Texas is another country...

Texas is another country...I have driven into Texas from all four directions and can affirm that after crossing that imaginary state line you just know you are in Texas . The world becomes wide open space, the sky feels higher, you can stretch out and rest a spell.

Monday, April 3, 2017


How did you go bankrupt?
Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.

You can buy a t-shirt in Austin that reads "Keep Austin Weird," but that's about as far as it goes nowadays. What made Austin magical and weird was that it was a vortex of creativity. Musicians, writers, artists, potters, carpenters, weavers, singers, dancers...(the list goes on and one)...lived in central Austin in old Craftsman houses, converted garages, rooms above bars and restaurants, and had people over for parties. When I say parties, I mean once a week for a potluck music jam or writers discussion. Supported by the local community, the artists in turn supported the 50-year old hamburger joints and Mexican restaurants. If someone asked you to meet them at Las Manitas, you knew where to go. Now that's a memory crushed under a high-rise office building.

In "weird" Austin, architects turned houses into restaurants without demolishing any part of the structure. And in one instance turned a house built on speculation into a great music venue. Old stores and warehouses were refurbished into coffee houses that had open mics and play readings, live music, and fundraising events. Liberty Lunch, a music venue in a former warehouse, sold beer only and sold it out of ice tubs. It was the first of the downtown establishments to go. Demolished. You can enjoy a glass and steel building instead and perhaps a latte from a coffee chain store. Not so weird.

Borinquin was a restaurant on South Congress that after the last dinner was served, pushed the tables and chairs to the side of the room so patrons could dance to live salsa music. Zona Rosa, Ruta Maya, Capitol City Playhouse, housed in 19th century buildings downtown -- all gone. Broken Spoke the most well-known country-western club in Austin used to be surrounded by countryside and now is nestled in a u-turn of concrete real estate. Offices, I presume.

The ramshackle little Victorian houses on Rainey Street with their burgeoning, overgrown gardens is where one of the producers of "Slacker" lived. Now they are chic bars. I can imagine a realtor getting the commercial permit and turning one house into a bar so as to drive the whole neighborhood out.

On a Saturday night recently I drove from Hwy 71 north on Congress Avenue, passing through what realtors dubbed "SOCO" a decade ago for newcomers, a term that Austinites use with the sound of quotations in their voices. South Congress looked like someone kicked an anthill - people everywhere covering the sidewalks and crossing the streets. And for what? Food trucks, an assortment of restaurants. Nothing special.

You can't buy an artistic temperament, like some kind of smoothie with exotic fruit, but you can sell it out. The people that made Austin livable and cool are pushed out now, leaving a soulless commerciality in which the closest people come to that artistic temperament is wearing clothes that look like they just slept in them.

The true artists have moved out of downtown and the newcomers, chasing money, may never meet them as I was lucky enough to do.  A few of them are still there:

My friend, David, decided to start building wooden boats. He started with a canoe and took his time. It seemed like it took months because he is was very involved in each step of the process, insuring he got it right. Then he bought a sewing machine and began making sails. He made videos about how to build boats. He taught boat-building, and he published books about sail making and boat building. And now he's involved in a documentary about a man sailing around the tip of South America in a tiny boat.

My friend, Gloria, (who is also a writer) decided to begin making animals out of wood. She bought a jigsaw and learned how to use it. They were hilarious caricatures with funny names, beautifully made and painted with stripes and polka dots. She was in the Pecan Street Festival and others as well as a gallery.

My friend, Paige, is a potter and has developed a style and range of colors that are recognizable. People look for her at the shows she is in and she's taught pottery. So many shows have been terminally canceled because so much is mass produced in China and quality and uniqueness no longer have honor.

My friend, Janine, is still dancing - in music videos no less - even though her kids are grown. She's enthusiastic and amazingly strong and talented, holding her own with 20 year olds.

My friend, Pat, was living in a motel when she wrote "Afoot in a Field of Men" (read it) and after that lived in the basement of the book store she managed with her (then) husband. Her book was reviewed in Atlantic, Time, and People magazine. She turned down the option to be on a national daytime talk show. Fame wasn't the reason she was writing.

My friends Andrea and Mike had full-time jobs and still devoted their time to writing stories - wonderful stories. Marcia is a master at creating costumes for movie and play characters. Christine is a painter and tango dancer.

These are just a few of the people that made Austin weird and while you may not have heard of them because they don't have PR reps or handlers, their lives have been fully artistic and remain so. If you want to compare them to the well-known, compare them to Vincent Van Gogh who never sold a painting in his lifetime. Or Henri Rousseau whose paintings were slashed as crap by the judges of the Paris exhibition. Or, Paul Leautaud whose heart-breaking memoirs are published under the title "Child of Montmarte."

Austin was a hippie version of Paris of the 1920s with heat and mosquitoes. Now it's not.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

The Accent

I watched one episode of Mercy Street on PBS and was amused by the corny accents in the show.  The characters from Virginia sound like they are from Georgia and the Union/Northerner characters sound like Californians.  Come on now, there are currently all sorts of accents in New York, Massachusetts, Maine, Maryland, Pennsylvania and they developed over time.  Surely they were even more pronounced in the 1860s.

I remember watching Steel Magnolias and listening to Olympia Dukakis’ accent which also is Georgia/South Carolina accent.  If I met her in a grocery story in Houston talking with that accent, I’d ask her, “Where are you from?”  I never met anyone from Texas who speaks that way.

The Georgia accent is the most commonly used in television and film – it’s softer, slower than Texas or even Virginia.  The Georgia accent softens and changes in Alabama and Mississippi.  There are French and Cajun influences in Louisiana before you get to Houston.  I think if you were to ask an Irish or Scottish person to speak really slowly, you’d find the roots of the Southern accent.

Accents developed from the mix of immigrant languages and accents and on account of the land and weather.  Nearer the gulf, where is doesn’t get cold, there’s a languid nature to the voice.  For the Alabama accent, listen to Lucas Black.  He’s in NCIS New Orleans, and if you’ve been to New Orleans, you know they sound like Brooklynites.

Texas is hot, it’s mainly flat, and it has a strong Spanish influence.  West Texas has strong inflections and Northeast Texas is twangy as I said before, but in Central Texas, the Houston area, the gulf, it’s more about vocabulary (you bet, fixin’ to, how come), less lip movement, slower speech and softness on the consonants. 

It is a big state and there are a variety of accents in different areas.  People living around Texarkana have the most identifiable accent – it’s rather twangy – in most other areas the accent is more subtle, but the accent is not Southern generic.  Contrary to those who have never lived in the South or Texas, there is no Southern generic.  George Bush has a well-developed West Texas accent that was helpful in presenting him as a good ole boy.  Funny, Jeb Bush doesn’t seem to have an accent at all.

I was in a parking lot in Los Angeles recently and a man came up to me panhandling.  I knew where he was from, but I asked him anyway.  He said, “Texas.”  I kept him chatting because I wanted to keep hearing that accent that reminds me of humid nights with the smell of barbecue.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Ahmed the Genius Clockmaker

I personally am proud that Ahmed Mohamed was raised in Texas. 

Ahmed recently built an elaborate electronic clock and took it to school and was detained until the clock was determined not to be a bomb.  Bringing his clock to school in this day and age was a bit sketchy.  Not because this young genius is Muslim, but because there has been so much school violence in the news and a lot of heightened school security because of that.  Even the teacher to whom he actually showed the clock told him that he should not have it at school.  Is that teacher racist?  Or simply aware of the heightened security at the school?.

Ahmed tried to keep the clock hidden the rest of the day, and then it beeped in English class.  Although Ahmed knew it was neither a real nor fake bomb, his English teacher did not.  It frightened the teacher who called in authorities.  The clock was a clock was a clock was a clock.  But what if it wasn’t?  Nobody at the time knew that except Ahmed. 

Why does the media make Ahmed’s experience about him being Muslim?  It assumes that his religion is the issue, when in actuality, it was the issue of his exceptional clock that was the issue.  He was advised that it was not something he should have brought to school.  He could have put it in the principal’s office, maybe called a member of his family to take it home.  But he’s young and not thinking about the larger issues of school shootings that influence the school authorities.

For those outraged and claiming racism, what makes that so?  Why is it not a question of school authorities responding quickly to what could have turned out differently?  How can we have it both ways?  Can you want to prevent school violence and at the same time ignore a potential threat for the sake of not offending someone on account of religion, ethnicity, disability or gender?  No. You have to act.

Just to bring perspective to this – in New York City, the most liberal city in the world, there are signs in English and in Spanish on the streets and subways saying “if you see something say something.”  And people do see things and they do report them.  In New York there are 25,000+ surveillance cameras posted by the government.  This does not include the cameras in banks, stores, etc.  In New York City you are on camera at least 7 times a day.  Would you call that racist?  Or preventative?

The other day in Studio City, California, someone reported a bag under a bus stop bench.  The bomb squad was called.  The bag turned out to belong to a homeless person.  But why did someone call about the bag?  Why did the bomb squad respond?  Were they racist?

This is the world we live in.  Politicians tell us we need the PATRIOT Act, Homeland Security, etc.  TV is filled with crime, violence and drama – not just the news, but “entertainment.”  So, how can we be expected to always know who is innocently bringing a clock to school and who actually has a bomb?

For those who condemn the entire State of Texas in entirety for religious bigotry, etc., let me say the bigotry is on you because Ahmed is a Texan.  So, when you lump together all Texans as bigots, you include him.  That’s hardly fair.
And, I for one am glad that Texan Ahmed is going to the White House to meet with engineers and others that share his technical genius.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Old Fashioned Service

photo by Mike Roseberry
 The other day I was online with Paypal saying “Shipping” in response to the computer voice asking me “in a couple of words tell me what you are calling about.”  The question was asked and answered four or five times with my voice decibels and frustration rising each time.  I finally started saying “agent” into the phone and after saying that word about twenty times, I was eventually connected to a live person who told me that Paypal was currently experiencing problems with printing shipping labels.  Well, I knew that.  What I didn’t know was when this might be fixed.  She didn’t know

However, this experience got me to thinking about old fashioned service – I mean, even a computer voice could say the word “please” couldn’t it?  But I’m talking about the kind of service that made the world a better place because all customers were served with respect and valued.
The old fashioned gas station came to mind.  An attendant pumped your gas, cleaned your windshield AND checked your oil.  You never had to leave your car.  And, gas was 30 cents a gallon.  Now, with fuel over $4 a gallon (depending on the mood of the oil company) you pump your own gas, and good luck finding a way to clean your windshield.  And checking your oil – well, you’ll need to pay someone to do that if you don’t know how.

Remember that oil crunch of the 1970s when the price of gas doubled in a few weeks?  When the companies figured out they had enough oil in the world, did the price of gas settle back down?  I think not.  What did happen was the automation of the gas station, along with the rise of credit card use.  You can pump your gas.

I remember when I drove into a gas station and someone actually spoke to me – and it wasn’t through a bulletproof glass window.  Some stations used to have soft drink machines outside and maybe a few types of candy at the inside counter.  They didn’t sell stale coffee and hotdogs that looked like they survived Hiroshima.

photo by Mike Roseberry
There was a book published in 1970 called The Pursuit of Loneliness by Philip Slater.  It talks about germ phobia driving people to fear contact.  Add to that the technology of email and texting replacing phone calls.   Mix in TV drug commercials telling us that we can catch anything anywhere, but there’s a new drug for that with side effects including dizziness, sudden belching, leaky bowels, and possible death.

I tell you what – if I could find one of these old, closed-down gas stations, I’d drive into it, park, and spend a few hours just staring at the scenery.

post by Alana Cash

Wednesday, October 22, 2014


In elementary school, as I remember, there was a fuss made about Halloween.  Like all holidays and occasions, it gave the teacher a creative focus for the class.  I don’t recall being allowed to wear a costume in the classroom, but there were pumpkins and scarecrows pinned to the bulletin board.  And I’m pretty sure Casper the friendly ghost made an appearance there as well. 

I remember breathing behind a plastic mask of Bugs Bunny and shivering in a thin cotton rabbit costume in the cool evening for trick or treating.  When I became too mature to get a store-bought costume, I dressed as a shipwrecked sailor with a white blouse tied at the waist, rolled up cutoff jeans, and a straw hat.  That costume worked for years.

I never thought of dressing as a witch.  Nor, given my mother’s religiosity, would I have been allowed to dress up as a witch.  I don’t know what the most popular costumes were when I was a child, but the witch has been a bestselling costume at Halloween for the last 20 years along with more powerful women appearing in all facets of society.  But what really is a witch?

Mysteriously, witch – as a term – has no real etymology.  Some dictionaries guess that it relates to the words wiccian/wicce/wicca, and historically, those words were applied to people with a skill.  Horse trainers were called wiccas.  Midwives were called wicces as were healers.  Stone masonry was called the craft.  It seems to me that those skills just mentioned require a lot of intuition – something that can’t be taught, but has to be felt.  Meaning, even if all the rules of becoming a horse whisperer were written down, not everyone is going to be good with horses.  Flashback to the Middle Ages and this intuition could seem like magic.  The women who held moldy bread to wounds, years before Fleming would discover penicillin in the mold of bread, well, their acts would seem otherworldly.  Or, if they threw a toad into the stew cauldron and it cured an ailment – long before modern pharmaceutical companies used the slime of toads and a chemical in their brains to make antibiotics (gross, but true), well, that would seem like magic.  The stone masons who built the church arches that held so magically would not give away their secret engineering formula except to apprentices, ergo, witchcraft.  Wiccacraft.  Not a bad word until the Church got involved.  

Another dictionary attributes the etymology of witch to the English word weg (to wake) or to wikkjaz – one who wakes the dead.  But where does that leave the horse trainers?  And one really doesn’t want that terminology related to midwives.

Merge all this with the turmoil of the Reformation followed by the Great Plague and the beginning of the Inquisition and witches seem a good place to project the cause of evil.  Let the witch-hunting begin.  Amid the hysteria, a priest Inquisitor named Kramer published  Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of the Evil People), a guide to recognizing witches.  It was easy.  According to this book, a witch was a woman who was unmarried, lived alone, and grew herbs.  One woman was arrested for changing her underwear once a week.  The book outlined methods of torture – feet on hot coals of the fire, hands tied behind the back and strung up to the ceiling, the rack, waterboarding (yes, they invented it).  The Catholic Church rejected the book after a few years, but it was published in twenty editions in Latin.  Who could read it except clerics and the judiciary?  And the torture didn’t stop.

Men and women were also burned at the stake as witches, and although there is dispute on the numbers (anywhere from 60,000 to 5 million), it was certainly an effective deterrent to obtaining secret knowledge of a skill and an inspiration toward the confessional.  As the Chinese say, “kill one, frighten 10,000.”

At any rate, the Inquisition lasted a mere 400 years, give or take a decade or two **, and the term witch became synonymous with bad, bad, bad, awful bad.   Women became desperate to get married and stopped dabbling with toads and herbs – except the opium in laudanum.  And witches were basically ignored until MGM’s The Wizard of Oz gave us the current image of the witch with the green skin, warts, and those fabulous flying monkeys.

**ADDENDUM:  The Inquisition officially ended in 1834, and the same year, the corset was invented.

Thursday, September 18, 2014


Yesterday, I read about a woman named Lisa Coleman, being put to death by lethal injection at Huntsville Prison in Texas.  She was convicted of the slow starvation of a nine year old boy who weighed 35 pounds at the time of his death.  He had bruises and rope burns – tied, I guess, so he couldn’t get to food (or the police) or bother the people who were watching him die.

The article mentioned that Texas made the most use of the death penalty and how rare it was that a woman would receive that maximum sentence.  I didn’t read about protestors outside the prison, but I know there are severe criticisms of Texas being the leader in carrying out capital punishment.  90% of murders are crimes of passion not to ever be repeated.  Sentence for these crimes includes parole.

The people sentenced to die have committed horrors.  And what are their alternatives to the death penalty?  A life sentence to be spent within an 8’ x 12’ cell, most likely in isolation in order to protect other prisoners.  There’s consistent proof that within three month, prisoners in isolation are completely insane (although given the deeds that got them there, they probably didn’t have far to travel). 

In reading the article about Coleman, I was reminded of Kenneth McDuff who, along with an accomplice, kidnapped Colleen Reed at a car wash on West Fifth Street in Austin, and murdered her.  The accomplice was caught first and implicated McDuff who was arrested in Kansas City where he was using a false name. 

Before the Austin kidnapping, McDuff had killed three teenagers, been arrested, imprisoned, and released on parole.  Before kidnapping Colleen Reed, while on parole, McDuff killed several women and evaded arrest until his face was put on America’s Most Wanted and a coworker notified police. 

McDuff was sentenced to die for the killing of a pregnant woman.  His last words before lethal injection were, “release me.”  I wonder if those were the last words of the women that he tortured and murdered?

I feel sure those were among the last words of the little boy that Lisa Coleman murdered.  A nine-year-old boy suffering from intense hunger and physical pain.  A little boy filled with immense sadness and despair, wondering why.  Why would this woman and his mother do this to him?  Yes, I can imagine his words.  “Release me, dear God, release me.”

Monday, September 1, 2014


This exercise was actually an ongoing writing class that I taught in Austin. The class met once a week in a different location – a bus station, railroad depot, airport, restaurant or somewhere else you wouldn’t expect a writing exercise to take place.  We took a few day-trips as well and held the class on a riverboat in three different cities. 

The format is so easy and it feels more like a game than a lesson so that anyone can lead it at a dinner party at home or with a group friends at a restaurant or local coffee house.  It’s so much more fun that complaining about politics or the economy or watching TV.

Here’s how it works: 

The group meet, gets something (or brings something) to eat or drink, introductions are made if need be, and everyone settles down. Because you may not always have a surface to write on, remind everyone to bring a notebook or some other writing surface of their own.

1. The first part of the exercise is to simply observe the environment and the people in it.  After a few minutes, everyone writes down everything they saw, heard, smelled, touched and tasted.  This primes the mind to think about sensory perceptions and seems to surprise everyone as they make notes of more than they were aware of seeing and hearing.

2. The next part of the exercise is to pick someone, a couple, or a small group in the vicinity, observe them, and write down the observations.  An easy example would be a list like this:
couple in their early 20s
            on a first date
            female seems more interested in the male than he is in her

3.  Then there are questions to be answered:

What makes you believe they are in their 20s? (from this you learn what you believe people in their early 20s look like)
What makes you believe they are hipsters? (and you learn that you believe that hipsters wear certain types of clothing and jewelry, have certain types of tattoos, etc)
What makes you believe these two are on a first date?  (body language is the indication, so you pay attention to how they are moving and write that down)
What makes you believe that the female is more interested in the male than he is in her?  (what’s the body language telling you this?)

It’s easy to see how this exercise can pull up a conscious awareness of what you have been observing unconsciously in your daily life.

3.  Adding depth to the exercise, the next step is to use that same couple, but to add a dimension that isn’t readily observable.  For example:
1.     the female is already married and the male doesn’t know – how would this change your interpretation of her movements, her dialogue, your attitude toward her as a character?
2.     the male stalked his last girlfriend – what does his disinterest in her seem to be reflecting with this added trait?
3.     the female is a pickpocket and she has already stolen his wallet – how does her interest in him come across?

In other words, you learn to observe people, seeing how they appear, sound, smell, move, and behave.  You think you know what all this represents, but if you get more information (or make it up) your original interpretations of body language and behavior will change.  [For a good example of this, read Guy De Maupassant’s story “A Piece of String.”]

4.  Writers in Motion gets really interesting when it’s time to actually write a story about the couple – adding dialogue and back-story (how they met).  And now is time for a plot. 

            This couple has just [fill in the blank]

For the plot to work in a group situation without a teacher to assign it, each writer would make up a plot, write it down on a small piece of paper and put it on the center of the table or into a hat.  The papers get mixed up and someone pulls one of them from the mix.  That would be the plot for everyone’s story.***

Writing is timed for 15-20 minutes and then people share their stories out loud. 

***[Writers could also write a story using their individual plots, but it’s really fun to see how each writer interprets the story from one plot line and compare them.]

Post by Alana Cash