Saturday, June 30, 2007

Jim Bowie to the rescue

Some people just look for trouble.

The five of us have been roaming Lake Superior discovering our own version of North Shore delights. Cast of characters: me, the Mystery Woman, and the linchpins of her clan -- her daughter, Ruth, her granddaughter, Allison, and the matriarch, Virginia. If you count Bella the dog, and you'd better, that's six.

The dog was denied access at the Split Rock Light House and it was too hot to leave her in the van. So the Mystery Woman took it upon herself to babysit the dog and, while she waited, lay out a spread on a picnic table at the park's edge.

Right away, the sliced ham presented a problem. It was in a vacuum pack and simply would not open. Undeterred, she stabbed the plastic with the car keys. No going.

Just at that moment, fate thundered in on sixteen motorcycles. These were not doctors and lawyers out for a weekend ride. These were bad asses. Sixteen of 'em.

I watched in horror as the Mystery Woman sauntered into the pack. "Hi, guys," she smiled. "Anybody got a knife?"

In a flash, the sky was filled with sixteen blades glinting in the summer sun. Even the women were packing. They were happy to oblige. A little too happy, I thought.

Once she was safely returned to our perimeter, the Mystery Woman blithely finished making lunch while I checked my defibrillator. "Honey," I said. "That was a damned dangerous thing for you to do. I can't protect you against that gang."

"Of course you can't, silly. Everybody knows bloggers don't carry knives."

Thursday, June 28, 2007

IPhone for older dummies

If you're not hearing this, you obviously haven't purchased your IPhone yet.

Talk about slick!

We bought the geriatric model. For an extra $49.95, we got a port which allows EMS workers to mainline the IV directly into our phone. Or the vodka, whichever comes first.

Mine has a button that automatically re-orders my prescriptions from Canada. I didn't get the option that alerts when immigration agents are nearby. The vibrations messed with my pacemaker.

Yesterday my IPhone went on the fritz and ordered three dozen pairs of white shoes with matching belts. I would have complained but they are so hard to find in my size.

They tell me an upgrade is coming which will set my VCR to tape The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. With all these easy-to-operate improvements, I'll soon be able to cancel my contract with rent-a-kid and be able to set my blinking clocks by myself.

We are giving serious consideration to the garage door option. Maybe next winter.


PS-- we are roaming the North Shore of Lake Superior this week. As you can see, all the fresh air is making me giddy.

PPS -- we heard on the radio that Dick Cheney is no longer a part of the Executive Branch. Talk about good news. We are still rejoicing!

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Robert E. Lee Jr., III

His training began early.

Bobby Lee got spiritual roots from his mother and street-savvy from his father. His parents owned Lee's Congo Bar in Houston's Fifth Ward. Lots of action. Character building stuff.

When Bobby was 12 or 13, his father took him to New York City for the first time. They drove up in a big Packard automobile. Maybe it was a Lincoln. Either way, it was big. And the cavernous trunk was filled with foodstuff from home that was not available in the metropolitan canyons of New York. Not unless you took a gun to Central Park.

After World War II, America's black population was on the move. This was the early 1950's and NYC was filling with southern blacks.

But the tastes of home cooking were memories so strong that Robert E. Lee Jr., II and his son, Robert E. Lee Jr., III, bought some "hot ice" and filled the trunk with rabbit, squirrel and raccoons. Upon their arrival in New York, word spread and they were soon sold out. It was a taste missing from New York food. Home cooking.

On another trip, Bobby's dad filled a pick-up truck with East Texas firewood. And sold out within hours of arriving.

Bobby remembers his father taking him to a Harlem hardware store where they purchased twine, a padlock and Royal Crown hair cream. He coated the lock with the hair cream and fished for coins in every sidewalk grate 145th down to 125th.

In telling these stories, Bobby's voice is happy. He enjoys sharing these memories -- memories which helped shape him into one of the most incredible human beings I've ever met. He's a living legend in Houston: social worker, Black Panther, political organizer, mentor, yard man, writer, artist and working class hero.

If you're a first-time visitor to this blog, look over to the column on the left and click on past posts about Bobby Lee:
--Writer, artist, shooter
--My mentor
--Is Jasper burning?

Like those rabbits, squirrels and raccoons -- the taste is uniquely American.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Norwegian wood

Life comes at you pretty fast in Minnesota. Especially in the summer.

Last night a little before midnight, the Mystery Woman cajoled us to jump in the van and drive over to St. Paul where we could watch the vintage car club drivers do a slow rumble up and down the streets near the Fair Ground. It was like "American Graffiti" complete with a drive-in burger joint called Porky's. Brought back memories of trying to look cool a long time ago in Lubbock. Hang your arm out the window. Make a muscle.

Coming home, we slipped into the flow of the unofficial parade. Proud old cars and us. Another minivan ran along the side of ours. A few people watching on the curb waved. We waved back.

Next day, the granddaughter was playing in the spray from the sprinkler in the front yard. No matter that the temp was only 77 degrees. No matter.

But the need for a deep water experience was calling. So the kid and the gramma walked to the wading pool a block away. The impromptu swim meet had the look of international Olympics with Native American kids, Hmong kids, Korean kids, a Mexican girl, two Eastern Indians, our gals and two lesbians behaving quite motherly.

At home, I was within hearing range of the horseshoe game a block away back at the park. Clink. Softly but solid. Tink. I would have loved to toss a few. But I had a dog in my lap.

We topped off a dinner of Sloppy Joes with watermelon. Eaten straight with hands to mouth. No forks. Better that way.

Good grins. Good for the soul.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Yankee, without prefix or suffix

It's Friday. Let's gentle up to the weekend with some easy items:

The short pants season goes by fast in Minneapolis. Yesterday marked the Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year. Each day hereafter, as you know, gets shorter. That's why up here snowmobiles went on sale today.

Minneapolitans are plucky. Weather extremes dictate thus. Not me. I head to Texas for the winter. I don't want to get plucked. Ever again.

In one week, the local weatherman (he goes both ways -- TV and newspaper) quoted Thoreau, Vonnegut and Whitman in his forecasts. The Texas weathermen quote Manichevitz. In urban markets.

The Minnesota State Fair is billed as the Great Minnesota Get Together and fair-goers (including the Mystery Woman and me) are treated to an incredible variety of things to eat on a stick. It's a challenge to come up with different taste treats each year. This year, the new thing will be Sloppy Joe on a stick. I have no mental image to fit that. But I want one.

Texas has the largest state fair in the nation. Minnesota has the second. Fair grounds are cleaner up here. But maybe not after the Sloppy Joe caper.

Austinites from the Swedish Hill neighborhood in Texas would feel right at home in Minneapolis this weekend. It's Svenskaranas Dag! That's Swedish Day to you uneducated lugs.

I hear they serve walleye on a stick.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

No trivial pursuit

My favorite American author? Well, my taste range includes the usual suspects: Cormack McCarthy, H. L. Mencken, Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, Will Rogers, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Mark Twain, May Sarton, Ernest Hemingway, Katherine Anne Porter. I could go on.

But the writer I return to year after year is L. M. Boyd, who died this year at 77 after a 41-year career as a syndicated trivia writer for hundreds of newspapers across the United States. A trivia writer? He wrote a daily column! Not easy.

The man could really warp a sentence:

"There are 350 varieties of shark, not counting loan and pool."

"Pity the Incas of Peru didn't have movies. They had popcorn."

"Remarkable what governments do to prop up their nations' ailing industries. Take England during the reign of Charles II. The woolen trade was hurting. Badly. So a law was passed that required all coffins to be lined with flannel."

"Many Europeans claim to be direct descendants of Charlemagne. Maybe because he had four successive wives and six concubines. Hardly noteworthy numbers for potentates. Some bartenders in Vegas have lengthier lists, I believe."

"Greek rainmakers dipped oak branches in water when praying for rain, and sometimes it rained thereafter. The Romans threw clay images into the Tiber River, and that, too, was oftentimes followed by rain. Teutonic rainmakers poured water over nude girls. That never did produce rain, but they clung to the ritual."

"Clearly, that current penchant for first names only is more than a fad. You know what Michelangelo called himself? Michelangelo."

When L. M. Boyd first tried to retire, his loyal readers put up such a howl that he re-emerged after only seven months. I tried to sign on as an intern just to learn from him. Boyd said many writers tried to step up and replace his daily output, but they ran out of gas within a few months. Every one.

I miss him still. He's my keyboard hero.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Life in the fast lane

If you are not old enough to know better, you can skip this part. This is about the next level.

All across the country, it is high school graduation time. Dreamtime. College plans. Ambition. True love.

Politicians, preachers and editorial writers lay out challenges for the class of '07. Just as they did when we graduated. My son returned from his reunion grinning with the news that they read my "Challenge to the Class of '87" from an editorial I wrote 20 years ago. Are the thoughts written two decades ago still valid today?
I wonder.

Next month, the Mystery Woman and I travel to yesteryear. Our 50th high school reunion. Monterey High School. Lubbock, Texas.
My, that was fast.

Makes me wonder what someone wrote about in the "Challenge to the Class of '57." Makes me wonder how close we came to meeting those challenges. How good was our vision through the rear-view mirror?

What kind of world did we create? Did we leave enough hope for the Class of '07? Is there enough family structure remaining?

It's not so much about our generation's memories. Rather, it's what we contributed for the next generation.

That's the next level.

Monday, June 18, 2007

I am not in denial

We give too much strength to numbers.

This weekend, the Mystery Woman reached her 67th birthday. In a few months, I'll be 69. Those numbers belong to us. But they do not define us. Not completely. They are merely numbers.

Mystery Woman, comma, 67. Geezer, comma, 69. Well, if you say so. But we really don't feel that old. And neither, I suspect, do millions of aging Boomers. We act and feel much younger. By choice.

Despite health problems, despite everything, each of us is surprised when we crank out another birthday. I wonder if my parents lied about my age -- in the wrong direction.

Age, like crime, isn't something that happens in our neighborhood.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Geezer up!

For those of you who are convinced I am going to hell, you may be surprised to learn I have a secret defense. Rev. Jim Hollars is a close personal friend of mine. At the last minute, just before the truck runs over me, I'm going to yell: "Jim. Intercessory prayer. Now!"

Damn. I forgot Jim has Parkinson's. He may not gain traction in time to save me. It's easy to forget Jim has Parkinson's. He's a distance runner committed to intense exercise as part of his cure. Jim is a life-long runner. He's easy to spot in a run. Jim is the 67-year-old completely bald guy with a grin on his face. When he runs today, Jim is not as fast. Not as graceful. But he runs with a helluva lot more heart as he strides to the finish line.
He doesn't quit.

Jim and I are high school classmates. He has spent his life in the trenches with 30 years as a music and youth minister and 14 years as a pastor. Inspirational? What do you think? Check out his blog

For those of you who have told me to go to hell, I also have an advocate. Another high school buddy, Blair Cherry, Jr. He's a retired Judge and retired District Attorney. As such, he is quite conversant with the wages of sin. I figure he's slick enough to get me off for time served.

Blair thinks more than I do. It's tempting to pigeon-hole Blair into a right-wing niche. He is way more conservative than I am. But he is fair in his assessments and is often non-denominational in politics. For years, I would tweak my liberal friends by forwarding them ruminations from Blair (after removing his name and email address). Likewise, I would send him flamers from my more liberal friends. Maybe I am going to hell.

He, too, has just started a blog:

What's the point? The Internet is becoming a Geezer Nation. Blogging isn't just for kids anymore. Seniors represent the fastest growing segment of the Net. We email, we blog, we text, we listen to Lawrence Welk on our Ipods and we search out old sweethearts on the web. Hell, with pacemakers and defibrillators, we've been walking around wireless for years.

We be cool.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Fool's names

Like so much of Washington, the dome over the nation's Capitol is merely a facade. It's pretty. But it does no real work other than keep out the rain and provide shelter for the squirrels, elected and appointed.

When I worked for Cong. Pickle, he served on the Capitol Historical Committee and knew where every bullet hole was from when British troops stormed the building. But that's a different story.

A visiting architect from Austin asked for a tour of the dome and I tagged along. The U.S. Architect treated us to a private, guided trip through history and scaffolding. Is that redundant?

We learned a crazed steel worker had been living in the space between the outter facade and the load-bearing inner dome. They knew he was there. Scattered around the girders were empty boxes of fried chicken and drained bottles of cheap wine. The man had delusions of hanging himself from the arm of the statue on top of the dome.

He put up a helluva fight before they finally hauled him away. Next time he was heard of, he was atop a television tower in Detroit.

Did you know a light shines in the dome when Congress is in a night session? When they adjourn, someone flips the switch and turns off the light. Why? The custom began when the Capitol was the tallest, most visible building in D.C. They lit a torch in the dome so the congressmen could see it from every bar in town. When the light went out, they knew congress had adjourned for the evening. It was time to go home.

I was amazed to find graffiti scratched into the glass window panes just below the statue. Graffiti from the 1800's. As we climbed a ladder into the base of the statue, the U.S. Architect handed me a felt pen. "Want to write your name in the statue?" he asked.

I cringed. Deface the Capitol? Not me, buddy.

"Go ahead," he grinned. "We're painting it next week."

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The first Rainbow Coalition

For decades, Bobby Lee has been the not-so-hidden force behind the solid vote of the working class precincts in Houston. He has helped elect more than two dozen state officials plus three U.S. Congressmen. His brother, El Franco Lee, has been re-elected to the Harris County Commisioners Court for twenty-plus years.

If you want to win elections in Harris County (or in Newton County), you would be smart to talk strategy with Bobby Lee. Several presidential campaigns have asked for Bobby's help. U.S. Senate candidates, too.
Bobby knows his stuff.

I don't fully understand how this humble man gained such insight into the human condition. He knows history and psychology better than most professors. Bobby speaks fondly of his mom and dad, his aunts and uncles. That's part of his strength. And the other parts, he learned on the streets.

When he was 24 years old, Bobby Lee was featured in a gritty documentary about the Black Panthers organizing the poor white Southerners of Chicago. Read that again: Black Panthers, white southerners, Chicago. The first Rainbow Coalition.

The film is called American Revolution 2 by Mike Gray, who later wrote China Syndrome. You can buy the DVD on Amazon for $16 and change.

It is amazing to watch Bobby in the film. He's cool under tremendous pressure and the real threat of police brutality. Chicago was a hot, angry town in August, 1968. Remember the Democratic National Convention and the bleeding, cracked heads.

Fast forward nearly 40 years. Mike Gray is making another documentary. In this one, Bobby is the focus. "The Organizer" is not ready for release, but the trailer is on the CD with American Revolution 2.

It is amazing to watch Bobby in real life.

Bobby is still cool. Still compassionate. Say what? Do you know any other organizers who can be described as compassionate?

This man goes door to door throughout the Fifth Ward and the Third Ward in Houston just helping people. Bringing friendship, food, clothes, anything and everything. He mows yards for seniors.

He won't take money for helping people. But he does come with price.

Bobby Lee expects you to vote.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Easy money

The Mystery Woman just gave twenty-five bucks to the John Edwards campaign in response to a telephone solicitation. It is her first political contribution in more than thirty years.

Frankly, I think it is because he is so cute.

So I sent $25 to Katie Couric.

Older than your doctor?

Can you remember when you were still young enough to make money on your teeth? Put that tooth under your pillow and overnight the tooth fairy would swap you a quarter. Ka-ching.

Now, when Americans over age 60 have lost a third of their teeth and we could really use the money, it's Tooth Fairy Pass on By.


In a real way, the Tooth Fairy is a metaphor for what's happening in geriatric medical care.There are not enough doctors trained in geriatrics yet med schools report plummeting enrollment in geriatric specialities. We are graduating doctors with zero training in care of the aging population that is growing and growing.

How smart is that?

Just this week, there were dire predictions that the world faces an epidemic of Alzheimer's patients by 2050. That's like next week.

Yet we don't have enough geriatric specialists in the pipeline to replace those doctors who are retiring. Some statisticians say it it already too late to catch up.

America needs something like the WWII Marshall Plan or the CCC to focus on closing the gap. Big pharmaceutical companies, medical schools, the federal government and AARP need to pool their best thinkers and generate an action plan. Today.

OK. Enough of the stump speech. Here's a groaner that is apropos:

Ninety-year-old man goes to see the doctor about his aching left knee.

"It's just old age," says the doc.

"Other knee's the same age."

Monday, June 11, 2007

Weather in iambic pentameter

As a boy growing up in Lubbock, my dream job was to be the weatherman in Bemidji, Mn.

How hard could it be? Get up every morning, look into the camera and say, "Cold." Then you have the rest of the day off. To prepare for my life's calling, I would sit on the roof amidst the lightning to watch for the incoming tornado during West Texas storms. You don't have to be real smart to be a weatherman.

Or so I thought.

In Minneapolis, we have a weatherman who gets up in the morning and starts quoting Thoreau. Writing in today's Minneapolis Star Tribune, Paul Douglas gets airborne with the first sentence:

"Surely joy is the condition of life." Henry David Thoreau may have been reminiscing about a visit to the North Woods. There is nothing quite as magnificent as a Minnesota summer. You wake up, take in a lungful of sweet air, stare out over shimmering water and grin. "This is why people stay."

After more direct testimony dealing with actual weather conditions, Douglas concludes this way: "This is our belated reward for windchill, slush and assorted weather mayhem. The forecast calls for more joy."

Damn. The job is tougher than I figured. Maybe I can get a weather job in Texas. Although I would have to become more verbose. The forecasts require twice as much language: "Hot. Humid."

Saturday, June 9, 2007

No ice fishing in Texas

Now that I'm a snowbird, I'm becoming bi-cultural. Or, cross-cultural if you're snotty.

Understatement: Things are different in Minnesota than in Texas. Take tap water. In Texas, water from the faucet is room temperature, like red wine. In Minnesota, tap water will crack your teeth even in summer. It comes from the bottom of the glacier.

Back in college, one of my many jobs was selling classified ads and I skim classifieds when visiting other cities just to get a feel for what's happening on the streets. These days, I dink around on Craig's List for cheap thrills. It's an instant cultural snapshot.

Take "cars for sale." In Minneapolis, sellers are quick to mention "rust-free" by golly. In Texas, they talk about burning rubber in second gear. Yes, they do.

While they are running ads for convertibles in Texas, snowmobiles are on sale up north.

This Minnesota ad jumped out: "Bullet proof vests for sale. $300." I think the seller lives up a lonely country road surrounded by an electric fence and has big dogs.

And just a few items later, this appeared: "Wanted used, dull dental equipment." I'm not kidding.

In Texas, you can buy almost anything with Longhorn emblems: watches, Cadillacs, boots, pool tables and grave plots.
I'm not making this up.

In Minnesota, merchandising is less aggressive for the Golden Gophers. You can understand why.

You can buy five tons of Texas limestone on-line, but I don't think they'll let you leave the state with it. Hell, I don't know why.

In Round Rock, someone is having a close-out sale of beer tap handles. I wonder if they'll deliver all the way up here?

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Not my first charade

When I worked for U. S. Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, I was surprised that the local media treated me like a celebrity and ran stories when I came to town. Front page, sometimes.

The charade climaxed when organizers asked me to be a substitute speaker on the first annual legislative panel convened in Wharton, Texas. That's rice country near the Gulf coast. The event was, and still is, a big deal.

Although I have written speeches for others many years, I don't give speeches. Like many people, I freeze up. There is a serious disconnect between my brain and my mouth.

But I couldn't wriggle out of the request. I gave the speech. At least I think I did. When I sat down from the microphone, I had no idea how long I had talked nor what I had said. It was all a blur. But then the state senator seated next to me on the dais leaned over and whispered, "Well said."

I thought about that and, in my delirium, concluded he was right. It was a good speech. I'm the toughest little S.O.B. in town. I should do this more often. Maybe a new career.

Next up was State Representative Joe Hubenak, a self-confessed member of the Bohemian Mafia and proud of it. Joe blew smoke for 45 minutes in the most disjointed, rambling and awful speech I had ever heard.

When Joe finished, I heard the Senator murmur, "Well said."

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

His real name

OK. You should have the picture by now. My friend, Bobby Lee, is black. I'm white. Bobby is one of the founders of the Black Panthers in Chicago. When I got old enough, I joined the Gray Panthers in Austin.

Bobby has a great sense of humor and can diffuse any tense situation with his laughter. He tells this story on himself.

When he was still a teen, Bobby was stopped by a Houston cop for speeding. At the time, Bobby had some stuff in his vehicle that he shouldn't have. Smoking it, too.

"Let me see your license, boy," the policeman said.

"Yessir," Bobby said as he obliged.

"Why, boy, that's a perfectly good southern name. I'm going to let you off with a warning. Have a nice night," and the officer drove away.

The name on Bobby's drivers license:

Robert E. Lee Jr., III

Monday, June 4, 2007

Is Jasper burning?

Note to readers: if you are not a regular, this will make better sense if you read two earlier posts: "Writer, artist, shooter" and "My mentor"

This is about my friend, Bobby Lee, one of the founding members of the Black Panthers in Chicago and a community organizer in Houston.

Now. Remember with me the murder of Junior Byrd outside Jasper, Texas. The man was beaten by three drunk white men, tied up with chains and dragged to his death behind a pickup truck. His head was torn from his body. Gruesome. Senseless.

It was a reflex action for Bobby to rush to Jasper. The dead man was his cousin.

There were many heroes during the ensuing months as the town tried to keep from exploding into even more racial violence. Black heroes. White heroes. Many moments of insight and of bravery.

This is one of those moments.

Bobby was back home in Houston when he received a call. The younger black men of Jasper were chomping to set the forest on fire and, with help from prevailing winds, burn Jasper to the ground. Revenge.

As Bobby recounts that night, his first reaction surprises me still. "Go buy them beer. Lots of beer. I'm on my way." It was after hours, but Bobby gave directions to a merchant who would open up and sell them several cases of cold beer.

Beer? Wasn't that dangerous? Considering.

When Bobby arrived in Jasper a couple of hours later, the guys were really fueling their anger. It was a powder keg. Although he doesn't drink, Bobby made sure everybody had plenty of beer. He kept them talking and drinking. "I got them stinking drunk. Falling down drunk. So drunk they couldn't walk. And when I saw the sun come up, I knew it was over. We made it through the night. Nobody was going to burn nothing."

Jasper may still sift through the ashes of racism. But not of fire.

And that left the justice system free to work. Two of the three murderers were sentenced to death. The third got life, a decision that is controversial to this day. Not surprisingly, Bobby was part of the black community that opposed the death penalty for the third guy.

"There's been enough killing," Bobby said.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Shameless self promotion

Funny old Mary Lenz, a former AP reporter, once said: "You can hang me upside down in a barrel of mush and I can still write a story about it."

That's kind of the way I feel. Again. Thankfully.

For the past 20 years, I haven't written much. And I fretted about gaining traction with this blog venture. However, now that my readership has thronged (15-20 faithful readers, I'm certain), I am gaining confidence. Writing is fun again. I had forgotten just how much fun. I enjoy sharing these stories from the fun side of life.

Do me a favor? Help me double my subscriber base by telling your email list about this blog. Advise them to read the past two or three posts -- not just this whine.

If you are reading this, I thank you.

If you are not, screw you.

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