The Emptiness Below Us

“Anyone whose goal is ‘something higher’ must expect someday to suffer vertigo. What is vertigo? Fear of falling? No, Vertigo is something other than fear of falling. It is the voice of the emptiness below us which tempts and lures us, it is the desire to fall, against which, terrified, we defend ourselves.”
― Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Crystal Beach, Bolivar Peninsula, Texas

Now, here is is, the first day of a spanking new year. And I have these goals for 2018 – I’ve worked hard on these… and the main three are:

  • Read 100 books
  • Write 50 Short Stories
  • Ride 3000 miles on my bike.

Since this is only the beginning, I didn’t want to get behind right at the start. So I cheated on the reading a hundred books – and jumped the gun by starting two weeks early. I’m up to six so far… which is good. I’ve already written one short story – so I’m OK there.

But I am stuck in a beach house with no bicycle and freezing cold… incredible wind… what we used to call a blue norther. I had planned on a little flexibility on my goal – knowing that I get sick over the winter and need other means to keep up with my goal.

At home, I have two exercise bikes – so I decided that riding one of those is worth ten miles for each hour riding. That way I can keep up if I’m forced inside.

At the beach house I thought about it and decided that, in a pinch, I can walk to make up the goal. Only in emergency situations, like now – the first day. After some thought and internet research, I decided on a three mile walk, at a brisk pace, would equal ten miles of riding. I walk at about three miles per hour, so that’s about an hour – which corresponds with riding or stationary. Also, that’s in addition to whatever I walk on a normal basis – the usual strutting around doesn’t count.

So at the end of the day, I layered on as much as I could (the temperature was below freezing and the wind was… really strong. I walked out to the beach and watched the kids fire off the last of their fireworks, then headed out down the beach. There is a little creek that emerges from the dunes and blocks off the rest of the beach from where we were and I knew that to that creek and back would get me to the three miles I needed.

I started out into the wind, pulling my hood closed so I was looking out a tiny circle at the water on the right and the dunes on the left. The moon was full, so there was plenty of light. It was very cold. But I started walking.

And it put me into the thought of all the other times over my life that I had walked on the beach, especially at night. From Panama to Nicaragua, to South Padre Island over spring break (That was a long drive from Lawrence, Kansas) to this very beach over the years with my kids growing larger and larger.

There is a rhythm of walking on the beach, in the wet sand between the surf and the loose part (in Texas it is generally allowed to drive on the beach, so, especially at night, you want to stay close to the surf), as the time and the miles go by all those old memories become telescoped in to the present day, the experience of being and moving along a border between two worlds.

It was a lot easier to walk back with the wind behind me. So now I have the equivalent of ten miles of bike riding on the first day of January. Still on track – so good, so far.

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Street View

To relieve some stress with some mindless web surfing I sat down with Google Maps and looked at StreetView of places I’ve lived in the past.

It’s a bit of a nostalgic treat, but more of a sad thing – so many places look run down now.

I have no illusions about this being interesting to anybody else – but here are a few places I’ve lived.

First, as an adult… or at least on my own… not surprisingly, most places I’ve lived since leaving home are available:

My dorm in college – It was a brave new world back then.

Hey, look at all these bike racks. We didn’t have those when I was in school. We only had a couple of the old ladder-style. I kept my 1974 Raleigh Supercourse (Reynolds 451 tubing, Brooks saddle stock) in my room. One night someone, obviously an organized and professional criminal crew, came by and stole all the bikes out front in one sweep.

My last two years in school I lived in this apartment fourplex. Tennessee street in Lawrence is one of the coolest streets I remember – but I lived in the most uncool little brown apartment. Hey, I didn’t have to look at it.

When I graduated and found my first job, I rented the top floor of this old building. I had my own entrance, the one you see on Google, and stairs went right up from there to my door. It was a nice place to live – an old halfway house for alcoholics, it had two bathrooms including a great old iron clawfoot tub in one.

After living there, I bought this house – the first house I owned. It was a tiny little crackerbox, but I liked it. I’m glad to see it looking so good, though it hasn’t grown any bigger.

When I moved to Dallas, I lived in this old complex on the M streets, right off Greenville Avenue. It was a great place to be young and broke.

Over the years I actually sub-rented two different units in this condo building. Possibly the best thing was its access to White Rock Lake – I did a lot of bicycle riding back in the day.

When we were married we bought this little house in Casa View ( technically Casa View heights). It was in terrible shape when we bought it – a real fixer-upper. It had a fantastic pecan tree in the backyard. Nick was born when we lived there.

Unfortunately, the school district there wasn’t very good, so we moved south a little way into Mesquite. Lee was born when we lived in this house. We lived there a long time – I planted those trees in the front yard.

When you are young you should plant all the trees you can – it’s something you can look at over the years, even if you don’t live there anymore. I wrote about the oak I planted in the back yard and how you can see it now.

Live Oak in back of the house I used to live in.

Live Oak in back of the house I used to live in.

Now, looking back further, there aren’t very many street views of houses I lived in when I was a kid. Most Army bases don’t have street view and the other countries I lived in don’t have them either.

There is this sideways view of one house when I was in first and third grade. Not a very good angle – it was an amazing house.

When I was in fifth grade we rented this house while my father was in Vietnam.

And a couple years later we fixed this house up – it hasn’t aged very well since.

I’m not sure any of us do.

Indistinguishable From Magic

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
—-Arthur C. Clarke

concentration

I’m not sure what… but something today brought back a very old memory – and I’ve been thinking about it.

I’m guessing I was about eight or so, and that would make it 1965. I liked to watch the game show Concentration – Hugh Downs would have been the host. I especially liked the end of the puzzle, when the contestants had to guess the Rebus.

rebus

I have never been good at those things, and I think I enjoyed the frustration and release when a contestant was able to get it right.

At any rate, the moment I remember so vividly was when the contestant won a grand prize of some sort. With great blurry grainy black and white hoopla they wheeled it out to present it to the woman.

It was a videotape recorder/camera/playback combination. It was the size of two standup refrigerators. The camera (though demonstratively smaller than the studio units used on the show) was the size of a suitcase and seemed to weigh over a hundred pounds.

It seemed to take forever, but they managed to set the machine up and take a short segment of very bad quality recording of the woman that won the prize. She was standing there, shifting from foot to foot, and looking very uneasy – with that fake early-1960’s smile plastered on her face. The giant tape reels spun at a dizzying pace and after a bit more fiddling (this was live TV – they must have been brave to try and pull this off) the little black and white (I assume it was black and white – I surely wasn’t watching it in color) piece of the big-haired woman came up on the impossibly tiny Cathode Ray Tube almost lost in the maze of complex equipment.

Everyone cheered and the cat food commercial came on and that was that.

To this day, almost a half-century later, I remember how excited I was. Imagine! The ability to put your own moving images onto magnetic tape!

Then, equally strongly, I remember the internal backlash as I wondered what use something so large, unwieldy, and of such terrible quality would actually be. Where would that poor woman store the thing? It must have drawn an incredible amount of power (those huge cabinets concealed banks and banks of glowing vacuum tubes, no doubt).
My eight year old self felt the falling disappointment in technology.

Now, of course, I carry a card-sized device in my pocket which, among many other things, can take a high quality color motion capture with perfect sound, transmit it from my hand, and broadcast it all over the world where anybody that cares to (if anybody cares to) can watch it to their heart’s content.

Not only was that sort of technology unavailable in 1965, it was unimaginable. I know that was fifty years ago, but it doesn’t seem that long to me. Hell, Hugh Downs, the host of the show, is still alive. I’m sure he has a smartphone.

downs

Bodacious Bar-B-Q

When our kids were little we had a little popup tent camping trailer. It was pretty cool – we would keep it loaded with all the stuff we would need for the weekend. All we would have to do is buy some food and head out to one of the wide selection of Texas State Parks within a few hours drive of the Dallas Fort Worth Metroplex. It was worth it even for a single night – we could go to a soccer game on Saturday morning and be in the woods for Saturday night. It was a good thing… until the trailer was stolen from in back of our house… but that’s another story.

One of the places we would go was Tyler State Park – outside of the eponymous East Texas City. It was a large park – held a lot of people in a whole series of camping areas around a resplendent sylvan lake. When we drove to and from we would pass a Bar-B-Q restaurant off the exit from Interstate 20. It always looked delicious and the associated smoke smelled even more so. But in keeping with the whole camping thing we never visited.

That was many years ago but I remember it.

On our last trip to New Orleans (for Lee’s Tulane Graduation) we left early in the morning, but not too early. We would be going past Tyler right at lunch time – and I decided to finally try out Bodacious Bar-B-Q.

There are four major types of Bar-B-Que – Kansas City, Memphis, Carolina, and Texas. Bodacious is, of course, Texas. Texas BBQ is actually a dry, slow cook – with most sauce added after.

The food was great, of course. The place was exactly like you would expect – a little dusty, a little cluttered, a lot of local workers on their lunch hour.

And then it was time to get back on the road.

Bodacious Bar-B-Q Tyler, Texas

Bodacious Bar-B-Q
Tyler, Texas

bodacious4

bodacious2

bodacious3

Wooden Canoe

I am now to the point where everything brings back memories… not even a single memory but a chain of them… separated by great space and greater time – yet linked by a single thing, the inside of my head.

Something as simple as a wooden canoe lying on a grassy bank:

I found a small dugout wooden canoe upside down in a tropical lake, abandoned and rotting in a bank of watery weeds along the shore. I came up under it with a scuba tank on my back, the bubbles catching in its concave interior and I, looking at the long oblong shape against the sun, wondered what it was. There was nobody in miles so I took it for my own.

The wood was soft and I could scrape out the rotten part with a hunting knife. The bow was broken but I fixed it with a piece of plywood and some marine glue. I found some half empty used cans of bilious old paint in a garage closet so I painted it black and gray. I cut a plastic Clorox bottle into a bailer and I was good to go.

I learned to paddle there on that humid lake. Learned to fish from a canoe, learned to navigate in the darkness, saw creatures I never thought existed in fresh water – they had followed ships in through the Gatun locks and most were slowly dying from the lack of salt.

Then I learned to maneuver a rented dented aluminum canoe through the spring flash flowing Ozark rivers on college weekends – the rocky adrenaline thrill of white water and the relaxing lazy languid sluggishness of deep dark green. I learned that a foot of water can be dangerous when it is moving fast under a fallen tree. Also, be careful when you stop in the middle of a ten mile stretch of isolated river for a quick refreshing swim on a gravel bank… don’t leave your car keys behind.

I paddled into the netherworld of Spanish Moss and Bald Cyprus in East Texas Caddo lake. A place out of time where you can find an abandoned church in a place where God has forgotten. I learned to always check the flow of the water before setting out. You are never as strong as you think you are – sometimes it is hard to get back.

Paddling on a lake with two little kids in the boat I learned that you not only have to check the flow of the water, but the strength of the wind. A damned up prairie lake can throw air fast enough to grab the bow and turn it the way you don’t want to go.

There is the sound of small waves banging against aluminum. The feeling of an ill-fitting life jacket while you are trying to work the paddle. The smell of old fish bait. The heat of the sun on the back of your neck. The sight of the little vortexes that spin off your paddle, the little drops of water when you swing it to the other side. There is the ache in your shoulders at the end of a long day and the anticipation when rounding a curve in the river.

Most of all the rhythm of boat, paddle, and water when you get moving across a lake. When it’s all working together and you feel sorry for the folks roaring by spewing oil out of their big outboards (though you do look jealously at that nice little sailboat).

Where I Used to Work

Construction going up

When I first moved to Dallas, in 1981, my first job was downtown. I remember the quiet thrill of riding the bus into the forest of skyscrapers every morning – it was an exciting time. I felt that something was really happening – I wasn’t sure what it was, but it was something (I still don’t know what it was, and am pretty sure it wasn’t anything after all).

For a year or so my office was in the Kirby Building on Main Street. The interesting thing about that is a year earlier I had visited Dallas and had seen the Kirby Building from the Adolphus Hotel and wondered to myself, “What would it be like to work in a building like that?” It was a complete coincidence that I found myself toiling away in that very same space only a year later. The Kirby was a grand old place, much too ornate for a whippersnapper like myself and after awhile we moved to less expensive digs.

One thing I remember about the Kirby is that it had old fashioned carpets (they might have been wool) and on dry winter days you had to walk around with a key in your hand to touch the heavy brass doorknob and ground yourself or the static spark would leap out like Lilliputian lightning and shock the crap out of your fingertips whenever you would open a door. An odd thing to remember after all that time, but you don’t forget that much pain easily.

In the decades since, the Kirby Building has been converted into condominiums. I don’t know if they put in new carpet – I suppose they would have to. I hope it is conductive and non-static.

We moved across downtown to another venerable old edifice, this one not so ornate. It was the Cotton Exchange Building. It was like working in a time warp – they had a cotton trading floor and a restaurant on the ground floor that had not changed a bit since the fifties. We were afraid to eat the salad dressing.

I loved working there. These were the salad days in Dallas and I could watch the high rise buildings going up all around. They sprouted like giant glass asparagus from every available scrap of space. I loved to note the various construction techniques and architectural details – mostly how they made the shape such that they had the maximum number of corner offices. It was a cool place.

But all good things must pass and the Cotton Exchange building was too old and not profitable enough. To prepare for demolition they stripped a modern tacky exterior off and found a classic deco building underneath. There was some talk of preservation, but it was too little, too late.

They imploded the building. I thought about going down there to watch the old lady collapse under the thumb of the dynamite – but it was too early in the morning and I told myself I preferred to remember it as it was. For decades the lot sat vacant and I wondered why they had blown it up.

Now, finally, there is construction. Across the street the First Baptist Church is undergoing a massive renovation and the place of the old Cotton Exchange is being used… as a parking garage. I walked by a while back and took a couple of pictures.

I’m a little disappointed that the beloved old Cotton Exchange has been reduced to a spot for a garage… but I guess at least it is something. People have to park somewhere.

Even Baptists.

The new church across the street.

3 Men and a Taco!

Again, today, I consulted my twitter feed to see where the various gourmet food trucks were distributed around the city. A truck I had never tried before, 3 Men and a Taco, was set up on Davis Street in Oak Cliff. I have wanted to visit the Bishop Arts District, only a few blocks down from there, so I decided to make the drive clear across town.

Cutting across north of downtown I drove through the tunnel that the Woodall Rodgers Freeway has become. They have decked over the road for the new five acre park that is going in overhead. I was working downtown when the freeway was dug – it seemed like an enormous undertaking at the time – I can’t believe that they are now building a wooded park over the top of it. It will be very cool when it is finished – a nice addition of some nature to the edge of the Arts District.

I cut across to Oak Cliff and drove down to Davis Street. This brought back a lot of memories for me. When I first moved to Dallas in 1981 I lived with some friends that were remodeling a house in Kessler Park for a while. I remember riding the bus on those streets to my new job in the skyscrapers of downtown. For a kid that had been in Kansas for years this was really exciting and every day I would look out of my bus windows with excitement, wonder, and anticipation at the amazing future that was sure to come to pass. Well, I was young and didn’t know any better.

The street the house was on, Edgefield, is as beautiful as ever. It looks unchanged in thirty years, except the trees have grown almost together overhead and they were orange with fall colors – georgeous. The house itself was a bit of a shock. It still looked the same in the front, the classic Kessler Park Tudor Revival brick – but the entire back yard was filled with a massive two story addition – making the humble cottage into a gigantic mansion.

The truck was set up at Davis and Edgefield, in front of Urban Acres. I was a little late, so many of the choices were crossed off their menu board, but I chose a Coconut Mango Chicken (with Thai Pepper Slaw) and Sweet Potato Portobella (roasted and topped with an orange balsamic reduction). They don’t call these food trucks “gourmet” for nuthin’ – these were not your mama’s tacos.

As usual… it was very good.

3 Mean and a Taco - Gourmet Food Truck

The board with today's selections, next to the "Tip Monster"

The key to a Food Truck's success is to communicate with their customers. The Twitter feed and Facebook Pages have to be kept up, minute to minute.

Coconut Mango Chicken

Sweet Potato Portobella (this was really, really good)