Man Between the Ponds

Man between the ponds

Man between the ponds

There are these two flood control ponds down in the park at the end of my street. Every day, every damn day, I drive to work down my alley, facing the ponds, and then make a left turn over a little bridge and past them. Every day.

In the evenings the ponds are popular with walkers, picnickers, and fishermen (though I have never seen anyone actually catch anything). But during the day, the area is pretty much deserted, save an occasional walker on the trail.

A while back as I was making my left turn, I thought I caught a lone figure out of the corner of my eye. I was not paying much attention, though, I was thinking about work, so I put it out of my mind quickly. But the next day, I saw the same thing.

The next day, I paid a little more attention. Sure enough, there was a black-clad figure out in the middle of the ponds. The two ponds are separated by a concrete apron – during wet seasons the water flows over this spillway. Lately, however, under drought conditions, this area is as dry as a bone. There is still some water leaving the ponds, not much more than a trickle, it must be seeping through under the concrete.

But why would someone be standing out there? I thought I saw a city truck down by the road, maybe it was a workman digging out algae or repairing a pipe or something.

Then the man disappeared. I didn’t know if he was gone for good, or simply making his appearance during some time other than my morning commute.

And then he was back. This time I could see clearly enough to realize that this was a black-clad person out between the ponds doing some exercises, probably Tai Chi Chuan or some variation. I could see him progressing smoothly through his set of exercises and movements.

It was an arresting sight. The dark figure, clear, yet distant enough that I could not make out any details, moving, mysterious. There are a lot of people that practice various martial or meditative arts, usually in small groups, in the park or around the ponds, but nobody has chosen such a dramatic location as the apron between the ponds.

I started carrying my camera in the passenger’s seat in the morning in hopes of getting a picture. For a week the man didn’t show, but then this morning, there he was. I must have caught him at the end of his routine, he was standing motionless. I snapped a couple of shots and drove on. I don’t know how long he stayed there in that position.

I wonder if he is there on the weekend, on a day that I don’t have to rush out to work. I might walk a little closer, wait until he is finished, ask him details of what he is doing and why.

Or maybe I’ll let him remain a mystery – a distant dark figure out between the ponds, a monument to discipline and relaxation to be glimpsed for a second through a car window on days while I’m hurrying off to the rat race.

Thunderstruck

Marconi antennas at Wellfleet

Marconi antennas at Wellfleet

Creative nonfiction is the use of fictional techniques, such as characterization, conflict, foreshadowing, in the service of a factually accurate narrative. To me, the most important aspect that separates creative nonfiction from, say, journalism or scholarly writing, is the use of scenes. The story is broken up into scenes of varying length and detail, carefully crafted and arranged to affect an emotional result in the reader, while staying strictly within the known facts.

In the many years since In Cold Blood there have been many masters of Creative Nonfiction… Mailer, Wolfe, McPhee spring to my mind immediately… but right now the current master of the genre, in my humble opinion, is Erik Larson.

I read “Isaac’s Storm” a few years ago and was absolutely enthralled. Of course, the fact that I am very familiar with Galveston and the Bolivar Peninsula made the story even more harrowing and effective. For years we vacationed at Crystal Beach on the Bolivar Peninsula and I would imagine the horror of the storm surge inundating the island. I would look at the black iron lighthouse and imagine the poor souls huddling inside as the water rose and the winds howled. I read the book before Hurricane Ike struck and wiped our old vacation haunts off the face of the earth.

Then I read “The Devil in the White City” – which didn’t have the same emotional effect on me – but was actually a better book. It was fascinating in its story (which I knew nothing about) of the fantastic Chicago World’s Fair. This story of man’s best creations on display was contrasted with the darkest depths of human depravity in the parallel story of H.H. Holmes, the country’s “first” serial killer, who set up shop in his “murder castle” constructed only a few blocks from the fair.

The book is mesmerizing.

I went to a lecture by Erik Larson at the Eisemann Center here in Richardson and loved it. He talked a lot about the research he did for his non-fiction. I remember he discussed one sentence in Isaac’s Storm where he described what Isaac Cline saw, heard, and even smelled while he walked from his office to his home the day before the hurricane hit. “People ask me how I know what he experienced on his walk over a hundred years ago,”  He went on to explain that he knew from Cline’s letters he walked home and Larson learned from the maps of the city that there were stables and workshops on the way, and Cline would smell the horses and hear the workers.

It was very impressive.

So now I’ve finished a third Larson non-fiction book, published a few years ago, Thunderstruck. This, like Devil in the White City contrasts a famous accomplishment – Guglielmo Marconi’s successful “invention” of wireless communication, with a horror – Hawley Crippen, the most unlikely of murderers. The two stories are told separately, until the unexpected coincidences of history brought the two together in an unexpected way.

I found the Marconi story the more interesting of the two. The murder was horrific in its details – but the murderer was portrayed as almost a sympathetic character. Marconi was especially interesting in the fact that he didn’t actually invent anything – he never really even understood how radio worked – but he had the single-mindedness, courage, and business acumen to put other people’s inventions to work in a way that made sense and was successful.

And isn’t that the most important thing… really?

Any criticism of the book is merely picking nits. Larson is famous for layering on detail and here, especially in his description of the murderer’s daily life, it piles up pretty thick and gets a little tedious. I would like to have had less information on Crippen’s love life and more on the fantastic, gigantic, wireless installations that Marconi built on both sides of the Atlantic – spending millions of dollars and risking his entire company trying to get Morse code across the sea – never mind that nobody thought it was possible, that undersea cables could already do the job, and Marconi had no idea what he was doing in the first place.

The ultimate irony is that, in an odd way, the murderer was responsible for Marconi’s ultimate success.

So, in short, very good book, put it on your reading list – enjoy yourself and learn something at the same time.

Larson has another book out that I haven’t read – “In The Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and An American Family in Hitler’s Berlin.“ Oh, man, that sounds good, doesn’t it?

Early Marconi Radio

Early Marconi Radio

A Little Farther

After my little trip down the Glenville trail and on to Memorial Park Saturday I was all stoked Sunday for another bicycle ride. I wanted to ride the same route but push on farther. I’m starting to obsess about the possibility of commuting to work on my bicycle so I thought I’d see if I could figure out a route that would bypass the most dangerous stretches of road.

I rode on to the Brick Row Urban Village. This is a new, not-nearly-finished transit oriented development next to the DART station on Spring Valley road just East of Highway 75. A few months ago I spoke at a city council meeting in favor of a new, huge, transit-oriented development proposed for some vacant land (and another DART station) at Highway 75 and the George Bush Tollway. A lot of the speakers that were opposed to that development were complaining about the Brick Row. I don’t know what their problem is – the thing is nowhere near finished. How can they judge at this point?

brick row park

The little park in the center of the Brick Row Village. A nice place to stop, rest, and drink some water.

Maybe the progress is slower than promised – but the economy (especially real-estate development) is in the dumper… some delay is to be expected. Brick Row isn’t near occupied, the retail hasn’t arrived yet, and there is still a lot of vacant land – but otherwise, it looks pretty nice to me.

Brick Row

The front of the Brick Row along Spring Valley Road. You can see the elevated DART train tracks in the background. When I rode up, a train was passing - that would have made for a nice picture, but I didn't have the time to wait for the next train.

One of the nice things about bicycling is that it is the best way to learn a neighborhood. You will see things you never notice from a car, and you cover so much more territory than when you walk. I spotted a little hole-in-the-wall Pakistani Restaurant, The Silver Spoon, that I want to come back to and try. An odd name for a Pakistani place – apparently they bought a Cajun restaurant and never changed the name.

One other thing you notice on a bike that you don’t in a car are hills. Or even slight slopes. To most people the place where I live is absolutely flat. And it is pretty flat – but on the way back I sure noticed a long, slight, unrelenting uphill stretch that I sure never noticed in a car. It’s all good, though – I need the exercise… and it is nice going the other way.

I had a busy day ahead, so I didn’t dawdle more than necessary. I had ridden within a mile of my work. The rest of the route is easy – there are parking lots and sidewalks – I’d barely have to deal with cars. I’m going to keep riding… every day if I can, until I get in shape enough to start biking to work.

Wish me luck.

Today’s Route. 7.4 miles. It was hot again today, but I felt pretty good. Let’s see how this goes. Thanks for your support.

Fish Fry

Last week I cooked up a bunch of Kingfish that Nick brought back from a deep-sea fishing trip off Galveston. I had no idea on how to cook Kingfish, so I cut some into steaks and grilled them and fried the rest up Cajun-Style, dredged in spicy cornmeal. The steaks weren’t great, but the fried stuff was fantastic.

Kingfish

Nick and a Kingfish caught in the Gulf of Mexico

This week is the kids’ softball team’s last game so I fried up another frozen batch of the Kingfish. Since there were so many hungry kids coming by I needed to stretch the fish as far as I could, so I decided to make hush puppies and fritters to go along with the fish, and to make po-boy sandwiches to serve up the fried Kingfish, if anyone wanted one.

Frozen Kingfish

One of the packages of frozen kingfish Nick brought back. This is a big mess of fish.

Skinning the fish

The Kingfish has a tough skin. Cleaning it and cutting it into fry-sized pieces is a job. It takes a couple sharp knives and patience.

Frying

I like to use a cast-iron Dutch Oven on the stove for frying. It takes a while, but gives good control over the frying temperature. The fish is dredged in seasoned cornmeal and fried.

Plate

Last week we ran out of fish so I made a bunch of cornmeal hushpuppies, corn fritters, and served fish po-boy sandwiches.

I cooked up a big mess of fish and a big pile of hush puppies. We had plenty of leftovers… y’all should have come over to eat.

Pocket Park

Though it was fantastically hot today, I decided to go for a bicycle ride. I resurrected my Camelback hydration pack and filled a couple extra bottles with iced water and set out. I wasn’t going to go very far or too push myself too much… just get a little exercise in.

The other day I rode a bit of the Glenville trail over to Duck Creek and then a bit up the Owens trail under the power lines. Today, I decided to go the other way and ride the length of the Glenville trail there and back.

The heat was plenty hot but I felt fine and without further ado I was at the south end of the trail. The Glenville trail stops in the middle of a neighborhood – I understand the original plans were to extend the trail farther and link up with some other routes but the railroad wouldn’t grant a right-of-way. I wanted to go a bit more so I wound around on some sidewalks, crossed the railroad, and went to an alley to take a rest at the Memorial “Pocket Park” at Centennial and Grove.

I go by this little park every day on the way to work and it confuses me. It a very nice tiny park (the city says it is 0.84 acres) and has extensive landscaping and nice little curving brick walls that are the perfect height to sit on. There is a flagpole and a large bronze plaque that honors the city’s war heroes. The city must spend a lot of time and money on landscaping work to keep it looking so good.

Memorial Park, Richardson, Texas

Memorial Park, Richardson, Texas

If you look in one direction, you see the pretty little isolated park.

Centennial Street

Centennial Street

But the other direction is all busy street, fast food, gas stations, liquor stores.

The thing is, I never see anybody actually in the park. Nobody uses it. That isn’t surprising because there is no way to get to it. It is bordered by busy streets on two sides, with a high wall enclosing the third. No parking, no through path, no access from the neighborhood… nothing. Why did they build this? Why do they spend the money on upkeep?

Across Grove street is Woodhaven Park with a small parking area and a playground. I’m sure it is useful to the folks in the neighborhood with children. But to get to Memorial, you have to walk across at the light and then… there you are.

I guess that’s fine with me. I had the place to myself and I settled down in the shade to finish off my ice water and rest a bit, then packed up and headed home. Maybe I’ll ride there again, take my kindle and my Alphasmart with me and settle in for a while. I don’t think I’ll be disturbed.

Memorial Plaque

Memorial Plaque

This is the bronze memorial plaque from the little park. You can see it in the picture above right in front of my bike.

Detail from Memorial Plaque

Detail from Memorial Plaque

If  you are not from the South, you might be a bit surprised to see the C.S.A. by the names of the Civil War heroes. If you can’t guess, that stands for Confederate States of America. The Huffhines family is very prominent in Richardson to this day. You might even be surprised to see that it isn’t even called “The Civil War” but “The War Between the States.” Welcome to Texas.

As I was sitting there thinking I realized that the route I had chosen was on my way to work and I had ridden more than halfway. Can I ride my bike to work?

The route past that point is more treacherous – there are no trails and at rush hour there will be a lot of traffic. There is one spot on Buckingham Road that curves through a wooded area with no sidewalks – I’ve always been afraid of that spot – it would be dangerous for a slow bike rider like me. But maybe I can find a different route. There are some alleys and a new development to the north… let me see.

What would it take to be a bicycle commuter? I threw away the rack for my bike years ago, I should get a new one to hold a change of clothes. I could get a light for the winter time. Other than that… If I could work on it a bit, improve my fitness, lose some weight… I could get to work on a bike almost as fast as I can in a car.

It’s funny, I don’t live very far from work… maybe six miles. But the thought of being able to ride to work two or three days a week – it sounds to me like climbing Everest or getting Hannibal’s elephants over the Alps.

Something to think about, though. Something to work on.

 My route today… only 5 and a half miles, but a nice way to get out of the house.

Big Man Japan

Another review of a movie you (probably) will never see.

Why do I do this? Everyone in the world is out waiting in line to see the last Harry Potter film (I’ve only read one of the books and seen two and a half of the films) while I’m holed up with my laptop when I should be asleep and here I am watching another WTF stranger than strange bit of Netflix Streaming. The last two movies I’ve seen (and, more important, written about) have been Quintet (a candidate for worst movie ever) and now, Big Man Japan.

I know its a cult hit – but I’ve never met anyone that admitted to actually seeing Big Man Japan. I don’t even know how I came across it – probably fell into some webpage that mentioned that it was on Netflix and I couldn’t resist.

Now, I used to see a lot of film and read a lot of movie reviews. The problem is that too many reviews, especially written ones, simply outline the plot of the film in detail and that ruins the whole thing, doesn’t it? So I quit reading reviews until after I had seen a film. My idea is to go in blind, sit there knowing nothing, my brain an empty vessel to receive the cinematic genius unfettered by previous knowledge or expectation. The only problem is that about the time I decided on this course of action I ran out of money and time and hardly ever get to see anything anymore. Anything except when I lose my mind and stay up all night to watch weird stuff like “Big Man Japan.”

Therefore, I don’t want to talk too much about plot details. It would be interesting to see this film without knowing anything at all. It would be interesting, but you’d be pissed at me because I made you waste almost two hours of you precious life on this weird shit. So I guess, as a public duty, I should provide fair warning.

You see, the first third of the movie is a documentary-type exploration of Masaru Daisato, a middle-aged long-haired Japanese loser. His wife has left him and he scrapes by in a cluttered place eating rice and dehydrated seaweed. He carries one of those little folding umbrellas everywhere. Cryptically, he says he likes the umbrella and the seaweed because, “It only gets big when you want it to.”

Everybody hates this guy, they stare, they throw garbage into his yard, and spraypaint insulting graffiti wherever he goes. His wife has left with his daughter, there is a rusting swing set peeking out from the bags of trash outside his house.

He talks about his job. He makes about 5,000 a month (five thousand what… I don’t know) and wishes he made 8,000. He says that there isn’t as much business as there used to be. Though he doesn’t work much, he can’t travel. He has to be on call all the time. He seems to have a problem with the United States for some reason.

About a half-hour in we find out what his job is. He is a hero. They clamp electrodes to his nipples and shoot thousands of volts into his body and he grows into a huge, hairy, chubby guy with a bad haircut and a piece of pipe for a club. Then he goes out and fights giant monsters.

These monsters are tearing up Japan like Godzilla, except that nobody seems to care much about it and nobody seems to get hurt. The monsters are strange, disgusting, bizzaroids with strangely human faces (one has to keep flipping his combover as he tears buildings up by their foundation). The fights are filmed, but they air on television at two in the morning and the ratings are terrible. His agent tries to find sponsors to plaster advertisements on his chest and back to bring in an extra income – but he is so incompetent, cowardly, and unattractive the sponsors are hard to find and harder to keep.

The Strangling Monster

The Strangling Monster

Okay, this sort of thing goes forward, getting odder and odder (I’m leaving a lot out, trust me), until the final climax occurs and then, I’m warning you about this, the whole thing really veers off into truly WTF (and I don’t mean Win The Future) land. It’s pretty stunning, really. I’ve never seen anything even remotely like this. All through the movie you can’t help but wonder how serious the movie maker is. Is this a somewhat serious exploration of Japanese Culture, Capitalism, Monster Movies, Religious Ceremony, Ramen Noodles, Asian Pop Culture, Ozu, our treatment of the Aged, Reality Television, Fame, Heroism, and many other issues… or is this simply a big joke thrown in our face.

The last part of the film leaves no doubt.

It’s sort of genius, really, in a sort of sick, ridiculous, and annoying way. The only problem is that by that point I had actually come to care about Masaru Daisato. The scene where he takes his pixelated daughter to the zoo is heartbreaking. I wanted him to find redemption. I wanted him to defeat his enemies and win the girl.

And that is what the film ultimately skewers – the viewer’s expectations.

Does watching strange stuff like this stretch the mind, or is it only a lonely excuse for killing some time when I should be sleeping, waiting in line at Harry Potter, or out drinking?

Oh, one last thing. Peggy wrote the other day about remakes. It appears that a Hollywood studio has bought the rights to remake Big Man Japan. Or will it be a reboot?

Big Man Japan

Big Man Japan, ready to transform.

The movie answers one long-nagging question. When the hero grows to monster size, where does his clothes come from? In Big Man Japan it is answered. A trunk with a pair of giant purple nylon underwear inside follows the hero around. Before he is juiced up to giant size, the shorts are raised up by a winch onto two poles and the hero stands inside these, so when he grows, he he attired.

What I learned this Week, July 15, 2011

While I don’t share her enthusiasm for a certain morning cable talk show (though I did enjoy this bit of hilarity very much) I really like Peggy‘s Friday blog entries – Things I Learned This Week. Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery. I have no problem in blatantly ripping off her idea.

The Wave that Washes us all

The Wave that Washes us all

What I learned this week:

Procrastination caused by fear… I thought I was done with that, but I’m not. I still must say to myself:

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain
— Dune

Markus Zusak saidFailure has been my best friend as a writer. It tests you, to see if you have what it takes to see it through.


With proper hydration, the most brutal heat can be dealt with.


Too much habanera sauce – while not a good thing in all respects – will clear out your sinuses very quickly.


From a Blog Entry – Global Weirding Coming At Us All, by Walter Russell Mead (read the whole thing)

Except for some entrepreneurs, mavericks and renegades, our technocratic elites are mostly a bunch of rule followers and incrementalists.  They got where they are by scoring well on tests, manipulating the platitudes of conventional wisdom a little better than the next guy and by pleasing their supervisors.

This is almost exactly the wrong way to raise leaders for tumultuous times. …  We are producing legions of promotion-hungry bureaucrats and narrow specialists with no knowledge of or interest in the tumult and chaos that inevitably rises up in times like ours.  We then place them in large, bureaucratically run institutions and expect them to deal creatively with the unexpected, the revolutionary and the totally new.

I can not say it better.


Kingfish is better fried than grilled.

Wankelfish

Wankelfish

Then and Now, Lee gets a hit

Nick and Lee are playing on a softball team on Sunday evenings. One of the other kid’s parents said, “It wasn’t that long ago I was their little league coach – and now they’re playing in an old-man softball league.”

Nick at third base

Nick at third base

Lee gets a hit

Lee gets a hit

I know it’s different kids in the two pictures – but it’s late, I’m busy… and this is what I’ve got.

Speaking of baseball, everybody was watching “The Sandlot” the other day. The kids loved this movie – this is one of the ones that they watched over and over. It was unusual in that I liked it as much as they did. A classic.

People can talk about the “Best Onscreen Kiss.” I don’t think there is any doubt – it is when Squints puts the move on Wendy Peffercorn.

Michael Squints Palledorous walked a little taller that day. And we had to tip our hats to him. He was lucky she hadn’t beat the CRAP out of him. We wouldn’t have blamed her. What he’d done was sneaky, rotten, and low… and cool. Not another one among us would have ever in a million years even for a million dollars have the guts to put the moves on the lifeguard. He did. He had kissed a woman. And he had kissed her long and good. We got banned from the pool forever that day. But every time we walked by after that, the lifeguard looked down from her tower, right over at Squints, and smiled.
—-The Sandlot

Then and Now – Lee likes shiny things

Then:

Lee at MLS soccer gameT

Lee at MLS soccer game

Lee, outside a soccer game at the Cotton Bowl. He likes shiny things

This was a game in 2002 where, in honor of the visiting Clint Mathis, everybody (that wanted one)  got free Mohawks – all the kids on Nick’s soccer team did. .

2011 Mardi Gras

2011 Mardi Gras

Lee, New Orleans, 2011 Mardi Gras. He still likes shiny things.