A good man, a powerful story, and a pair of fine wordsmiths


I recently reread and was again inspired by two very different literary works which both chronicle the amazing life of a man who died 846 years ago today.

Thomas Becket’s life and death have provided rich material for storytellers for almost a millennia. Born in the Cheapside sector of London he was sent by one of his father’s wealthy friends to a priory school before settling into what he suspected would be the lackluster life of a clerk, finally finding a position in the household of Archbishop Theobald of Canterbury.  From that lofty perch he made the acquaintance of young King Henry II.  After a spell of unashamed, self-propelled social climbing he became the confidant of the King, who made him his chancellor.  When Archbishop Theobald died, Henry pulled in some pontifical favors and had Thomas, who wasn’t even a priest, named the new archbishop.  In a quick flurry of rites that elevated him to priest, bishop and archbishop, he became the highest ranking Catholic in Britain.  Roman Catholicism being the state religion – in effect the only religion – the former Cheapside lad found himself on Canterbury Cathedral’s  throne,  almost equal to that of the king.

And therein lay a problem.  Henry had only elevated Thomas because he needed a “yes man” to negate the problems he had been having with Theobald regarding  vast holdings of the church that Henry wanted for himself.

Over the span of several frantic years Thomas became the holiest of holy archbishops, standing fast against the king on every front, all the while seeking God’s guidance and serving as a devout and loyal shepherd to his vast English flock.  In other words, his new-found spirituality and commitment took the wheels off Henry’s scheme to give the king ultimate power over both church and state.

On December 29th, 1170, Thomas was slaughtered in his cathedral by a small band of Henry’s knights, believing they were carrying out the execution of a traitor on the order of their King, a command which Henry would deny having given.

There, my friends, is the briefest and worst rendition of Becket’s life you will ever see.  For two excellent ones I suggest Thomas: a Novel of the Life, Passions and Miracles of Becket, by Shelly Mydans and Murder in the Cathedral, a verse play by T. S. Eliot.  Both do credit to a man who has been a spiritual hero to countless millions (myself included) and has long been a saint in the Catholic and Anglican communions.

If you’re after a good read try either or both.

If you want to be a better crafter of good reads use Mydan’s novel as a textbook example of wonderful imagery and description and Eliot’s play as the quintessence of perfect dialogue.

And if you’re in need of a spiritual hero, the twelfth century martyr who girded himself with pure faith to stand against an obstinate and greedy king might just fill the bill.


Fog up the river, fog down the river


4248111-fog   I don’t know what the weather will be like when you read this, but as I’m writing it is a gray, dreary business outside.  And there is an abundance of thick fog.

My neighborhood as I walked through it this early morning was dismal indeed, with skeletal trees coming up at me out of all that murkiness like specters with decidedly evil intentions. An agitated dog howled nonstop from somewhere.

Oddly enough, other than when driving in the stuff I’m on the other side of the fence regarding fog (and the other side of the fence would literally be a good place to be in regards to that dog, whose caterwauling was a little unnerving).

There’s not much more beautiful, in my opinion, than a stand of winter trees or maybe an old barn in dense fog.  When details are fuzzy and muted in the mist, as if they’d been lightly sketched with a soft pencil on rice paper.

When I used to be the sponsor of student tours to Europe I always hoped that we’d find London in a real pea-souper. Which we usually did, since it is foggy there much of the time. It’s really something to see, when the River Thames lumbers along under an undulating blanket of vapor, and the Tower of London peeks over the top of the dingy ground-hugging cloud.

That’s the kind of fog that I imagine Mr. Sherlock Holmes hurrying through, the kind that I can envision the London-to-Dover coach rattling into in Charles Dickens’  A Tale of Two Cities.

In fact, Mr. Dickens began another of his novels, “Bleak House”, with this fine description:

“Fog everywhere.  Fog up the river, where it flows among meadows … fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping … fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights …” It goes on and on;  Dickens wasn’t opposed to rambling when he got his steam up, maybe owing to the fact that magazines paid him by the word for serializations of his novels.

People who write novels and screenplays have always seen fog as a handy way to convey setting and mood.  Heathcliff and Catherine wandered through a good bit of it out on the lonely moors in Wuthering Heights.  And, you might recall, it wasn’t a sunny afternoon that Humphrey Bogart strolled off into at the end of Casablanca.

Fog has been described and celebrated by creative writers throughout all of literary history.  Edgar Allan Poe worked it in pretty regularly in his macabre tales, and poets, in particular, have made great use of it.  T. S. Eliot compared it to a cat rubbing its back upon a window pane, and Carl Sandburg said it comes on little cat’s feet.

The cat, it seems, tends to be the creature we most often equate with fog.  I guess that’s why our two can sit contentedly and watch it through the window.  (Of course, they will sit contentedly and watch anything at all though the window, since they never get to go outside).

Felines, you see, are stealthy and agile like fog, and can slink into rooms and out again without being noticed.  They can, like fog, wedge themselves into tiny corners and cubbyholes.  Which puts them at the opposite end of the sneaky and graceful spectrum from dogs. Dogs knock things over constantly, pant and drool to excess, and go clomping through rooms, very un-fog-like.

Maybe the reason that I’m so inclined toward cats is that I’m so fond of fog.

Now don’t get me wrong; dogs are fine by me, and so are bright, sunny days.  I’m in complete agreement that “on a clear day you can see forever.”

But here’s the thing: some days I don’t want to see forever.  Some days I want to settle into a comfortable chair with a good book with the fog pushing against my windows, like a blanket between me and the world.  Some days I want to venture forth out into the haze (except in a car, remember) and be content with seeing no further than a few feet in front of me, while at the same time being hidden away from the rest of the universe.

It’s almost like being invisible when I’m in a thick fog.  And who – in this fast-paced, frantic life – doesn’t want to be invisible on occasion?

So I’m in favor of fog.  At least every now and then.

As to what that dog on my early morning walk had to fuss about, I haven’t the foggiest notion.



Winter magic, even in warm weather


This week brings with it a trio of pretty important annual milestones for lots of folks.  First came the first official day of winter, followed quickly by Christmas Eve and Christmas day.

While the designated first day of winter might not be as obvious down here on the gulf coast as it is in, say, Maine or Montana, it still calls forth images of skeletal winter trees, drab gray skies streaked with smoke from chimneys, and geese hightailing it toward warmer climes.

Down here might actually be the warmer climes those birds are heading for.  Even so, there’s still something magical about the arrival of the season that contains the end of one year and the beginning of another.

I love winter because it’s both celebration and plain time (called ordinary time in some liturgical calendars); it’s one year burning down to smoldering embers and the next one flaming up again to start anew.  Winter is as close to the alpha and the omega as we get in a season.

It’s also, for me at least, absolutely brimming over with countless memories.  Like cold walks through austere winter woods or beside gray waves breaking on a frigid beach. And carrying split firewood from behind the garage to the front porch with my father when I was a boy, and of my mother seeing to several simultaneous cooking projects in her warm, cozy, frosty-windowed kitchen.

The artist Andrew Wyeth, whose haunting paintings of bleak winter scenes rival the seascapes of Winslow Homer, had this to say about his own fascination with the season: “I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape – the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter.  Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn’t show.”

Baseball Hall of Famer Bill Veeck, who at one time or another owned several major league teams and was famous for his publicity shenanigans – he once hired a dwarf as a pinch hitter to wreak havoc with the opposing pitcher’s strike zone –  put it more succinctly.

“There are only two seasons,” he said, “winter and baseball.”

The first one of those began this week, no matter what the thermometer says.  And now comes Christmas Eve and Christmas day.

Whatever your religious persuasion, or lack thereof, you have to be at least a little moved by this pair of days, sacred to billions of the world’s population, that are given over completely to peace, hope, and joy.

Christmas Eve, for me, isn’t just a vigil commemorating a miraculous birth, but is at the same time calling each of us to perfect those things – peace, hope, and joy – in ourselves.

But that’s a tall order, perhaps requiring a little divine assistance of the prayerful variety.  One of my favorite prayers, because of what it says and the precise wordsmithing employed to say it, ends like this:

“Be with us as we sing the ironies of Christmas, the incomprehensible comprehended, the poetry made hard fact, the helpless Babe who cracks the world asunder. We kneel before you – shepherds, innkeepers, wisemen. Help us to rise bigger than we are.”

Amen to that.

I’m pretty sure the “bigger than we are” bit has nothing to do with overindulging on holiday foods. Surely it’s about us – whatever our religious leanings – becoming bigger, and better, at how we treat each other, how we count our blessings, and how we behave ourselves.

It’s about opening up our hearts in a cold world.

Isn’t that ironic?  The warmest feeling we can experience comes at the coldest time of the year.

And maybe that’s the best thing about the last – and the first – season of the year.

Happy Holidays.

The chilling confessions of a weather junkie

Autumn in Golden Mist


As I write this, a norther is tumbling its way down the continent from the arctic.

But right now it is early in the morning, way before daylight.  The other living things in this house – one wife and two cats – are fast asleep and the only sounds in the place are the tapping I’m doing on the keyboard of my laptop and the ticking of the little clock on the desk in my study.

Outside my windows it is dark and humid and still.  And that big cold front is making its way toward all of us – house and wife and cats and yours truly – as surely as a fast train on a beeline for a depot.

I’m a weather junkie.  I’ll confess that right up front.  There’s not much more impressive and beautiful, to me, than a wide, gunmetal gray sky full of a dark and brooding thunderstorm.  The low clouds so full of their cargo that it seems impossible that they can stay aloft.  The air rich with the heady promise of rain.

And a windy day – a real Winnie the Pooh blustery day – calls me out into it every time.  A day when trees dance briskly in a stiff headwind and fields of tall grass roll and sway like the choppy surface of an agitated lake.  A day like that is perfection personified. It is, as C. S. Lewis might have said, red meat and strong beer.

This fascination with meteorological events has worked its way into all of my books.  My memoir about my father and his Alzheimer’s experience commences in Oakwood, the little town we lived in, covered in snow one Christmas Eve Eve a long time ago.  Then I set an historical novel in the Galveston hurricane of 1900.  Three books later – each of them sprinkled liberally with rain, wind, or snow – I started my latest yarn with a little boy waiting for the first blue norther of the season with his old grandfather during World War II.  The two of them go out into the yard to meet it, reach up and touch it, and even imagine they can smell what it brings with it: scents of pine and fir from the Dakotas, and sweet corn and musty wheat from Kansas.

I called that novel Touching Winter.  And that’s what I intend to do – if its arrival cooperates with my sleep patterns – that big fellow finally gets here.

Now, some people might conclude that I’m mighty odd in this regard.  But I like to think that I’m – along with my wife, who is also a weather junkie – just a little better off than people who can’t manage to see turbulent weather as anything more than an inconvenience.

A  few times I took my Creative Writing III class outside when it happened when our class was meeting.  Because I couldn’t come up with a better lesson for people wanting to be writers than to put them in the presence of something bigger than all of us.  Something so compelling that, try as mankind might, we can’t stop it.  Or even slow it down.  All we can do when facing something like that is either get out of its way or stand in awe of it.

Everything comes at a cost, of course, and society can fall out of balance as quickly as nature does.  Lots of unfortunate folks will have to scramble for shelter tomorrow.  And my heart goes out to them.

But, this early morning, as that big norther bears heavily down, I’m looking forward to its arrival.  To its looming appearance on the northern horizon as it announces, with confident authority, that things will change now.

It’s comforting to know – in a world that is usually altogether too confusing and hectic – that there are some things that I’m not expected to have any control over whatsoever. That’s probably why I love the weather so much.

Today’s paper just plopped into the yard outside my windows.    A hundred or so miles to the north, a massive giant is galloping in this direction.

And I can’t wait.

[Originally published as a column in some yesteryear]


Reading on the cheap


Let me begin by admitting, right up front, to being unashamedly and unrepentantly on the lookout for cheap books. More accurately, I am constantly in the market for good books at cheap prices.

Some of the best treasures on my shelves came from clearance tables at bookstores.   And from garage sales, where I’ve dug my way through many a pile of books on card tables or in paper boxes, like a prospector sifting through an acre or so of river sand looking for a speck of gold.

The end result of all of this is that I have what many people would consider too many books.  Of course, some people would consider any at all too many, so I can’t spend any time worrying about that.

But when my shelves start groaning, I weed some volumes out and either donate them to charity sales or haul them off to a second-hand store to sell them, because I could no more throw a book away than I could toss a puppy out into a blizzard.

Recently, I made a grand total of twenty bucks for three full boxes of hardbacks.  Which amounted to a profit of about a nickel per book, hardly enough to cover the cost  of the gasoline it took to lug them up to Houston.

But that’s okay.  Most of those books will be read again, and then, probably, again.  And that’s what books are for.  I know people who have books on their shelves as decoration only, placed there because of their handsome leather bindings or because the covers blend into the color scheme of the room. Once, I naturally gravitated toward someone’s bookshelves at a party and found a row of perfectly new, obviously unopened French texts.  Since I knew that my hosts neither spoke nor read French, I realized that the books were purely cosmetic, like props on a stage set.

That’s fine with me.  But the numerous books in my house are both keepsakes and reference tools. Though perhaps not always enhancing the ambiance of the decor, they’re pulled down on occasion to be thumbed through, read or re-read, and actually used.

Step over here to the bookcase and let me show you.

That little one right there, with the worn cloth binding, is The Yellow Room by Mary Roberts Rinehart; it was the first mystery novel I ever read, and the catalyst for a lifetime of pleasure.  I’ve read those novels by Gore Vidal – the seven big ones there together, all of them set in Washington, D.C. from the Revolutionary War through World War II – twice each, and may or may not read them again.  But there they are, just in case.  That covey of poetry anthologies is for when a snippet of verse pecks at my brain, or I have a decision to make and need to read Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” to nudge me.  And Kristin Labransdatter by Sigrid Undset, in those three volumes there at the end, may never get read at all.  Who knows?  Maybe sometime in my further dotage a long Scandinavian saga might be just the ticket for a couple of weeks one blustery winter.

I got that boxed set for one dollar at a garage sale years ago. That same day I found an early Anne Sexton.  Not a first edition, but not bad for fifty cents.

There’s another reason I’m all in favor of buying books on the cheap, and it might sound silly to you.  As the author of several books – all of which are sometimes found on discount racks and clearance carts – I like to imagine a shopper unknown to me – maybe in Duluth or Peoria or Tallahassee – on a crisp Saturday morning lifting up one of my efforts, thumbing through it, reading the first couple of paragraphs, paying their two dollars, and taking it home.  Where it might just provide them with an acceptable few hours of reading and maybe end up in their bookcase.  Or, better yet, passed along to a friend to read.

It’s wishful thinking, I know.  But, after all, what’s wrong with a little of that? It’s a nice feeling, the possibility that some of my books are wandering around out there in the wide world, making their hopeful way like Dickens’ pitiful waifs, finding refuge, finally, on a friendly shelf or bedside table.

By the way, the twenty dollars that I made at the used book store never left the building.  A handsome copy of Derek Walcott’s poems called out to me, and three paperback whodunits.

The bill came to $24.95.

[This was a newspaper column in some yesteryear]



Good news from the Great Oz


I gladly yield my blog today to Doctors Mehmet Oz and Michael Roizen, who confirmed something that I had already figured out but am happy to see in print. Here’s their recent posting, which also appears in today’s Houston Chronicle StarHealth section:

Reading Makes You Healthier and Happier

There’s reading — and then there’s reading while you’re doing something else!

Emergency-room visits from distracted walking are up 35 percent over the past half-decade, and reading and texting on your cellphone while walking down the street accounts for more than 10 percent of pedestrian injuries.

Don’t get us started on texting and driving.

None of that is the kind of reading that makes you feel younger

But neuromarketing researchers from the University of Sussex’s Mindlab found that reading an old-fashion, open-a-book-and-learn-something text or an escape-to-the-beach novel for even six minutes a day is more relaxing than listening to music, taking a walk or even having a cup of tea.

The study says getting into a good read eases muscle tension and slows down your heart rate.

In addition, reading keeps your brain sharp, improves sleep, and makes you a more interesting social animal.

Also, if you know someone, especially a child, who has difficulty with reading, spend some time with them and read aloud together.

Lots of kids have a hard time learning to read, so if you’re a parent, grandparent, or just a good neighbor, help them out.

You’re giving a gift of learning. Traveling the world through the written word opens doors in the mind and in life.