May 1st, 2019

Photo: Michael Gos

By Michael W. Gos

Route 66, Texas

On a beautiful afternoon, we were driving along Route 66 through the Texas panhandle. As a kid, I grew up hearing about this magical road and watched the TV show every week with my mother. I wanted to be Buz Murdock. Growing up in a family that didn’t have a car and had to travel everywhere by city bus, Route 66 seemed like a fairyland to me. Some kids wanted to go to Disneyland. I wanted to cruise Route 66 in a big convertible. By the time I got out of high school, I had read Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and Kerouac’s On the Road, so I had seen Route 66 from a variety of points of view and I was still fascinated.

Built in 1926, one of the original roads in the U.S. highway system, Route 66 was also called the “Will Rogers Highway,” or more commonly, the “Main Street of America.” While it was popular for decades, it eventually fell out of favor with a general public that was set on going through life as fast as possible—with no pauses in between. As a result, it was replaced by interstates and soon the Mother Road lost her appeal. In some places, it doesn’t even exist anymore. But when I finally got a chance to see a remnant of it, I jumped at the opportunity. They tell me Amarillo is the place where the old road is most like it was in the early ‘60s. So, on a Palo Duro Canyon adventure, we took a day and made a side trip to see this cultural icon.

It was indeed like going back 60 years. The shops and restaurants were proud of the fact that they remained basically unchanged since 1960. In some shops you are greeted at the door by a dog or two and in others you can sit on a round, rotating stool at a counter and have a phosphate or a root beer made right there on-site. All are proud of their place on this famous highway and promote it heavily.

Any time I am in an “old-timey” environment like the shops along the route, I find myself thinking about the changes I have seen over the decades. As a kid, I remember the milkman in my aunt’s town delivering from a horse-drawn wagon. I remember the Kennedy assassinations and fellow Purdue man Neil Armstrong landing on the moon. And I think I remember yesterday. I can’t help but be in awe of all the changes I have seen. But one thought I can’t escape is “What are the costs of all these changes?”

While all humans are capable of making decisions, clearly some of us are better at it than others. I think most of us have a pretty superficial method of calculating the cost of decisions we are making. Whether we realize it or not, it is impossible for the human mind to make a decision without a set of criteria we can use to measure the various options. The problem is, sometimes we don’t think about, much less articulate, what those criteria are. But even if we can’t articulate our criteria, they have to be there subconsciously, or we would never be able to make a decision. At the very least it comes down to a decision of “Does the coin land heads or tails?”

Let’s say I am looking for a new car. I don’t even have to think about it to know it needs to have off-road capabilities and a high ground clearance. That is in-bred in me. I use it to make the decision, even if I don’t think about it or even know it is there. But of course, a good criteria set needs to be more substantial than that.

Among other things, I also would like the car to be either black or silver. Is this criterium equal in importance to the off-road capabilities? No, and it is important to establish that up front. Color might be negotiable if I can’t really find the car I want, but off road and ground clearance are not. These non-negotiable ones are what we call “all-or-nothing” criteria. If an option doesn’t meet an all-or-nothing criterium, it is immediately removed from consideration. For instance, I absolutely have to have a convertible. If not, on the first nice day, I know I will have to take a chain saw to the roof. That is an all-or-nothing criterium.

So, some criteria carry more weight than others. Some are necessary, some are nice to have, and some are “Gee, in a perfect world it would have X.” People who are good at the math of decision making usually can articulate, and then weigh, their criteria.

My best friend’s son recently had a job offer from a company in Seattle for a substantial raise in pay. He is good with decision math and understood he needed to go beyond just the salary offer. He took time to compare the cost of living between Seattle and McKinney, Texas, where he now works. Suddenly the raise which looked enormous on first view, became much less impressive.

Many of us would stop there. But being good at the math of decisions, he took a look at some of the intangibles. This is where many of us go wrong. How do we quantify something that we may not even be able to clearly define? What value do you put on the fact that McKinney is thriving while Seattle is a dying city? Or, as was the case in his decision, what value do you put on being able to see the sun? For him, that turned out to be the final straw. It was comparing Texas to Hell. He turned down the job.

Measurement of the intangibles is the point where most of us find that our decision skills are not what they should be. Because we don’t know how to quantify these things, we find we can only react to them emotionally or, if they are really hard to quantify, we ignore them altogether. That is when we get into trouble.

That brings me back to the Mother Road and those U.S. Highway Department people back in the ‘60s. How good were they at decision math? It is obvious that they had in mind a criterium about moving traffic quickly and efficiently from one place to another and for the most part, with the interstate system, they succeeded in their goal. But did they ever consider articulating criteria for the intangibles? Did they think about the towns that would be wiped out? Far more important, did they think about the generations of travelers who would never be able to experience a mythic cross-country road trip along something like old Route 66?

I fear that until we get better at quantifying intangibles, we will continue making bad decisions and generations of Americans will lose out on valuable, and enjoyable experiences—all because we were bad at the mathematics of decision making. It is important that we be able to enjoy those experiences—even if we don’t remember them the next day.


March 4th, 2019

Photo by Michael W. Gos

By Michael W. Gos

Guadalupe River, Texas

My running buddy and I were surrounded by what appeared to be an ocean of college kids, each dragging a tube and some with elaborate beer-cooler/multi-tube floatation systems that suggested these people were not the novice river runner I was. I felt a bit out of place, but at the same time, I was looking forward to trying this classic Texas activity—even if I was bit on the geriatric side.

As we stood on the bank, the bus driver/guide told us about the four sets of rapids we would encounter and how to safely negotiate our way around each. The first was Hueco Falls and we were told to stay to the far left. When he was finished, we waded into the icy water. It was absolutely shocking on entry, but after a few seconds it felt great on this blazing August day.

Feeling like a hippo trying to mount a tricycle, I fought my way onto the tube and began my trip downstream. Seconds later, I was underwater with a snoot full of river and the rather unpleasant sensation of bouncing off rocks. The driver failed to tell us Hueco Falls was barely 100 yards from our put-in point.

After what seemed like minutes underwater, being battered repeatedly, I surfaced at the end of the falls minus my tube. It seemed my day on the river had come to an abrupt end after less than two minutes and I was going to be paying for a lost tube. I struggled over to the left bank and hung on a tree root, just trying to catch my breath.

About five minutes later I heard a young man shout, “Did anyone lose a tube?” I guess my day wasn’t over after all. I retrieved the tube, thanked him profusely and then rested a few more minutes. Finally, hanging onto the tube for dear life, I waded down to a shallower spot where I would be able to once again “gracefully” climb aboard.

The rest of the trip turned out to be much less eventful, and at the end of the day, we pulled out in beautiful downtown Gruene. I returned the tube, changed clothes and headed to the Gristmill for dinner.

Sitting in one of the open areas overlooking the river, I enjoyed a chicken fried steak and a Corona. I planned to attend a show at Gruene Hall that night, so I just hung out there on the deck for a couple of hours watching the river run far below me and listening to restaurant’s music (which, by the way, was far more appropriate for someone my age than the people I had shared the river with that day). About an hour later, Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” came on and instantly, I was 17 again with a guitar hanging around my neck.
Like most kids in the ‘60s, I was part of a very bad garage band. We never amounted to anything, but we had a great time and dreamed of the day we would be more famous than the Beatles. One of the songs we played was this Cream hit and it led to one of my proudest moments. Well, it was at the time anyway. The song ends with a continuous striking of a single chord as the sound fades out. But the chord didn’t give closure to the song. While Cream made it work on the record by fading out the sound, in live performances, you can’t do that; songs need to end.

That open cadence drove me crazy for weeks and one practice day, as we finished the song, I just couldn’t take it anymore and I hit the chord that would give the song closure. Immediately, I, and everyone else in the band, recognized it as the first of the three-chord opening to the Who’s “I can See for Miles.” We segued immediately into that song and loved the way it sounded. Forever after, we performed those two songs together.

Back then, I didn’t understand that music was just math and architecture was frozen music. If I did, this “discovery” would have been no big deal. It would have been obvious if I just looked at it mathematically. But I didn’t know that then; I just knew that the final chord left us hanging and it drove me crazy. I had to close the loop. The way it happened was serendipity at its best—a totally pleasant accident.

Some of our most interesting discoveries have come from this kind of serendipitous event. Penicillin, Post-it notes, Viagra and even microwave ovens were all happy accidents. We are always shocked and delighted when they happen. We treat these events as if they were gifts— or even miracles—and in a sense, they are.

But I really have to wonder if these things we call serendipitous are really accidental or even all that rare for that matter. If you think about it, these “accidents” appear to be all around us, and they are happening far too often to be considered rare. A quick Google search will give you list after list of them—things like The Top 100 Serendipitous Scientific Discoveries. I wonder if they just might be the norm, rather than special events.

If they are indeed as common as I suspect, perhaps the thing that turns these everyday events into serendipity is our ability to see them when they are right there in front of us.
How many do we miss just because we aren’t open to them, or more important, are not expecting them? I wonder if it is possible to not only expect these happy accidents but, more importantly, to make a concerted effort to look for them. Maybe it is somewhat like hunting for morel mushrooms. They seem to be rare and very hard to find, but once you get “in the zone,” you realize they are everywhere. It may take two hours to get there, but once you do, you can gather a basket full of them in five minutes.

I experienced two “accidents” on this day, one not-so-pleasant one over Hueco falls (which I later learned was actually a Class III rapid; I guess I was lucky to just get a little bruised) and another in remembering my “discovery” of the connector between two songs. Yet I can’t help but wonder, how many other happy accidents didI miss on this, and every other day of my life.

How much more could we accomplish if we just made a concerted effort to be open to, and more importantly, to expect these events and be prepared to act on them when they occur?

Age-Adjusted Philosophy

January 2nd, 2019

Photo by Michael W. Gos

By Michael W. Gos

McKinney, Texas

We were in McKinney all weekend for a wedding and all the parties that go with it. In between the festivities, we had an afternoon to kill. As a married man, I knew what the agenda was going to be—shop till you drop. Fortunately, my sweetie and I have a system that works well for both of us. She drops me off at husband day care (the nearest bar) and she goes about her business while I read, talk with other oenophiles or just watch the world go by. McKinney is the perfect place to do this since the old courthouse square is surrounded by outdoor cafes and one very nice wine bar, the Landon Winery. It was a perfect autumn day, so I had no complaints.

A glass of French wine in front of me, I was watching two police officers saunter by on horseback when a waiter brought a woman to the next table. She immediately ordered a Cotes du Rhone. The waiter laughed and pointed out that this wine was seldom ordered there. And now, here were two strangers, sitting at adjacent tables requesting the same thing. He said it was “too weird” and walked off. Of course, that started the conversation.

She told me about her daughter, now in her early 30s, and the attitude she had that the future wasn’t worth devoting any of her time or energy to. She wanted to have fun, to do things, to live now while she was young and could enjoy it. As you might expect, Mom was not pleased with that mindset.

It is a universal human trait for each generation to complain about the younger one. I know I often find myself thinking things like that about my students. (I have solid evidence of the decline; student performance on college admissions tests has crashed and burned in the last 50 years.) But then, I also keep getting slammed by memories of my dad saying exactly the same things about my generation and how we were going to hell in a handbasket. (Okay, he might have been right.)

There is a lot of research that suggests the woman’s daughter may not be so far out of the norm, especially for her generation. I think there is a lot of energy being put into indoctrinating us into that way of thinking, especially by pop culture and self-help gurus. You know the claims. The past is dead; the future doesn’t exist. All we have is today, so you’d better make the most of it.

The problem is, I can’t really say this is such a bad way of looking at life. It seems to me, in the end, we will probably regret the things we didn’t do more than those we did, so why not use our time, and money, doing exciting, fun things? After all, we might not ever have a chance to do them again; we might not even be here tomorrow.

But then there is the other side. When I was young, I thought about life in much the same way as that girl. I was well into my thirties before I started seeing this issue differently. The fact is, regardless of the catchy phrases and persuasive arguments to the contrary, the here-and-now is only one third of the whole picture. If we buy into the usual definitions of time and space, life is a long chain of events. To understand life, we have to see it all. The problem is most people never see the entire chain, only the closest link.

Photo by Michael W. Gos

First, there is the obvious problem, the one I think the Cotes du Rhone mom was most worried about—the future and the obvious issue of finances. When do you start planning for buying that house, having that kid, or for retirement? I think the lack of attention to this matter is what most people see as the problem with living only in the now. In fact, most see it as being irresponsible.

But there is a more important issue regarding the future than finances. Those who don’t look to—and plan for—the future, stagnate. You can’t move forward into a future you didn’t plan and expect good results. Life will always be a series of “accidents” and you will never feel like you have any control over what happens to you.

And then there is the other direction. Fewer people consider the downside of ignoring the past, but it may have even greater consequences for our lives than not thinking about, and planning for, the future. Looking back, I can see how dumb I was about life. Like many young people, I made a lot of stupid decisions. But I learned from them; they made me what I am today. However, this learning always happened long after the fact. Only by looking back later could I understand the events and why they were important. Mistakes are a necessary part of life, but if I had not spent some time looking at the past, they would have remained just mistakes. I would never have received their gifts.

There is nothing wrong with making the most of today. But if we are going to excel in life, our world view should include learning from the past and planning for the future. For a happy future, we must look beyond the closest link and see the entire chain. It only makes sense.

And yet, I can’t deny that there is that other issue; we never know what day will be the last, so obsessing over the past or working diligently for a future could turn out to be a total waste of life. If you are thinking I can’t make up my mind which approach is better, you are exactly right.

Winston Churchill once said, “Any man under 30 who is not a liberal has no heart, and any man over 30 who is not a conservative has no brains.” Perhaps we can apply Churchill’s logic to the question of how to live life; I wonder if the answer to this dilemma might be age-dependent.

When young, it is certainly prudent to study past mistakes and plan for the future. But there comes a time when our futures are fairly secure, and we have life pretty well figured out (at least we hope we do). Usually by then we become aware of our mortality and recognize that we are indeed running out of sunsets. It seems to me that maybe this is the time when living for the now is appropriate.

A friend of mine once referred to his retirement as “selfish bastard time.” Maybe he had this thing figured out and he was trying to show me the answer.


November 1st, 2018

By Michael W. Gos
King Ranch, Texas

We learn a lot of valuable lessons from our parents. Work hard. Don’t tell lies. Never punch out a moose. And most of those lessons serve us well in life. But we also learn some, shall we say, “less helpful” lessons. One of those is about vacations.

We were spending a bit of time on the King Ranch. For me it has always been a place with a two-fold draw. First, of course, is the historic angle. It was the largest ranch in America and it still is the most famous one today. Most of us have heard the stories of “Captain” King and how the ranch got its start. He bought the first grant (15,500 acres) at just under two cents an acre and then grew the ranch into the 825,000 acres it is today. Imagine, a single ranch larger than the entire state of Rhode Island.

King Ranch gave us the first American cattle breed, the Santa Gertrudis. King’s cowboys (the kinenos) also worked with the mustang horses they found roaming the Wild Horse Desert and through steady improvement of the breed, the ranch became famous for quarter horses and thoroughbreds. In 1946, they even had a Triple Crown winner, Assault, who is buried there at the ranch.

But there is also another, far more important reason I love this place. Out here I can just sit for a while in my boots and cowboy hat and feel like I belong. This place suits me. I wouldn’t mind just staying here for a few days, or months, hanging out in a small cabin and just spending my days ambling around the back forty. In many parts of the ranch there is no cell phone service. I could drive here (with a cooler of beer, of course), park my Jeep somewhere where I can’t see it, and just do whatever felt right at the moment. For a month of so, I would hope to see no signs of the 21st century urban world at all. That is my idea of the perfect vacation.

My wife wants to take a trip to Italy. I am okay with that. I’d love to see the art and architecture of Rome and Florence. Like everyone else, I’d like to do the gondola ride under the Bridge of Sighs in Venice. But I don’t want to do a two-week Grand Tour. I want to experience life there. Tuscany might be a good home base, but I’d want to live there for at least a year. Clearly, I am not—and never will be a tourist by nature; I am a vacationer…a long vacationer.

Unfortunately, that is often not how it turns out for me. More commonly, when it is vacation time, there are flights involved. I don’t particularly enjoy flying even under the best of circumstances. Even worse than the flight itself are the airports. Parking issues, hauling heavy luggage, long hours sitting and waiting, and eating very bad, over-priced food are all less than pleasant. And then, of course, there is the ultimate depravity: security. Every time I enter an airport I think about that morning, sitting nude (well, bottomless anyway) for a half hour on a cold metal chair in a tiny “room” at the Hobby Airport security area, my cell phone confiscated while the screeners were off somewhere doing something with my knee brace. It was beyond unpleasant. None of this matches my idea of a fun way to spend some time off.

But that is just the start. Once you get to your destination, there is travel from the airport to the hotel. Do you go through the hassles of renting a car or do you look for a shuttle? Then there is the hotel check-in process. Don’t even get me started there.

Of course, once at your destination, there are all the “sights” you came to see. The travel to them, the long lines and the fact that I am getting grumpier by the minute make this not only unpleasant for me, but for all around me. (Poor Jill. When you see her, give her your condolences.) And when it is all over, you return home exhausted and needing another week’s rest before you can even face the prospect of going back to work.

I do understand that many people have jobs that are not only unpleasant but also demanding in terms of their time and attention. Sometimes we just have to run away. Taking a week or two off and staying home is often not an option. Even if you can walk away from work (and most of us can’t), work will find you. The phone calls and emails don’t stop just because you are “on vacation.” No one cares, or even believes that you are truly “away from work.”

For many of us, our daily life is unpleasant enough that we will spend thousands of dollars and endure the inevitable indignities the travel industry forces on us just to be able to spend ten or twelve days beyond the reach of those responsibilities.  Our lives have degenerated into 50 weeks of unpleasantness, or as Curley said in City Slickers, “getting knots in our rope.” Then we try to do all of our living in the two (or three, or four) weeks we call “vacation”.

This vacation business is tough, but before you say it is worth it, think again—you’re not going to get off that easily. Before you can leave on this vacation, you get the inevitable bonus of increased stress due to the need to get extra work done before your exodus. The whole time you are gone, you are entertained by worries about what a mess you will return to when it is finally over.

What I find most amazing is that this problem is ubiquitous. Somewhere along the line, it has become the norm.  What I described is not surprising to anyone; we all live it—and do it, willingly. You, and just about everyone you know, are doing it. How did that happen?

They say the best way to impose an idea on someone is to start when he is still a child. I suspect that is what happened here. We grew up seeing this vacation scenario as “the thing we do.” Just as brushing our teeth, sleeping at night or taking a bath are normal because they are what we grew up doing, this mode of vacationing is what we were taught was normal. Many of us never considered an alternative. I remember the novelty of the “staycation” when that word was first coined a few years ago. We found it interesting because “we never thought about that.”

Yes, some of those lessons our parents taught us turned out to be extremely valuable in life. But some are less helpful. At the top of that second list is the way we vacation. It sort of makes you question other things you were taught growing up.

But I still won’t punch out a moose.

Happiness and Success

March 1st, 2018

By Michael W. Gos

Parker, Texas

We were up around McKinney for a Saturday night wedding and had the better part of a day to kill until the ceremony. Having researched the vicinity to discover any natural areas that might provide us a brief respite from the city and suburbs, we found none we hadn’t already visited. So instead we decided to head down to Parker to see the Southfork Ranch of TV’s Dallas fame. Like most people who visit the ranch, my first reaction was surprise at how small it was. But that was only the start of what would transpire there.

I am, without a doubt, the least likely person to ever tour Southfork, having never watched even a single episode of the show. Still, it was hard to be alive in the ‘80s and not hear about the show constantly— at work, on the radio, on other TV shows, even at home (yes, other family members watched it religiously).

From what I saw and heard, my impression of the show was that it was a soap opera about a bunch of very rich, and very unhappy people. And for some reason, being at the ranch and thinking about those characters reminded me of an old Brooks and Dunn lyric I once heard: “Happiness isn’t just for high achievers.” But, of course, as a natural follow-up on that thought, I realized that, at least in the case of this show, even high achieving did little to provide true happiness. I know the show was just fiction, but it still got me thinking.

Over the centuries, there have been lots of ideas about what makes us happy. Some people believe happiness comes from external sources, like having wine, women and song; lots of big-boy toys; wealth; power; etc. We often call these people hedonists. And there are some who believe that, while all the goodies are fine, that’s not enough. To be truly happy, we must also do all we can to avoid pain. That great party on Saturday night is less fun when you know you are going to be sick Sunday morning. These people are called epicureans. Others say happiness is simply a matter of truly appreciating the things you have. I certainly know several unhappy people who are always needing more and more new stuff, new places to go, even new houses, and they never really do come to appreciate the things they already have.

But there are also those who believe happiness is an internal thing, that we create it by the way we think and the decisions we make. These people are called stoics and I think theirs is probably the correct reading.

Over the years I have come to see that everyone has the ability to be happy. It is something we choose rather than something that happens to us. The stoics say happiness comes from the way we see events rather than from the events themselves. An event in our lives has no inherent quality, good or bad, in and of itself. It is only our opinion of that event that gives it a value, positive or negative.

If the stoics are correct, if we are able to choose to make ourselves happy through our decisions, it stands to reason that we should also be able to make ourselves high achievers in the same way. After all, our level of achievement, like our level of happiness, is merely the end result of the decisions we make. Do we want to achieve or not? How willing are we to work for it? Each time an opportunity comes up, how do we respond? If we follow that line of thinking, Brooks and Dunne appear to be wrong. After all, personalities tend to be consistent. It would stand to reason that someone who is a go-getter in the realm of happiness would be equally competent in the area of achievement and vice-versa.

Yet, we all know of highly successful people who are miserable in their lives, like the characters in Dallas. Most of us also know very happy people who have next-to-nothing by today’s standards. These two examples would seem to support Brooks and Dunn’s position. So how do we explain this apparent contradiction?

While standing in the living room of the main house at Southfork, I decided Brooks and Dunn have missed the mark. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying you need wealth and fame to be happy…but I firmly believe that, to be happy, you do indeed need to be a high achiever.

I’ve talked to a lot of really happy people. Every one of them saw themselves as high achievers—even the ones who are living from paycheck to paycheck. They just define success differently than the rest of us. When I think of the things that I believe make me successful in life, I don’t think about degrees earned, jobs held or books published. That’s all just “stuff.” Instead, I see success in the friends I maintain, the appreciation I have for the people and the world around me and the fun I have each and every day. All the other happy people I hang out with feel pretty much the same way.
And even those happy people who are seen by most as high achievers tend to see their success in different ways than the general public might assume. As one friend said when I asked him his opinion on this subject, “Forget my bank account! Let me tell you about my new grandson!”

After we toured the main house, we walked around the ranch for a couple of hours. We toured the stables and even sat out under one of the enormous oaks that lined the driveway, enjoying the autumn afternoon. You know, it is a good thing the characters of Dallas weren’t real. If they were, one could become really depressed sitting there thinking about their lack of happiness—and of success.

A Sense of Wonder

March 1st, 2017

By Michael W. Gos

Weimer, Texas

You have probably heard that the most common final words spoken by Texans are “Hold my beer and watch this.”  I don’t know if that is true or not; maybe it’s just an urban (rural?) legend.  But every once in a while something happens that makes me at least consider the possibility that this saying might have some truth behind it.

I often have to spend a couple of days in Austin on business.  Next to Dallas, Austin is my least favorite place in Texas.  I am convinced the highway system must have been designed by a maniac.  You can move north and south through town in a relatively reasonable manner.  But just try going east to west.  On a good day, the drive from the airport to the Oak Hill Y will take well over an hour.  And of course, if you’re in Austin, what else are you going to do but head west into Hill Country?  After being subjected to days of traffic nightmares, noise and car fumes, I am always ready to head home.  My usual first stop on the way is Weimer.

There is a little bar in town cleverly named The Tavern.  It is a friendly place where locals welcome strangers and people congregate at tables, the bar, and even sometimes outside when the weather is fine.  It takes about an hour to get there from the Austin airport area, and the second half of the drive, heading south out of La Grange, is on an absolutely magnificent two lane road through the rolling, wooded hills.  It is the perfect anecdote to doing time in a city.  By the time I reach Weimer, I have nearly washed Austin out of my soul.

I was sitting at the bar nursing a Corona and talking to a couple of guys who ranched in the area when another man stuck his head in the door and yelled, “Come out here everybody.  You gotta see this!”

Young boys learn a lot of lesson from their fathers—lessons about honesty, hard work and surviving in the world.  For me, one of the most memorable lessons came on my 21st birthday when I was told how important it was to never let a good beer go to waste.  “Think of all those poor, sober kids in Africa,” my father said.  And we both had a good laugh.

So I downed the remnants of that bottle, ordered another one and then moved outside with the rest of the crowd, about 12 of us total.  I saw people forming a circle around two guys busy at work, each stacking charcoal into a mound.  Our “host” filled us in on what was going on.

The two combatants had been sitting at the picnic table having a bragfest about what great barbeque masters they were.  In the course of the argument one apparently said that the other could not even touch his brisket for quality.  In fact, he couldn’t even match him at starting a simple charcoal fire.  The contest was on.

The two stacks of charcoal, when finished, were pretty much identical—36 coals in a pyramid.  The rules were then laid out.  Our host would be the official timer.  One at a time, each contestant would light his fire.  The one who got all his coals covered with white ash in the shortest time was the winner.  With everyone agreed on the rules, they flipped a coin to see who would go first.

The first guy went to his truck and pulled out a cutting torch attached to an acetylene tank.  He turned it on, fired it up and said to the timer, “Ready?”  On go, the man set the flame to the charcoal.  In less than a minute, he had a bed of coals I would have slapped a steak on.  He looked at his adversary triumphantly only to receive the comment, “That’s all you got?  My old lady can do better than that.”

The second man walked over to his van and came back with a pitcher full of smoking liquid.  He said, “Stand back everybody, if you want to keep your eyebrows.  He struck a wooden match on his beard and threw it next to the charcoal pile.  Then he tossed the liquid in.

One second after the explosion, the entire pile of charcoal was white and ready to go.

“LOX,” he said.  Everyone laughed and several slapped him on the back in congratulations.  Gradually, we made our way back into the bar.  I could tell both from the looks on faces and the hushed conversations I could overhear, that many in the crowd were experiencing a sense of wonder.

I sat down and resumed my afternoon but couldn’t help notice that I wasn’t sharing that feeling of wonderment.  I’ve learned long ago to never underestimate the intelligence and versatility of “good old boys.”  But while everyone else talked about how amazing the explosion was, I just saw it as normal. That happens to me quite a bit these days—and I think I miss a lot of fun because of it.

I don’t see much that I don’t understand.  To feel a sense of wonder, we have to recognize our ignorance of a subject.  Had I not understood what liquid oxygen could do to a fire, I might have been in absolute awe about the explosion and how he did it.  But I know how that works, so it was just another witnessed event, and one I had seen before.

As children, the entire world is a place of wonder to us, and as a result, we find everything exciting and new.  But somewhere along the line, we start to feel that wonder is not such a good thing.  Perhaps it makes us feel ignorant.  Most certainly it makes us feel we are not in control of things.  When we understand how and why things happen, we feel on top of the situation.

One issue we face when studying any subject that is entirely new to us is that we don’t yet know what it is we don’t know.  That problem really unsettles some of my students.  It is easy to learn about something when we already have enough of a background in the subject to formulate a good set of questions—questions that, when answered, can fill in the holes in our knowledge.  We need only go to the library or online to find the answers.  That is how professionals do it.  But I teach research skills to freshmen college students and I assign topics I think they will know nothing about.  As a result of their lack of basic knowledge, they can’t yet formulate those good questions and they are doomed to read anything they can find on the subject—a time-consuming process that some of them find boring.  But I always hope they will take a different view, that they will recognize there is a whole chunk of the world out there they never knew existed—and then get excited about it and feel that sense of wonderment.  When that happens, it makes teaching worthwhile.

Staying away from things we don’t know, sticking only to what we already understand, may give us a sense of control—maybe even of power.  But it comes with a tremendous price.  It deprives us of our sense of wonder.

Note: To see videos of the LOX charcoal lighting process, visit either of the sites below:

What’s in a Name?

January 1st, 2017

By Michael W. Gos

Wichita Falls, Texas

It is a long way from Clear Lake to Wichita Falls up near the Panhandle at the Oklahoma line.  It was our overnight stop on a trip to Caprock Canyon.  The first thing I did on arrival was find the town’s namesake.  As I stood leaning against the rail below the falls, I couldn’t help overhearing the conversation of two women sitting on a nearby bench.

“She was my seventh interview today.  I looked at her resume for just a few seconds before she came in.  I couldn’t even guess at how to pronounce her name.  It was spelled s-h-a-hyphen-a.  I had to guess so I went with ‘Sha aa.’

“She gave me a condescending look and said, ‘it’s Shadasha.  The dash is pronounced.’  I thought about telling her it was a hyphen and not a dash, but I thought better of it.”

My first response, of course, was to struggle to stifle a laugh.  As a professor, I too often encounter strange names at the beginning of semesters.  Sometimes foreign students have names that are difficult for me, and often, even American students have names I’ve never seen before.  But those thoughts quickly passed as I relaxed, watching the water pouring over the multiple levels of rock.  I found myself thinking instead about the significance of the names we give children. How do we decide on names and do the names we choose somehow affect who those children will grow up to be?

Many writers have grappled with this question over the centuries.  The most famous discussion probably occurred when Shakespeare asked:

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

While Shakespeare seems to believe names are inconsequential, I tend to disagree.  Even though I have no hard evidence to support it, I have a gut feeling that our names really do have a lot to do with who we are.

It seems to me there are three basic tactics people use when choosing names for their offspring.  Oftentimes parents choose a name because they want to honor some older family member by passing that name on to their child.  Sometimes this becomes so entrenched in family custom that we see multigenerational names, and we are forced to begin attaching numbers to the names to identify which “Henry Wilkes” we are referring to (junior, the third, fourth, etc.).  While I understand the respect and love involved when naming a child after a relative, it just doesn’t seem to say much about the person bearing that name.

Another common tactic is to pick names that carry some special meaning.  There are several books on the market with lists of baby names and their meanings.  My parents chose Michael because the books said it means “Godly One.”  My wife Jill’s name means “Youthful.”  In cases like that, I think parents are probably engaged in forward planning.  They believe a name is instrumental in who the child will become. They pick a name they hope will facilitate the desired result.  My parents freely admitted that as their motive.  I don’t have to tell you it didn’t work.

A third approach would be the one we see in many Native American cultures.  Instead of naming a child for whom they want him to grow up to be, they wait until the child is old enough to show his true essence, and only then do they give the name that he will carry for life.  The newborn gets a temporary placeholder name that will change when his true character starts to show.  Remember John Dunbar becoming Dances With Wolves?

I think there is evidence that the ancient Greeks tended to share the Native American view of names, in theory, if not in practice.  Take the example of Odysseus in The Odyssey.   While he has a name he was given at birth, every time he is asked who he is, his name is only the beginning of his answer.  He follows it with an entire story of his life.  He gives the names of his father and grandfather followed by a litany of what battles he was in, who he killed, who he conquered and was conquered by, how much land he has and the gods that love and hate him.  This kind of self-identification seems to me a far better way to present ourselves, and it is still with us today in some of the Native American naming ceremonies.
About 30 years ago, I had the amazing experience of going through such a ceremony.  For weeks, a committee of three interviewed me, and most of my friends, including ones I hadn’t seen in years.  I got no feedback on their findings at any time during the process but on the day of the ceremony itself, it was announced that one day, about ten years earlier, I was walking along the beach on Lake Michigan with an old girlfriend when we saw a large yellow bird sitting in a fallen tree at the foot of a dune.  I still don’t know today if it was a hawk, and eagle, or an osprey; I’m not a birder.  But I was fascinated.  My girlfriend stayed at the water’s edge while I walked closer and closer by degrees until I finally got within six feet of the bird.  I was mesmerized at the needle-like beak and talons on him.  I never realized they were that sharp.  It let me understand just how they were able to capture prey so easily.

The bird and I stared, checking each other out up and down for about three minutes, and he seemed to be in no way intimidated by my presence. He could have flown off at any time, and I expected he would.  With this human invading his space like that, it was the rational thing to do.  But he just looked at me.

Eventually, I walked back to the lady who was waiting on me and we continued on our way.  About a hundred yards down the beach, I turned around to look back at the tree and saw that he too had moved on.

Apparently the lady I was with related the event to the committee when they contacted her, and on that night I received the name “Yellowhawk.”

It seems to me that a name that reflects who we are is far more meaningful than either of the other options because it carries a truth about us, something the other options lack.  A name should define us for the world, not tell what someone planned for us to be.  As cowboy poet Buck Ramsey wrote: “We are what we do, not what we lay claim to.”

Too bad it doesn’t work that way in our society.

Age & Happiness

December 1st, 2016

gosBy Michael W. Gos

Kenney, Texas

If you’ve driven through Kenney, Texas, you were probably going from Brenham to Bellville, or vice-versa.  But if you actually stopped in Kenney, I know exactly what you were doing!

This northern Austin County “town” has been around since the early 1800s.  In 1900, the population reached 200 and on paper, it maintains that number today.  But the fact is, there is no town there any more.

Like many ghost towns, there are still people living around the area, although to the casual traveler, it looks remotely rural.  If it wasn’t for a road sign, you wouldn’t know it was there at all—well, except for the Kenney Store.
On a casual drive through “town,” the Kenney Store is clearly the only business in existence.  It looks like an old dilapidated tin structure held together by rust and duct tape.  Yet every night the road in front of it fills with parked cars, sometimes a half mile in each direction, as people from Houston and San Antonio join those from Brenham and Bellville to eat and dance to the various live bands that play in this very old-fashioned roadhouse.

No one knows for sure, but the locals claim the Kenney Store has been there since the late 1800s and while once, long ago, it actually was a store, the old timers say it always sold more beer than groceries.  Back in the early 20th century, residents of Bellville, about eight miles away, would ride to Kenney on horseback in the evenings to enjoy the music and libations.  The Bellville city fathers understood that horses heading toward home will start to hot-trot back to the barn and, unless held back firmly by the rider, will break into a dead run.  They became concerned for the safety of inebriated citizens on the return trips.  Knowing they lacked the law-enforcement manpower necessary to issue a sufficient number of RWIs (Riding While Intoxicated) to curb the problem, they decided instead to run a train from town to the store and back.  While the resulting lack of traffic citations may have hurt the city coffers, it did reduce riding accidents and made it easier for Bellville residents to go out and have some fun.

Today, well over 100 years later, the store has great burgers along with chicken fried steaks, sandwiches and even a few not-so-savory items like “calf fries.”  Most important, though, it has beer and live music every night except Monday and unless you get there early, especially on weekends, you will end up standing the whole evening.  It’s that popular.
It was a Sunday evening and we had managed to score two steel tractor-seat stools at one of the bar-like tables along the top tier of seating.  A few steps below us were some tables and the dance floor.  We had already had a couple of burgers and enjoyed the first set by the band when the young couple next to me began to get up to leave.  It was still early in the evening but the man was adamant that it was time to go.  His wife and their two kids, who had been meandering around the place, insisted they stay for at least one more set.  He told them he had a lot to do yet before he was ready for work the next day.  Then he said something that got me thinking.

“I have to do this.  I don’t want to be a district manager the rest of my life.”

I recently read a study in Psychological Science that said life satisfaction and happiness increased consistently over a person’s lifetime. In fact, they found that the oldest among us were indeed the happiest.  At first this seemed perfectly logical.  After all, as we get older, we tend to be more financially stable.   That reduces our stress levels.  Our families are formed, and we are established in our careers as well.  Both of those can bring us comfort.  Then, even later in life, we move toward retirement.  Not having to go to work on a daily basis would certainly increase my happiness exponentially.
But as I thought about it a bit more, I started to wonder.  It is the older among us that tend to live on fixed incomes and to also have more health issues to deal with.  It would seem these would serve as a curb to happiness levels.  Yet the study indicated this trend remained even after factors like health, medical issues and income were taken into account.  So what is happening here?

When I was younger, I spent a lot of time thinking about where I wanted to be in five, ten, fifteen years.  At age ten, I wanted to be a garbage man (riding on the back of the truck looked like fun).  At 15, I wanted to be incredibly wealthy and retired by age 30. But then things got more realistic.  At 20, I wanted to be a computer programmer, and at 25, I finally figured it out and decided I wanted to be a professor.  With each of those goals firmly in mind, I spent my efforts doing the things I thought were necessary to get there.  Sometimes I was very wrong in my planning, to say nothing about my choice of goals, but I was right enough of the time to get where I am today.

I think that I am not very different from most Americans in this regard.  We all spend a big chunk of our early adult lives working toward the goals we have set for ourselves and thinking about how glorious life will be when we get there.  Then, as we get older, new goals replace those that have been accomplished.  Our methods for achieving them, however, do not change.  Whether we are shooting for security for our family, the kids’ college fund or our retirement nest egg, we continue to formulate goals and devote our time and efforts to achieving them.  And more often than not, we continue to succeed.  Even if we fail to meet a goal, we are closer to it for our efforts and are happier than we were to begin with.

But if you think back, way back, it wasn’t always like this.  As kids, we had other things on our minds, things like exploring and enjoying the world around us (and dreaming about riding on garbage trucks).   Somewhere along the way, though, in our late teens or twenties, that all changed and we “grew up” and learned to take responsibility for our lives and our goals.  Like that man in the Kenney Store, for decades we have kept our eyes on the prize, on that future goal we were striving to achieve.  For him, it was a promotion to a better job, and hence, a better life for himself and his family.

But I’ve noticed that for most of us, there comes a time when we stop doing that.  For some, it happens at retirement.  For others, it can occur many years earlier, but there is a point when our thinking begins to change.

As humans, we have a tendency to lose track of who we are because of our constant obsession with who we are not.  While working to better ourselves and our place in the world, we ignore what’s inside us for so long that we sometimes lose touch with who that person is.  But at some point, with work and advancement concerns out of the picture, we begin to feel free to pursue the interests that are an integral part of our being.  The retiree who travels, takes classes just for fun, or spends all his time with his loved ones, has managed to achieve the ultimate in human happiness.  Work, money and all the related trappings that go with them become unimportant.  His decisions instead are based on what makes him happy.   Is it any wonder the researchers came upon their findings they did?  It only makes sense.
I wonder if there is a way to make that change in thinking happen earlier in life.  If there is, I suspect we’d all be better for it.

A Different Country

November 1st, 2016

thecabinonblueberryhillBy Michael W. Gos

Kountz, Texas

Sometimes I think I was born 150 years too late.  It seems like most of the things that I love were from another era—a time when the world was more pure and life was simpler.  I guess it shows in the way I live my life.

We had selected Kountz to be our base camp for a few days.  It was centrally located to many of the park properties on the south end of the Big Thicket where we planned to explore.  We had read about a bed and breakfast there that consisted of a few log cabins scattered throughout the woods.  It sounded like my kind of place, so we jumped at the opportunity.

I have always been fascinated by the past.  I think you could even go so far as to say I romanticize it to some degree.  I suspect most of us do.  After all, every society on earth has as part of its myth package the archetype of the garden.  Basically, this is an image of Eden, when the world was young and completely unspoiled.  In most cases, that archetype shows up in a society’s art and entertainment as an image of the wilderness.  In desperate situations, when all wilderness is gone, we sometimes see it appear as a small, artificial copy of Eden—the planted garden, instead.  But wherever you go on earth, and in whatever time period you choose to examine, the image of the garden is there.  Carl Jung says all societies share this archetype because deep inside, we all have a suspicion that life was better in the past than it is today.

From the time I was in early grade school, I fantasized about living in a teepee or a log cabin.  I guess today that manifests itself in the places I choose to stay when on the road.  In San Antonio, I skip the Riverwalk hotels in favor of the Menger.  In Austin, I bypass the high-rises in the Arboretum in favor of the Driscoll.  And my favorite hotel of all is the Gage in Marathon.  In small towns or out in the country I look for old log cabins.  I’ve even stayed in a stone cabin built by the CCC.  When I stay at places like that, I always feel closer to the earth and to the old days, the days that feel right for me.

For the most part, I think that is harmless.  After all, things were indeed better in the past.  The world was more pristine, less developed and people seemed to have a greater sense of morality.  Life was slower; we lived and worked in the same place, or at least in close proximity and as a result, children had role models of both sexes every day when growing up.  We even had free speech back then.  Ah, yes…the good old days.  And if you think about it, some of us even romanticize our own, not-so-distant past—our glory days.  The fact is, dwelling on the past can be pleasant.  The time spent there makes us happy.  And isn’t that the purpose of life?

But sometimes I wonder if the old days were really that much better than today or if maybe that’s just the way we choose to view them looking back.  I do know most of us share the tendency to see them that way.  In fact, this idealized view of the past is not even unique to our own time.  Back in the 19th century Judge Roy Bean was becoming increasingly disenchanted with the “progress” that was coming to the lands West of the Pecos.  He saw it as ruining the life he knew and loved.  It got so bad that, when he finally couldn’t take it any more, he went on a three-day binge and drank himself to death.  He just couldn’t reconcile who he was as a human being with the dystopian life he believed was coming.

And yet, in spite of the fact that humans all tend to share this idealized view of the past, do any of us really want to live there?  On this afternoon in Kountz, I pulled up to the cabin in the woods in a Jeep, not on a horse.  It was July; I was delighted that the cabin was air-conditioned and had ceiling fans over the beds.  Last year when I had pneumonia, I was thankful for antibiotics.  And I often wonder if I could really be as happy if I couldn’t spend Saturday afternoons watching Purdue football and basketball games on TV here in Houston.  None of that would have been possible in the 1850s.

I guess no era is perfect—but some times were definitely better than others, so what do I have to lose by indulging my longings?  If I prefer Baroque music and the French Impressionists or cowboy poetry and Elmer Kelton novels to their modern counterparts, no one is hurt by it.  Why not dwell on the good old days gone by?

Some would point out that the time we spend thinking about the old days is time that can be used in more productive ways.  That doesn’t seem like a very good argument against the practice to me.  That very thought is a part of the problem with life today.  The idea that hard work and a fast pace are what is required in life is what some philosophers have called the “Western Disease.”  (To be fair, others have called it the “Western Glory.”)

The fact is, though, we may indeed be harmed by our romanticizing of the past.  Think about this: the more time we spend lamenting and idealizing a world long lost, the less satisfied we are with our present world. Even more important perhaps, the time spent dwelling on the old days is time we can’t be in the present.  If there is one thing certain, it is that the present is where our lives are lived.  If I’m not in the now, not satisfied with my present, how can I be happy?

After a couple of nights in the cabin and a couple of days walking around the Big Thicket, it was time to head back home, back to my life in the present.  I wasn’t sure I was ready for what was waiting for me there. I wasn’t sure I ever would be.   But I knew it had to be done.

Sometimes I have to remind myself that the past is another country.  They do things differently there.  But is different necessarily better?  The truth is, I’ll probably continue idealizing the past to some degree, but at the same time, I suspect I would be better off if I could accept it for what it is, a pleasant distraction to be engaged in every now and then, and choose to actually live in the now, full-time.


October 1st, 2016

gos-img_1625By Michael W. Gos

Waco, Texas

It had been a really hard day on the road.  I should point out that I hate driving.  I know—a strange affliction for a guy who wanders around Texas a lot just for fun.  On this day, I left Canyon, Texas, about seven in the morning and had driven all day.  It wasn’t too bad until I got to Eastland, but from there I was stuck behind a motor home going 20 miles per hour below the speed limit on a two-lane road.  For 40 miles, I could not negotiate a pass.  Every time I pulled out to take a peek, there was another car coming in the opposite direction.  It was frustrating.

Finally we came through a tiny town whose name I don’t even remember.  As we slowed for the only stop sign in town, I saw a series of parallel parking spaces on the right, all untaken.  I swerved hard to the right and raced through those parking spots to negotiate the pass.  Fortunately, there were no law enforcement personnel around and I got away with it.   Coupled with the countless previous attempts to pass, that slick move at the stop sign pushed my wife over the edge, but I figured it saved me more than two hours over the alternative, so I don’t regret taking the opportunity.

I finally arrived in Waco in the late afternoon.  I had come to do some photo work and I had a lot on the agenda.  I had only this afternoon to spend here and I had three sites I wanted to shoot: the Waco Mammoth National Monument, the spot where the Clintons burned the Branch Davidians, and the beautiful foot bridge across the Brazos River.   I checked into my hotel and then immediately went back out to begin work. I headed first for the bridge.

After studying the site and checking out the light levels, I made several photos of the bridge and the enormous bronze sculptures at its entrance.  I was fairly efficient and in less than half an hour, I had everything I needed.  I gave the photos a look over and was pleased with what I saw.  It was time to move on to the next site while I still had enough daylight to get something done.  But that’s not what happened.

Life is a non-stop parade of events and decisions.  Every step of the way we are presented with opportunities.  There are forks in the road, and at each one we have to decide, usually in short order, which way to go—which opportunities to accept and which to decline.  And, as Robert Frost points out in his poem “The Road Not Taken,” because “way leads on to way,” every decision we make sets us on a new path; one from which it is difficult, if not impossible, to back track should we later decide we would like to reverse the previous decision.  Once made, each of these choices puts us on the new path our lives will take from that point forward.

Many people look back on old decisions and wonder what would have happened if they had made the other choice.  Others go even further; they look back with regret.  “I should have made the other choice.”  But opportunities, once passed by, cannot be revisited again.  We have to move on from where we are.  As a result, as time goes on, the stack of missed opportunities grows until the pile becomes enormous, and for some people, that can be intimidating.  The regrets build.

But I think that few of us see the big picture, the full reality of the situation here.  Certainly, had we taken any of those opportunities when they presented themselves, our lives might have gone in a different direction.  And as a result of accepting them, we might have had other, new opportunities down the road that could have led to a better life—opportunities that we never even got to see because of earlier choices we made.  But there is another way to look at the issue.  Had we indeed made the other choice, we would not have had many of the opportunities we got to see as a result of the earlier decision we did make.  It seems to me, there isn’t much point in grieving over missed chances.  It all evens out in the wash.

Back in Waco, I found I just couldn’t bring myself to move on to my next destination.  I was still so tied up in knots from the hard drive that I needed to just sit awhile.  In the shade of an old oak tree on the bank of the river, I took a moment to sit at a picnic table and just relax.

That moment lasted a little over three hours and when I finally felt like moving on, it was nearly dark.  I would not be getting the other photos I needed on this day.

It would have been easy to look at the decision I made that day and think I really missed an opportunity.  Now, to get the photos I need, I’ll have to make another trip to Waco.  I passed on a chance and will have to pay a heavy price.  But I don’t see it that way.

Having a good, brisk sit at the river transformed me from nervous, irritable, and frankly, a general pain to be around, to a laid back, relaxed guy who was just enjoying a beautiful summer’s evening on the river.  To this day, my wife comments on how she sat there next to me just watching the stress melt away.  In her eyes, it was such an improvement over the grouch that first arrived in Waco that she was perfectly willing to spend three hours just sitting there.  But there was even more benefit gained by the choice I made.  The fact is, I was having fun, and after all, isn’t that what life is all about?  Today, it is clear I made the right decision.

When thinking about missed opportunities, it is easy to be pessimistic.  It seems almost logical to get down on ourselves for making the wrong choices.  That’s understandable.  Our lives at any given moment are nothing more than the sum total of all the decisions we made to this point.  But we also need to see the bigger picture. It is critical to always remember that it is also a missed opportunity not to idle away a few hours when the chance presents itself.

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