Take me home, country road

country drive

There are roads, and there are roads.  And then there is THE road.

It’s a different road for every traveler, of course. At least for those who are able to appreciate the journey as much as the destination.

I used to think my own favorite road should be one that would impress other people, a famous thoroughfare like the Pacific Coast Highway, with the cliffs of Big Sur looming over all those barking seals in the surf, or the trek up to Stratford-on-Avon from London. That one is especially fine, beside hedgerows and stone walls and through picturesque villages and the ancient university town of Oxford with its quaint pubs and bookshops and students gliding along on old bicycles and bookshops and old churches and bookshops.  Did I mention the bookshops?

I enjoyed those roads, and many others.  But it turns out my favorite isn’t famous at all.

A few years ago my wife Karen and I were driving north on a pretty spring day.  We left Interstate 45 at Madisonville and headed up old highway 75, because we find country roads to be altogether more interesting than freeways.  Along the way I spotted a sign for Farm-to-Market Road 831, which makes its winding way over to Oakwood, the town that raised me.  I’ve been back to my hometown countless times, but always on Highway 79.  831 sort of sneaks into Oakwood through the back door.  I did a little quick calculation and determined I hadn’t been that way in over decades.

I turned onto it and, to quote Robert Frost, we followed a road less traveled that day.  And I went back in time.

Its two narrow lanes curve along through pretty stretches of woodland and beside handsome pastures dotted with cattle.  It’s all rolling hills and valleys, with little stock ponds full of still water mirroring whatever clouds are floating overhead. Attractive homesteads sit on hilltops, offering whoever drinks their morning coffee on those porches a fine view that encompasses miles and miles, off to a hazy blue fringe of treetops in the far distance.

Here’s what’s left of the little Flo community, where some of my boyhood friends lived.  I helped load and haul bales of hay off that hill right there, or maybe it was that one over there.  It’s been a long time. The bales out there now are the huge round ones that look like toppled gigantic tin cans and have to be moved by tractors, probably putting a good many country lads out of work.  Back then they were the smaller box-shaped ones – the bales, not the boys – but they still got awfully heavy on a broiling summer day after hoisting a hundred or so of them onto the back of a truck.

Out there was the Cormier Ranch, famous for its horses.  When I was in 7th or 8th grade somebody had a birthday hayride and barn dance there.  45s were spun on a portable record player that opened up like a small suitcase and we, reluctantly at first, danced. The Twist had just been invented by Chubby Checker and it was all the rage; we’d seen it on “American Bandstand”.  Thank God none of the parents brought their 8 millimeter movie cameras that night; trust me, a bunch of rural children seeking the rhythm required for that dance was best left undocumented for posterity.

That’s Bobby Goodner’s place right there beside the road. I saw his name on the mailbox when Karen and I passed it that first time, so I knew that he still lived in the house he grew up in.  I made myself a promise to stop and say hello one day.  But I didn’t keep it.  Somebody called a few years ago to tell me Bobby died of a heart attack.

I wish I’d stopped.

Up past that curve is the house where my friend Chris Stevens grew up.  We were running buddies all through school, and I felt as much at home in his house as I did in my own.  His daddy was a carpenter and a preacher, and Chris’ sweet mother would, pretty much on demand, make us a pan of dark, buttery fudge full of pecans.  Then she’d play a few hymns on her upright piano.  In payment for the fudge, we’d sit politely and listen as we ate it.

Driving that stretch of country road in Leon County is as close as I’m likely to come to being able to click my heels together and go back to another time and place.

Maybe, after years of wandering, your favorite road is simply the one that leads home.  I’ve found mine.





When wordsmithing, two heads (or ten) might be better than one


I just spent three good days leading a writing workshop in Brenham, Texas in the pleasant company of an interested, interesting and talented group of folks.

Most  of them had a unique story they want to tell, and I hope our total of sixteen hours spent sitting around a big table looking at ways to help them become better writers, and at various devices to manipulate words and plots (and readers) will be beneficial to them on their journey.  On the final day we took sharp pencils in hand and plunged into several pages of everybody’s writing, the group scratching away at the papers and then discussing what was done well, what needed to be done better and what shouldn’t have been done at all (we call that clutter in the land of creative composition; William Zinsser, one of the patron saints of effect composition, once called clutter the disease of American writing). We located perfect first sentences where they were hiding, buried deep in in the text, and elevated them to their rightful places of honor, we shifted words and phrases around, and we found gaping holes where something that should have been there … wasn’t.

The beauty, and the magic, of collective textual analysis – we call it critiquing – is that a writer ends up with a plethora of options from which to choose when doing a second draft.  It’s the embodiment of the old “several heads are better than one” approach. Of course, the writer doesn’t have to take any of the advice.  But if seven of ten people concur that the third sentence in the second paragraph doesn’t work, you can pretty much bet that it needs some reworking or a quick exit.

In that little group we had a retired English teacher who can’t quite believe she’s a poet (she’s an excellent one), an engineer, a local businessman working on his third novel, two people who want to write memoirs, and an actuary for a big insurance company who’s working on what has the potential to be an intriguing novel of suspense. And we had one or two at our table who just wanted to become better, clearer writers and had no specific project in mind.

I love doing workshops.  Just hearing participant’s ideas, and watching them sting words, sentences and paragraphs together is mighty good stuff for an old wordsmith like myself.  It’s what C. S. Lewis would have called “red beef and strong beer”, a phrase he employed for any particularly enjoyable undertaking in his memoir titled “Surprised by Joy.”

At the beginning of every workshop I lead I tell the group that creative writing is made up of two things: craft and voice.  Craft refers to the many metaphorical tools in a writer’s kit, everything from grammar to cadence to sentence length variation to point to view and a hundred or so other ways to move words and stories around.  Craft is manipulation; it’s rabbits pulled out of hats. Voice, on the other hand, is the way an individual writer uses some or all of those tools.

On the first day I told that group in Brenham that I could hopefully be useful to them when it came to the tricks of the trade that we call craft.  But finding their unique voice would be a personal path that can only be traveled alone.

And I told them, at the end of our workshop, that I hoped they would use that voice to make themselves a promise to keep writing, be it fiction or fact, poetry or prose, and to share it.  I also encouraged them to get themselves into a critique group that meets regularly.

If you have a story to tell, I encourage you to do the same.  Find a creative writing workshop or a writing conference or a critique group and get some real feedback on your efforts.

Finally I told that Brenham group that it’s comforting, and admittedly a bit egotistical, to think that when you’ve written something that is published it might be read someday by someone who might pull it down from a dusty bookshelf or pick it up in a used book store, years and years after  you’re gone.  And when that person reads your pages you’ll be alive again, for a little while, and telling somebody your story, in your voice.

That little hope, or dream, is neither craft nor voice.  But it’s a surprisingly pleasingly sweet justification for using both.



The devil’s not the only thing in the details


So, are you up to participating in a couple of experiments?

I have my students at writing conferences do these to improve their memory and attention to detail, essential tools for writers. And even if you have no intention of taking a stab at writing, they might just improve yours, too.

Who couldn’t do with a better memory and seeing things more accurately?

The first one I call Focus on the Present.  And it involves plopping yourself down, with a notepad and a pencil, in a busy place that you don’t visit very often.  So where you work is off limits.  So is any room in your house.   And remember, I said it has to be busy.  Which means there has to be enough going on for you to have lots of details to harvest.  An airport waiting area is a good choice, or a bench in a crowded mall.

Then, here’s what you do.  Jot down as many sensory particulars as you can locate from your vantage point.  You’ll be amazed at the little things you’ll notice when you’re really paying attention.  And don’t just scribble down what you see. Most beginning writers load up all their description in only one of the five senses, and pass up hearing, smelling, tasting, and feeling.  When you get home, take out your notes and do your best to capture the place in a page or two of good description.

The second variation of this assignment – and most folks’ favorite – is called Focus on the Past.  This time, you don’t have to go anywhere; all you have to do is sit down, close your eyes, and remember a specific place.

There are two nonnegotiable rules for this one.  First, you have to select a place that you haven’t been to in at least ten years, minimum, but that you remember well enough to be able to recall the details.  Why not push the envelope here, and make it thirty or forty years?  Your grandmother’s kitchen might work fine.  Or maybe your childhood bedroom.  How about your fifth grade classroom?

Then, let your mind’s eye wander into every corner of that place. Don’t bypass a nook or a cranny, a picture on the wall, or a tree in the yard.  What did the place smell like (cedar-lined closets? Bread baking?) or feel like or sound like? Which brings us to the second rule: old photos are forbidden.  Make your memory do all the work.

One summer when I was teaching the memoir workshop at a writer’s conference one of the participants chose, for this activity, to recall the bridge of the battleship he served on in World War II.  The couple of pages of prose that he shared with the group took us all right there to the South Pacific over decades ago.  We smelled the oil that permeated the whole ship, felt the cold metal of the gauges and instruments, heard the sad lament of the fog horn bellowing off into the night, and tasted the strong coffee that the officers were served in thick ceramic mugs with no handles.

“I’d forgotten about those mugs not having handles,” he told us.

Which is the point of the exercise: to remember things that you’ve forgotten.

This little set of mental calisthenics might jump-start details that your brain has been hording.  Just like an old song sometimes does.  Or a smell.  For me, the aroma of butterbeans boiling puts me right back in my long-gone grandmother’s kitchen in Livingston, where I do believe she cooked butterbeans every day.

So consider taking a stroll down memory lane. It’ll be fun, and it might even prove to be profitable.

One time I had a student who chose to remember the guest room in her former mother-in-law’s house.  She’d been divorced for ages, and hadn’t actually been in that room for over twenty years, but, when remembering an ornate old dresser, she recalled putting an expensive ring in one of its tiny drawers for safekeeping during a trip. She hadn’t thought of that ring in ages, and had long since given it up for lost. Anyway, she called her former husband’s mother.  Who went upstairs, opened the hidey-hole and – sure enough – there was the ring.

I never found out if the old woman sent it back to her. Which is okay.

Because while precise description is useful to a writer, so is a little mystery.

Forgive a bit of ranting, if you please


Houston statue


Posted June 7, 2017  10:48 AM   (Photo: Carlos Antonio Rios, Chronicle Staff)

We know Sam Houston owned slaves. A group called Texas Antifa started a social media campaign to have the statue of him in Hermann Park removed as a result.

It’s easy to take down a statue.

It’s harder to understand Sam Houston.

By  Ron Rozelle   for the Houston Chronicle

In late 1862, Sam Houston might have sat on the steep steps leading up to the front doors of his home, an odd folly of a structure known in Huntsville as the Steamboat House, and announced to his assembled household that he was freeing his slaves.

Or he might not have.

The only credible source for the event is a published recollection nearly 80 years later of Jeff Hamilton, who at the time would have been a young enslaved man. Given the possibility that Hamilton’s memory of that long-ago day might have been iffy at the age of nearly 100 and that Houston’s will, probated soon after his death several months later, would still list his several slaves as personal property, it’s entirely possible that the private emancipation proclamation never happened.

Even if it had, Houston surely would have foreseen the outcome of the Civil War and the inevitability that his slaves would be set free, in any event. Plus, he would have known that the Texas Constitution, having been hastily revamped upon entry into the Confederacy, expressly forbade the manumission of slaves. So, he might have staged the whole thing to assure his slaves that they would soon be liberated.

In short, we don’t know what happened that day, if anything did.

But we do know a good many other things.

We know Houston was conflicted about the concept of slavery. He showed an uncommon kindness to his own slaves, making sure they were provided for and lived in clean quarters. He was quick to voice a low opinion of slaveowners who were cruel taskmasters. He allowed his slaves to keep the wages they made doing odd jobs in town (an unheard of policy then), and he taught some to read, which was against the law in Texas.

But, always a pragmatist, he also understood how inextricably entwined the institution was to the economic infrastructure of the South.

And we know that he, when serving as one of the first two senators sent to Washington from the new state of Texas, stood with only one other Southern senator in opposition to the introduction of slavery into new western states.

We know that there is no record in the personal recollections of his former slaves, his acquaintances or his enemies (he had plenty of those) that he ever mistreated his slaves. Only once did he whip one, when a young Hamilton caused Houston’s daughter Nanny to fall into a pond during a bit of horseplay. Hamilton always maintained that he deserved it, and it would have taken more than a spanking to dislodge his devotion to the man who had purchased him when he had been 13. Houston had shown up in town while a man was in the process of selling Hamilton, so he could pay for several barrels of whiskey that had already been consumed. When Houston learned that Hamilton, then a child, would become the property of a scoundrel known for mistreating slaves, he outbid him and took Hamilton home, where he became almost a member of the family.

Still, there is no excuse for keeping human beings in bondage.

And it is a sticking point for those of us who admire Sam Houston that he could have been such a vocal proponent of the inherent rights of Native Americans and not raised his voice more adamantly when it came to chattel slavery.

Local news focused last week on a group claiming to be committed to having the iconic statue of Houston in Hermann Park removed, though it turned out to be a hoax instigated by people solely interested in stirring up anger and trouble.

Even so, I would invite anyone who considered joining any such crusade to read one or more of the biographies of the man you might feel opposed to.

Better yet, drive up to Huntsville, and visit the Sam Houston Memorial Museum, the finest repository of all things Houston in existence. Learn about what he stood for and what he stood against. More importantly, learn about the things he did for Texas, for the entire Southwest and for the nation.

He had his faults, the most significant of which would have to be his not taking a stand against the institution which he believed to be morally wrong.

But weigh that fault against his deeds and his sacrifices. Against leading the army that won Texas’ independence and later handing the state into the federal union to which he was so dedicated that he refused to take an oath of allegiance to the Confederacy, costing him the governorship of Texas and sending him into virtual exile at the end of his life.

Taking down a statue is a relatively easy task.

It will be significantly harder erasing the memory of a man who, more than any other single person, won the state you live in with his actions and, at San Jacinto, with his blood.

Things of beauty seldom appreciated


Let’s start with a riddle.

Read the following poem and see if you know what the poet is talking about (or, in this case, talking to). Don’t be put off by the fact that it’s a poem. It’s all of 32 words long, so it’s not like I’m asking you to read the Odyssey.

“White sheep, white sheep / On a blue hill, / When the wind stops / You all stand still.  / When the wind blows  / You walk away slow.  / White sheep, white sheep, / Where do you go?”

Now, if you guessed the writer was actually referring to sheep you’ve somehow missed the concept of a riddle.  Not to mention a metaphor.

Christina Rossetti was talking about clouds, which people seemed to pay more attention to in her era than we do now.  Remember “I wandered lonely as a cloud …” by William Wordsworth?

Those two poets lived in a time when people would look at the sky as they might look at a painting or a sculpture.  They gazed at its beauty, and counted it as a constant blessing.  Now most of us glance up at clouds to determine how much inconvenience they might bring us in the form of rain.  Or, in times of draught, what relief they promise.

We usually see clouds as carriers of cargo.  Romantics saw them as visual evidence of a beauty indefinable, crafted by the hand of an artist unsurpassed in technique and talent.

We even use them occasionally to denote negativity. When tea is stale or impure we call it cloudy, we say that impractical people have their heads in the clouds, and the particulars of a situation being “cloudy at best” means that something’s not above board and some shenanigans might be going on.

Personally, I love clouds.  Even the gunmetal gray monsters that march in to a fanfare of rumbling thunder can be beautiful, and awe inspiring.  If I ever get around to taking a painting class – either oils or watercolors (not ceilings or baseboards; I’ve promised myself to never paint another ceiling or baseboard) I’ll probably paint only clouds.  Sometimes in my paintings they might drift over fields of wheat or flowers or maybe an ocean.  Sometimes they’ll float all by themselves, completely removed from the silly doings of mankind beneath them.

But, much as I like them, I tend to take them for granted and not pay them the attention they’re due. Until they remind me.

One day when my wife Karen and I drove into Houston to see a play it sprinkled all the way and by the time we arrived the bottom had dropped out and rain was pouring down with a vengeance.  It had rained every day for a week, clear skies had become a distant memory, and more rain was in the forecast.  So we expected the downtown streets to be flooded and the bayous to be spilling over their banks when we left the theatre.

But a few hours later we emerged into a sun-splashed afternoon with a bright blue sky into which a colony of beautiful ivory-white cumulous clouds had taken up residence.

On the way home one big fellow hovered directly in front of us over the freeway.  I tell you, that cloud was a thing of beauty, alone to itself and set against all that blue sky.  It rose up to a majestic height, a perfectly white mountain of puffy, billowy peaks and valleys. The fact that we hadn’t seen anything but dark thunderheads for so long surely added to our appreciation of that imposing companion on our drive home.

Every fall when we got to the part in “Hamlet” where Polonius and Hamlet discuss the shapes of clouds – “Me thinks it looks like a weasel.”  “It is backed like a weasel.”  “Or like a whale.” “Very like a whale.” – I’d ask my students if they ever compared the shapes of clouds to other things.  They usually grinned.  Because they all had.

You have, too, I’ll bet. But maybe not since you were a child, and saw the world though younger, sometimes clearer, eyes.

I’ve often thought that if I could have the privilege of showing a person, blind since birth and suddenly able to see, just one thing to convey the visual beauty of what they’d missed it would be a grandiose cloud floating in a clear sky. That would, I suspect, take their breath away.

How odd that most of us are perfectly able to see everything around us, but we rarely look up at the finest display of all.