Random Remarks on the Road

Tori needs her beach time, and Monday she got some. In her shadow, lower left, is a glimpse of Max.

Random thoughts on our Texas Trek (our “Treksas?)

We were in Texas four days to celebrate the graduation of a family friend. Here are random thoughts and experiences from the sojourn.

Used to be, a perfect GPA was 4.0. It was the best a kid could do. Nice round number.

More than 800 kids graduated. Some of them were insanely smart. And one had an amazing name.
More than 800 kids graduated. Some of them were insanely smart. And one had an amazing name.

But then they started adding weight for honors classes. I guess it makes sense, I mean shouldn’t an A in honors differential calculus count for more than an A in remedial basket weaving? But it throws the scale off, and I guess there’s no such thing as a “perfect” GPA anymore. Just a really, really good one.

Max had a 4.3 GPA when he graduated from EJ, which is damn good, had him in the top 10 in his class which helped a lot for college scholarships. But he wouldn’t have gotten a whiff of honors at the graduation we attended Sunday. The LOWEST five of the top 10 all had 4.7s, calculated out to the thousandth of a point.

The kid who had a 4.800 finished fifth. FIFTH! He worked his ass off, got a 4.8, and only finished fifth. There must have been a moment when he said, “What’s the freakin’ point? I might as well cut the soles off my shoes, sit in a tree and learn to play the flute.” (Bonus points for any reader who recognizes the origin of that phrase.)

Can you imagine what went through the mind of whoever was 11th in the class? Undoubtedly had a 4.7something  and didn’t get a mention.

The top in the class was 4.8615, which was the highest GPA of any graduate in the district’s seven high school. And none of these kids, when they were introduced, seemed the least uber-geeky. They all belonged to a bunch of clubs, many of which they started, played in the band, were officers in state organizations. One was even an Eagle Scout.

Amazing kids.

Tori and Ricardo and his fifth grade science fair project. At the time he took the demotion of Pluto from plant to minor planet very badly.
Tori and Ricardo and his fifth grade science fair project. At the time he took the demotion of Pluto from plant to minor planet very badly.

The graduation we attended was for a family friend – Ricardo Lopez. The family – which we call The Lopi, which we maintain is the plural of Lopez – are friends from our St. Croix days. During our last year on the island, Ricardo was in the fifth grade class Tori taught at the Good Hope School. He was her favorite student she’s ever taught. He was a little round ball full of smiles. Now, somehow, he has turned into a tall, handsome young man who will be going to Pace University in New York in the fall.

Overheard at our table at dinner – okay, I didn’t overhear it, I actually said it – “So where do the cool kids hang out around here? (longish pause) They never told you, did they.”

I take a perverse pleasure in hearing people sigh and say “Only the Baurs.” Most recently as the graduates were parading in for half an hour, we started a kick line in our row.

The Lopez Family (or Lopi, in Baurspeak) at graduation.
The Lopez Family (or Lopi, in Baurspeak) at graduation.

Far be it from me to make fun of a kid’s name, but this one is truly impressive. Just to be sure, I’m going to change ONE LETTER in the last name of this kid. The graduate with the most amazing name I’ve ever seen was: Oluwatumininu Oluwatuminmise Sadole. Wow. The name appears to be of Yoruba origin, translates to something like “God has regenerated me,” and statistically is more likely be a girl than boy, although either is possible and I missed his/her’s walk across the stage. (Give me a break, there were more than 800 kids in this graduating class.)

But when I spotted that name in the program I thought, “I’ll bet that kid can’t WAIT until she’s old enough to go to court and get the name changed legally to something simpler, something like Oluwatumininu Oluwatuminmise Jones.

That’d be SO much better.

Tori needs her beach time, and Monday she got some. In her shadow, lower left, is a glimpse of Max.
Tori needs her beach time, and Monday she got some. In her shadow, lower left, is a glimpse of Max.

The drive to Houston (actually Katy, Texas, where the Lopez family lives. It’s an affluent suburb just west of Houston) takes about six hours and we drove straight out. On the way home, however, we meandered.

First we headed down to the Texas coast to get just a little beach time in. Most of what we saw was a lot like the coast of Louisiana, Mississippi, much of Alabama, the Florida panhandle. Many rental houses on stilts, gas stations and strip malls. But the beach was nice, certainly better than Mississippi’s. And when we got into Galveston, that was actually quite nice. Very resortish, a well-cared for beach, good restaurants. Yeah, WAY too built up, but still the nicest place I’ve yet seen on the Gulf coast. I wish we’d had more time there, but we had only the one afternoon and night. I’d like to have spent a little time on the history of the 1900 hurricane that demolished the island, killing 8,000 people in the greatest natural disaster in U.S. history.

Our drive home was “blue line highway” as far as we could go, staying off the main highways and interstate and poking around in the boonies. We passed through Port Arthur, Texas, a miserable place, all refineries and dust and oily smells. But it was the birthplace of Janis Joplin, so we paid our tribute. You could certainly understand why she was in a hurry to get out.

There was more, a lot more, crammed into four days. But anyone who has read this far has probably had their patience tested to the limit, and I really need to get on to other things.

on the beach Texas

Tori and John Off On An Adventure

I was last in Nashville in late December 1969. I was 14 years old when my family moved from Nashville, where we’d lived for five years, to Los Angeles.

Both I and the city have changed, and it’s hard to say which has changed most.

We got into town around 8. Between my vague memories of street names and the map on my phone we were never “lost,” but we weren’t where I thought we’d be. One benefit was that when we stopped for gas I realized we were much closer to Centennial Park than I’d thought we would be, so we took a few minutes so that Tori’s first glimpse of the Parthenon was at night, glowing under the spotlights, the way it should be.

ParthenonFor those who aren’t aware, Nashville has a full scale replica of the Greek temple. It was built for an exhibition in – I want to say 1898 – because the city has always fancied itself “the Athens of the South.” The images in the pediment were created by taking molds from the original.

The only problem with this picture is it doesn’t give you anything like the scale. The Parthenon is massive. For an idea, inside is a 42-foot tall sculpture of Athena. It’s the tallest indoor sculpture in the United States. And the bronze doors are seven feet wide, 24 feet high and a foot thick, and weigh more than seven tons. But they were hung so perfectly you can push them open with a single finger.

So we saw that, (and since Tori teaches social studies, that makes this a business trip. Take THAT, IRS!)  then decided to find a place to stay. Of course we didn’t do research and make reservations in advance, that’s not our style. We go and play it by ear. And we eventually checked into a hotel in the south end of town that was less than our budget and is nice and clean and new.

And, as I realized after we checked in, the hotel is only a few miles from the house I lived in for five years, from 1965 to ’70. Only this whole development – restaurants and stores and strip malls and hotels – didn’t even exist in 1970. This was all rolling, partially wooded hills.

We’re off now to break an old family curse and then tour the Confederate cemetery in Franklin – used to be a farming town south of Nashville. Now it’s all built up like everything else.

A Sad Story at an Estate Sale

Tori and I went to an estate sale this morning, and it just made us sad.

An estate sale is distinct from a yard sale. A yard sale is people trying to make a few bucks by selling their crap to people who say, “Hey! I’ve been looking all over for crap like this! I could really use this crap!” An estate sale, on the other hand, is usually about the family trying to empty mom and dad’s home of a lifetime of accumulated things so they can sell the house.

And estate sales usually have a story. Sometimes the story is about the couples’ travels around the world, or their love of golf, or photography, or gardening or fishing. A life spent painting, or a career aboard working ships. There’s a story, and the keepsakes, treasure and chachkas are usually laid out to show them to their best advantage. To tell the story.

Not so Saturday. We had been drawn by the photo on craigslist that showed a shelf of Toby jugs, including a pirate one. We are not collectors, but – you know – pirates.

We walked into the house in northern Metairie, a nice neighborhood, and into the saddest story I think I’ve ever seen. First of all, there was no order. I was instantly reminded of a reporter I had worked with who came back from interviewing an older woman and told us, “The knickknack shelves were choc-a-block with bric-a-brac.” Only this was far, far worse. It was chaos, accompanied by a smell that I can only call “little old lady funk.”

platesThere were easily a thousand Styrofoam containers – maybe twice that many, it was impossible to count them all. Most were about eight inches square and an inch thick, many still sealed in the plastic they had been shipped in. They spilled from every closet, they were piled on every flat surface, formed small, sad mountains in the corners of every room in the squalid house. Each contained a “collectible” plate. There were series of sports stars (Mickey Mantle, Steve Young, Kordell Stewart,) birds (Orioles in the Summer, Robins in Flight.) There was a Japanese series of kimono clad geishas. Religious themes, a series of sunsets. Children praying.

Closet shelves were swaybacked under the weight of them.

closet of platesMost of them you had to guess at, because few had been catalogued or labeled or accounted for in any way. They had been delivered, and immediately put away. There were also dozens of those little ceramic, Victorian buildings, each with a little light in it, that you put together into a display of an old village – church, train station, etc. Except these had never been displayed. They were all in their containers, stashed away in closets.

There were a few books, none less than 30 years old, copies of Life and Look magazine (both of which have been out of circulations since the early ’70s,) record albums – 33s and 78s – including one that caught my horrified attention, “Tschaikowsky’s Nutcracker Suite in Dance Tempo,” by Freddy Martin and his Orchestra. Thank god it was a 78 or I’d have been tempted, even though I don’t own a turntable.

In the kitchen there was a mass of dishware and appliances, all of it old. For instance, there was what I took to be the base of a blender that must have been 50 years old. A woman plugged in a coffee pot to see if it worked. It started smoking. She bought it anyway.

stack of platesThere was little in the way or clothing or personal items. No men’s clothing. A couple of canes hung over a door, they were noticeably short.

On one wall were proudly hung three well-framed diplomas. I had gleaned from the packing materials of the plates that the woman’s first initial was A, her husband’s was D. These diplomas – bachelor’s degree, masters, and doctorate, all in engineering – were all to someone whose first name was James, almost certainly a son. There was no other sign of a son in the home. Maybe he’d already gone through and taken anything of sentimental value, but why would he have left his diplomas?

even more platesThe story that emerged was of a woman whose husband had died some 30 years ago or more, who had lost contact with her son – either he had died or tired of his mother’s obsession. Her life revolved around these collectible plates. Not for their aesthetic value. The few actually on display on the wall were of Native American motifs and were nothing special. Each day that the mailman delivered a package from W.S. George Fine China or some other such purveyor was a special day for her. She lived for it. Some of these packages she opened, but most she cherished just “having” them and put them away wherever they’d fit. Even the ones she opened to look at were put back into their containers and stored.

It wasn’t a collection. It was a hoard. And it was sad.

A quick online check confirmed that these plates had only slight economic value – a website for similar objects was asking $16 a plate, and what you ask and what you actually can get are two different things. There were two guys working the sale for one of those estate sale companies, and the one we talked to was very stoned. I said to Tori that if we were different people we would offer the stoned one, say, 50 cents or a buck a plate, walked away with a couple of hundred, then catalogued them, put ’em online for five bucks a pop, and made a little money. But before I could even add the obvious she said it for me. “We’re not those people.” No. We’re not.

bad musicNetflix tidiness star Marie Kondo would have been horrified. She would have thrown up her hands and run shrieking. This wasn’t a space that needed blessing or thanking. It needed a flame thrower.

We did buy something – a book (a collection of Alexander Woolcott’s writing from the early New Yorker that I was happy to get for $2,) and a 1968 Life Magazine (that I remembered from school) containing an unpublished/unfinished Mark Twain manuscript, for a buck. There were a couple of the Toby jugs left, but the pirate was long gone, so we left those alone.

And we made ourselves a promise. As soon as we got home, we were going to throw something away. Anything. Because, damn!

And now I need a shower. To wash the sadness off.

Krewe of Chewbacchus Parade Was Out of This World

First, understand that Mardi Gras in New Orleans is more than a day. It’s a season. We’ve already had several parades and a lot more to come before the big bacchanal, which this year is on March 5.

All around the city separate krewes plan their big event. And Saturday we say the “Krewe of Chewbacchus” parade.

It’s a riff on the Krewe of Bacchus, one of the “super krewes” of Mardi Gras. Their parade is probably the biggest, the star of the season, held the Sunday before Fat Tuesday.

“The Intergallactic Krewe of Chewbacchus” (using Chewbacca of Star Wars) is a science fiction-themed group that puts on a very special parade of its own. Their mission, as they say on their website:

“The mission of the Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus is to save the galaxy by bringing the magical revelry of Mardi Gras to the disenfranchised, socially awkward and generally weird masses who may have never had the opportunity to participate in a mardi gras parade organization. Through our works, we hope to elevate all aspects of fandom and celebrate Carnival in our unique way.”

And oh it works! There’s a real homemade, do-it-yourself feel to the two-hour plus parade as people indulge their sci-fi fantasies. There were, I guess you’d call them sub-krewes, representing pretty much any sci fi or fantasy fixture you can imagine. All with a panache and a sense of humor. It was fun.

The place we (Tori, and our friends Sheila and Mike Kelly) found ot watch the parsade from was down near the river and it was probably the worst lit section of the parade route No street lights. That was OK, because all the entries had some kind of lighting. But it made photography difficult. In the first place I hadn’t brought my good camera, so was stuck shooting with my phone. And it was kind of dark. So most of my photos are of dramatic looking blurs of light. But I can’t stop myself from shooting.

These are the best I could salvage from the bunch.

The Electric Kool Aid Acide Trek, a Star Trek tribute.
The Electric Kool Aid Acid Trek, a Star Trek tribute.

 

A hot pink Chewbacca
A hot pink Chewbacca
The Krewe of Dude, "Rolling on Shabbus since 2017."
The Krewe of Dude, “Rolling on Shabbus since 2017.”
Part of the 'Space Force" krewe.
Part of the ‘Space Force” krewe.

Chewbacchus space force 1

This button was the best "throw" I ever snagged at a parade.
This button was the best “throw” I ever snagged at a parade.
The Skull and Crossed Swizzle Sticks! Our friend Mike makes use of this throw from the Krew of Space Pirates.
The Skull and Crossed Swizzle Sticks! Our friend Mike makes use of this throw from the Krew of Space Pirates.
A crawdad rides a croc on this tribute to Louisiana wildlife.
A crawdad rides a croc on this tribute to Louisiana wildlife.
A My Little Pony for "bronies."
A My Little Pony for “bronies.”
Not sure what this one represents, but it's a good one.
Not sure what this one represents, but it’s a good one.
And this may be my favorite pick – a tuckered out young trouper!
And this may be my favorite pick – a tuckered out young trouper!

My Tale of Gridiron Glory – Or – Days on the ‘Suicide Squad’

With the Super Bowl upon us, I’ve decided to share my one tale of gridiron glory – or more accurately – my one personal football story worth telling.

I played organized football for three years – eighth, ninth and tenth grade. That final year I was on my high school’s JV team. I was not a particularly good football player, the smallest guy on the team, with hands of stone (couldn’t catch.) I had done weight training all summer and drank protein shakes twice a day and managed to lose five pounds. I was second string cornerback, third string tailback, fodder during the week’s practices as we scrubs simulated next week’s opponent and got pounded into the turf by our first-string teammates.

But I was the fastest guy on the team. No question, I was fast. So I became the “gunner” on the kickoff team, what used to be referred to as the “suicide squad.” My job was to be the first guy down the field, get there as fast as I possibly could and get to the ball carrier before the blocking had a chance to form. What I really was doing was getting knocked down by the first wave of blockers so that the rest of our team could get there and tackle the runner, but Coach Pack was too polite to actually say that.

The last game of the season, we were just killing the other team. We scored a lot. And that meant we kicked off a lot. And the other team’s biggest, toughest, meanest player was on their kickoff return squad and his job was to KILL the first guy down the field. That was me. I would run down the field full tilt, get obliterated by this guy (No. 64, I can still see it.) Then I’d pick myself up and jog off the field and coach would scream, “BAUR!!! You’ve gotta get down there faster!!” Like he hadn’t seen me get pulverized, as far as he was concerned I just wasn’t running fast enough.

We scored one more time, and the other team was pretty sore about it. This was like our seventh touchdown. We weren’t trying to run up the score, their defense just wasn’t very good. So we scored, and then we kicked off. From the corner of my eye as I raced down the field, I could see 64 setting up. But my sights and my attention were on the guy catching the ball about 10 yards beyond him. This time I was going to get him and make the tackle, I told myself. As it turned out, I was wrong.

It happened at about the 20, maybe 15 yards from the other team’s sideline. No. 64 got me with everything, and he got me square. I mean, he just unloaded. I don’t know exactly what happened but it must have been pretty spectacular, because the last thing I remember was everyone on his side of the field screaming, “GREAT HIT!!!!” I heard it clear as a bell, and then nothing. I assume I was airborne for a while but I really don’t know.

The next thing I remember, I was somehow on my feet, jogging off the field towards our bench, my head spinning and my ears ringing, and coach was screaming at me, “BAUR!!! YOU’VE GOTTA GET DOWN THERE FASTER!!!!”

Thank god that closed out the scoring.

It also was my last football game, but not because I suddenly realized the idiocy of my love for the sport. I’d have played on. But the school closed (FYI, the building is now a senior citzens residential facility) and by the time I got settled into my new school, classes were in session, the team had been practicing for a month and it was too late to try out.

Probably just as well. I might have gotten myself killed. But at least I got a story out of it.

Has Anybody Here Seen my Brain?

Very strange ear worm earlier this week. I couldn’t imagine why, but when I woke up I had a few lines from the 1908 British music hall song “Has Anybody Here Seen Kelly?” running through my head, nonstop.

I am certain I have never heard this song in my life, not all the way through, yet there were the same three lines running over and over. (Ear worms are almost never a song you know well, or like, at least in my experience.)

Now, my dad loved to sing, and as he moved through his day he often was singing some obscure old tune, but I’m sure I never heard him sing this one. So how did it get in my head?

catch-me-if-you-can-martin-sheen-family-leonardo-dicaprioIt took several hours before I finally was able to track down the source. The movie “Catch Me If You Can,” which I’ve seen twice, the last time at least two years ago. Leonardo DiCaprio’s character is visiting the home of his fiancee’s parents, and there is a scene, maybe all of 15 or 20 seconds, where DiCaprio, Amy Adams, Martin Sheen and Nancy Lenehen are sitting on the sofa, a picture of 1960s middle American domesticity. They were watching “Sing Along with Mitch,” and sure enough, memory tells me they were following the bouncing ball and singing “Has anybody here seen Kelly? K – E – double L –Y? Has anybody here seen Kelly, have you seen him smile? Sure his hair is red, his eyes are blue, and He’s Irish thru and thru. Has anybody here seen Kelly? Kelly from the Emerald Isle.”

(Kids, “Sing Along with Mitch” was a real thing. You can probably find hours of it on youtube, Check it out. It will amaze you the kind of inane crap your grandparents used to find entertaining. And just for the record, no, my family did not watch the show, so that’s not the source of my ear worm.)

Except those lyrics are actually wrong. (I researched it, it was on my mind.) Like so many songs, it was turned into an Irish tune but was not so originally. “Danny Boy,” for another one, was written by a British barrister, not an Irishman. “Kelly” was originally a fellow from the Isle of Man. And after the spelling of the name, the lyrics were, “Has anybody here seen Kelly? Find him if you can! He’s as bad as old Antonio, Left me on my own-ee-o. Has anybody here seen Kelly? Kelly from the Isle of Man!”

In the song, the woman singing is looking for the boyfriend she has lost during a trip to London. She goes into various pubs asking if anyone has seen Kelly. The joke – if that’s the right word – is that in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Kelly was the commonest surname on the Isle of Man. Whew! That is one knee-slapper of a joke! (See my earlier remark about the inane crap people used to be entertained by.)

And I don’t really know who Antonio is, unless it’s a reference to the character from “The Merchant of Venice,” but why that would be apropos is beyond me. I really don’t care how he got in my brain. I just want him gone.

Anyway, figuring out where the song came from helped me get rid of that day’s earworm. But it still leaves me – puzzled? Troubled? How in the world did my brain grab that snippet of a tune from the black hole of my memory and decide to put it on the top priority loop of my conscious thought, blocking out or at least interfering with anything else I tried to think of that day?

The brain is a fascinating, amazing and sometimes downright scary thing.

Back to Class

Great day Thursday. Tori asked me to come in and talk to her her sixth grade English classes about writing, which she wants them to concentrate on this semester. She wants me to come in each Thursday and talk about how I write and read them my latest chapters. Thursday was the first time.

I’d done this before, back on St. Croix. I’d come in every Thursday afternoon with the new chapters and read to them. It let them follow the process of writing a novel and let me gauge their reactions to what eventually would become “Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter.” It was invaluable. I don’t know how anyone can write a story for middle schoolers without having real kids to bounce it off. I assume they got something from it as well.

So I was looking forward to to it, although not without trepidation. The kids on St. Croix were fifth graders, these were sixth graders, and there’s a world of difference between the two. And unlike on St. Croix, where Tori taught one class of 13 motivated kids, she has two classes of about 30 kids each, ranging from bright, polite kids to kids who are, shall we say, less motivated and more difficult. And she doesn’t have the luxury of deciding the day’s schedule, when she’ll teach a subject and for how long, she’s got a firm schedule ruled by bells. I couldn’t just show up in the afternoon. I have to be there to get the last half hour of her second period class, then stay for the first half hour of her third period group.

But it went great. The kids were more curious than anything, but they listened and for the most part they stayed focused. I talked about writing, and the fact that I had been earning a living at it for more than 40 years. I tried to tie my own experience and ideas about writing into things that I knew they’d talked about on other subjects, why writing is important, how shared stories tell us who we are as a society, what we think is important.

And I talked about the magic of writing. It’s not an original ides with me, it may even be a cliche, but books are made of trees that are cut down and pulped then have ink smeared on them and are glued together. And when you look at those ink smears, the voice of the writer is in your head. It could be my voice, if you’re looking at “Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter.” Or the voice of someone who has been dead for hundreds or even thousands of years: Shakespeare, Homer. And that’s sort of magic, isn’t it?

Then I read them the first two chapters of my WIP, a sixth grade story about two friends who always get in trouble but are the world’s only hope in the circumstances of the story. The kids laughed when I hoped they would, seemed interested, and got a big laugh where I hadn’t really expected one. I took note and will be revisiting that issue repeatedly.

Afterwards I asked for feedback and ideas, and many of them had thoughts about what should happen next. (They were wrong, but I wasn’t going to tell them that.) I also talked about how you want to start a story as close to the action as possible, but you also have to set things up – the characters, the kind of world they live in, the circumstances of the story. Plus there are things I’m planting in the first three chapters that will pay off at the end, that will enable our heroes to figure out how to save the day. I told them the ancient Greeks (who they’re learning about in social studies) invented drama as we know it, and sometimes in their plays the situation was doomed, only to be saved at the last minute by an intervention from the gods.

“The Greeks called it deus ex machina, the machine of the gods,” I said. “Today we call it cheating. You’ve got to set up the story so that the solution is always there, but the reader doesn’t necessarily see it until you spring the payoff. Then they go, ‘Aahhhh! Of course!'”

In all, I was pleased. And Tori was even more pleased. And I’m looking forward to next Thursday morning. And working hard so that I’ve got fresh chapters for them.

Note: I haven’t written in a while, obviously. No excuses, but I’m back at it. The more I write, the more I write and that’s a good thing.