Thursday, June 25, 2009
My old pal Mike Chapman has been on the streets working with Austin's homeless of late. He tips me off to how you can donate $5 to pay for a case of water for the homeless through Mobile Loaves and Fishes. With our temperatures above 100 for at least two weeks now, it's crucial to save lives.
Thursday, June 18, 2009
This essay I wrote back in 1998 appeared in the Austin American-Statesman. I'm posting it here for old friends of Linda to see. It also happens to be about the worst thing I ever did in my life.
The first letter comes months before the telethon. The trademark caricature of Jerry Lewis on the envelope zaps me like a stun gun. Jerry's eyelids are lowered, mouth open in hearty guffaw. Inside the note reads, ``Can you repeat your prior gift of $25 today to give my MDA Labor Day Telethon a head start?"
Of course I can. I have no choice.
This is a story of Jerry Lewis, selfish kids in love with the sounds of their own voices, my friend Linda King and a debt that can never be repaid.
As junior high boys in laid-back, mid-'70s Austin, my best friend and I loved Cheech and Chong, Alice Cooper and winning free records off of the radio (mainly for the ego boost at having our names broadcast to the city as "winners").
We owned tape recorders and tried to outdo each other creating and imitating comedy routines : aliens had multiple belly buttons, DJs were whacked out on drugs, heavy smokers cut their habit in half when one lung was removed. At night our mothers often picked up the phone only to hear us presenting these strange bits to each other, phones pressed firmly to tape players.
With the purchase of a cheap suction-cup device that plugged into our recorders, it was a natural progression to prank calls. We dialed numbers at random and offered free gifts from Burger King. "Just go to the counter and ask for their whopper," we snickered.
But our favorites came on Labor Day weekend when Jerry Lewis pulled out a never-ending string of lame entertainers, and a phone number flashed on the screen in the background.
"I'd like to donate 5 cents," my friend said into the phone in a little-kid squeak aided by the fact that his voice had yet to change.
"Well, you can get your mom and dad to bring you to the station and drop it in the fishbowl," the gushing volunteer offered.
"But I want to give it to Jerry Lewis!" my buddy whined.
"He's in Las Vegas," the operator said.
"But he's on my TV!"
That prank eventually got tiresome and, broke and facing the last days of our summer vacation, we took notice of an even better scheme for Jerry and his TV kids: join the Muscular Dystrophy Association's young army of door-to-door collectors and make some quick cash.
We bounced through the neighborhood, knocking on doors and collecting a dollar bill here, a five spot there. Then one smiling man grabbed us by the arm and yanked us into his living room. Out popped his wife with a plate of cookies and a checkbook.
"You boys give us hope in today's young people," the man said.
"Would you like some milk with those cookies?" his wife asked as she tore a $25 check loose and handed it to me.
In 30 minutes we had $40 in cash and at least $60 in personal checks. We dropped the checks in a trash can and went shopping. I purchased the latest from Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Charlie Daniels Band, went home, placed my head between two speakers and rocked. But along with the music came an oozing sense of dread. I had gotten away with a mini-heist and wondered why I didn't feel more guilty.
Eventually I got tired of Southern rock, and the albums were forgotten. I went on with my life. My best pal and I started hanging with different crowds in high school. I went on to college and entered a new world. And I met Linda, the only person to whom I've ever written a fan letter.
Linda was a regular columnist for our college rag at Southwest Texas State University when I first met her on paper. She was funny, and I sent a goofy letter complimenting her writing. I wondered if Linda thought I was weird.
We ran into each other off and on, but the letter was never mentioned. I was only on the fringe of the journalism crowd, and she didn't go to fraternity parties, so we didn't have a lot in common. My most distinct college memory of her was the night she and I were inducted into the Society of Professional Journalists. It was a boring event we attended only to add to our resumes, but Linda made it lively by following the rules of raucous frivolity. She told jokes and drank the guys under the table. This was one newspaper person to whom I could relate. Semesters passed. I was elected president of my fraternity; Linda became newspaper editor, following in the footsteps of some guy named Lyndon Johnson.
More years elapsed, and I was one of the few SWT journalism grads I knew still trying to work in the field. I lived in a small town, worked long hours for a weekly newspaper and drove a Volkswagen Beetle with a terminal oil leak to Austin on weekends to party with friends. I heard Linda was at a mid-size daily and looked her up. Linda gave my name to her boss, a guy whose existence proved positively that alien life forms do exist, but their movements are too slow to be detected by the human eye.
I saw Linda again at my job interview, and she looked the same -- dressed in black, smelling of a recently smoked cigarette. I didn't get hired then, but a few months later I got a call offering me a different job: Linda's. It seemed she'd upset the town's mayor, who had pressured the paper into reassigning her. When she was informed of the lateral move, Linda suggested me as her replacement at city hall. I later learned that such selfless acts were the norm for her.
Linda trained me in the new job and took me under her wing in those first few weeks. During slow times in the newsroom, she and I wrote fake newspaper stories about how our bosses had died in grisly "accidents." When she left to work in medical public relations, Linda bequeathed to me the long computer file of humorous and vile stories (famous quote from that slow-moving editor -- " .").
I heard from Linda only a few times in the next few years. As I prepared to leave the newspaper business and return to our alma mater to pursue fiction writing and a master's degree, Linda called from San Antonio, and she was a little tipsy. We finally talked about that letter I'd written her in college. She told me it had meant a lot to her and that she'd never received another like it. This time I think she wondered if I thought she was weird.
In 1993 we got in touch again. I sent her a copy of a self-published sick humor magazine, Lost Armadillos in Heat, that friends and I put together for fun. She loved it, and I coaxed her into writing a humor column like those she did in college.
The column she wrote for me was about her journey into the personal ads to meet Mr. Right. Linda confessed to little luck on the romantic front. In our old newspaper office she was relentlessly hit on by an infrequent bather with a red afro, Coke-bottle glasses and the personality of Susan Powter. She wasn't impressed with the pickings elsewhere in Texas, either. "Half the yuppies are Bubbas. The others are Debbie Gibson fans who pee in the shower and climb the corporate ladder by telling the grossest Koresh joke at staff meetings," she wrote. Linda never found the perfect guy, but she quit smoking, exercised regularly and looked and felt the best she had in her life.
I had tried for a long time to get another friend who lived near Linda to call her. They were both successful professionals with a passion for sports, music and fun. Linda didn't return his calls. I soon got a letter telling me she had been diagnosed with ALS -- Lou Gehrig's disease -- and asking me to pass the word to my friend. Her letter was full of hope. There is no known cure for Lou Gehrig's disease, but the full effects can take years to manifest themselves. She had time.
I sent a note reminding Linda how many people truly cared about her, but I didn't call because I didn't want her to feel uncomfortable. Or maybe I was worried about being uncomfortable. Probably a little of both. When I finally quit procrastinating and dialed, her phone was disconnected.
The next day I got the call telling me Linda was dead. The disease had progressed quickly; I had missed my chance to say goodbye.
I think about all of this as I guiltily write another $25 check to MDA and seal it in the envelope provided. On the back is a plea from a mother whose two children suffer from a different neuromuscular disease. I finally have begun to understand their pain.
The Japanese have two distinct words for debt. Giri is a debt you can make good -- like paying back $5 you borrowed from a friend. Gimu is the debt that can never be adequately covered. My debt to Jerry Lewis and all the potential Lindas in the world is a raging dose of gimu.
I mail the check and take solace in a photo. Frozen in time is a lively blonde, her arm around a friend at the San Marcos Chilympiad in 1993. Linda smiles and mugs for the camera. She wrote to me of that trip taken with two of her best friends. "We hiked up to Old Main to see the plaque they hung in 1985 with my and LBJ's names on the list of newspaper editors."
May they both rest in peace.
Tuesday, June 16, 2009
Yes, I know it seems to be getting awfully depressing on my blog of late, but right now this comes from having a tracker that shows what brought people here. This week it's the story of another Joe O'Connell, originally from Ireland, who was on a road trip near Chicago with his wife and three kids when their van flipped. At the wheel was their 15-year-old daughter who was trying out her learner's permit. Both parents died. Sounds straight out of an Anne Tyler novel. Here's sending condolences to all of the O'Connell clan in both the Old Country and here in the United States.
Saturday, June 13, 2009
I had that dream again last night, the one where I'd forgotten to go to class for the first couple of weeks of the semester and was late for the day's class. We've all had that dream, but for me it was mostly true. As an undergrad I skipped class frequently, drank a lot of beer and took six years to complete my degree. (I made up for it in graduate school with one B that still rankles.)
Which leads us to Jeff Henderson. I made an A in the first journalism class I took from him. The second class he had to kick me out for not showing up. He did it nicely but firmly. I didn't see much of him again until I became student newspaper adviser at St. Edward's University and started attending the Texas Intercollegiate Press Association conventions. We became reacquainted (I'm not totally sure he remembered me), and in 2004 when I was named TIPA adviser of the year, Jeff handed me the award. Two years ago when my novel came out, he was there asking for an autographed copy and visibly proud to see the success of a former student. He was just that kind of guy.
He died Thursday at the young age of 67. He'd had heart problems dating back to when he was my prof, but I still expected him to make it through. I'll be at his funeral this coming Wednesday and I anticipate a crowd. That's what happens when your life is well lived and you've left little seeds for a lot of people. Jeff's certainly was.
Monday, June 8, 2009
I knew Terry Harper back in the '80s when he was recent college graduate traveling around advising chapters of my college fraternity. At one point we were having lunch in Rivendell's, a San Marcos, Texas, restaurant, when his eyes suddenly widened. He pointed up at the ceiling where a possum was pocking its head through. We both laughed a lot about that moment.
This past week Terry died after a second surgery for brain cancer. What can I tell you about Terry that he couldn't say better? Read his final words as reprinted in The New York Post.
Friday, June 5, 2009
Steve Booker, appropriately, holding up my book which he got as an Xmas present!
In one of the strangest forms of availability for my novel-in-stories EVACUATION PLAN, you can now rent it here for a paltry $9.99. Hey, for a few more bucks I'll hand deliver an autographed copy to you (my airfare to your door may apply, read fine print for details).
Thursday, June 4, 2009
My nephew Russell Harvey graduated from high school tonight. What's cool is he went to the same elementary, junior high and high school as I did. It seems like only yesterday he and I were splashing around in the kiddie pool (what I did today with my own son!). That's his proud mama and brother William flanking him in the photo.
Monday, June 1, 2009
The Texas Legislature has given a total $62 million ($2 million goes to administration) to fund the state’s new-and-improved film incentives program for the next two fiscal years. It wasn’t easy, insiders say, with the $40 million increase over the previous (and first) incentives fund at one point tied to FEMA reimbursements related to Hurricane Katrina, but in the end coming from the general revenue fund. Add $8 million unspent from a previous two-year allocation, and Texas should quickly be competitive. Give major credit to lobbying by the Texas Motion Picture Alliance. A big shout out alos to state Rep. Dawnna Dukes, who fought off late slashing of the program’s proposed budget. A speedy application/approval process is the next goal, with staff for this at the Texas Film Commission increased from one to eight. The likely first Austin shoot to latch onto increased incentives? Machete, Robert Rodriguez’s full-length version of what had been a fake coming attraction seen in Grindhouse. Look for it to lens in Austin this summer.