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Lost

January 1st, 2018

Each of the little rivulets had carved out a whole series of potholes that held pools of water. Photo by Michael Gos

By Michael W. Gos

Colorado Bend State Park, Texas

It was about 20 years ago, when I was still a newbie to Texas. I had spent the morning in Fred with some friends who came down from West Lafayette for a week-long bicycle rally. Being a bit of a slug myself, when they decided to head out for a 100-mile afternoon ride, I decided to try to find Llano and experience Cooper’s Bar-B-Que for lunch. I had heard about this place many times over the five years I had been in Texas but had never had the opportunity to experience it. This seemed like as good a time as any.

So I headed north toward Llano. A colleague had told me it was in the northern, old section of town, just off the main road. He said I couldn’t miss it. What he failed to tell me was it was hiding behind a grocery store and couldn’t be seen from the highway. So I drove through town, looking, but never saw it. Eventually I came to open country and it was clear I had left Llano. Determined to turn around at the next intersection and try again, I sped up and headed out into the country.

But there was no next intersection, at least not that I saw, until I hit the tiny town of Cherokee. There I saw an east-west road. Because it was a town, I figured I could surely make a couple of rights, circling the block and back to highway 16. From there I could make the return trip to Llano.

But there wasn’t a next street. Instead, the street I was apparently now destined to follow became a very narrow, country road. I suppose it was meant to be two lanes but there was no way two cars could pass each other without both of them driving two wheels off the road onto the shoulder. Fortunately, I never had to test this. I drove for miles without seeing another car. Eventually, realizing I was getting way off my intended route, I decided I would take the first county road I saw that headed south and try to hit 71. This time I would approach Llano from the east. But that road never came. Instead, the road I was on turned to gravel and went on for a few more miles, finally dead-ending into a dirt road that was marked with a tiny sign that said “Colorado Bend State Park.”

Colorado Bend is not like any state park I had ever been to. There is no gatehouse or any signs of civilization anywhere. That dirt road just continues—and continues. What seems like several miles later, it dead-ends in a canyon carved out by by a river. The area has only a mobile trailer for a headquarters and an outhouse. Figuring I was now a long way from Cooper’s, and lunch was probably out of the question, I decided to have a look around. After all, I was already here.

I always begin my exploration of a new park with a trip to the visitors’ center to find out what the top attractions are, where I can go to see no other humans for a few hours, where to get the best photos, etc. Since this place didn’t have a visitors’ center, I went into the trailer to see if there was someone there who could give me some information. There was. A park volunteer there told me about a cave and a waterfall, both accessed from trailheads several miles away, and about a cascade just down river that empties a small creek up above into the river below. Since it was close by, I decided to take a look at it first.

As I was leaving, she called me back and added that there were no concessions and no water anywhere in the park. If I wanted water, I’d better fill up right here. I went out to the Jeep, got my always-ready canteen and did just that.

As it turned out, the cascade was amazing. What started at the top of the canyon as a small stream passed through a series of small waterfalls that moved the water down the rocky hillside and then spread it into a number of rivulets that worked their ways down eight or ten different pathways. The truly wondrous thing was that this had been happening for so many centuries that each of the little rivulets had carved out a whole series of potholes that held pools of water. It was absolutely beautiful.

After spending about an hour there and then walking along the river as far as the rock canyon walls would allow, I headed back to the Jeep to drive to the trailhead for Gorman Falls. That hike was rougher, only because the first couple of miles were on a hilly gravel road. But the last mile or so, when it entered the woods, was spectacular. There was a lot of downhill climbing with rope handholds to facilitate a safe descent down to a river that I suspected might be the same one that carved out the canyon I had just been to. At the very bottom, was a small deck with two benches, one that faced the river, the other the waterfall. I sat down for a quick breather (like I said, it was a hard hike) and to maybe get a few photos. I got both done—in about three hours.

As the sun was setting and I was leaving the park, I started thinking about how my getting lost that day led me to a terrific set of experiences—experiences I never would have had if I knew where I was going and had indeed enjoyed some great brisket for lunch. Not finding Cooper’s, followed by my inability to find a way to turn around, sent me on a journey that I wouldn’t have missed for the world, and probably would not have ever taken otherwise.

It seems to me that in life, when things seem to be going badly, we sometimes reach a point where we feel lost. We no longer know which way to go, or what to do next. Sometimes we even begin to question who we are. When this happens, it is always a traumatic time for us. We feel confused, troubled and frustrated. But almost invariably, this is the point where our lives take a turn for the better. (I know…“it can’t get any worse,” right?) But if you think back on the really wonderful life-changing experiences you have had over the years, I would bet most of them began with just such a discomforting moment.

Perhaps the contrast between the bad times and the spectacular times make us really appreciate the latter. But I am sure there is more to it than that. When we reach a point in our lives where we no longer know what to do or which way to go, our journey has truly begun. Life will never be the same. And journeys invariably turn out well in the long run.
By the way, I did eventually find Cooper’s—many, many times.

Who Defines You?

November 13th, 2017

By Michael W. Gos

Houston, Texas

We’ve all seen the pictures and watched the drama of hurricane Harvey unfold on our TV screens. Some of us, unfortunately, were a part of it and are still suffering as a result.

Like most people, during the storm I was glued to the TV watching the flooding and the people being evacuated from the devastation. Most carried only the clothes on their backs and their dogs. But in those five days, we also saw those in boats, high-clearance trucks and Jeeps going into the water again and again to help out total strangers. And some people just didn’t understand that.

I was particularly struck by the Weather Channel’s comparisons between what they were seeing during Harvey and the scenes from New Orleans after Katrina. They expressed amazement at the difference. Other media seemed shocked, confused and totally dumbfounded by what they were watching. Why were these ordinary Joe Sixpacks taking matters into their own hands? Why didn’t they wait for FEMA or other government agencies to come in? After all, that is what we are supposed to do, right? Some of the “usual suspects” finally came to the conclusion that Texans were just different, in a bad way—renegades, if you will.

Most of us saw it differently. Texans are different I suppose—but in a good way. I would never question the exceptionalism of Texans. That is one of the reasons why I will never leave here. But I don’t think the actions we were watching those five days were unique to Texans. What about the “Cajun Navy” coming in from Louisiana, or the college students from North Carolina who trailered their fishing boats all the way to Houston to help out? Deep down, I can’t help but think, it’s not just Texans; it’s most of us.

 

Probably the most dominant philosophy of the last century, and still so today, is existentialism. This philosophy holds that man is born without an essence, be it what it is that make him human, or what it is that makes him the individual that he will become. Take a newborn horse for instance. Within minutes, he stands. A few minutes later he walks, then runs. Within 24 hours he can do virtually everything an adult horse can do. That is because he is born with his “horseness,” the essence of what a horse is.

Humans aren’t like that. For months, all the human baby does is scream and poop. He is helpless—more like a blob of protoplasm than a real human being. That essence, his humanness, comes later. One of the tenants of existentialism is that, as a result, we are all responsible for creating, then declaring our own essence—defining who we are. To the existentialist, it is in this self-definition process that we find purpose and meaning in our lives.

Yet it is surprising how many of us abdicate our responsibility and allow others to define us—to impose on us their ideas of what we will become, of who we are. Traditionally, this imposed definition came from family or from religion. However, recently we have begun to see a change in this. Sometime in the last few decades, we have allowed ourselves to be defined by total strangers—people outside our circle of friends and family who tell us who we should be. One of the most powerful of these external forces is the mass media. For years they have told us that America is a divided nation.

The divisions they impose on us are by politics (left versus right), race, social class and residence (coastal versus fly-over-country). Some people have actually accepted these definitions as fact and behave as if they are true. But Harvey shot holes in that idea.

During Harvey, no one asked about politics. Race was irrelevant. It was simply people helping people. We were all in this together. If we needed help, it was offered. If we could do the helping, we did. The only group we were members of was “neighbors.” To the media, this was a completely alien concept. They didn’t know what to make of it; it didn’t fit their pre-set narrative. Normally, if something doesn’t fit the narrative, they just don’t cover it. But this time, they didn’t have that option. Harvey was too big of a story to ignore.

I think what we learned from Harvey is an important lesson for us in many ways. It was great to see so many people simply refuse to be defined by anyone but themselves. We didn’t care what the media or the politicians thought. We knew exactly who we were—who we are—inside. We knew what was right and moral and we acted on it. We knew none of those things they say about us were true and we didn’t care that the talking heads were shocked and confused by it all. We went about the business of being who we are.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could remember this lesson—if we could apply it in the future whenever we are tempted to let someone else tell us who we are or who we should be? Why do we force ourselves to fit into the little boxes the world insists we must occupy? Perhaps it is because when we hear something again and again, for a long enough time, we actually start believing it ourselves.

Most of the time we certainly act like we are compliant. It is almost like we are semi-comatose and just follow the pack. It seems easier than bucking the flow.

In spite of that, in times of stress and tragedy, our true selves come out. Something touches us deep inside and we are reminded of our true natures. And we act in ways that are consistent with our true identities. Why can’t we always know, and act on, our own self-definitions?

Sometimes I think we just get lazy. When things are going along smoothly, we relax and just go with the flow. If someone tries to impose his definition of us, we just accept it; it is easier than fighting. That may be innocuous in the short term, but over time, we start to be more and more compliant until we lose track of who we really are. Then it takes an event like the tragedy of Harvey to wake us up and allow us to again find the true self within us.

And isn’t it beautiful when we do?

Identities

September 4th, 2017

By Michael W. Gos

High Hill, Texas

We were spending a part of our Christmas break exploring the painted churches around Schulenburg. The last on our list was the one I found to be the most amazing, Saint Mary’s in High Hill. Because my wife grew up in a world pretty much devoid of Catholics, I spent a good part of the day answering questions. She marveled at the difference between these little churches and the one she was raised in. While the outside architecture was similar, the insides were as different as night and day. While sitting there, we also talked about church music. I grew up on Bach and plainsong (chant), she on gospel accompanied by a piano.

And then we discussed the changes in the church over time, a sad topic for me. I explained to her about the differences between the mass when I was a kid and what she would see were she to attend one today. Back then, the altar was turned around, with the priest facing the same way as the congregation. And the Latin! Even as a kid with no particular liking for religion, I thought the mass was beautiful.

We sat for a long time—she taking in the beauty around her, and me thinking about the distance between my boyhood and today.

 

We all started somewhere. For most of us, it was somewhere different from where we are today. For me, there is the obvious distance between Indiana and Texas for a start. But the far greater distance is from a working-class steel mill community to academia. As is the case with most of our lives, it has been a long journey—a journey of change.

Many of my working class students are just now beginning to attempt a similar journey in their lives. They are starting with education but will quickly discover that is not enough. They must also work to change social class markers—speech patterns, critical thinking, etc. I always feel sad for them when they first start to feel that inevitable separation from friends and family as they make those changes. For a long time, the evolving student feels like a man without a home. He no longer fits in the old world he grew up in, but he has not yet found his place in the new one either. He feels rejected by the people in his life because they just don’t, or won’t, understand what he is trying to do. Meanwhile, family and friends in the old neighborhood feel left behind by someone who is getting “uppity” and thinks he is better than they are. It’s sad, but inevitable.

There is an old saying that you can’t go home again and I suspect that is true. Once we begin our independent journeys in life, the die is cast. And yet, at many stages along the way, we get frustrated and start asking ourselves questions like, “What am I doing? Who am I, really?”

And that never changes. Even now, decades later, I often feel insecure in this new world. I wonder, did I really change as much as it appears, or am I still that same working-class kid who’s now playing dress-up to impress the grown-ups. I often feel like I’m just bluffing my way through this new world, constantly worried that someone might catch on. What if they find out I really am just an imposter?

I suspect I’m not alone in that feeling. You may not have made a class border crossing, but there are lots of other changes we go though in our lives that carry the same burdens. Some of us change cultures, moving to other regions of the country or even to other nations. Others go on a different career path than the rest of the family and friends and are stigmatized as a result. And frankly, some of us are the black sheep of our families for one reason or another. Whatever our circumstances, change is inevitable. Life is change.

And with this barrage of changes, sooner or later, we become overwhelmed and start to question everything. Am I still the person I started out as all those years ago? Or am I really the person I seem to be today? Perhaps I am neither of those people but rather someone else entirely different? And probably the hardest question of all—is it all worth the cost? That’s a tough one to answer. But it doesn’t really matter; we can’t unmake the decisions from the past.

The old adage is right; we really can’t go home again. The places we knew back then have changed, the people are different and some of them are gone, so why even try? And yet, we can’t just forget about who we were back then either. It is important to never lose sight of that, if for no other reason than to be able to fully appreciate how far we’ve come over the years.

But it seems to me that remembering where we came from and being aware of where we are today doesn’t leave us that much closer to understanding who we are. It’s not enough to just appreciate how far we’ve come. Who we are is really a more complicated issue.

To really understand our true identities, we need to see the bigger picture—where we came from, where we are today, and most important, every step that occurred along the way. It is the entire journey that identifies who we are. Aristotle argued that you can’t measure happiness in the moment. It must be evaluated over an entire lifetime. Identity has that same essence. It is the sum total of every instant of our existence. To look at it any other way would be doing ourselves a disservice. More important, it keeps us from ever understanding who we really are. And that understanding is a key to happiness and satisfaction in our lives.

We are all the changes we have made or experienced throughout our lives. We’ve all come a long, long way. When looked at that way, I can’t help but be excited about who I am…and about who you are.

Friends of the Heart

August 1st, 2017

Photo by Michael Gos

By Michael W. Gos

Palisades, Texas

I like old things. That’s good because I’m no spring chicken myself. I love old furniture, old books and especially old cars. But most of all, I like old buildings. I once gave a lecture in an Oxford dining hall that was built in 1090 A.D. I can’t begin to tell you what a thrill that was. When I travel in Texas, I prefer historic hotels, but the ultimate thrill for me is to stay in a Civilian Conservation Corps building.

If you’ve ever been to a state or national park anywhere in the U.S. that opened prior to the 1940s, you’ve probably seen the work of the CCC. You can’t miss the style: gray limestone rocks stacked flat and a wood-shingled roof. Since they are generally located in the woods, each wall, building or stair set looks like it grew naturally out of the forest floor.

We were in Palisades, a tiny village of 325 people a few miles south of Amarillo and east of Canyon. The area was an early Texas state park located at the north end of Palo Duro canyon. It was later replaced by a much larger and better-located park a few miles to the south. The entire area of the old park then passed into private hands. The CCC building that used to be the park headquarters has been divided into two cabins and turned into a B&B that was our home for the next four days.

We were here to meet my best friend, Kevin and his wife, who came down from Indiana to join us for a few days in canyon country. I left Indiana 25 years ago this month and even though Kevin and I see each other only about once a year, we always pick up right where we left off without missing a beat. It is uncanny. When I first saw him drive up in his rental car, it was like we were together just yesterday.

 

A long time ago, a wise man explained to me that there are two kinds of friends you will have in your life, and it is important to know the difference. Now, I’m not talking about that absurd notion of “friend” pushed by Facebook (400 people you wouldn’t recognize if you saw them on the street). I’m talking about real world, flesh and blood human beings.

The first variety is “friends of the road.” These are people we meet and get close to because we share with them a portion of our lives. They are people we work with, know from a club, hobby or other social situation, or that we live near. These people are important to us because they share an important chunk of the journey of our lives. We share our thoughts, feelings and free time with them. In many cases, they provide the fun in our lives. In others, they are the only thing that gets us through the hard times.

The problem with friends in this category is, eventually we part ways. Someone changes jobs, drops a hobby or moves away. We stay in contact for a while, but over time, the relationship fades away. Even if we had been friends for years, the separation in space creates the inevitable result. That is not to say these friends are less important. Quite the contrary, they are indispensible. They make life worth living. But eventually, our roads do part.

The other group of friends, those “of the heart,” are different. While they always start out as friends of the road, somewhere along the way, something changes. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out what the change is and how it happens. I still haven’t figured it out completely, but I have some ideas.

At some point in the relationship, geography ceases to be a factor. It doesn’t matter if the two of you live next door to each other or a thousand miles apart. The connection switches from one of proximity to one of souls—not souls in a religious sense, but more like a matter of our essence.

We often hear the term “soul mate” used in reference to a romantic relationship. Some argue that two souls travel lifetime after lifetime together.

Others claim we each have only half a soul and our soul mate is the one whose half soul fits ours perfectly, forming one complete. I find this view a bit more reasonable but still not quite right. My problem with both notions is that they assume we all have but one soul mate. I know that can’t be right because I’ve had five: my wife, my best friend and over the last 40 years, three dogs. Each of them completed me.

I think the reason that removal in time and space doesn’t affect friends of the heart is because they are operating on a plane where time and space just don’t work the way they do in “normal” reality. Just as the DVD of a two-hour movie defies our idea of time and space because it holds every scene, every place and every second of the movie on that one disk at the one instant, friends of the heart transcend the traditional linear views of time and space as well. They just are.

When Kevin and I were discussing this, he added another, slightly different view of friends of the heart. It has to do with what he called “refrigerator rights.” The friend of the heart is someone who can, at any time, go into your refrigerator, look through it and take out anything he wants and no one thinks anything of it.

After some thought, I began to measure each of my “soul mates” against his rubric, starting with him. When he comes down here, he of course has full refrigerator rights. He also has free range of the wet bar and the liquor cabinet where I keep the good stuff. That may be even more important. He clearly passes the refrigerator test.

We’ve now been best friends for 37 years. For 25 of them, we’ve lived over a thousand miles apart. It hasn’t made a difference.

Like I said, I like old things—especially friends.

Juxtapositions

May 1st, 2017

By Michael W. Gos

Shiner, Texas

From the time we are very young, we experience juxtaposed sights, scents and touches that always remain in our minds and hearts as pairs.  I will forever couple that magnificent smell of cigars with sunny days with my dad at Wrigley Field.  Hearing a British accent always takes me back to that summer at Oxford and church always brings the thought of beer.  (What??  Yeah, you read that right.)

On our spring break trip a few weeks ago, after a couple of days at King Ranch, we headed north toward Flatonia.  We had spent this particular morning touring three more of the painted churches of Texas—one in Praha, one in Moulton and the last in Shiner.  After lunch at a fried chicken joint there in town we decided that, since we were in Shiner, why not hit the brewery?

Since it was an absolutely perfect day, while we waited for the next tour to begin, we sat outside at a picnic table and drank our four free beers in the sunshine.  I was enjoying a lemony brew that was new to me when it hit me—it was almost like being a kid again, this juxtaposition of church and beer.

Growing up Catholic, beer was a part of most church-related activities.  Sure, in the mass itself the priest used wine, but we were a poor working-class community so beer was the libation of choice.  Every Friday night my family would have fried fish at home and it was always clear to us as kids that this was for religious reasons.  As early as I can remember, my brother and I got a tiny glass of watered-down beer with our fish.  Church socials, especially potlucks, always featured beer.  And my favorite of all, the annual father and son trips to the Purdue-Notre Dame football game featured a bus full of coolers of beer.  While beer was always around, I was in my twenties before ever I saw someone drunk.  Beer was a part of life; overdoing it was not.  Still today, the smell of beer alone makes me think of church.

I sometimes wonder why these juxtapositions of seemingly unrelated, sometimes incompatible images are so important to us.  They stay with us long after the memory of events themselves seems to be gone.  Today, I don’t remember a single individual Cubs game, but I remember the cigar smell meant Wrigley Field.

Recently, at a restaurant with friends, someone brought up the song “Elusive Butterfly” by Bob Lind.  Inevitably, the question was asked, “When was that a hit?”  While the quick-on-the-draw cell phone expert in the group began to look it up on the Internet, I searched my memory for juxtapositions.  I had no other choice since I only have a flip phone.  (I don’t want a phone that is smarter than I am.)  Still I had a powerful tool at my disposal.  What could I connect the song to?  I remember having a discussion with my then-girlfriend about the fact that the song was unique because it had no rhyme.  We were outside in the snow.  Simple.  If there was snow, I knew it was winter and because of who I was with, it had to be my sophomore year in high school.  I announced the answer: winter of 65-66.  About two minutes later, our smart phone master informed us the song was released in December of 1965 and hit number five on the charts in January of ’66.  The entire group talked among themselves marveling at my fantastic memory, allowing me a chance to sneak a peek at the address on my driver’s license to refresh my memory on how to get home.
There is no question that these juxtapositions we have stored are powerful tools once we learn to use them.  But not all of us know how to do that.  Many of us, because of training or the job we hold, can look at something analytically.  We are very adept at breaking the whole down into its component parts.  We can even analyze how those parts interact.  But how many of us can go in the other direction, that is, to look at the object as a part of a larger system and then study how it interacts with other things in the world to form a whole?  Even those of us who can do this as part of our jobs seldom transfer this skill to everyday life.

And yet, that is a critical skill. We need to be able to see these subtle connections.  As humans, we tend to view the world in dichotomies.  We need to do that to really understand life around us.  Think about all the pairs we take for granted: work/play; healthy/sick; hot/cold.  Many of these are opposites and we see a scale running between the poles.  We measure things by their position on that scale.  Other dichotomies are less clear.  We see the pair of love as hate, yet they are not opposites, but rather two sides of the same coin, a strong emotional attachment. (The opposite of love is indifference.)  And sometimes, part of the dichotomy is invisible.  According to Aristotle, this is the case with happiness/unhappiness.  He says happiness is like air.  We are only aware of it in its absence.  Perhaps it is these difficult juxtapositions that make us less willing to rely on them in our daily lives.  If it is too much like work, I’d rather not do it.

Some juxtapositions just jump out at you when you least expect them, like beer and church did for me in Shiner.  Others, like Elusive Butterfly, are more subtle; you have to work for them.  But it seems to me, they are such powerful tools that it is worth the search.  I am always amazed at the power they bring.

For the next few weeks, every time I thought of something in my past, I looked for its pair.  That has opened up a surprisingly rich collection of memories and new ideas that I never would have been able to enjoy otherwise.   Some have lain dormant for years—like the way beetles remind me of the day my best friend and I went to school wearing long underwear and gym shorts.  But that’s a story for another day.

The Unexamined Life

September 13th, 2016

bobwillsbus

Photo by Jill Coe Gos

turkeytx

By Michael Gos

Turkey, Texas – Socrates purportedly said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”  I say purportedly because we don’t really know for sure if Socrates said that, or anything else for that matter.  You see, we don’t have a single written work of his.  All we know of him comes from his student Plato.  In his dialogues, Plato has Socrates leading discussions and presenting his views on life and the world.  The fact is, we don’t really know that Socrates said any of the things Plato attributes to him.  It is entirely plausible that Plato could be presenting his own thoughts and placing them in the mouth of Socrates to give the ideas more credibility with his ancient Greek audience.  (Okay, call me a cynic.)

I guess it doesn’t matter who said it first, though; the idea is powerful and stays with us today.  In fact, it is this quote that became the basis for the entire field of philosophy itself.  It has been accepted as a universal truth since the fifth century B.C.  But frankly, I think whoever said it missed the boat on this one.  At best, he told only half of the story.  I believe the half that is being ignored is absolutely critical.

We were in Turkey, a town barely big enough to hold the six letters of its name.  We came to see the Bob Wills museum.  Growing up in Indiana, I was never exposed to country music, let alone old time western swing.  I had not heard of Wills and his Texas Playboys till after I had been in Texas several years.  I was a little behind in getting “cultured up.”

The museum itself looks like an old, elementary school building that has been repurposed.  But the item that got my attention most was not in the museum at all.  It was a bus sitting in a small grassy field across the street, next to the ruins of a 1920s-era filling station (we call those things “gas stations” today).  The paint on the bus was a kind of mix between purple, brown and rust and it had a white roof.  Across the sides of the roof was written “Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.”  I’m not sure why, but I had a feeling this had to be the most valuable item in the museum’s collection.  And yet, it wasn’t in the museum at all.  It had been abandoned to the elements in this weed-filled lot.

I was sorry for all the things he never saw, and never would see.

I thought about how much of the lives of these men played out on this bus—and about the history that was made in it.  I wondered how many songs had been written in it and what role it played in the development of the western swing genre itself.  And yet here it sat—neglected and decaying.  It was really depressing.

My favorite escape from depression is a good meal, so I decided to try to forget the neglected bus and get some lunch at the only eatery I could find in town, a little breakfast and lunch place called Galvin’s.  I ordered a large bowl of red and a diet coke.  The only other person in the place was an old man, I’d guess around 85, who was eating a chicken fried steak.

As you might expect, we got to talking and he told me he had ranched on the edge of town for as long as he could remember and that his daddy and grandpa did the same before him.  His wife had died about seven years ago and now, being too old to ranch himself, he leases out his land for pasture and comes here for breakfast and lunch every day.

I asked him if he had travelled much.  He said he was too young for WWII so he never had to leave Turkey.  The furthest he had ever gone was Amarillo, just over 100 miles away, and he did that only one time because his wife wanted to see the big city.  They were both overwhelmed by the sheer volume of cars and people, and especially all the traffic lights.  He said he never left Hall County again.

I got to thinking about the life he led.  For me, there has always been something romantic about a family homestead, especially one with a substantial amount of land and a multi-generational past.  That sense of being grounded—of having a home—is something I have always coveted but will never experience.  Add to that, this was my fourth multi-day trip in eight weeks and I began feeling homesick for even my little postage stamp of ground in Clear Lake.

Before I could get too carried away by nostalgia for something I never had, I found myself looking at it from a different perspective.  The old man had never been to Yellowstone, or the Grand Tetons.  More tragically, he had never seen Big Bend, Hill Country, Luckenbach or the Big Thicket.   And my envy quickly turned to something closer to sympathy.  I was sorry for all the things he never saw, and never would see.

Certainly Socrates is correct in his contention that our lives must be examined in order for us to enjoy the maximum rewards.  I understand the importance of evaluation and assessment in everything we do.  How else can we tell if things are going as we planned?  If we examine our performance regularly and find that we are not measuring up to our goals, we can immediately make changes in our actions in an effort to improve the outcome, be it at work or in life.  Later, we can reassess whether the changes are working.  If not, we can do further tweaking.  Every examination, and every change we make in response, leads to a more rewarding life.

So there is no question; Socrates is correct when he says, “The unexamined life is not worth living.  But I think when it comes to our happiness and satisfaction in life, he misses a far more critical point, or perhaps it is a corollary—the unlived life is not worth examining. 

I don’t know.  Maybe the old man in Turkey would be satisfied with what he saw upon assessing his life.  But my guess is, he’d more likely be devastated.  In looking back when the end is near, we seldom regret things we did.  We are far more likely to regret the things we didn’t do.

Maybe Brother Jimmy summed it up best when he said, “That’s why we wander and follow La Vie Dasante.”

The Measure of Riches

August 1st, 2016

IMG_1479By Michael W. Gos

Jefferson, Texas

We are a time-poor society.   It wasn’t always this way.  In fact, many of us are old enough to remember a time when we were much more prosperous in this regard.  But I’m afraid those days are gone.

We were staying at a great little B&B in Jefferson.  It was spring break and we planned on exploring Caddo Lake.  Jefferson is one of two or three towns with good lodging options in the area and I had heard they had a Carnegie Library, something I’ve always wanted to see, so there was no question this would be our “base camp.”

The first morning, we set out for the lake only to find that all the roads into the area were closed due to flooding.  When we got back to the B&B, we called our outfitter, then the tour boat company and the train depot to check on trips we had scheduled for later in the week.  They all gave us the same answer—Caddo Lake is closed for the next few weeks.

So with four days on my hands and a now empty schedule, I decided to just hang out.  I spent the first morning at the library.  Then in the afternoon, my wife delivered me to husband daycare (in this case, a wine bar called The Corkyard) while she did the “shop till you drop” thing.

Normally, this works out fine for both of us, but on this rainy day, for some reason, I wasn’t enjoying it.  I was getting antsy sitting there and in the process of fidgeting in my seat I happened to notice an ancient-looking store across the street called the Jefferson General Store.  There was a sign in the window saying “Root Beer on Draft.”  I knew where I had to go.
I walked across the street and immediately entered a time warp.  Directly in front of me as I entered was a huge, candy counter with all the treats I enjoyed as a kid—circus peanuts, Neccos, those little wax bottles with a Kool-Aid-type liquid in them, and even the paper straws filled with Kool-Aid powder and sugar.  The selection was enormous and most of the items I hadn’t seen in nearly 50 years.

I took a long time exploring the rest of the store and the vast variety of old timey things they had.  I bought a jar of mayhaw jelly, a book about the town and some pickled garlic.  Then, onto the main event—I took a seat at the lunch counter.  It was the same as the one I remember from my childhood in Indiana.  I ordered a root beer from the large wooden barrel and the day’s special, a chili dog for 50 cents.

All those years ago, my mother, an aunt, and in some cases my father, always seemed to have time to take me to places like this—or to a park or playground.  It was a part of our everyday life.  And then I thought about how today; no one has time for this.  How did we get from there to here?  It may sound strange, but I believe the cause of these changes is the introduction of labor-saving devices.  Let me start with life as I remember it as a child in the 1950s.

We lived in a “poor” neighborhood but we always had kids to play with and our moms were always home if we needed anything.  Often we’d stop for lunch at a neighbor’s house because his mom was serving something that sounded better than what we could get at home.   Basically, our homes were interchangeable.  Since everyone knew everyone else, the moms would call each other and exchange information on the location and activities of their kids.  We would be disciplined by a neighbor mom just as quickly as by our own.  In fact, we even called many of the neighbors “aunt” and “uncle” even though we were not blood relations.

Our moms were home for two reasons.  First, they were there for us, but they also had a lot of work to do.  I remember my mom’s old ringer washer in the basement and the clotheslines both in the basement for winter, and in the backyard the rest of the year.  She washed dishes by hand and Dad pushed a non-motorized mower once a week.

But then things started to change.  It began when the first labor-saving device entered the picture.  In my house, that was a clothes washer, but the pattern was universal regardless of the first device.

When we bought that first machine, we had to pay for it.  No problem—Dad just worked a few more hours and eventually we were caught up again.  But those extra hours at work meant he had a bit less time at home.  To compensate, we bought a power lawn mower.  It saved Dad a bit of time and effort, but it had to be paid for.  So he worked a few extra hours.  But as he began working more hours (at least one overtime shift a week in my dad’s case) we needed more labor-saving devices.

All across America, it was not long before the inevitable happened.  We couldn’t keep saving time (buying more devices) on our fathers’ incomes alone.  The responsibility began falling to the women.  Let’s look at some data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (Report 1052).  In 1950, only 32 percent of women were in the workforce.  I think it is safe to assume these were mostly unmarried women or women with grown children.  By 1960, the number had risen to 35.5 percent.  In 1970 it was up to 40.8 percent and by 1980, 47.7 percent of women were in the workforce full-time. And that was just the beginning.  In 1990, the number was up to 54.3 percent and for the first time, more women were working than not.  In 2000, the number was 57.5 percent and rising.

With the women at work instead of in the neighborhood, several new costs arose.  First there were the inevitable child-care costs.  Soon after, safety became an issue.  Without the neighborhood moms at home, the kids lacked supervision.  There was a myriad of ways for them to get into trouble and eventually it was no longer prudent to let them roam outside the way we did as kids.  We had to keep them busy.  That meant non-stop after-school and weekend activities—with parents as chauffeurs.  Soon we even had to drive kids to and from school because it was no longer safe for them to walk or bike.  The result was we now needed even more labor-saving devices so moms could keep up with the chores at home in addition to working.  And the spiral continued.

What was the result?  Today we are all working 40, 50 and 60 hours a week, serving as chauffeurs in our off time and raising a generation of kids who think this pace of life is normal.

As I sat at the lunch counter at the Jefferson General Store, I found myself longing for those days long ago when we could go to the library for a couple of hours, then head to the playground or the “five and dime” for a root beer and a bit of our favorite candy.  It was fun—an adventure.  And we had a different adventure every day.

We may be richer dollar-wise today, and have a lot more “stuff” to show for it, but we have definitely become time-poor.  Which is more important?

Brisket for Breakfast

November 1st, 2015

gosbbqLexington, Texas

by Michael Gos

“Let me sleep on it.”

We have all said that at some point in our lives.  Most of us have done it many times. It is one of those things we don’t even think about—we just say it robotically.  It’s instinctive because deep down at some subconscious level, we know it is the right thing to do.  Can you imagine what would happen to a centipede if someone asked, “What do you do after your 13th leg hits the ground?”  Asking for time to sleep on an issue is like that centipede walking.  We don’t have to stop to contemplate what we are saying.  We just say it.  And that is a good thing.  I’d hate to imagine the human version of that centipede lying in a crashed and crumbled heap trying to figure out what he was supposed to do after the 13th leg.

Lexington is a tiny town, just over one square mile in size with fewer than 1,300 residents. Every Saturday, farmers from around the area come to town for a cattle auction that starts just past noon.  But long before that, they go to breakfast—at Snow’s Barbecue.

Over the years, I have made it a point to try all of the best barbecue joints in Texas.  I guess you could say I am an aficionado.  My wife thinks I’m more of an addict.   It’s a matter of perspective, I guess.  I keep track of the rankings published by the “experts” (people who are supposed to know more about this than I) just in case a new upstart place breaks into the elite level.

I had tried all the rest of the top ten places in Texas, but because of the difficulty in scheduling, this one remained. Texas Monthly said it was the best brisket in Texas.  The New Yorker topped even that, calling it the best barbecue in the world. But to get some, you have to go on a Saturday and get there early.  Snow’s opens at 8 a.m. on Saturdays only.  They close when they run out of meat, generally well before noon, but the brisket runs out long before that. Be prepared to wait in line.

While a lot of the patrons are getting large amounts of brisket to take home and eat later, enough are having it for breakfast that the tables (both inside and out) are usually full.  I got there at about 9:30 and I was glad to discover that Miss Tootsie Tomanetz still had brisket coming off the pits.  (Yes, a woman pit master! Do you know how rare that is in Texas?)

I was in line less than a half hour when I got my plate full of brisket.  I grabbed a couple of cups of the free beans and the usual “fixins” — pickles, jalapenos and onions. Then I sat down and dug into the most heavenly brisket I have ever experienced.  After savoring the first bite, I tried the second with a dollop of the fabled sauce they make.  It was sacrilegious!  The best sauce in the world would only serve to lower the quality of this piece of perfection.  I never touched the sauce again.  The meat was magical.  I couldn’t call this a religious experience.  It was more than that.

As I drove through Hill Country later that day, I kept thinking about my morning and the experience I had at breakfast.  I’ve been to all the barbecue places in Lockhart and Luling, several in east Texas, many in West Texas, some around Abilene and even Cooper’s in Llano.  Never have I had an experience like this.  Was Tootsie’s brisket really that far beyond everything else I’ve tried?  Or was there something else at work here?

Miss Tootsie Tomanetz visits with a regular at Snow’s BBQ

Miss Tootsie Tomanetz visits with a regular at Snow’s BBQ

There is something special about mornings — something that makes the world look better.  Get up early and listen to the birds putting on their morning concert.  Look around.  Smell the coffee.  Everything seems so much cleaner, so much clearer, so much brighter.  Hondo Crouch called it “that magic time of day when just thousands and thousands of insignificant miracles are happening.”

After a good night’s rest, our minds, like the day, are clearer.  We can think things through better and consequently we can make better decisions.  In the morning, when everything is new, we are far more likely to see what is true and to see it clearly.  That is something we know instinctively, so we say, “Let me sleep on it.”

I don’t claim to be the first to discover this principle.  Ernest Hemingway’s most recent posthumously published book (July 2000) is titled True At First Light.  What might be different in my way of looking at it is that I see this as more than just a simple truth—it is, in fact, a metaphor for something much larger.
Seeing the truth, and seeing it clearly, sometimes requires more than just a fresh day at first light.  Sometimes it needs a fresh start altogether, a whole new beginning.  Most of the positive major events in our lives are preceded or accompanied by new beginnings.  We change jobs, partners, geographic location or maybe our way of looking at the world.

These new beginnings allow us to see the world more clearly, to operate with heightened senses that allow us to take in and process more information — more of the detail that has always been available to us but that we were unable to access because we were in old patterns, using old ways of thinking.  The new beginnings allow us to see truths that were previously hidden from us by the hazy light of mid-day.  Only in the early morning light — of day, and of life — can we see the world without its shadows.  Truth requires new beginnings.

Perhaps Ms. Tootsie’s brisket isn’t really that much better than all of the other outstanding barbecue places I have visited over the years.  Maybe instead, she has hit on a universal truth and learned how to capitalize on it.  Like our minds, our physical senses are at their peak in the early mornings. Our senses of sight, smell and most important, taste, are working at their absolute best. That creates a golden opportunity.

So I took a night to sleep on it. The next morning I decided maybe her real secret is brisket for breakfast.

The Mists of Time

October 1st, 2015

Mission San Francisco de los Tejas

Mission San Francisco de los Tejas

El Camino Real, Texas

By: Michael Gos

Why are we so interested in history?  Sure, there is that fact that if we fail to learn from it we are doomed to repeat it.  But that only works on a logical, rational level.  We have to think about it in order for it to become a factor.  The real draw we feel seems to be more visceral—something in human nature.  It gives us wisdom, I suppose, but there is still something else that pulls us to it.  And it seems the more we learn, the more we want to know.  Soon we find ourselves looking further and further back in time—Rome, Greece, Lascaux.  We have even developed a series of tools that help us to connect to people and events in history.  We have historical markers along our highways, historical parks and sites like Colonial Williamsburg and the Alamo, and even a history channel.

Growing up in Indiana, I didn’t have the good fortune of a Texas history class in school.  Of course, I knew about the biggies—the Texas myths.  The whole world has heard about Austin’s colony, the Alamo and the Republic of Texas.  But beyond that…nothing.  When I finally found my way to Texas, that all changed.  I became ravenous in my appetite for historical information and time has only sharpened that desire.

For over 20 years I have heard about El Camino Real de los Tejas, the King’s Road.  And for the same 20 years, I’ve wanted to see it.  It ran from Natchitoches, Louisiana, to San Antonio and then branched off into smaller roads that ran all the way to Mexico City.  In all, it was over 1,000 miles long.

It is advertised as running “roughly” along Louisiana Highway 6 and Texas Highway 21.  But I didn’t want to see the approximate route; I wanted to see the actual road, to stand on the same dirt that thousands of American refugees traveled to find their way to that paradise on earth that is Texas.  In my research I discovered that there are still a very few places where you can see the original road.  The problem is that most of these places are hidden in the deep woods and on private property.  But I had heard that if you are willing to hike a bit and can orienteer, there is a place where it can still be seen—in Mission Tejas State Park.

Mission Tejas is one of the Civilian Conservation Corps parks, but for me the main historic interest went a bit further back in time.  The namesake old log church, Mission San Francisco de los Tejas, is amazingly rustic, right down to the old iron axe used as a door latch.  It was the first Spanish mission in Texas, operating long before the more famous ones in San Antonio, and was located here because of the proximity to El Camino Real.  It wouldn’t last long as a mission however, as the local Nabedache Indians eventually ran off the priests when they believed that the holy water used in ceremonies was causing sickness and death from smallpox.

There isn’t a real trail to the old road, but we were told if we walked along the park road to a spot about halfway between the mission and campsite number seven, then head down the hillside and into the woods, we just might get lucky and eventually stumble our way to a rare stretch of the old road still surviving today.  Heading down the hill, we made our way along what couldn’t even be described as a deer path and we managed to lose track of that a time or two.  Backtracking allowed us to find the last good spot and re-evaluate our path from there.  But eventually we ran out of “trail” altogether and had to switch to trail blazing.  We meandered around for about 20 minutes seeing nothing but dense woods.  But then, we looked up and there, in the middle of the dense forest, it lay.

Now, more than 150 years later, it had become overgrown with grass and low brush, but years of compressing by human feet, horses and wagon wheels had made the soil so compact that no trees could grow there.  Right there, in front of us was a long tree-lined corridor, less than 20 feet wide that was once the most traveled road in Texas.  We took our time as we strolled along it, thinking about all the history and all the famous people who came across this very spot where we stood.  It was awe-inspiring.

There is no question—it was a thrilling experience.  I was surprised at the depth of my reaction.  It tapped into my soul.  The last time I felt this way was on a train to Oxford, England.  As we neared the university, the skyline filled with spires.  For the first time in my life I experienced my profession, education, as elevated to the level of religious fervor.  And it was all because of the history of the place. Worlds apart (old versus new, Europe versus America) and separated in time (1090 A.D. versus 1800), these two places affected me in the same way—they touched something deep inside that I didn’t even know was there.

Why do we react this way in the presence of history?  And why is the reaction greater the further back in time we go?  When I have questions like this, I tend to turn to the experts: philosophers, researchers and psychologists. Carl Jung had something to say about it.  He argued that the human psyche, that universal consciousness we all share, is not of today, but rather, reaches back into prehistoric ages.  The further back we go, the closer we get to touching that true essence of who we are as human beings.  And it feels good.

It is really easy in the rush and madness that is our world today to lose track of ourselves.  We are so absorbed in the matters at hand that we have neither the time nor the inclination to think about who we are as members of our species. My wife says when I have a task in mind, I am totally blind to everything else going on around me.  She says I could walk right past a fire in the kitchen while on my way to take out the garbage and never even notice.  I like to call that my highly developed ability to focus, and it has served me well over the years.  She is not convinced.  But when I am “in the zone,” I get a lot done, so I apparently value that focus over my human psyche.

As the sun fell low in the sky, we headed back through the woods and up the hillside to the mission.  We still needed to drive to Nacogdoches to our base camp for the night—a log cabin deep in the woods with its own long history.  It was time for a rest and a chance to maybe give up that power to focus, for just one night.  But I couldn’t stop thinking about all the men and women who walked that same road I stood on that afternoon.  They carved out the Texas I so love.

The Art of Being Human

September 1st, 2015

The Leakey Merchantile-A true Texas general store with beer, groceries, clothing, camping supplies, ammo and bait.

The Leakey Merchantile-A true Texas general store with beer, groceries, clothing, camping supplies, ammo and bait.

By Michael Gos

Earl Langley is an artist.  We all are, I suppose.  Inside us is an artistic bent that comes as a part of being human and it is constantly struggling to get out.  Little children make art instinctively.  Eighty-four percent of American children rank high in creativity in kindergarten.  But for some reason, that quickly changes.  By the time children reach the second grade, only ten percent still rank high in creativity.  As adults, most of us have locked that part of ourselves away deep inside. There is nothing sadder than a man who goes to the grave with his music still in him. That won’t happen to Earl.

Earl owns a small engine repair shop in Leakey.  On Mondays, and on Wednesdays through Saturdays, Earl fixes lawn mowers and chainsaws.  But on Tuesdays, Earl practices his art.  His medium—chicken. Earl is the proprietor of Chicken Earl’s, a home built food trailer next door to his shop. His fried chicken is not fast food or even truck food.  It is a high art form.  I’ve never tasted any that could even come close to his masterpieces.  It is worth the five-hour drive from Houston just to have lunch out on the picnic tables in front of his wagon.

I once asked him why he was only open on Tuesdays.  With his close proximity to Garner State Park, I would figure he’d make a ton of money on weekends. He said he was only cooking one day a week and there was only one Tuesday in the week so it seemed like the perfect match.  So now, whenever I go to Leakey, it is on a Tuesday.

But Leakey holds more significance for me than just Chicken Earl’s. Back in 2005 I spent a week there running from Hurricane Rita. Rumor had it that some not-so-sharp civic leaders were about to try to evacuate Houston and send more than four million people north, into the path of the hurricane.  I bugged out before they had a chance to close the roads heading west to safety.  Since my running buddy was a 100-pound Labrador retriever, my choice of hotels was limited.  In the last ten years hotels have become more dog friendly, but back then, it was an issue.  I found a place in Leakey, a town I’d never even heard of, that would accept us both and after 9 hours on the road, we arrived late at night at the tiny town in southern Hill Country. They told me over the phone the office would be closed but I would be in room 12 and they would leave the key in the door.  I would have been worried about vandalism if I owned the place, but now I understand they knew what they were doing.

My week there was a real eye-opener.  Past experience had shown me that when hurricane running, you hang out in a motel, go to dinner and just be bored out of your mind until its time to go home.  But then again, I’d never spent a week in a small town motel.

The first morning, I woke up to find a note on my door telling me to come to the office to pick up a package.  A couple of the townswomen had sent over breakfast.  The hospitality just grew from there.  On Thursday night I was invited to attend the town pep rally and bonfire in preparation for the football game the next day, and on Saturday my dog and I were invited to a barbecue and party at a local ranch welcoming the town’s new nurse practitioner.  The food was great, they had a live band playing cowboy music and almost everyone at the party came up and introduced himself. It was magical. For years I just assumed my week there was an isolated event, people feeling sorry for me because of the hurricane, and

I appreciated it for what it was.  As a result, I have always had a special place in heart for Leakey.

But then other things kept happening.  I’ve written here previously about going to Montel, Texas, to photograph a 19th century wooden church back deep in the woods. The church was next to an old one-room schoolhouse that served as a community center.  As we pulled up, a woman came out of the schoolhouse and insisted we come in and join her family reunion for lunch.  Again, everyone came up to us with introductions, and I had a long conversation with two of the folks who were also Purdue grads about ten years before my time there.

And there has always been Terlingua.  I never could explain that either.  You go to the ghost town, buy a beer at the trading post and sit on the front porch drinking it and meeting all your new “friends” who want to know all about you. (“Do professors always wear cowboy hats?”  “Did you really drive all the way from Houston in a Jeep?”)

These places are so different from what I was used to.  I grew up in a city.  Today I live in a suburb of a city.  You know a few of your neighbors, and even fewer well.  Strangers pass by and there is either a tiny bit of small talk, or far more likely, none at all.  The closer you get to the center of the city, the more pronounced this isolation becomes. The longer you stay there, the more “normal” this starts to feel.

I think living in the city makes people leery of strangers.  When we have spent any measurable amount of time in that environment we begin to forget that man is, by nature, a social creature.  His true self is freely displayed, even reveled in, unless he is overcrowded.  Then a degree of protectionism and mistrust starts to creep in. Because having so many others in such close proximity overwhelms man, he tends to turn inward and that leads to misgivings that make him leery of others.  I’m sure the crime in cities doesn’t help matters either.

But move away from the crowds, spend some time in the tiny towns and the wide open spaces and you once again see man as he was designed to be.  His social nature is once again clear. That is why it is important to spend time in places like this.  We may have to live in cities because of jobs or family obligations, but we can always take some time to visit places that are more in tune with our human nature.

From time to time we need to remind ourselves of who we really are.  To be a fully developed human being requires two things: being social and letting your art out.  We are all social creatures—and artists…if we just give ourselves a chance.  Just ask Earl and the rest of the people in Leakey.

Post Script: Chicken Earl’s has recently moved around the corner onto road 337 going toward Vanderpool.  Just a few hundred feet from the “downtown” Leakey intersection is the Frio Pecan Farm. Earl now has an indoor restaurant there.  He is still open only on Tuesdays.