Way of the Serpent – is a work of “speculative fiction”, akin to science fiction but without the space aliens and mutant beasts. It takes place barely more than 100 years in the future, and my protagonist and friends are only too human. I say the novel is “completed”, but hesitate to use the word “finished,” as that would imply it has reached a state of such perfection that no further tinkering is permitted. I reserve the right to tinker.

There is a second novel in the works – The Fourth Time. It takes place in the here and now… sort of. My protagonist in this one is an archaeologist married to an author who writes about time travel, and much of the action takes place in Belize, a country I have known since my earliest anthropological fieldwork in the 1970s. This one is about 30,000 words to date.

And then there is the germination of a sequel to Way of the Serpent, which I am provisionally calling Flight of the Owl. It will follow the experiences of one of the survivors of Serpent. This one frightens me a little bit, but I’ll get over it and get into it soon enough.

(NOTE: I have just reposted some of my sketches from last year that I was unable to properly blog from Nepal due to technical difficulties.)