Prairie Dogs

September 1st, 2018

By Michael W. Gos
Caprock Canyon, Texas

We came to Caprock Canyon State Park up in the panhandle with the intention of seeing the State of Texas buffalo herd. We spent the better part of a day driving and hiking to the various spots where the park rangers told us the animals tended to frequent. However, it was already nearly sunset, and it was looking like that wasn’t going to happen for us. As we made our way back toward the visitors’ center, we had a stroke of good luck. While still not finding buffalo, we did stumble across a prairie dog town.

Most people think a prairie dog town is one large unit with lots of connected tunnels and numerous entrances that houses the entire colony. The fact is, the typical town is more like a subdivision full of single family homes. The prairie dog family generally consists of one male and four or five females. (Should I be jealous?) In some cases, there may also be a kid or two living at home till the old man decides they are old enough to make their own way in the world.

From the outside, what we humans see is a collection of cute little critters that pop up out of holes, look around, and then pop back down. It is a non-stop frenzy of activity not unlike a game of “whack the mole.” Nothing is ever done, however. They never pick anything up and seldom stray more than an inch or two from the hole. It is just a mass of non-productive up and down energy that we humans find both cute and fascinating.
Even if you have never seen a real prairie dog town, you are probably quite familiar with this concept. One need only look around at our fellow humans to see this behavior modeled. Next time you are in a crowded atrium of a large office building, a shopping mall or any place people congregate, watch what is happening. You will see non-stop random movement, constant energy. But what are these people doing? More important, what are they accomplishing? This seems to be a universal trait of the human condition: non-stop frenetic energy spent with little or nothing to show for it.

I have been a writer for more than 40 years. In the early days, my work habits resembled the prairie dogs’. I would begin by writing the first sentence, in hopes that by the time I had it down on paper I’d have an idea for a second sentence. Needless to say, before a piece was ready for publication, it went through dozens and dozens of revisions. In the process, I was particularly bothered by the fact that I often spent a lot of time revising sections that wouldn’t even make it into the final version. It was time and energy expended with little to no result. But, nevertheless, I felt good about it. After all, I was getting something done.

But still, I was uncomfortable with the process. I was busy, sure, but was I really accomplishing much with all that activity? It seemed I was spending an incredible amount of time and effort given the magnitude and quality of the final product that was produced. I felt there just had to be a better way.

One day, it hit. What if, instead, I did all that planning and revising work in my head while sitting outside in my rocking chair next to the fountain? What if I didn’t get anywhere near a pen, paper or a computer in those early stages? What if I just sat, smoked my pipe and thought? I spent a good deal of time analyzing that idea and, in the end, I was still uncomfortable with it. It didn’t even seem possible.

But I found I couldn’t put the idea out of my mind. Its implementation seemed inevitable, so eventually, I gave it a try. I admit it was uncomfortable at first and I felt guilty just sitting around and calling it work. But eventually, it all came together. I began to understand how this work thing is really done.

Today, I don’t put a single word on paper until I have the entire piece worked out. I know the beginning, the end and everything in between in great detail. I even know what photos I will use. The result: far fewer revisions and much less time and work expended. Best of all, I can enjoy a certain smugness when I am sitting in the sun with my eyes closed and someone asks what I’m doing. When I reply that I’m writing, the looks I get are priceless.

I’m not suggesting there is anything wrong with a “go-get-em” work ethic. After all, in those early years, that process did lead me to some limited success. And today, if a student comes to me with a great work ethic, I can overlook a lot of shortcomings. It takes hard work to get to the point where you start to understand how to do any task well. No one plays concert-level piano on first sitting down to the instrument. But at some point in time, we need to realize that so much more can be accomplished if we just slow down and think things through before we take any action. That not only means less work for the same results, it also makes us less likely to become victims of the calamitous law of unintended consequences. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could teach this to our politicians?

Life is a game. We keep score by results achieved, not by effort expended. Most people confuse activity with accomplishment. When judging their progress toward success, they are often measuring the wrong parameter. I now realize it was obvious all along; I just didn’t see it. The secret to success is to work less but accomplish more.

While all of that frenetic energy is wasted in us humans, it does have some real value for prairie dogs. It provides us two-leggeds with great entertainment and, after all, the little critters are awfully cute. But frankly, I’m not that cute. You might not be either. And I don’t think entertaining others would be high on my list of goals in life. I prefer to use my rocking chair method.

By the way, we never did see the buffalo.

Ghosts

July 1st, 2018

Photo by Michael W. Gos

By Michael W. Gos

Terlingua Ghost Town, Texas

If you spend a lot of time in any place, even as a tourist, you get to know some of the people there and come to call them friends. I go to Big Bend country a lot, and when I am done with my day’s hiking, I head to Terlingua for some laid-back fun. As a result, I know quite a few people there.

I’ve talked to him for about seven years and this was the first time I’d seen him without his wife. He was sitting on the porch of the Trading Post when I pulled up.

“Hey Don, how are you doing?”

“Hanging by my finger nails, like the cat on the poster.”

“Where’s Jules?”

“Not sure; she and I split up a couple of months ago.”

That really took me by surprise. They seemed like the perfect couple. I never saw one without the other and they always seemed to be having fun together.

“What happened?” I asked.

“She wanted to get married; I didn’t. I guess she got tired of waiting. She said eight years was long enough.”

This was the first time I realized they weren’t married.

I went in and bought a beer and took it out to the porch. We talked for the next hour. He told me about how he was crazy about her and wanted to live with her for the rest of his life, but he refused to ever get married again. He said his divorce years earlier had turned him off marriage for good.

Apparently, that wasn’t an acceptable situation for her. I asked if he was really willing to lose her because of something that happened many years ago. He said he didn’t have a choice; he couldn’t marry again. That made me think about a time in my own life.

I remember the day like it was yesterday, and it ruled my life for the next 15 years. In my football days the coaches drilled into my head that my job on sweeps to either side of the field was to stay in the middle of the backfield. Under no circumstances was I to pursue the ball carrier. Then one day, it happened.

At the snap, the running back ran to the right as the quarterback dropped. The handoff was made and the play went away from me. Not thinking, I took off in pursuit. The ball carrier had a lateral head start of about seven yards, but in order to gain yardage he’d have to turn upfield. I was sure I could catch him; I had the angle. I was already past the center and in a dead run when I saw it happen. The running back handed the ball to the split end on that side, who reversed back to my left. The action froze me in my tracks!

Thoughts flew, but my body remained frozen. I knew I needed to turn back and pursue the play, but it took an eternity to get my rather large body to stop, turn and follow. Finally, word got to all appropriate body parts and I was running up the line again, this time to the left. It didn’t take long to realize that I wasn’t going to make the play. I looked ahead to the corner to see who was there to help, but the corner was empty. Only the left tackle and I were to be on that side of the field, and no tackle would ever catch a wide receiver. I looked up just in time to see the ball carrier run right over the spot I was supposed to be occupying. I could only watch as the play went all the way for a touchdown. I went back to the sidelines, chin against my chest.

“How many times have we told you to stay home on that one?” the coach yelled. “You think we tell you these things for our health? You have a (expletive) job to do here! We told you exactly what it is! How much sense does it take to do what you’re told? You cover on reverses! If you pursue, we lose!”

For days I ran that play over and over again in the theatre of my mind. I had always believed it was best to play inspired — that emotion and enthusiasm would win out over cold, calculated logic every time. Now it looked like, at least in some cases, cold, rational control was far more important. After all, football is a brain game. That is why the intricacies are so hard for most people to understand. But that day I took away a very important, and life-changing lesson. I learned that there are sound reasons for the things we are told to do.

For the next 15 years, that lesson stayed with me. I did what I was supposed to do, stayed within the limits I was given and lived a quiet life. If I had any ideas that could even be remotely considered “wild,” I would always bounce them off someone I trusted before acting on them —and it kept me out of trouble.

Then one day, about 10 years after I finished college, my mother and I had a serious discussion about what I wanted to do with my life. I had been drifting somewhat aimlessly for a long time. I told her what I really wanted to do was to go back to school, get a couple of advanced degrees and become a professor. She laughed and told me to get serious. That was a dream for rich kids, smart kids. She said I should go to work in the steel mills. With my degree, they would probably make me a foreman. That conversation made me start to question the wisdom of living my life “within the lines.”

Both the man at Terlingua and I had fallen into a pattern of letting ghosts from our past limit and even disrupt our lives today. Traumatic events can indeed sometimes have strong effects on us, but when they start to limit our possibilities, our futures, it is time leave them behind. It makes no sense to keep stumbling over objects that are behind us.

It took a couple of years to complete the change. It wasn’t easy; I had a lot of false starts, but I stayed at it and eventually I stopped doing what I was “supposed” to do, went on to get those degrees and to get that life I wanted.

I hope when I next go to Big Bend, Don will tell me he did the same.

Meeting to focus on El Dorado Boulevard widening project

November 25th, 2017

A public input meeting regarding the El Dorado Boulevard Widening Project will be hosted by Houston City Councilman Dave Martin, the City of Houston Public Works and Engineering Department (PWE), and Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Jack Morman’s office Thursday, Nov. 30, from 6:30 to 8 p.m.

The meeting will be at the University of Houston – Clear Lake’s Bayou Building, in the Garden Room.

As development has increased in the area, Councilman Martin has received several concerns from residents about future traffic on the section of El Dorado Boulevard, south of Clear Lake City Boulevard to Horsepen Bayou, which is currently two lanes. In response to these concerns, Martin asked PWE to investigate and conduct traffic counts along this section of roadway.

After assessing the traffic counts, PWE determined El Dorado Boulevard is capable of accommodating current traffic. However, Martin believes the widening of El Dorado Boulevard is essential as the area continues to develop. By partnering with Commissioner Morman, the city and county are able to work together and develop three alignment options to improve current and future mobility in this area.

The goal of this meeting is offer residents the opportunity to provide input about these alignment options, as well as address any concerns or wishes for the project prior to finalizing the design.

There will be free parking for attendees in Lot R. Please see the map below for reference. For more information, contact the District E office at 832-393-3008 or via email at districte@houstontx.gov.

It’s Embarrassing

June 1st, 2016

GOS616By Michael W. Gos

Washington on the Brazos, Texas

Sometimes life can seem overwhelming.  We often feel completely burned out after long periods of intense work or during difficult times in our lives.  In response, we can start to feel sorry for ourselves and sometimes, in extreme cases, just shut down completely.  I know I do.  I’m sure it’s not much different in your line of work.

By the end of a semester, I am absolutely spent.  Unfortunately, in academia, in that last week or two of every semester there is a mad scramble to schedule meetings. This happens mostly to make up for the fact that the chairs of committees have failed to do anything all semester long and are afraid that maybe someone will notice.  Committees have to have some progress to report, and administrators have to rush to do things before the faculty disperses to locations around the world.  As a result, the last week of the semester is filled with giving finals, grading finals and attending up to four meetings a day.  I’m sorry for others who feel guilty about their lack of performance, but that does not constitute an emergency on my part.  In the last week of the semester, I do what I have to do in order to finish out my classes properly, but that’s all.  The meetings go on without me.  And all the while, I’m thinking “poor me.”

Sound familiar?

We were at Washington on the Brazos to learn more about the founding of Texas as a nation.  I was especially curious as to how Texas became so small when in 1836 it covered parts of what are now New Mexico, Colorado, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Kansas and even stretched into Wyoming. (It turns out that reduction in size happened much later when Texas sacrificed its independence in order to join the U.S.)  I had been to the Alamo, to Goliad, Gonzales and San Jacinto.  I even walked part of the original El Camino Real, but I was still vague on the political part of the picture.  How did Texas get a Declaration of Independence and a Constitution written and ratified unanimously in just over two weeks?

Richard, our guide, told us the story in vivid detail.  While the constitutional convention may have lasted only 15 days, some of those days were pretty trying.  Independence Hall was then pretty much as we see it today—a small wooden structure originally designed to be a mercantile store.  It had cutouts for windows, but no glass—just a few raggedy muslin curtains that they hoped would keep the harsher elements out.  When the delegates began deliberations on March 1, 1836, it was a warm spring morning.  But by that afternoon, when they had agreed on and signed the Declaration of Independence, the temperature had plummeted and rain pelted the building.  But weather was just the beginning of the difficulties they faced. The tiny structure housed the 59 delegates morning till night, day after day in the heat and the cold.  Bathing was uncommon back then so I can only imagine the smell.

When they finally disbanded with the constitution complete and ratified 15 days later, Santa Anna’s army was less than 60 miles away.  Whatever peace the delegates had in their lives prior to that fortnight was now gone.  Having finished their work, their signatures on the Declaration made them all marked men.

When Santa Anna’s troops arrived a few days later, they found the town completely deserted.  Afraid for their lives by mere association with the events that took place there, every one of the town’s residents evacuated with the delegates.  Washington remained a ghost town until Santa Anna was defeated at San Jacinto.  For all they knew at the time, the revolution could have taken years to play out.  And what if they came up on the losing side?

I tried to imagine what their lives must have been like then—on the run, looking over their shoulders all the time, never being able to rest and relax.  Frankly, that’s not much of a life.  There also had to be some degree of guilt over the decisions they made.  Before they left, they had learned about the fall of the Alamo and the Runaway Scrape (the evacuation of the women and children of Gonzales and the burning of the town).  They were clearly aware of the consequences of their actions.  That had to weigh heavily on their shoulders.

Looking back we see them as heroes, as the men who gave us the lives and the Texas we have today.  But sometimes I wonder if we ever think about what they had to live through, the sacrifices they made, to make it happen.  At the end of a semester I can just say “no mas” to constant demands on my time and energies.  I can feel sorry for myself and go home, hide and “lick my wounds.”  These men could not go home.  They no longer had homes to go to.  And for them, it wasn’t just a matter of being emotionally and physically spent; it was dealing with the ever-present danger of death.  Rest?  That was out of the question.  They had to keep running and keep fighting.  For them, it never let up.

The average age of the men at the convention was just over 37 years.  We may think of that as young today, but these were, in their time, aging men who I’m sure would have rather been thinking about relaxing in retirement than running from the Mexican Army.  Yet they chose to make this sacrifice.

Why?

I have to admit, I don’t understand what causes a person to make the decision to give of himself that way.  Surely they were aware of the consequences of their actions.  And yet they chose to sacrifice the peace, safety and tranquility we all desire in order to accomplish a goal they believed in—one they might never live to see come to fruition.  I know I could never do that.  Maybe it’s selfishness, maybe cowardice, but it is not something I am, or ever would have been constitutionally able to do.

I guess that is why they are famous historical heroes and I’m just me.  I’ll probably continue to moan and whine about my workload, especially at the end of every semester, and I’ll continue to feel sorry myself.

And I’ll try not to think too often about the 59 men at Washington on the Brazos in the spring of 1836.  The comparison embarrasses me.

One More Click

May 1st, 2016

LonghornsBy Michael W. Gos

Boerne, Texas

I was sitting in the park by the bronze longhorns when it “clicked.”

Boerne is a small Hill Country town that is sort of a miniature version of Fredericksburg.  Or perhaps Fred is Boerne on steroids.  Both are the shop-till-you-drop kind of places that can keep women occupied all day.

I can’t shop.  Like most humans, I was born with the shopping gene.  However, like most men, I decided early in life to sacrifice the shopping gene in exchange for a special gene that allows me to go to the bathroom alone and to find my way in and out quickly.  I think it was a good trade.

Normally, I would find a local watering hole and stay there until the women-folk were satisfied with their day’s work and then we would all go on to The Creek restaurant for dinner.  But this day was magnificent—a Hill Country Chamber of Commerce kind of day.  I decided to instead sit with my girlfriend Maggie Mae (remember her?  My Labrador retriever?) in the park and just watch people and maybe read a little.

Of course, whenever that happens, it isn’t long before my thoughts turn to philosophical questions.  The first topic that jumped into my head was happiness.  After all, isn’t that just about everyone’s No. 1 concern in life?  It certainly has been a hot topic among philosophers for at least the last two and half millennia; they all ask the same questions.  Strangely though, I don’t remember reading many answers.

That got me thinking.  Why would there still, after all these centuries, be such an eternal seeking for truth, happiness and the meaning of life if the answers really existed?  Surely after more than 2,500 years, someone would have stumbled on an answer.  If any of the great minds did so, they never bothered to write it down.  And if these guys couldn’t find the answers, why would I be so arrogant as to think I would be able to?  That left just one option: one can only assume the answers simply don’t exist.

When my thoughts lead to an unpleasant impasse like this, it always makes me uncomfortable and I usually try to escape by changing the subject—thinking about something else.  Sometimes I get up and walk around to get my mind off it.  But walking down Main Street with nothing but little shops selling things I have absolutely no interest in is not my idea of a good time either, so that would have been even more depressing.  Instead, Maggie and I decided to just close our eyes and take a nap.

I’m not sure how long it was; it felt like just seconds.  I heard a loud click, almost like a door latch snapping into place.  That woke me up.  I looked at Maggie and saw that she, with her super hearing, was still out cold.  I looked around at the few other people strolling through the park.  No one else seemed to be disturbed by the sound either.  I decided I must have been dreaming.

Studying philosophy is a lot like trying to open a safe that is guarding a treasure.  We want the treasure, in this case, the secret to happiness.  But in order to get it we have to go through a series of very exacting steps in precisely the right order (left 16, right 34, left 22). Each number we dial in appears to do nothing, a tiny click at best.  But in spite of that, we dial on because it is human nature to continue the quest for fulfillment.  Sometimes that quest requires a journey that takes years—maybe even the bulk of our lives.  Most of the time we get the numbers wrong and the safe remains solidly locked, holding the answers inside.  It is only when each of the tumblers is properly activated, when everything is aligned precisely in its proper place that the door opens. I think that is what happened that afternoon.  The click I heard was that last tumbler falling into place.  And then, I finally understood.

There were times in my life when I absolutely knew I was unhappy.  I even admitted it out loud to a friend once, an act I consider to be extremely crass and almost never let happen.  When I was unhappy, there was never a question about it.  I knew it and felt it deep in every fiber of my being, 24 hours a day.  But what about the rest of the time, times when I didn’t feel that way—when I wasn’t profoundly unhappy? Mostly, I felt nothing.  I had no awareness of being either happy or unhappy.

Sure, there were times of occasional ecstatic highs—times when I was in love, or had accomplished some goal I had struggled long and hard to gain.  But I was always abundantly aware that these were momentary blips on the happiness monitor.  They did not constitute true, long-term happiness—just a nice break from the dullness.  Most of the time, there was nothing at all, no awareness of happiness or the lack of it.  That is, until that afternoon in Boerne when I heard the click.

Sitting there on the bench napping, the last tumbler clicked into place and years of searching finally came to fruition.  The door to the safe opened.  I never would have guessed its contents.  The treasure I had searched for in vain for decades lay there before me.

Looking inside, I saw the whole picture.  I realized that, except for those times when I was clearly unhappy, I had really been happy all along—all those years.  I know what you’re thinking—what is this lunatic talking about?  Well, it’s really quite simple.  When I felt nothing one way or the other, it was because I was really happy.  The question is, why did I not realize that sooner.  Why did I understand it now?

There in the park in Boerne, I realized that happiness is like air…we are only aware of it in its absence.  It is around us all the time.  And like air, we take its presence for granted to the point where we no longer even notice it.

As Maggie came awake, opening first one eye, then the other, I couldn’t help but smile.  I thought about just how easy it is to determine if you are happy.  If you have to ask yourself if you are happy, you are.
And then a man, who for the first time knew that he was happy, joined the group for dinner at The Creek.

An Inconsequential Destination

March 1st, 2016

gosimg316By Michael W. Gos

Rusk, Texas

For years I had been seeing references to the Texas State Railroad that runs between Rusk and Palestine.  Prison inmates originally built the train in 1881 as a method for shipping lumber from the Piney Woods to the Rusk Penitentiary where they used the wood as fuel for an iron smelter.  The iron produced there was sold throughout the state of Texas until the prison closed in 1913.  After that, the train changed hands a few times ending up in private hands, where it remains today.  A couple of times I heard that it was about to shut down.  Each time the rumor arose, I thought to myself, “I need to take a ride on this historic train before it is gone.”

Frankly, though, I’d also heard that the train was usually filled with kids and the idea of a four-hour round trip ride on a train filled with ankle biters just wasn’t that appealing.  They tell me the “Polar Express” rides in the winter are the worst for adults (but the best for kids).   However, even a normal ride in mid-summer could be trying.  Then one day, I saw an ad for an adults-only wine tasting run.  As I’ve mentioned here before, I am rather fond of wineries so this opportunity sounded right up my alley.  I did a bit of research and a few hours later we had two tickets on the Texas State Railroad.

The trip turned out to be much more pleasant than I had expected.  Of course, we were riding through the magnificent woods of East Texas with lots of streams and springs and trees so dense you could see very few signs of civilization along the way.  That in itself would make the trip worthwhile.  But there was so much more.  Here, in the train car, we were about to enjoy “high civilization.”

I was surprised when the first wine was brought out.  Unlike the little one-ounce tastes you usually get at Texas wineries, these were full glasses.  Even more appealing was that along with the wine, we were served a small plate with three different appetizers.  Since we had to skip dinner in order to make it to Rusk in time for departure, any food was a pleasant surprise.  But the quality—well, let’s just say it was outstanding.   We took our time enjoying the food and drink and chatting with the couple sitting across the table from us.  It was a thoroughly pleasant setting.

About 40 minutes later, we were brought another glass of wine, and another plate of appetizers.  Both were even better than the first round.  And, as the wine flowed, the conversation got more pleasant.

The process repeated again about a half hour later.  As we progressed through the evening, the wines got more full-bodied and the appetizers got more substantial.  About two hours into the trip the train came to a stop in a small clearing in the middle of the forest.  We were told that they were turning the engine around for the ride back to Rusk.  While that was going on, we received the fourth glass of wine and the tastiest appetizer plates yet.

A little while later (I had now lost track of time), we were on our way back to Rusk and were brought another glass of wine, this time very sweet, and a plate of small desserts.  By now people were talking to each other all over the car, not just to those they were seated with.  The intimate wine tasting had become one big, jovial party.

Finally, the last course was a nice port, again served with a plate of desserts.  I don’t have to tell you that the women on the train were ecstatic at the thought of sweet wines and six desserts.

When we finally pulled back into the station in Rusk it was 10 p.m. and we had been gone four hours.  It seemed like 4 minutes.  We had sampled six different wines and had more than a full meal, served in multiple small courses (my favorite way—I love tapas and dim sum houses). Most of all, we had a train full of people who were out to have a good time—and they succeeded spectacularly.

That evening in Rusk, we took a train journey to an inconsequential spot in the woods and then returned—and that’s all.  But as I was driving back to the hotel, I couldn’t help but be aware that I had just experienced a perfect metaphor for life.  I came to Rusk with a goal—to take a trip on the Texas State Railroad.  We left the station with another very specific goal in mind—to travel toward Palestine till we got to the turnaround point and then return to where we started.  We met both goals.

But so what?  Reaching the destination did nothing for us in terms of pleasure or fulfillment.  It was no great accomplishment and our lives weren’t changed in any way by that success.  Ah, but the journey itself!  Now that was a different matter.  While the reaching of our destination was entirely inconsequential to us, the true value lay in the journey itself, in the wines, food and conversations that were happening along the way.

We all need goals to be successful in life, a destination to head toward.  In many cases our goals are about the acquisition of things; we work hard to be able to buy a new car or a fine home.  But, many of our goals go far beyond that.  I might want to learn to be a great piano player, get another graduate degree or spend a summer in Tuscany learning Italian.  Self-improvement goals seem to be of a higher quality than the mere want of “things.”

But regardless of the innate quality in any goal, it seems to me that the anticipation of reaching our goals, and more important, the active pursuit of them, provides far more pleasure for most of us than their final achievement.  As a species, we need to have goals to work toward.  But it is in the pursuit of those goals that our lives happen.  It was in the time spent working toward Palestine, and then back to Rusk, where the real value of this trip lay.  In fact, reaching the destinations was anti-climatic.

Our lives happen not at our destinations, but rather in the journeys we take to get to them.  And it is in our day-to-day lives where we really want to experience happiness, not in those moments of accomplishment.  No matter what goals we have, if we aren’t happy striving for them, we won’t be happy achieving them.

Adaptability

January 1st, 2016

gosimage116

By Michael W. Gos

Dryden, Texas

One of the most important traits man possesses is his adaptability.  It gives him the strength and power to deal with the ever-changing world.  This is not a trait unique to man, of course.  The entire process of evolution is predicated on species’ abilities to adapt to changes in the environment.  In times of drought, when survival for a primitive plant-eating species meant being able to reach tree leaves that weren’t yet eaten, it was the individuals with the longest legs and necks that ate well.  Those that couldn’t adapt weren’t competitive enough to survive.  Since most young animals tend to resemble their parents, the next generation had longer legs and necks.  Today, thousands of generations later, we have the giraffe.

But unlike evolution, which is a multi-generational proposition (just ask any rancher trying to develop a new strain of cattle), man’s adaptability works at the micro level.  That is, he is capable of evolving and changing many times over the course of a single lifetime.  My father remembered a time when rapid transit meant traveling on horseback.  Then came cars, planes and a Purdue man setting the first foot on the moon.  In each case, after just a brief adjustment time, he dealt with these new developments as if they had always been a part of life.  I’m not sure he ever gave much thought to the number of changes he’d negotiated in his lifetime.  His ability to adapt allowed him, like the tall giraffe, to survive the changing world.

I was driving from Del Rio to Marathon, my first stop on a two-week trip to the Big Bend area.  About mid-way on the drive I realized I was not only low on gas, but I needed a bathroom break—urgently.  I had already passed Comstock and Langtry and it was still a long way to Sanderson.  My only hope was Dryden.

Even if you’ve driven this stretch of Highway 90 dozens of times, you may not have noticed Dryden.  The “town” consists of a fragment of a convenience store and a couple of small abandoned buildings.  It was a going concern from around 1882 till the Depression, at one time having a population over 100.  Today it has a population of 13.  In fact, the entire population of Terrell County is only 30 and the 2010 census lists the county’s population density as zero persons per square mile.  While originally named after an engineer building the railroad that runs alongside the highway, today the name is even more appropriate.  It is the “Driest Den” I have ever seen—nothing but rolling sand and gravel piles.

I pulled up to what turned out to be merely a ghost of a store and asked if there was a gas station nearby.  The clerk, a not unattractive woman in her early 30s, referred me to Sanderson.  When I asked about a bathroom, I got the same response.  I was starting to feel a bit “unwelcome” because of the terse responses, so I figured I’d get a little more personal. I asked if she lived around there.  That did the trick.  She said she had been there all her life.  Her father was a goat rancher just north of town.  Today she and her husband still eek out a living by ranching the land her dad left her but they both need outside jobs to make that happen.  He works as a lineman for the electric company, she at the store.

I asked if she had ever thought about moving somewhere a little less “severe,” like maybe Sanderson.  She replied, “Oh, it’s not so bad here.  You get used to it.”

I would have liked to spend a little more time there talking to her as once she opened up, she seemed to be a rather pleasant woman, but my bladder was calling and it was still 20 miles to Sanderson.  I bought a couple of sticks of jerky, thanked her and said my good-byes.

I remember my first summer out of high school.  In Gary, Indiana, if you were going to college, you worked summers in the steel mills.  That’s where our fathers worked all their lives.  There were no negotiations.  That’s the way it was.

My first day there was far worse than any hell I could have imagined.  In the building I worked, the pickle line, they poured hot oil on very hot steel to prevent rust.  It was 120 degrees.  Our skin and clothes were constantly covered in the oil vapor that formed the clouds of air we breathed.  One thing you could say for the steel mills, they guaranteed you wouldn’t drop out of college.

I was down in a hole under the mill shoveling oil-covered slitter scrap into a barrel.  It was a nasty job.  When I had filled the barrel with the little pieces of steel, a two-hour job in itself, I was to call on one of the overhead cranes to drop its hook through a hole in the ceiling.  It was then my job to attach the hook to the barrel and get out of the way.  As the crane raised the barrel for the first time, it slowly rotated, shooting a stream of oil across my face as a huge rat ran out from behind the barrel, across my shoe.

I swore I’d never go back.  My parents had other ideas.  I not only went back the next day, I worked there for four summers and as time went on, it wasn’t so bad.  I guess I got used to it.

Later, after graduation, I worked as a district circulation manager for a newspaper.  At least four times a year we would have sales drives that included contests to see who could generate the most new customers in their district.  The winning district manager always received a nice trip somewhere and a fat expense account.  For some reason, I was never able to spend the entire allotted expense amount in spite of what I thought was lavish spending.  And every time when I returned, I was lectured about the importance of spending ALL the money allotted and told I needed to do better next time.

By the time I got to my fourth year there, the expense accounts for the trips never quite covered my spending—sometimes missing by hundreds of dollars.  By the time I realized what had happened, I had developed such bad habits that I “needed” that job just to stay somewhere close to the lifestyle I now demanded.

We can get used to anything over time, be it the steel mills, a lavish lifestyle or life in Dryden.  We can do that because we are flexible and learn to flourish in whatever situations we face.  That may be one of the strongest and most positive traits of mankind.  But as I learned at the newspaper, that adaptability can also be used as a weapon against you.  You can get used to anything with time.  And that’s how they get you.

The ability to adapt is absolutely critical to a successful and happy life.  It seems the people who have a strong ability to “roll with the punches” negotiate life in the most positive way.  But we must be ever vigilant in evaluating what we are adapting to.  It could just be a trap.

Generation Gaps

December 1st, 2015

The bank had become to historical society.

The bank had become to historical society.

By Michael W. Gos

Comfort, Texas

It all started over a few bottles of honey.

Many decades ago, an old man I know fell in love with Fain’s honey.  It wasn’t available in Baytown, where he lived, but it didn’t matter because he could always get it in Hill Country, and since he made several hunting trips there a year, he just packed in a supply every time he traveled.  It was a good system and it served him well for more than 40 years.

But as he grew older he found he no longer had the inclination, and eventually even the ability, for the many trips he took when he was younger.  His journeys there were fewer and further apart.  He still wanted to spend time at the beer lease with his sons and grandsons, if only just to sit around the fire and do the Wild Turkey thing.  And he still got his honey.

But then his 80s came and even those trips stopped.  It wasn’t long before his supply of Fain’s ran out.  It was then he thought of me.  He had heard I was headed to San Antonio for a conference and asked if I would be willing to make a run into Lowe’s Food Market in Comfort to get him ten or twelve bottles.  I told him I’d be happy to.

It had probably been ten years since my last trip to Comfort.  I remembered it as a quaint little village that had a wool exchange and an egg hatchery.  That was about it.  But it was big enough to have a weekly newspaper and some beautiful old buildings “downtown,” a couple of blocks off the highway.  One of those buildings housed Lowe’s Food Market, a Norman Rockwell image of a 1950s tiny town grocery store.

Ten years is not that long of a time and I have a pretty good memory, but when I drove down High Street where I thought I remembered Lowe’s being, I found I was wrong.  Thinking perhaps my memory had failed me, I drove down Main Street, then Broadway, the two streets in town that paralleled High Street.  Thinking my memory must really be failing, I even drove along 473 to look.  Still having no luck, I finally violated the sacred man code and stopped at a gas station to ask directions.

The attendant said, “It used to be back on High Street, but it burned down a couple of years ago.  Now there’s just a vacant lot there.”  He said he’d heard they were planning on rebuilding on Front Street, but as far as he knew, that hadn’t started yet.  Accepting that I had failed in my quest, I decided to move on.

While I think I do a good job of hiding it, the fact is I have a sentimental side.  I like to take out old memories now and then and look at them.  Since I had come this far, I figured I might as well take advantage of the opportunity.  I got back in the car and drove along High Street again to see if I could find the exact spot where the store used to sit.  As I looked more closely at the buildings in the old downtown section, I noticed that the library was pretty much as I remembered it; so were a couple of five and dime-type stores.  But almost everything else was different. The bank had become the historical society. There was a Beatles-themed bar, three small restaurants, a couple of gift shops and even an ice cream store.  None of these were at all familiar to me.

Disappointed, I decided to drive on toward Bandera where I hoped I’d be able to find the honey.  As I pulled on to Highway 27, I found myself obsessing over the changes I had encountered in Comfort.  It was no longer the town I remembered.  I suppose to someone seeing it for the first time, it would still be a sweet, quaint little Hill Country town.  But they didn’t know the Comfort that I knew—and it made me sad.

I understand we can’t live in yesterday; things change over time.  That’s just mankind marching on.  And I can also appreciate the fact that the mundane everyday tasks of our lives sometimes become easier as a result of these changes, but it seems to me our quality of life suffers as a result.  As I turned onto FM 173, I remember thinking, “I’m not sure all this change is worth the price.”

My God!  I was so shook up by that thought that I pulled over to the side of the road to try to calm myself and think this through.  Decades ago I heard those exact words come out of my father’s mouth.  His general view of life was that the whole world was going to hell in a hand basket.  Of course, at the time I just laughed it off.  Only the old see the world that way.  As a teenager, I thought the world was great just as it was, and the few changes that were happening, I saw as improvements.  To a teenage boy, my father might as well have been a space alien.  His views were as completely incomprehensible to me, as I’m sure mine were to him.  Back then we called it the Generation Gap.  But this day, as I drove away from Comfort, I was struck by the realization that somewhere over the years, I had become my father.

As time goes on I am beginning to suspect that we are all really more similar than we are different.  As I look back on it now, I realize I didn’t become my father at that moment in Comfort; I suspect I have always been him.  I just didn’t know it.  The idea we had way back then about a generation gap came from a mistake in the way we viewed each other.  Quite simply, we had been comparing apples to oranges.

Every year Beloit College puts out its “Mindset List” for college faculty.  It is a list of the experiences and worldviews of incoming college freshmen that is designed to help faculty understand the critters they are about to encounter.  According to the list, for members of the 2015 freshman class, the Daily Show with Jon Stewart has always been the only news program that really “gets it right,” and when they see wire-rimmed glasses, they think Harry Potter, not John Lennon—or John Denver. The list goes on.

Obviously, the world seen by these students is radically different from the one I live in.  I’m sure these young people see the world as it is today and think it has always been this way.  They may see problems, but if they do, they view them as obstacles that were created by previous generations and view any changes that take place as improvements.  In essence, they see the world exactly as I saw it at their age.

In the late ‘60s, I was a boy of 17 looking at my father, a man of 48.  Back then, I had a Fender guitar—he only saw a (expletive) guitar that constantly needed to be turned down.  I loved my top 40 music.  He heard only noise.  Today, I hear a car driving down the road booming and vibrating and think, “turn down that (expletive) radio.”  Truth is, it is probably an MP3 player.  I wonder—what if, as that teenage boy, I could have met my father when he was 17?  I suspect we would have been very similar in our worldviews.

Now, several years later, I still haven’t returned to Comfort to see the new Lowe’s Market building.  I doubt if it can be as cool as the old one.  But then, that is exactly what my father would have said.

Nassau Bay picks new city manager

November 1st, 2015

Jason Reynolds

Jason Reynolds

The Nassau Bay mayor and City Council have selected Jason Reynolds of Arlington, Texas as the new city manager.

The task force, comprised of Mayor Mark Denman, Mayor Pro Tem Sandy Mossman, former Mayor Don Matter and former Johnson Space Center Human Resources Director and Nassau Bay resident Harv Hartman, reviewed over 75 applicants.

At a Special Meeting on Sunday, Oct. 4,Council met and made the final decision to offer the position to Reynolds, who was the development operations manager for the City of Arlington.

Reynolds has accepted the position and is excited about this opportunity to join the City of Nassau Bay. “I am awe struck by the community and like the vision of their leaders. It seems like an excellent place to live and work,” said Reynolds, who is a retired Army paratrooper with a passion for community service.
He holds a certification as a Certified Public Manager. He also has a Master of Urban Planning degree, a Master of Business Administration and a B.S. in Workforce Leadership.

“It was an arduous, but certainly worthwhile, effort for our task force to search for City Manager Chris Reed’s successor,” Mayor Denman said. “We will never replace Chris, but we think we found someone that will continue his great work and progress; and that includes working with the great staff he has assembled. The city is functioning very well, we do not want to see momentum interrupted, employee retention is very important to us. I am confident Jason will jump right in and ensure we stay on the great path Chris and staff have put us on.”

Reynolds will officially begin work Nov. 1, and current City Manager Chris Reed will remain with the city through the end of this year, offering his full support during this transition.

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.