The Sky Explodes

“A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now.”
—-Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow

I had signed up (paid ahead of time online) for a bike ride at six this evening, starting and ending at the Four Corners Brewery in West Dallas. It was a guided ride with two beer tickets for well-earned refreshment at the end. My original idea was to ride to the DART station, take the train downtown, and then ride across the Continental Bridge Park to the brewery. But as I prepared to leave I noticed a sudden violence in the sky – a gathering of thunderstorms as the daily Texas humid head collided with some early cooler air floating down from up north.

I didn’t want to get caught in a sudden deluge without my car as refuge, so I folded my Xootr Swift and plopped it into the trunk – then drove down to the brewery.

Because of this, I arrived a bit early and was able to hop over to the bridge park and get some photographs of the evening clouds building behind the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge and the downtown Dallas skyline.

Downtown Dallas and the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge from the Continental Bridge Park (click to enlarge)

Downtown Dallas and the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge from the Continental Bridge Park
(click to enlarge)

A good group gathered for the ride. I didn’t know anybody – which was cool, there rides are always a fun way to find new folks. Everybody talked about the gathering storm – dark clouds were building to the West and to the North. We all agreed to risk the rain and took off. We rode across the Continental Bridge into downtown, through the infamous Triple Underpass and then back across the river on the Jefferson Viaduct Bridge.

At that point the group continued on to Bishop Arts, but I was a bit out of breath and the clouds were really threatening so I decided to turn off on my own. I rode back north and then hopped the levee down into the Trinity River Bottom trails. I stopped to drink some iced water from my bag, eat an orange, and catch my breath.

At that point the sky exploded. I sped off, took shelter under the Interstate 30 Bridge, and ate another orange. When the deluge cleared a bit I rode on to the Margaret Hunt Hill bridge (yes, the one in the photo above) and again took shelter from the storm. The relatively dry area under the bridge was populated with some families and a group of fishermen that had been caught by the rain.

As we waited, I heard a loud roar and suddenly a full-blown Airboat came careening up the
Trinity, going fast through the falling water – pilot and passenger hunched forward against the stinging rain. It was an odd sight – the first powered craft I’ve ever seen on that stretch of the river.

After a bit, I gave up waiting for the rain to end (once you are soaked, you can’t get any wetter) and headed out. The hardest part was getting through the Trinity Groves parking lot – the water was a foot deep there.

As luck would have it, I arrived back at the exact time as the rest of the riders that I had split away from a few miles to the south. The folks that had decided to stay behind and wait – through either a lack of courage or an excess of good sense (or both) – cheered everyone as they rode up, soaked to the skin.

The beer was very good, by the way, and well earned.

Covered in Ice

“Maybe it’s wrong when we remember breakthroughs to our own being as something that occurs in discrete, extraordinary moments. Maybe falling in love, the piercing knowledge that we ourselves will someday die, and the love of snow are in reality not some sudden events; maybe they were always present. Maybe they never completely vanish, either.”
― Peter Høeg, Smilla’s Sense of Snow

The trees that still had their leaves, mostly oaks, were the ones to suffer the most. (click to enlarge)

The trees that still had their leaves, mostly oaks, were the ones to suffer the most.
(click to enlarge)

I read on facebook where somebody here in Dallas wrote, under a nice bright picture of downtown, “I remember when it was sunny and eighty degrees… wait, that was yesterday.”

The freezing rain blew in overnight, coating everything in a transparent crystalline shell. I bundled up, breathed the bitter clean air, and carefully walked around the familiar landscape of my yard – transformed into an alien arctic spectacle. When the breeze would blow the world would tinkle with tiny crackling ice. The sun was behind thin clouds but enough light shone through to light up the glassy ice crystals like myriad clear jewels strung everywhere.

We have a huge oak tree in our front yard. Overnight, I could hear wood splitting as the tons of frozen water dripping down the still-attached leaves weighted the wood past its breaking point. In the morning, the yard was littered with limbs, with more broken ones suspended overhead, still stuck in the thick canopy. I’ll have to wait a day or so and then cut the fallen limbs up for firewood and haul the rest to the curb for the city to pick up.

A guy was wandering the neighborhood looking for work – he offered to clear the fall for twenty bucks, which is a more than fair price. I said no… and I’m not sure why, but I think I want to do it myself.

I Should Always Carry my Camera

As I was leaving for work this morning (I was driving today, no bike commuting) I thought about taking my Nikon along with me. I decided not to – I’m not allowed to bring personal cameras into my work and I don’t like leaving my SLR out in the sun-heated car. As I reached the end of my block – the guy was out doing his Tai Chi between the ponds again and I’ve wanted to do some shots of him.

Later in the day, as I was leaving our writing group out at a Plano Starbucks, we could see giant thunderheads rearing up in East Texas. As the sun set, these clouds were stained flaming orange and became beautiful chunks of conflagration smeared across the crepuscular sky. I had to stop at the Richardson Library to drop off a couple tomes, and I walked around to the east side to look at the clouds beside the fountain – it was a beautiful sight.

Unfortunately, all I had was my Blackberry – with the world’s worst camera.

I need to figure out how I can take my Nikon with me on a routine basis. You never know what’s going to show up.

Sunday Snippet – The Iceberg

(click to enlarge) "Approaching Storm" by Claude-Joseph Vernet, Dallas Museum of Art

The river was teeming with plump fish. Today would have been a good catch. The storm blowing in from the sea will put an end to that. Dorothy came down with baby Aaron to warn us, wearing her favorite red dress. She’s holding him as he squirms, he wants to play with the fish. John and I are down on the rocks working, trying to get the day’s catch gutted and put up before the rain starts, while the rest pull in the nets. A stray dog is barking as Donna fights with the mule, the animals know what’s up and want to go home now, instead of helping us with our load.

A sudden flash startles me and I look up to see a giant bolt of lightning scream down at an angle from the glowering cloud. It strikes the city, golden in the distance. The sky has darkened leaving the cream limestone of the city’s domes and towers to almost glow in the last free rays of sunlight. A while later the thunder careens down the valley, distant booming echoes coming off the giant rocky crag of Gray Mountain behind the city and from the walls of the canyon itself.

Above me, high on the canyon walls is the Duke’s estate. New luxurious stone buildings built around the ancient ruins of a ruined castle. Since the Duke built the new tollbridge by the city, his fortune has increased tenfold. A lone figure, one of the Duke’s men, looks down, high overhead from the old ivy-covered tower. He is probably watching the boats; some nobles were out for a day on the river and were caught by the sudden wind. They are heading back in their carriage, leaving the boatmen to struggle with their craft.

The storm is building, piling up upon itself, towering overhead like an angry giant. The wind whips even wilder, I can smell hard rain approaching, the flashes of lightning come faster now. My excitement is beginning to be tainted by fear; the old highway back to the city runs along the canyon bed, under the stone arch; and even with the mule helping with the nets the storm will be strong upon us before we reach the bridge. The tumbling cataracts here in the last stretch before the sea can rise up quickly, many travelers have been engulfed, with their destination in plain sight.

I look at Dorothy and little Aaron, Donna and the mule, the netmen; all looking to me for guidance. I should have known this storm was blowing up, should have stopped work sooner, should….

Jim was jolted out of his reverie my something moving across his field of vision. Something thin, dark; something slinky, something sexy. He felt her in his gut even before he even really figured out what had startled him. The young woman walked by between his bench and the painting; his head turned to follow as she passed on by the big oils of landscapes and ocean scenes down the room and back several hundred years to painted scenes of Christ on the cross.

She was wearing a short black dress, black stockings, and her long dark hair poured over her shoulders. Her face… her skin was as pale as a cold egg. She carried a little notebook and a thick textbook; she must be here with a college class. She was young and thin and tall, moved with a nervous jumpy weightless ease, flitting along from painting to painting like a colt.

Jim stood from the bench and let out an audible sigh. It was time to go findShelby. He preferred the old masters, paintings that looked like something, art that told a story. He had been sitting on a padded bench in front of a Claude-Joseph Vernet painting, “Approaching Storm” for over half an hour.

His wife liked the modern stuff. He knew what gallery she’d be in. With another sigh he set off.





Elmore Spencer has climbed the mountain of the art world. From a child prodigy that startled adults with his sketching skills at the age of six to a celebrated student of the Paris art schools to a meteoric rise to the jet-setting toast of the New York Art Society, Spencer has had it all.

Instrumental in founding the “New Realism” school, he then rejected this return to “Painting that looks like something” and veered off into innovative artistic experiments that challenged the border between art and observer, maintaining his success and popularity through it all.

Now, he struggles with a return to his roots, to maintain the connection with his audience that he feels his decades of success have cost him. The conflict of the avant-garde and the traditional, realistic and symbolic, is at the heart of what Spencer is up to now.

“It’s been a long road, but I’ve been lucky,” Spencer said in a recent interview, “To others its seems like a climb, a rise, but to me it feels like a spiral, the further I go, the more times I return to the same places.”

His newest installation in the Checkwith Gallery of the Kooning museum communicates that duality in Spencer’s own way. A large room in the gallery has been darkened, a dual-sided screen has been installed in the center of the room, along with two digital television projectors and a powerful sound system.

A film plays on this screen; a man walks from the murky distance, approaching the screen in slow motion. The man stands for a minute, then, on one side of the screen a small flame appears at his feet. The flames slowly grow until the man in engulfed. Finally he disappears in a massive wall of fire.

On the other side of the screen the same man is assaulted by drops of water falling from high overhead which increase in frequency and volume until they become a torrent falling. The water slows and stops and the man is gone.

Meanwhile the speaker system booms out the sound of water falling, the sound of roaring flame. It is interesting to note that both sounds are the same.

The film installation is work of art in itself, many, if not most, visitors assume that it is the artwork. With his playful genius, Spencer has visualized this darkened room as a controlled setting for his real art. He has constructed a series of twelve sculptures, to be placed into the area on a rotating basis.

One sculpture is a pair of lovers, constructed of modern materials, rugged and realistic. They sit on a bench in the darkest corner of the film room, they are only visible during the peak of the flame portion of the film, illuminated by the fire on the screen. They are locked in a kiss, an embrace, his hand is slipped inside her shirt, hers rests on his thighs. The museum receives dozens of complaints on the days this sculpture is set out.

Another sculpture is a mechanical museum guard. He stands inside the room. When the guard is present the film is turned off. Infrared proximity sensors pick up any patron that enters the room; and after a delay, the ersatz guard plays a recording, “I don’t know, they’re supposed to have turned the film on by now.”

Some of the sculptures placed in the room are designed to look at home there, others, such as the murder victim, placed in the corner with a knife protruding from his back like from a cheap detective movie, are obviously intended to shock or annoy. On certain days nothing is placed in the room, leading to a scene where patrons in the know walk around examining each other, trying to determine what is real and what isn’t.

Spencer has even been known to spend a day in his own installation, sitting on a bench with his famous sketchpad, drawing the reactions of the observers. This has been so successful; he has taken to walking around the museum sketching patrons looking at art.

“As artists we live for the people that look at our work, really. We never think about them, or study them, or try to incorporate their lives into the art itself. I want to change that…….”



She turned from the painting, a huge panel covering most of the wall, hand painted with extreme skill to look like a blow-up of an article from a art magazine, to see her husband standing there.

“What do you want?”

“It’s time to leave.” Her husband looks at his watch. She thinks he always is looking at his watch.

“I’m not finished reading this.”

“What the hell is that? What’s it supposed to mean? Might as well go home and read the paper.”

“It’s by Spencer, My Life, it’s called. I haven’t decided what it means yet.”Shelbyfelt anger welling up in her throat. She’s known James, her husband, her love, since they were children and had been angry many times over the many years, but nothing like lately. She could feel a fight coming on, a mean and nasty fight, and one with no resolution.

When they were young, when they were first married they would argue, like all newlyweds, like all friends. It would end quickly, though, with both giving in. The next day the argument would seem so silly.

Now, though, they fight, and the fights never end. They taper off into silence and simply flare up again at the next conflict, the next insult. She could feel the heat rising, like a hot nut right under her sternum.

“Come on!” Jim said, placing his hand on her arm, “We have things to do.”

Shelbywanted to explode, but the twentieth century gallery at the Kooning museum was not the place to have a knock-down, drag-out, so she walked stiffly in silence, stewing. They passed through room after room, moving back in time towards the rear entrance until they reached an area dominated by a huge landscape painting; the most famous work in the museum. It was a scene of icebergs, a giant white slope, begging for footprints, a brown and purple timeless sky. The ice in the foreground was littered with debris, a shattered mast, a glacier torn boulder. The ice rose in craggy veined cliffs all around pierced by an emerald green frozen tunnel, a mystery. The calm sea was disturbed only by circular waves radiating out from some unseen event.

She could not stand it any more, she was so furious.Shelbypulled away and sat quickly down on the circular bench. Jim sat down beside her, staring wide-eyed. Pulling in her anger, she started to speak.

“Jim I…”

“Excuse me, folks,” said a man they hadn’t noticed. He was gray-haired, wearing old jeans and a long-sleeved shirt. He was sitting on the floor, leaning against the wall under a Thomas Dougherty landscape, a large sketchpad resting on his knees. “Do you mind sitting there for a while, I’d like to draw the two of you. If you don’t mind.”

Jim stammered, “Well, we have…”

“Sure, go right ahead,”Shelbyinterrupted.

“Alright then, umm. turn toward each other a little, now look at me…. Fine, why don’t you hold her hand a little…. That’s right.”

He started in drawing right away. Working with colored pencils and some charcoal and a bit of an eraser. Jim and Shelby felt nervous; the fight, their day quickly forgotten.

“Ummm… try to relax, why don’t you tell me a story. Tell me about when you first met.”

“Well,” Jim started.Shelbywas surprised that he spoke up so soon. She was getting ready to talk, but he beat her to it.

“We met in junior high school, seventh grade, we were both thirteen. She sat if front of me inEnglish class. I remember, I loved her from the first moment I saw her. I thought she was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. Our teacher was old, he would lean on a podium and lecture us all class long. The room was too small, our desks were crammed together, her seat backed right up against my desk. All I would do is sit there and stare atShelby’s hair. Her blonde hair. Sometimes she’d wear it down and it would fall in cascades right in front of me. Sometimes she’d wear it up, like a golden seashell, a yellow spiral. Sometimes in one ponytail, sometimes two, it didn’t matter. That was my favorite hour of every day, to sit in that hot crowded room and look atShelby’s hair. I felt like I could do this forever, for the rest of my life.”

Shelby and Jim sat there then and talked. They talked of old times, when they were young and when they started dating. They talked of old friends. They talked of their first apartment, of their first house, of the cars they had bought together, of the meals they had cooked, of the vacations they had taken. They forgot about the artist, ignored him until he finished. He put his pencils back into a little wooden case.


“Well, can we see it?” they asked together.

“See it? You can have it.”



He handed them the paper and thanked them simply. The artist walked around the corner and was gone.

The drawing had the iceberg painting in the background. Carefully done in colored pencil and pastel chalk it was amazingly detailed and accurate. He must have been working on it for hours. The painting, or, rather the drawing of the painting faded in an oval spot near the center. He drew only around the edges, leaving a blank spot, waiting as he drew for someone to come along and fill it.

Shelby and Jim now occupied the oval. She gasped as she saw it. It was a life-like drawing, done mostly in pencil and charcoal, cross-hatch and shades of gray, only a hint of color added. Detailed. It was realistic except that they both were drawn naked.

Jim looked at the drawing of his wife’s breasts, at their intertwined hands. Shelby, at her husband’s naked body. She was shocked when she noticed that the artist had drawn in the patches of hair across Jim’s chest exactly right. The lower right corner had a quickly scribbled “ES.”

They suddenly noticed that over a dozen people surrounded them. They must have walked up to watch the famous artist work, but Jim and Shelby had not even noticed. Embarrassed by the gathering crowd pointing to details on the sketch, they rolled up the drawing, and headed out to their parked car. They held hands as they walked,Shelbyleaned her head on Jim’s shoulder as he drove.

They spent some money to have the print professionally framed and mounted at a shop across town that handled fine art works. Never really comfortable with the nudity, they couldn’t hang it in their living room. The framer recognized the signature, told them it would bring in tens of thousands of dollars, especially with the story of the sitters. He recommended a gallery. Even though they could really use the money, Jim and Shelby couldn’t sell it. It meant too much to them. They did hang it, in their bedroom, next to the closet.

For many decades, until the days of their death it was the last thing the saw at night when they went to sleep, the first thing in the morning when they woke up.

(click to enlarge) "The Icebergs" by Fredrick Church, Dallas Museum of Art


It hadn’t rained here for months. The hot weather and tinderdry vegetation (all the plants I have tended for years along my back fence are dead, my lawn may not make it) felt apocalyptic.

However, one of the nice things about having a journal that goes back well over a decade is that you can look back at other years.

This has happened before.

Friday, September 6, 1996

Summer is ending in Dallas, it’s still plenty hot, but the real heat is past now for another year. Summer is the most uncomfortable season here, but I always like it, I’m going to miss it.

I like the pure brutality of it, heat so bad it’ll kill you. The green, wet spring giving way to the dry brown death of summer. Yellow heat giving way to white heat, the sky white, the blue burned out of it. White hot laser sun, bouncing off the blue Dallas buildings like a lens. The heat beyond shimmering, the air shooting straight up. After work, my car has been sitting alone in the sun, I open the door and the heat bursts out, hits like a hammer. It’ll burn your nostrils, so hot you can’t breathe, so hot your own breath feels cools on the back of your hand.

The heat is so hot, so dry on the black Dallas gumbo clay that the earth itself splits like an overripe tomato. Cracks appear in the ground, big enough to fit your hand in. The slab of my house tilts away from the heat, my deck drops a foot. The plants go dormant, brown, leaves fall, like in a northern winter. Only rich people’s lawns, with men running the sprinklers day and night can keep up with the solar barrage, with the instant evaporation.

If it’s cold, you can always put on more clothes. But you can’t get any cooler than naked. And the burning sun will cook your skin anyway, roast you to death. There are only two ways to get out of it. You can huddle inside, breathing the precious AC. Without AC nobody would live here, we’d all still be up north, back east. You can sit inside, in the cool dark, the rattle and rumble of the AC shakes the house. It’s always dark inside because the sun is so bright, any clouds have been burned away, your eyes can’t get used to the shade. When you come in it’s like night inside, you’re blind, the tungsten can’t compete. If you wait awhile you can see, but the klieg light in the sky is still there, only some brick and sheetrock away.

Or you can find some water, a lake. You can sit in it, sit in the sand, in the freshwater sea-shells, watching the wavelets lap against you, the odd perspective of being right on top of the water, closer than you ever are to the ground. The sound of kids playing, the smell of dead fish, you can survive for a while that way, but you can’t sit in the water all summer.

That’s what Texas summer is to me. I’ve lived in Central America, in the humid Panama jungle, where the air is so laden with water it is more liquid than gas, when I first got off the plane I thought “my God, I can’t breathe this stuff, how can anyone stand this.” But there somehow you can get used to it. Maybe the constant warm refreshing tropical rain. But Texas summers are brutal, vicious, killer. You must take precautions.

I like that, it keeps things in perspective.

Sooner or later, the drought will end. It always does.

From Tuesday, September 12, 2000


Rain is grace; rain is the sky condescending to the earth; without rain, there would be no life.

—-John Updike

It’s been something like seventy four days since it’s rained here; that’s some sort of a record – breaking the old gap from the thirties, the dustbowl days. I’ve been fantasizing the first good rain, thinking about running out, face upwards, arms wide, like the guy in “The Shawshank Redemption.”

For some reason I didn’t think it would come at work. Because of Nick’s game last night I missed the weather and didn’t know a possibility of storms was on for today.

As a moneysaving thing, trying to get back on our feet after the car repairs and new heater-air conditioner, I’ve been on a Ramen regimen for lunch. Thirty cents a day. So I sat at my desk eating my humble noodles and began to grind through some more endless government forms I have to fill out. Something made me look out of my office, across the lab to the bank of windows.

It took me awhile to realize what I was looking at – featureless gray background with white angled streaking slashes moving fast across. It was rain. As what I was looking at began to sink in to my awareness the first bright flashes, loud cracks, and rumbling booms started – it was a good late summer thunderstorm.

As an environmental person I have several responsibilities during a rainstorm, especially one when it has been dry for so long. I put on my lab coat and walked the building’s perimeter, looking out each door, making sure everything was in good shape.

The temperature dropped twenty degrees in minutes, and a great howling wind picked up. The rain blew sideways in great clouds, picking up standing water from the ground. Fast flashes of lightning like a strobe light; so close the thunder came on immediately, like giant timbers snapped by a monster hand. A loud clicking started up and I saw pea-sized hail dancing around in the water.

The wind slowed a bit, the hail stopped and it was too much for me to resist. I do need to check the drainage so I strode out quickly into the downpour. I could have picked up a rain suit or even an umbrella but I decided to go ahead and get wet.

It felt wonderful. I had to stop walking and wipe off my safety glasses every now and then, but other than that the rain was comfortable and cool – a great change. The grass out back was soaking the stuff up as fast as it fell – the giant cracks in the clay softening, the dead grass coming loose, the footing flexible and yielding but not yet muddy.

Within an hour or so it was all over. We had almost two inches at work (less than an inch fell at my house). Everything is so desiccated the water was immediately soaked up; by my drive home the streets were dry, the creeks not flowing and we were able to have soccer pictures and baseball practice on schedule. The deluge reduced to only a memory. Inexplicably, there was a small green open rowboat stuck in the dry creek bed behind the school by our house

The odd thing is that not a drop fell at the airport – so officially, according to the government, it never rained and the record drought is still on.

It sure felt like rain to me, though.

This year, for me, it was less dramatic. As a matter of fact, the end of the drought was a pain in the ass. I had plans for Friday night – I was going to hang out at the Sculpture Center for Midnight at the Nasher. A band was going to play and they were going to show “Footloose” on the outdoor screen. But, right at sunset, the skies opened up.

It wasn’t a hard, satisfying rain… more like an ambitious drizzle. It was carefully calibrated to destroy any plans without making it too obvious that all was lost. I stubbornly stuck it out and wandered the garden at the Nasher, pretending that if I ignored it, the rain would go away. After a bit, I gave up and went inside. I must have looked like crap because a museum guard suggested I dry off so, “I don’t catch cold or something.”

Not long after that, I gave up and went home. At least the wet city streets are good for night photography.

It wasn’t until two nights later that we had a real storm. I opened my garage door and stood out in the alley watching the cracked fireworks of lightning split the sky over and over. The dry trickle of a creek behind our house was up in an angry cascade, a powerful torrent tearing down the middle of the block. I looked left and right and saw most of my neighbors doing the same thing, standing in the dark behind their houses looking out at the storm.

It has happened before. It will happen again.

Friday October 1, 1998

Storm Blows Through

Violet serene like none I have seen apart from dreams that escape me. There was no girl as warm as you. How I’ve learned to please, to doubt myself in need, you’ll never, you’ll never know.

—Natalie Merchant – 10,000 Maniacs

A storm blew through today
while I was talking
on the phone
at lunchtime
here at work.

Nobody warned me,
it wasn’t on the news
things are so bleak, these days
I thought the rain would never come.

I’m so isolated
I didn’t hear it at first
But the thunder shook
and I could feel it
from my feet
on up
my legs
rumbling, shaking.

So I grabbed a look
out a window
and it was falling
of sweet sweet rain


It has been so dry
dust parched earth
cracked pain
a desert of dirt
grit and the taste of old salt.

But the rain came
unexpected falling

I wanted to go stand outside
let the sheets
of sweet sweet rain
fall down
all over me,

swallow the rain
and take it all in
let the rain swallow me.

The cool
sweet sweet rain
I watch through the glass
press my palm on the pane
feel the thunder
shake my feet