Thursday, June 28, 2007

Odds and ends

Life is busy, busy, busy. Big changes in the offing on the homefront, seemingly ceaseless rain across the middle of the state (and accompanying busy-ness at work), lots of writing deadlines; I'd sure like to slow things down a bit.

Contrary to that deep-seated desire, I've been chatting back and forth with the editor of RoadTrip America about some brief web pieces. RTA pays comparatively well, I'll be roadtripping anyway, so ... why not?

One reason why not, or that gave me pause anyhow, is that web publishing demands some level of exclusivity; RTA likes all electronic rights in perpetuity. We've negotiated 12 months on text, 6 months on photos. So while I'd really like to write here about a fun road trip out to Menard, the 1750s Spanish acequia there and an adventure at the London crossing of the Llano River ... I can't. But look for it at RTA next month.

The good news that comes with all the rain across the state this spring is that the aquifers are full, the rivers and streams are full, and it should be a good paddling summer. It's a big change after a couple of drought years; in fact, right now there's too much water in some of the rivers I plan on including in the Falcon book.

My editors liked the sample material I sent, by the way, so I'm feeling more confident about being on the right track with that.

On the coastal paddling front, the long July 4 weekend will see me stroking north from Padre Island National Seashore to Rockport, my hometown. Tam's going to give coastal paddling a try, says if she doesn't like it she'll catch some rays on the beach and pick me up at the take-out.

The next weekend I'll paddle on up to Seadrift. Like much of the middle and upper coast, here redfish, trout and flounder will be on the fishing menu. But around Corpus Christi and Port Aransas, I'll also get a few shots at tarpon and snook and that's a pleasant prospect.

Patrick's been having a ball with his cousin Chris and their Grammi and Papa. Longview -- berry picking and the Texas State Railroad; Austin -- Children's Museum and gellato and some Daddy time; Ingleside -- beach today, fishing with Uncle John tomorrow and some more Daddy time this weekend ... it all reminds me of the kind of summers I had as a kid.

Did an in-studio interview about boating safety with Bryan Beck at KGSR-FM this morning, and was reminded that Austin really is a great music town. Stumbled across "My Baby Now," by Bruce Robison, earlier in the week. Good stuff, and ... well, I find it calming.

And while I'm making recommendations, check out Love Warps the Mind a Little by John Dufresne. I'm reading it again, a second run-through within 12 months, and it's lovely in about a dozen different ways.

Monday, June 04, 2007

How cool is this?

Scientists from Conservation International announced today the discovery of 24 new species after conducting a biological survey of a remote area of Suriname, in South America.

Half the new-to-science critters were insects, which is no big surprise since the majority of biomass on the planet is insectoid.

More surprising were six new species of fish and five new species of frogs. I like frogs, always have. I especially like this one. Let's spin some Hendrix and just sit back and look at it ...

Sunday, June 03, 2007


Confession: Secretly, I want to be a Rennie. Or maybe, more accurately, I want to have been a Rennie.

A "Rennie" is someone who participates in Renaissance festivals, also known colloquially as "faires" or "shows." There are scores around the country -- two big ones of longstanding in Texas -- and they are, in aggregate, an absolutely fascinating subculture.

I'm not certain I have the chronology right, but I think it goes something like this: in the 1970s, a California educator put on a weekend-long "market" festival with an emphasis on artisanship. It was sort of an outgrowth of back-to-basics hippie self-sufficiency, a reaction to the plasticization (in the sense that Ruben Blades uses the word "plastic" in his song of the same name) of late-20th-century American culture.

Over time, Ren faires grew to offer period costumes and performances, vendors offering an amazing array of arts and crafts and demonstrations of everything from soap-making to blacksmithing to glass-blowing.

At a Renaissance festival, visitors are likely to see everything from jousting demonstrations to pub wenches to mud beggars to virtuoso performances on the hammer(ed) dulcimer. It's modern-day vaudeville, with knife-throwing, puppetry, juggling and comedy routines that sometimes reach a level of sophistication and polish seen nowhere else. The Flaming Idiots got their start at Ren faires.

Historical accuracy apparently is not a strict requirement. There's a good deal of schlock, and more than a few anachronisms, mixed in with the art and period pieces.

Visitors will also see lots and lots of costumes; some are period (14th-17th c.) costumes, faithfully reproduced and worn. Others are complete flights of fancy, or -- more accurately -- fantasy. Like the gentleman in bright blue leather armor and Justin roper boots I saw opening weekend at Scarborough.

The phenomenon has given birth to its own jargon, as true subcultures must; my 8-year-old son is, for now, a "playtron." A patron who comes in costume. It's not a stretch for a boy who is, predictably, enamored of knights and castles, swords and wizardry. The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter movies weren't blockbusters for nothing.

I was vaguely aware of the Texas Renaissance Festival and Scarborough Faire. More than vaguely, truthfully; I had a secret yearning to go and see and participate.

Two developments recently have made this possible.

The first, of course, is Patrick's interest. Where else is he going to be able to spend a day in his knight costume and test his jousting skills on the quintane? Where else will he be addressed, dozens of times throughout the day, as "m'lord?"

At Scarborough last weekend he was recruited, on the street, by an enterprising Borgia who offered him 50 gold florins to kill Oliver Cromwell. It was a genius strategy, I thought: after all, who would suspect an innocently smiling, tow-headed 4-foot assassin? Even if he does go by "Sir Patrick the Sinister." (At the risk of giving away his advantage in swordplay, it's because he's left-handed.)

Patrick experienced a Renaissance festival -- TRF near Houston -- before I did. In the end, though, his interest could simply be another of those things parents tolerate to humor their kids.

My other entree into the Ren world is in some ways more significant.

Renaissance is a vital part of Tamara's enchanting story. For more than a decade, she "did the circuit," a series of shows that kept her on the road and engaged in an earthy, hippie art and performance culture six months out of the year.

Today she has a highly responsible and remunerative position with a successful Austin software company. She's come to treasure things like indoor plumbing, air conditioning and -- lately -- down comforters. She's happy to have health insurance and a 401(k).

In some respects Tamara is pretty typical of the other Rennies I've met: bright, well-read, highly creative ... most of these folks could make a go at just about anything they turned their hands to. The shows do for them what Austin does for musicians: allows them to make a living doing what they love best in a world that too often values "counters" over "makers."

It was a big leap for Tamara, to leave the Ren world and pursue a "straight" job. Her best friends -- people she has known and loved for two decades, in some cases -- are, many of them, still on the road. A few have opted for a more settled existence. The lucky ones, in my view, manage to keep one foot in each place.

Tam has done that by working hard to maintain those relationships, making herself useful in small ways on show weekends and being very, very careful not to violate the many unwritten rules of the tribe.

Some of those rules, I think, have to do with how much access is given to outsiders, how far they are allowed to penetrate that culture.

I am an outsider. I have a straight job, have only ever held straight jobs. I don't own a costume. I am not an artist, or even a particularly competent craftsman. My last dramatic effort was a run as Ensign Pulver in a UIL One-Act Play production of "Mister Roberts."

Bringing me along as she bridges the gap between her two worlds carries risks for her, not the least of which is loss of credibility and ostracization from her tribe. For me the risk is rejection, embarassment -- the kind a foreigner feels when mistaking an idiom or violating a taboo, being responsible for somehow separating her from a part of her life that is still very important to her.

As Tamara has revealed to me, bit by bit, more of her story and given me more insights into the Ren world, I've wondered at how honestly curious I am and how easily accepting I have been of the whole fantastic hippy-pagan-gypsy-crafting lifestyle.

But as I've traded story for story, and my memory was jogged by things she said, I've finally come to see it as No Big Surprise.

Some of my earliest best memories are of helping my grandma in her shop in Rockport. A retirement enterprise for my grandparents, it was something of a typical tourist trap -- full of sea shells and postcards and (this being before China's cheap-labor hegemony) imports from Mexico.

Alongside the rusty cutlasses and faux armor and serape-draped stuffed frogs, there was some genuine craft: lampshades created from thinly-sliced, translucent stone; paper weights and toilet seats and bric-a-brac preserving anything of interest -- shells, gems, fossils ... rattlesnake rattles? -- in heavy plastic resin.

Grandma made jewelry, and between her and my Grandpa there wasn't a rock or gem in sight that didn't receive at least a couple paragraphs of exposition. Grandpa was a water-witcher and a mushroom expert, could readily find and sort the tasty from the merely edible, the hallucinoginic from the lethal. A curious skill, now that I think of it, but one he shared with more than a few Rennies, if Ray St. Louis is to be believed.

Fantasy was so much a part of my life that I just assumed everyone had read Tolkien's trilogy three times by the time they were 15, and knew who Reepicheep and Aslan were.

My first great romance was with a beautiful, free-spirited woman who didn't particularly care for shaving under her arms but knew a whole lot about writing poetry, baking bread, milking cows and making cheese. I was blessed to have the opportunity to do all of that and more over long summer and holiday breaks at her family's farm in southwestern Wisconsin.

Even before that, and continuing on for years, I worked my way into my own tribe, a loose family of seafaring sorts -- long-distance cruisers, gunkholers, boat-builders. In my part of the world they, too, had a circuit: Texas Gulf Coast, the Mexican Caribbean, the Abacos, Bermuda, the Chesapeake ... it wasn't at all unusual to run into members of my hometown sailing club (and tellingly, it was the "sailing" club, not the "yacht" club) in Annapolis, or to meet a friend of a friend on Maryland's Eastern Shore, or see a familiar boat awaiting transit in Panama.

In Oxford, Md., a tidewater town founded during the historical Renaissance some four centuries ago, I was dropped-off to repair a boat and then deliver it back across the bay to Solomon's Island. I walked into my favorite watering hole there and asked the bartender where I could reprovision. He gave me directions, then threw me the keys to his truck.

Like Rennies, sailors help each other out, no questions asked. They are independent sorts, but loyal to the tribe; reluctant to be bound to the straight world of 9-5 drudgery, jealously protective of their freedom to pick up and go at a moment's notice.

Like other subcultures, the sailing -- especially cruising -- lifestyle comes with its own costumes, jargon and set of unwritten rules. Landlubbers, stinkpotters and wannabes stick out like sore thumbs.

But among the fraternity of cruising sailors, one can gain admittance by building skills and experience. Unknown drop-ins from over the horizon are welcomed if they can talk the talk and walk the (rolling) walk. Cred is awarded for miles under the keel and storms weathered.

Rennies are sometimes derided by the straight world as "those weird, hippie people;" sailors as "boat bums."

I seem to be drawn to both clans of dropouts from the mainstream.

Tamara asked me not long ago what I would like to see happen, with regard to bridging, with her, the gap between the straight world and the Ren world. I thought about it, and finally told her that -- best-case scenario, I'd like to be adopted by the tribe. At the very least, grudgingly accepted as a harmless interloper.

I'm not sure how to do that -- not sure, even, that it's anything I can somehow achieve on my own. It's important to me, though, because it speaks to some natural affinity; also, because it's important to Tam.

Patrick offered a clue to what might be one path. After we returned from a long day at Scarborough last weekend, we sat down to build catapults from a box of woodcrafting supplies Tamara had ordered weeks earlier.

We glued and rubber-banded various combinations of tongue depressors, clothespins and other parts together -- whose will hurl something farther, higher?

Later, when I was out of the room, my son turned to Tamara and asked thoughtfully: "So ... how many of these would we have to build to fill a booth?"

An update

I've been asked, urged, begged -- okay, not really begged -- to update this blog.

Some folks want to know how the last leg of the Kayak Safari was. Not much fun, but more in a moment. Some people want to know if I'm still alive. Yep. At least one person just wants to be amused. No promises there ....

This weekend is a busy writing weekend; I'm wrapping up my contractually required "sample" chapter for the FalconGuides book. It's actually quite a good exercise as it reminds me of all the things I need to pay attention to when I'm out on the water.

Here's one: Don't Leave the GPS on the Tailgate of the Truck.

So. The last leg of the coastwise trip was tough. Day one: 17 miles in a quartering gale, water the color of chocolate milk. Day two: 22 miles up the ditch. An overnight thunderstorm nearly blew us away. Day three: North winds. Day four: North winds.

I think we ended up catching maybe 10 fish between us -- nothing really noteworthy. Saw some birds. Built a couple of nice campfires. And we were really happy to step ashore at Bird Island Basin after four days and 70 miles on the water.

It was such a challenging leg of the trip -- such a grind -- that I joked more than once that it would be the Haiku feature story.

Here are a couple from the trip:

Waves roll, cockpit fills.
Wind howls, pushes petulant;
Riding chocolate milk.

Coyote watches:
Ears pricked, eyes keen, nose scenting;
What creatures, these boats?

Sunlight burns water
Bright; stroking, stroking onward.
Miles to go ‘til night.

Rain like bullets splat.
Tent walls tremble, folding flat ...
Sleep, at last, ‘til dawn.

Liquid sky below
Ripples, rolls, clears, surprises:
Raccon tracks in mud.

Green water, red fish
Grubbing mud, tail tasting air;
I cast ... not hungry?

Sand: spilling, slipping,
Racing to the water’s edge,
In cool repose rests.

Journey ends, paddle rests;
Strangers offer cold beer:
A good day at last.

That's not to say, of course, that the article won't be worth reading. One of the things a near-fishless 70-mile stretch of S. Texas did was give me the opportunity to talk more about the fascinating history of the Wild Horse Desert.

The next leg of the kayak safari brings me to my home waters, that stretch of bay and beach that I've roamed since I was a child. I'm looking forward to it.