If you like me you’d love my mom

Nancy Laura Webster, age 17 Grant Union High School Yearbook, Sacramento 1949

Mother’s Day makes me happy, a little sad and very proud.

I’m happy because my mom, Nancy Laura Webster Williams, is still alive at 86. I’m a little sad because she’s living in a total care facility in Sacramento which is too far for me to visit when I want to. And as much as I’d like to describe her as still being as lively and funny as she was at 30 or even 50 that’s just not the case.

I sent flowers and candy to mom for arrival on Mother’s Day. I’ll try to phone her Sunday but she doesn’t usually pick up the phone unless my brother has been there just a few minutes earlier and she’s expecting my call.

Mom, Linda and me, Folsom Lake, California

When I do talk with Mom she doesn’t seem depressed or sad. She’s not exactly happy, either. She’s in a bit of a fog though still present and responsive, if somewhat confused. She still tries to project enthusiasm and optimism though it’s not entirely convincing. Not to me, anyway. I know her; I am her.

She had a lot of roller coaster emotions in her life and seems to have smoothed them out.

She’s always happy to hear my voice and tells me so several times during each brief call. Then when we run out of things to say say too soon I tell her I love her she tells me she loves me too. She says it with the lucid fire of a mother’s heart.

Then she says goodbye and calls me Jim (my brother).

I always laugh about that. She sees my brother frequently so she gets us mixed up just a bit.

(Besides, when I was still a child and Mom was barely in her 30s she frequently called me Rusty, our dog’s name. So, brother Jim, you should feel honored.)

Sister Linda, Mom, Brother Jim A few years ago

Mom has always made me laugh. She still has a sharp and sophisticated sense of humor that stabs through the fog of her slowly fading existence.

My late dad taught me to be confident, proud and respectful. Mom gave me my sense of humor and optimism.

“This can be a good day or a bad day, it’s all up to you.”
— Nancy Williams

I don’t know when she first told me that but it stuck. I’m sure she said it when I was a very young school boy lying in bed on an early school morning in North Highlands, California. I have never forgotten it.

When she passes I will cry but I’ll also have a  huge, stupid smile on my face.

She taught me to laugh and to love my life.

Hug (and pay) a teacher

“He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches.”
— George Bernard Shaw, “Man and Superman”

Leave it to an ill-tempered playwright and social activist to intentionally twist the words of a master.

The original quote was:

“Those who know, do. Those that understand, teach.”
— Aristotle

BIG difference.

Today is National Teacher Appreciation Day / Week.

I’ve been out of school for nearly 50 years but there isn’t a single day in my life that I don’t remember at least one of my school teachers with deep gratitude and affection, not only for my education but for the inspiration that shaped the person I have become.

And, I like me.

Teachers have never been called upon to be and do more than they are today. We’ve gotten to a point where they’re not only asked to be educators and know something of child psychology, they also need to be part family counselor, part lawyer and in an increasing number of school districts and states, part law enforcement officers.

At the same time teachers still get a ton of grief from hyper-critical parents and local communities living in fear from an increasingly complex and violent world. We’re scared and confused.

Regardless of our age we have always looked to teachers to make sense of our world and lead us in the right direction.

Work days for teachers usually begin before sunrise and never really end. They go home long after the class day is over to try to balance the needs of their families while correcting papers, making class schedules and answering emails from parents.

Teachers deserve more yet receive much less pay than most of us who have more forgiving and less demanding careers. They do it because they are passionate about their calling.

To teach is to create a better world one child at a time.

As we celebrate teachers we need to go beyond smiling and saying thanks. Ancient cultures revered teachers equal to spiritual leaders and healers. We need to get back to that level of appreciation and to provide teachers with the salaries and benefits they richly deserve.

Remember your teachers with love and gratitude, even the ones you didn’t like when you were just a dumb kid.

And thank your children’s teachers at every opportunity. They’re helping your kids create their world in ways you cannot.

Swamp cooler days

It’s raining today in North Texas. I love rain and dark, cloudy days.

Me slurping from our garden hose on a hot day.

Most people I know worship the sun. They seem to like summer best of all and the hotter it gets the better. I don’t get it. Summer was great when I was a kid, impervious to sweat and grime, running barefoot through neighborhood lawn sprinklers and slurping from any old hose lying around because that’s what they were for.

We didn’t have air conditioning when I was a kid. We had a swamp cooler on the roof that blew semi-cool, very humid air directly into the middle of the hallway between the living room and kitchen in our house. I used to lie my bare tummy on chilly asbestos tiles right under the swamp cooler, wearing nothing but a pair of shorts fashioned by my mother’s scissors applied to an old set of blue jeans.

A new picture of an old wooden clothes rack like the one we had in the hallway.

I stayed there for hours on the hall floor with a stack of Dennis the Menace and Sad Sack comic books for entertainment.

Sometimes I took the pillow from my bed and put it on the floor next to my comic books. That was “the life of Riley”, as we called it in those days.

(I still don’t know why.)

Mom had to step over me to hang wet laundry on the clothes rack She didn’t mind. Sometimes she gave me my lunch there, peanut butter and grape jelly on Wonder white bread. I had to eat  it fast so it didn’t dry out from the wind.

Me with my sister, Linda, and our faithful collie, Rusty.

I wish I had pictures of all these things: me, my pillow, PBJ and comics. Sometimes my collie, Rusty, would lie down with me for a couple of minutes. He liked the cool floor but I don’t think he cared for the overhead wind.

For the past fifty or more years I’ve been able to enjoy and expect indoor air conditioning.

Now in my mid-sixties I don’t need to strip down to my shorts and lie on the floor under a swamp cooler.

That’s progress.

I still like summer for its memories of all-day baseball, ice cream trucks, slip ‘n slides and hot days that wouldn’t end until bed time. I loved childhood.

These days I prefer old man comforts, winter and the temperate yet crazy weather days of spring and fall in Texas.

Dark skies and rain feel cozy to me. They call people like me pluviophiles.

I’m glad they have a name for it. I just thought I was weird.

The ugly truth about Texas

Abilene, Abilene,
Prettiest town I’ve ever seen… – Waylon Jennings, “Abilene”

Hold it right there, Hoss. We need to talk.

I’ve been a proud and happy Texan for more than six years now so I figure I can step out and tell the one truth about this wonderful state nobody ever mentions.

Ain’t nothing pretty about it. Not in the conventional landscape sense, anyway.

The Western singers croon about the stars at night and yellow roses. The closest anyone ever comes to praising the view of the land is found in romantic visions of historic cattle drives and ancient buffalo herds. Even then nobody ever says the land is pretty. It ain’t. It’s a harsh land with cruel challenges.

Here’s something you probably didn’t know: in the entire, monster size state of Texas there is only one natural lake, Lake Caddo. And half of that is in Louisiana.

Big Bend National Park

Oh, I know there are prettier parts of Texas than what I’ve seen so far. I’ll admit I’ve never been to the glorified Big Bend National Park but I’ve seen all the pictures Google has to offer and while it does seem to possess a lot of fascinating geological features there is nary a tree to be found and many of the pretty swimming holes in the pictorials are dry much of the year. When they’re not dry they are cautions for swimmers because they can contain deadly water moccasins and other natural vermin.

So, enjoy the pictures but keep your kids out of the water.

I took this at sundown just outside of Westin, Texas. Gorgeous sky but the land is unremarkable.

Most of the pretty photos you see of Texas are taken at sunrise or sundown. Texas magazines and blogs are full of sunrises and sunsets. I’ve posted many myself. I dare say you can take a picture of the sun on the  horizon in the Sahara Desert, the Australian Outback or even Nevada and it will look lovely. That’s an astronomical effect, not the land itself.

Don’t misunderstand, I love Texas, I really do. More than anything else Texas is an attitude, a can-do spirit worn on the relaxed, happy smiles of everyone you meet. In Texas we don’t want no gubmint interference. We’ll give you the shirts off our backs, a good meal and a place to sleep. Tomorrow you’re on your own and we’ll wish you good luck.

That’s the Texas I know and love.

Texas kids are happy. well-behaved and polite.

People of all ages and races tip their hats and give you a howdy. They hold open the door for you at the Mini Mart. They call you Sir and Ma’am even though they don’t have to. They’re always smiling because it’s the decent way to be. It’s Texan.

Above all, folks in Texas are outgoing and friendly. If you’re in a  line with  three strangers at the grocery store you’ll be swapping recipes by the time you get to the checkstand. And they always lace their conversations with deep Texas humor even when they talk about the scenery.

In a word, it’s flat.

“West Texas is a place where you can stand on the porch and watch your dog run away for a week.” — Hal Jay, WBAP Dallas

I’m a native Californian. I grew up  with giant redwoods, the pine studded forests of the high Sierra and the  cold, rocky coastline of the Pacific Ocean north of Mendocino. I miss all that but everything in life is a trade-off.

So, I’ll romanticize tumbleweeds blowing across I-20 from Midland to Odessa because it’s the most exciting thing you’ll see there. And it can be pretty at sunrise.

Photo by Tim Gilliland

In Texas we have longhorn cattle lying contentedly in green groves of Blue Bonnets, though the wild flowers are only there for a month each spring. You’ve seen hundreds of pictures like this.

We have the world’s best barbecue and Tex-Mex cuisine, honky tonks and Texas swing;  we got the Alamo, the Dallas Cowboys, Willie, Larry McMurtry and Dan “his ownself” Jenkins.

Cypress trees wearing old man beards of moss. Beautiful. Keep an eye out for gators and cottonmouths.

There’s a lot to love about Texas but not the view. People wax eloquently about Hill Country but you’ll never hear the word “mountain” in a description of the state. Even the haunting piney forests and bayous of East Texas, where ghostly cypress trees grow out of the swamps wearing old man beards of moss is merely west Louisiana.

I’m writing this in Abilene. Not only is it not the prettiest town I’ve ever seen, if you blindfolded me and spun me around and dropped me into the middle of it I might guess I was in Waco or Waxahachie, Dime Box or Gun Barrel City.

And I guess that’s the real beauty of Texas. It’s one place in time like all the others in the Lone Star State. It’s all different yet the same and it’s a lot of different people a whole lot alike.

Sweetness and attitude.

And you can call them country and they don’t care
And if you don’t like the way they wear their hair
You can take your like and shove ’em on up the line
People in Texas don’t care if the sun don’t shine

— Charlie Daniel, “Texas”

Willie Nelson, CarolAnn and me

“If America could sing with one voice it would be Willie’s.”
– Emmylou Harris

When I met Willie in person I froze. I literally couldn’t open my mouth to speak.

It was in the late 1980s in the Dan Russell Rodeo Arena in Folsom, California. When Willie finished his last song he did something that blew our minds: He put down his guitar, stepped down from the stage and walked through the dirt right into the crowd of his worshipers wearing that famous crinkly-eyes, half-crooked smile.

He stayed out there, signed autographs and chatted with folks until we all finally dragged ourselves back to our cars for the happy drive home.

I don’t remember if I shook his hand but I think not. I just stood stupidly next to my hero while my wife asked him to autograph our tickets, which he did. Then she asked Willie if I could phone him the next morning for a short live interview on my radio show. He smiled and nicely explained that he’d like to but his bus would be hitting the road as soon as he got back in it.

(This was in the early days of cell phones, once you got out of town you could forget about talking to anyone. He’d be long gone by tomorrow.)

I never said a word. I literally couldn’t find my voice and I don’t regret it. I had stood beside him for a few minutes while he chatted with my wife. I’m pretty sure that’s about as much live interaction with Willie Nelson that I could handle.

I was happy.

I’ve seen Willie and his family four times, I think.

He’ll turn 85 next week and I need to see him again before the time slips away.

 

Read any good movies lately?

Do you ever watch foreign films or TV with subtitles?

Until a little more than a year ago I always said I don’t want to read a movie. I want to watch the scenery and the faces of the actors. And, I’ve always wondered what I was missing when a long piece of dialogue spoken in a foreign language is boiled down to just a short sentence or a few words. A character in the show may rattle off a three minute soliloquy but the caption at the bottom of the screen simply reads, “I agree” or “Right on, dude!”

Actual screenshot of my TV with captioning on. This character in a story set 300 years ago is calling someone “a dork”.

Sometimes the translators who write the captions don’t really have a handle on American English, especially slang and cultural references that don’t suit the time period of the movie.

These things always bugged me until last year when my wife, the lovely and feisty CarolAnn Williams, turned me on to Korean TV.

I don’t remember how she came across the TV channel, Dramafever. She’s not Korean. She doesn’t have any Korean relatives or friends and has never been to that part of the world but Korean TV shows have no sex, violence or bad language. The comedies are whimsical to the point of innocent absurdity and the dramas are skillfully produced with quirky plot twists. CarolAnn loves them. It’s practically all she watches. And now I watch them with her.

Together we enjoy the many Korean historical dramas of the Joseon dynasty which dates back to 1392. These are tales based upon real kings and queens who lived three or four hundred years ago, of battling royal consorts and political factions plotting to grab power. Wars are waged with swords and arrows; fights involve a lot of shouting and flashy martial arts, our heroes flipping high in the air for no apparent reason before they kick three guys at once.

(In Korean historical dramas once you’ve been kicked to the ground you’re out of the fight, the same as dead.)

I looked them up: “Comminate” – To threaten with vengeance. “Scapegrace” – A mischievous rascal. (These days we’d probably say, “asshole”.)

The plots are engaging, the acting is generally excellent and the costumes are colorful and fun.

Best of all, those subtitles are sometimes hilarious. And sometimes they actually expand our English vocabulary.

And along the way we’ve learned a Korean word or two. For example:

“Pyeha, paliga yeollyeo issseubnida!”

Which means, “Your majesty, your fly is open!”

Of music and noise

I don’t listen to music very often. When I do it has my full attention.

Everywhere we go these days we hear music in the background: in malls, restaurants, grocery stores, theater lobbies; even outdoor city sidewalks have music poured onto them like some sort of sweet, gooey corporate confection.

When I ride in a friend’s car and he has the radio turned on very low I want to reach over and shut it off. Or, turn it up and stop talking.

Elevators and telephone on-hold music are the worst, of course. That’s satanic torture, mind-numbing and inescapable.

What idiocy have we subscribed to? Why must we be soothed, excited or pummeled by music everywhere we go?

Most of the time I just want the world to be quiet. Silence is bliss. It’s the only way I can hear myself think.

When I want to hear music I decide which music, when, where and how.

And then I will actually listen to it, giving it my full attention and allowing it to fill me.

I love music. It deserves more respect than ambient noise.

 

Photographic Treasure

This is the only picture I have of my entire family together. (I’m not in it because I was holding the camera.)

I’d like to say my family always looked this happy but that wouldn’t be true. It wouldn’t be true of any family. Old photos allow us to keep and embellish the good times when everyone was smiling because we were all really happy together, at least in that moment.

My old pictures invoke a nice warm feeling of a time when life was less complicated and when my family was together for everything including mealtimes at the table, visits with our relatives and family vacations.

This was our family vacation in McCann, Northern California, along the Eel River in August of 1964. We were there for a week which included my 13th birthday. My parents gave me a stamp collecting album and a wonderful variety pack of international postage stamps to study, sort and paste.

I also got a new, official National League baseball which my dad and I tossed back and forth for hours that week right in the middle of the dirt road outside our cabin’s front door.

McCann  was already a ghost town when we were there.

It was smack dab in the middle of no place, Humboldt County. It had been a stage coach station in 1881 and a post office soon after. It tried to be a town but stumbled and failed in the thirties and forties. By the time we got there in ’64 there were no living businesses, just the dirty old windows of store fronts that had been abandoned decades earlier.

As I remember it we were there for an entire week without seeing another soul. The only traffic we saw and heard were the Northwestern Pacific freight trains that rumbled and shrieked just a few feet past our cabin in the middle of each night. When that happened we all woke up and giggled in the dark, not just us kids, our parents too.

We had no TV in that cabin and couldn’t even get a radio signal. I know because I tried. Instead we just played together. We hiked down a steep river bank to get to the water’s edge. I held my little brother’s hand as we waded into the Eel. I held onto the blowup raft with my little sister aboard and grinning from ear to ear.

Dad and I fished with salmon eggs for bait and I saw beavers playing in the water not far from the lodge they had built from the branches of young fir and redwood trees along the shore.

My mom burned my birthday cake trying to bake it in an ancient wood burning oven in the cabin. It was edible, just toasty, and I loved it because it was mine and Mom made it for me.

On my birthday I wrote a note to the future, shoved it into an empty tin can and stuck it deep inside a hollowed chunk of a tree that was still very much alive. I imagined that the tree would grow over that hole and preserve my message. Someday, I thought, someone would cut that tree down and find my hello from the past.

Wouldn’t it be something if it was found now, in the 21st century?

I remember all of that from one picture taken 55 years ago. I probably have a lot of it wrong. I just remember it as I wish to.

This picture makes me happy.

Typing?

Throughout our lives we encounter people who influence us in seemingly small ways that turn out to be very significant in the long run. Frequently these are never central figures in our lives but they make a lifelong impact.
Going into my senior year at Highlands High School I was scheduled for an academic counseling session with Mr. Moore. In the 1960s most of us didn’t start making college plans until the beginning of our senior year. Nowadays parents hire agents to guide their children’s college careers from birth. But in my day we just had Mr. Moore telling us whether we should take another science class or public speaking or what have you.
 
Mr. Moore told me I should take typing.
 
Highlands High – Sacramento, CA 1969

That shocked me. Typing? How can I put this in sensitive, modern terms? Typing was for girls! Boys didn’t take typing class. Boys took wood and metal shop or auto shop. I was a big deal in the drama department which was cause enough for snickers in the locker room, but TYPING?
 

Mr. Moore could sense my confusion and explained to me that knowing how to type would help me in virtually every aspect throughout life.
 
(That reminded me of the time Mr. Roarke told me that algebra was the most important thing I would ever learn. Yeah, right.)
 
Typing? Boys don’t type. Men don’t type, men have secretaries. I know what you’re thinking but look, that was the way it was at the time. Thankfully, we’ve gotten beyond all that. Right? (Does that work for you?)
 
Anyway, I was just 17. and had never heard of a single boy who had taken typing class. I think I actually said aloud, “But typing is for girls.”
 
That’s when Mr. Moore gave me a smile and a sly wink.
 
“That’s right,” he said, “just you and all those girls.”
 
Mr. Moore was a genius and a devious old devil. I took his meaning immediately and signed up for typing on the spot.
As it turned out Mr. Moore gave the same advice to Gerry Smith and I was glad of it. I wasn’t the only boy taking typing and I couldn’t deal with 40 girls all by myself.
 
I’ve been typing virtually every day of my life. Mr. Moore was right. And if I say so myself, Gerry and I both gained a lot of poise and confidence around girls.
 
I mean women.

Play ball!

Candlestick Park, San Francisco – 1960s

Today is the first day of the Major League Baseball season and as always I’m just a bit melancholy.

Throughout my life I’ve taught myself to treasure my past without clinging to it. Some people can’t let go of their “good old days”. They just seem worn out and refuse to go any farther.

They seem to quit on life before it leaves them.

I’ve worked hard to avoid what I call GOMS, Grumpy Old Man Syndrome. It’s not hard. I’m blessed. I love my life, my family and friends. I love waking up each day.

But every year there is one day, this day, that makes me feel old and frustrated because my body won’t allow me to play the game in my heart.

Baseball is the essence of eternal youth, of fluffy white clouds in March and the smell of freshly cut grass. To play the game, to run and leap and slide in the dirt using muscles that stretch and coil in perfect harmony with young reflexes, is indescribable.

Spring turns to summer and we played daily, all day, until darkness sent us home for a brief time out. In those days tomorrows were endless and each new morning began with a promise of glory.

All the wonderful tributes paid to the game that turns old men into little boys again hurt just a bit. It’s the only time of the year when I am painfully nostalgic for my youth.

I’ll watch the boys of this summer. I’ll remember their skills and hope for them that they love it all as much as I still do.