All posts by Brad Whittington

Shaking It Up: Part 1

Or How I Threw Away the Formula and Started Over from Scratch. Sort of.


NOTE: If you got here from the Monday Morning Memo, welcome.

Also, if you want to do the Writing Wednesday status report, check out the Brad Whittington page on Facebook for the Wednesday posts.


For a writer, there are two ways to approach fiction:

  1. Write to a market.
  2. Write for yourself.

One of these choices gives you better odds of making a living from writing. Three guesses which one. *

Assuming you’re not some kind of literary genius who has no need to resort to picking one or the other, writing in a popular genre gives you the best chance to make a living writing fiction. Romance, suspense, thriller, sci-fi, fantasy, glittering vampires, etc. That’s called writing to a market.

Or you can just write for yourself. For the joy of it.

From the beginning, I chose option #2 and stayed the course for nine novels. On purpose. As it does with many things in life, it all comes down to the why. Why you write determines what you write.

I didn’t come to writing to pay the bills. I already had a day job. I came to writing to tell a story.

I piddled around with writing from early years, junior high at least. In high school, I started my own underground newspaper. I produced two issues, turned the crank myself for the 50 or so copies I printed on the church’s Gestetner mimeograph machine, similar to the one in this video. I was also the editor of the college newspaper for a year, largely on the strength of my “journalism experience” and the fact that nobody else wanted the job. Well, one other guy did, but he just wanted to run the paper as his own propaganda machine.

I wrote a lot of essays and editorials and such. I toyed with fiction, writing half of a short story in high school and a complete short story in college. But a huge barrier barrier prevented me from spreading my wings. I was lazy.

Writing fiction with a typewriter is labor intensive, especially the edits. In 1981, for my freelance consulting work I got a computer with Word Perfect and my last excuse faded. I jumped in with all four feet. I wrote a lot of crap, but I also read a lot of books on writing and slowly improved my craft.

Twenty years later Welcome to Fred got published by accident and I kept going. I enjoyed myself and it paid okay, but it didn’t cover the mortgage. Especially in Honolulu.

In 2016, after writing whatever I felt like, my ninth novel, The Reluctant Saint, was released, I decided to try something new.

I decided to go for option #1. I set out on an experiment to write a novel in the dead center of a viable market, the whodunit.

The question on the table: Can I write a novel I’m proud of putting my name on while meeting all the expectations of a certain type of reader? The jury is still out.

I know what you’re thinking. “Oh no! He’s abandoning all his faithful readers in a big money grab!” Set your mind at rest. This leopard can’t change his wardrobe this late in the game.

I’m aiming for something closer to Muffin Man than Welcome to Fred, but with more attention to the puzzle. The market is crowded. I don’t expect the money to be significantly different.

And I’m still sticking with option #2. Since 2006 my day job has been freelance writing, gun for hire to the highest bidder, and it pays the bills. In fact, if all goes well, a Dummies book about Artificial Intelligence will show up on the shelves later this year. It won’t have my name on it, but I wrote the sucker.

But when it comes to fiction, I still write for myself. And for the other misfits in my tribe.

However, as far as the writing process goes, everything about this project is different. As a rule, other than an occasional pull quote or a comment about how things are going, I don’t talk about my novels as I write them. So why break form now?

Many of you are writers, some aspiring, some accomplished. Writing is hard work even in the best of times. Perhaps particularly in the best of times when life is plentiful, and a multitude of distractions compete for our attention.

The truth is that all writers struggle, from the aspiring neophyte to the multi-published author. The blank page assails us all, taunting us, daring us to take the chance, to put it all on the page and stand by it.

For this project, I’m throwing out my process, all the little tricks and shortcuts I’ve used for the past 40 years, and starting fresh. New genre, new process. It’s daunting, scary. I have no idea if I can do it.

And I’m going to document my steps, my creative choices, so you can see how the sausage is made. By exposing my own struggles and inadequacies, my hope is that you will be encouraged to pick up the pen, or keyboard, and keep slogging forward on your project.

Ready? Let’s go.

* I am using Truby’s book (more on this later) for the pre-production phase of the writing project, as I have done for my last six novels. I started at the beginning and toward the end of Chapter Two I came across this excellent advice.

“You should always write first for yourself; write what you care about. But you shouldn’t write only for yourself. One of the biggest mistakes writers make is to fall into the trap of either-or thinking: either I write what I care about, or I write what will sell. This is a false distinction, born of the old romantic notion of writing in a garret and suffering for your art.”

Which, now that I think about it, is exactly what I decided to do for this novel, despite my grand pronouncement at the beginning.

Also, you might consider giving Truby’s book a shot. It will come in handy when I start working through the development of the story.

Cold Turkey

Sometimes you have to choose. Sometimes you have no choice.

I remember it like it was yesterday. But it was actually the day before yesterday.


I had spent ten years working three jobs, 60 hour weeks, ten grand in debt to the IRS every tax day, paying it off in installments until the next tax day when I was once again broke and owing ten grand. Let’s not mention the 25 grand of credit card debt.

I was teaching at two colleges and freelance programming for the county government and various small businesses. My typical work week looked like this:

  • Mon: 9am-9pm
  • Tue: 9am-9pm
  • Wed: 9am-9pm
  • Thu: 9am-9pm
  • Fri: 9am-6pm

Taking off at six on Friday was like a little vacation. I spent the weekend recovering in my recliner while grading tests. And playing the occasional gig. I mean, a boy’s gotta cut loose every once in a while, amiright?

This particular evening, I was sitting at my desk in my office, eating a sandwich for dinner before my six pm class when the phone rang. I picked it up, expecting to hear the dulcet tones of The Woman’s voice, when a man from California spoke.

“I saw your resume on the internet and I think you’re the perfect person for this position.”

Yes, my resume was on the internet in 1996. I was teaching at Texas State Technical College after all.

The guy was putting together a call center support team one thousand miles away at the Savannah River Project in Aiken, SC. One year contract, 40-hour week, paying twice what I was making from all three jobs combined.

I listened to him, asked some questions, but I knew my answer without asking. “I have two kids in high school come this fall, one a senior, one a freshman. I can’t move a thousand miles away and leave The Woman to deal with them on her own.”

He gave me his number in case I changed my mind. I wrote it down knowing I would never dial it. Then I called The Woman and told her the story.

“What did you tell him?” she asked.

“I told him there was no way I could leave you here on your own for a year.”

“Call him back.”

I called him back. Two weeks later I was in South Carolina.

We built time and money into the schedule for me to fly home one weekend a month and for The Woman and the kids to spend one week each with me in SC. To be honest, I was looking forward to getting a little time away from two teenagers.

It took about three months for the fog in my brain to clear, but eventually I found myself walking up the stairs to the bedroom at night wondering what the hell I was doing one thousand miles away from everyone that I loved. What can I say? I’m a slow learner.

That was the year I wrote the postcards.

I learned a lot that year. I learned how to play harmonica while playing guitar. I learned how to keep the attention of an unruly crowd while playing solo in a very sketchy dive bar. I watched Haley’s comet from the parking lot of that dive bar. I learned that if I played a gig with The Number One Son, I’d better play the first set. I attended a steeple chase, dining track-side on hors d’oeuvres and champagne and listening to stories from Chuck Yeager’s babysitter. I discovered boiled peanuts. (It’s like eating baby new potatoes. Yum. And better for you.) I learned that there is a place called Whiskey Road Baptist Church.

And I learned that I had alternatives. That I had spent ten years living in a rut of my own making, and that the only thing keeping me in that ditch was me.

I learned another thing. I don’t do things in half measures. For the last six years I had spent every spare moment thinking about photography or music. If I was going to claw my way out of that financial ditch, I had to devote all my attention to it.

At the end of the South Carolina contract I returned to Texas. I sold the darkroom equipment. I kept the camera and lenses, but from here on out, I would be a taker of snapshots. I would not lie awake at night planning photo excursions, would not scour the town for the strange and startling hidden among the ordinary and mundane, would not brainstorm how to create post-impressionist images with film.

Three months later I was in Phoenix working as an IT director at a software startup. I didn’t play a gig for a year, and just the occasional coffee shop after that.

Three years later I was in Denver working as a sales engineer for a regional communications carrier. (I confess I played a few open mikes while I was there.)

Three months later I was in Honolulu working as a product manager for a telcom test equipment manufacturer. I paid off the IRS and the credit cards. I did put together a band in those six years, but on a modest schedule.

One day an editor called. He had a manuscript I had given to a friend ten years before. A year later I had a book contract, and all bets were off. Writing replaced photography, and I was sucked back in. I wrote three novels, returned to Texas, and wrote six more.

I was in deep, deeper than ever before. One thing about writing novels–it doesn’t cost squat. No equipment to buy. No film. No prints. No mattes and frames and stuffs. But what you save in dollars, you spend in time.

In Hawaii, I was pulling down more than I ever had, but I was also back to working 60-hour weeks, plus traveling from 30 to 50 percent of the time. Mainland US, Canada, Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, Spain, France, Germany, Switzerland. I wrote two nights a week, all weekend, and in planes and hotel rooms and coffee shops all over the world.

Then I came back to Texas and started freelancing. No office, no regular hours, no boss. That’s when I took to writing at night, starting at 10 pm and writing until the wee hours, often straight through to sunrise.

I loved it. It was like the old days. Every moment not dedicated to something else was spent thinking about the novel in progress. Plot, characters, setting.

One day I drove my mother from Fort Worth down to Corpus Christi for her sister’s 90-something birthday and realized that, although she was doing fine in her retirement village, one day she might need to move closer to family. That’s when we started looking for property that had a separate apartment should she ever need to use it.

After several months of looking, we found a place with a 1500-foot workshop that could be renovated for our needs. We started work, but our progress was stymied by big ticket items like HVAC, plumbing and electrical. The required capital never accumulated and after three years I realized I was back at the same crossroads.

Sometimes you have to choose.Sometimes you have no choice.

The reality was that I could spend six months writing a novel or I could make the same amount from a week of freelance work. Assuming I had more clients.

So I made a New Year’s resolution. I wouldn’t write another novel until the apartment was finished. I would take all that crazy energy required to produce a novel and focus it on getting more clients.

Which explains the gap after I released The Reluctant Saint. I must confess, I cheated. A little. Like a good Pharisee, I found the loophole. I had vowed not to write a novel, but I didn’t say anything about short stories.

The following year I wrote one short story, The Icebox, which I will release with my next novel, whenever that is. And I wrote this rambling memoir, but neither of these things consume the mind like a novel. They are confections that I work on when whimsy takes me, but they don’t haunt my every waking thought. (When you think of it, say a prayer for my poor, long-suffering, always encouraging wife.)

In other news, in the three years since the resolution, we’ve made good progress. And another novel is in the offing.

And, even though for the last two decades I have restricted my photographic urges to snapshots, I have amassed a nice collection, so read on.


Hey, Mom, Dad, look at me!

How many times did you shout that growing up? Look at me, I’m running fast! Look at me, I’m riding a bike! Look at me, I scored the winning point!

Shouted first to your parents, later to the world. As we get older, our shout for attention is more nuanced, but I suspect that much of our existence can be reduced to this one thing.

I am here. See me.

They say that the traditional Zulu greeting “sawubona” translates to, “I see you.” I like the sound of that, the idea that I see you and value you as a person. However, if every stranger I met said, “I see you,” with all that implies, the fascination would quickly fade.

Besides, I’m not ready to say that to everyone I meet. It sounds exhausting. And, if I am being honest, there are some people that . . . well, let’s just say that if this was the standard greeting in Texas, when I said, “I see you,” for some folks, it would mean, “I see you, and if I had the option, I’d be somewhere else right now.”

Honesty sucks, don’t it?

So, as it turns out, I’m good with the standard “Hey.” If it was good for Andy and Barney and Opie and Gomer, it’s good enough for me. Let everyone go along with their illusions intact. That’s civilization right there. Don’t poke the bear.

When someone asks, “How are you?” I typically answer, “Vertical.” Clever, huh? It short-circuits the ritual, forces the other person out of the perfunctory conversational tennis and gives them an opening to actually engage on a human level.

But when I break it down, I realize that what I’m really saying is, “Look at me.” I’m not just another customer, another walking stiff, another cog in the machine. I’m not going to play along. hit my mark and say my lines. It’s a reverse sawubona.

See me.

For the record, when it comes to the checkout line, I’m also good with not interacting at all. It’s not like I compulsively force everyone I encounter to acknowledge my humanity. But, if you ask the question, I’ll force you to either make it real or ignore me completely.

Yeah, I’m a pain in the ass. I’ve learned to live with it.

So, where was I? Oh yes, getting more people to look at me. Or rather, to look at my photographs.

It started with The Water Works and my grand scheme to eke revenue from my photography addiction. I talked Sean McCann into letting me display some of my spec photos in the lobby by the entrance to the bar. By then, I had polished my mounting and matting skills. I put the black-and-white prints in wood frames, and instead of hanging them by a wire, I mounted them on the wall with four wood screws. Nobody was going to walk away with those photos!

I don’t recall if I ever retrieved them. They might be hanging there still in the abandoned building.

One day I happened to be walking along downtown and noticed this place that had prints displayed in the windows and interior walls. I don’t recall the nature of the establishment. I don’t think it was a gallery, just some business that had art hanging up.

I went home, grabbed my meager portfolio, and returned. Somehow, I talked them into giving a few of my prized prints some space on the wall. They stayed there for a few years. Might still be there. I don’t know, because after 20 years living in one spot, I left town. Left the state. Left it all behind and spent 10 years following high-tech money.


I can quit anytime I want.


I’m pretty sure The Woman had no concept of the beast she would unleash when she bought that Canon AE-1.

Zimmerman was looking to unload an enlarger with assorted trays and extraneous paraphernalia, all for an inconsequential sum of a few hundred bucks.

I was already spending that every month for film and color prints from the camera store where I had won the competition and for darkroom time in a lab out on Franklin Ave for my black-and-white work. Hourly rate plus paper.

That’s right. I had a $200 a month photography habit. But I had it under control. I could quit any time. The problem was I [fill in income data here]. Plus I had no intention of quitting, no matter what time it was.

We were living in a 3,000 sq ft two-story frame house with 12-foot ceilings built in 1917. Sounds great, right? Wrong. It was one block on the wrong side of the boundary between ghetto and gentrification.

A third of it was entryway and screened in porch. Three bedroom, two bath, and forget the open floor plan. Just a bunch of tall boxes connected by halls and doorways. This was a good 30 years before Chip and Joanna showed up and flipped half of the houses in Waco.

We paid $35,000 for it, and it was way more than we could afford. But it had an attic fan. Boo yah!

Wait a minute. Here’s the catch. I had a plan.

Through the camera store competition I had discovered Ilford high-speed black-and-white film. Had learned how to shoot in available light under adverse conditions. And my perverse brain pulled all this together into a grand scheme.

I would shoot live shows of bands and stand-up comics on spec and clear a profit on the prints the artists would buy for promotional purposes. Pure genius.

My venue of choice was The Water Works at the corner Waco Drive and Martin Luther King Junior Boulevard. Upscale, white tablecloth dining with an attached pub. I had seen tons of great acts there. Texas blues bands such as Mike Morgan and the Crawl, Anson Funderburg and the Rockets, Rusty Wier, Bugs Henderson, singer-songwriter duo Trout Fishing in America, 2007 Texas poet laureate Steve Fromholz, the Bird Sisters from Canada, the Chieftains from Ireland.

Also, I had been playing open mikes there for years and knew the owners, a couple of Irish guys. Guinness on tap. It had all the vibes.

In fact, it was at the Chieftains gig that I discovered Guinness. When I started doing the open mike at The Water Works in the early 90s, I was at a loss for what to order when I was listening to the other acts as I awaited my slot in the list. As a certified preacher’s kid with a limited exposure to drinking, I was at a disadvantage. One thing I knew for certain, I didn’t like beer.

Then I remembered that somewhere back in the day I had sampled a Long Island Iced Tea. Very consumable. Friendly, you might say. So I ordered that. I soon discovered that when I took the stage, somebody had jumbled all the lyrics in my head and my fingers refused to remember their job.

The next time around I consulted my musician buddies, and they recommended Shiner Bock. It was light years beyond the Budweiser and Lone Star I had sampled back in college. Better yet, I could drink one and still perform. It became my drink of choice.

At the Chieftains show, I was nursing my Shiner when Wade Meyer, the musical chameleon from the open mike, sat down at the table with a pint of some inky black liquid with an inch of frothy tan head.

“What is that?”

“You’ve never had a Guinness?”

I shook my head.

“Go up to the bar and tell Sean you need a Guinness.”

I stood and approached the bar, catching Sean’s eye. “I’ve been told I need a Guinness.”

Sean nodded and pulled a Guinness on tap. It took a while. I waited, confident in the received wisdom from my mentor. Eventually Sean slid the pint over. I nodded and took it back to the table.

Once I was settled, I took a tentative sip, and the heavens opened. Smooth, creamy, slightly bitter, but thick and full of nutrients. It was like drinking a loaf of bread. Really good bread. The kind that makes you look forward to a bulging sandwich.

It was what every beer wished it could be when it grew up.

But I digress. We were talking about high-speed black-and-white film and grand schemes.

Somehow The Water Works had managed to get in on the feeder level of Laff Off, a national stand-up comedy competition that would crown a winner in Vegas toward the end of the year. Dozens of wannabe comics would be thronging to Waco for their chance at greatness.

Comedians who would need live promo shots. And I would shoot them. And then sell them prints.

My rambling, superannuated house had a funky closet that hung off the pantry, more like a shack that had been attached to the south side by a drunken carpenter. It became my darkroom.

I blacked out the windows, screwed in a red light bulb, set up some tables and got to work printing contact sheets and sample 4×6 proofs.

I burned through a lot of film, handed out a lot of business cards. And sold two 8×10 prints for $20 each. One to a comedian called Walt and the other to Bugs Henderson because his son was playing drums and it was his birthday.

The last time I saw Bugs was 1999 when I was living in Scottsdale. He played the Rhythm Room in Phoenix. He was 55 and played a three-hour set without taking a break. Longer than I could go without a pee break, although I cursed every second of missed guitar work.

Three or four years later, when we were living in Honolulu, The Woman and I went to the dollar theater to see Leap of Faith, a movie about a shyster faith healer staring Steve Martin. (Worth seeing, and even more worth getting the soundtrack.) [get spotify link]

The movie opened with a reggae tune and a shot of a tour bus on the highway. The vocals started and I recognized Don Henley’s voice. When he hit the chorus, I said, probably with too much force, “Hey, that’s ‘Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat’ from Guys and Dolls!”

The Woman shushed me. She has to do that sometimes. Then, about halfway through the movie, a guy on the screen jumps up and yelled, “Hey, I just found $20 in my pocket!” I flinched, startled, pointed at the screen,and yelled, “That’s Walt!” Yes, that Walt. The aspiring comedian who bought one $20 print and probably made copies in violation of the terms of my contract. So if you see Walt, tell him he owes me some royalties.

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it? -Jeremiah 17:9

Life progressed, during which I burned a lot more film doing things. Then a thing happened.

Twenty years before the 2008 national collapse of the housing market, the savings and loan associations staged a dress rehearsal. One third of the 3,000 S&Ls in the US went bust. I typically didn’t pay attention to such things, but the house next to my 1917 mansion got caught in the crossfire. One day a sign showed up in the lawn indicating it was being auctioned off by the Resolution Trust Corporation, which was set up by the Feds to liquidate the collateral damage.

I was convinced that the local slum lord would snatch up the property, a 1500 sq ft two-story house that had been divided into three apartments, rent it out to junkies, and drive down the price of my investment. So I called the number on the sign, scheduled an appointment and motored down to Lake Air Boulevard to cut a deal.

I was escorted into a dingy office sporting 1970s-era paneling. The man behind the desk looked like the love child of Mr. Toad and Mr. Potter from The Wind in the Willows and It’s a Wonderful Life, respectively. He informed me that the auction would be conducted via sealed bid, with a minimum bid of $5,000.

I was down with it. “Fine. Let’s do it.”

Mr. Toad Potter regarded me across his cluttered desk. “What are going to bid?”

“I thought it was sealed.”

He shrugged.

“Five thousand.” I didn’t have a lot of spare cash. In fact, thinking back on it now, I have no idea where I expected to come up with the cash. Probably by cashing in my meager retirement account.

He frowned. “You will lose to a bid of $5,001.”

I nodded. Two could play this game.

“Good point. I bid $5,151.”

I wish I had a photo of the look of disgust that played across his face. I stared back silently. I had learned that the first one to talk loses. Eventually he slid a form across the desk. I filled it out, sealed it in the enveloped and slid it back to him.

The closing date for bids was a month out. One night, not long after I submitted my bid, I was up at 2 a.m. working on a story about a kid who wanted to be Sherlock Holmes and turned everyone around him into a character from the Homes stories. Maybe one day I’ll finish it. Or not.

As I slaved away, deep in the throes of my hero and his friend, Watson, erupting into an argument and taking the story an unexpected direction, I heard the sound of breaking glass from the house next door. I ran up to the screened-in back porch on the second floor and peered out.

A very large man was waddling toward the alley carrying away an antique window air conditioner that had to weigh in excess of 200 pounds. I watched him stagger away, making no move to intervene. I figured if a man can carry a 200-pound A/C unit by himself, who was I to tell him no.

The next day I called Mr. Toad Potter. “I would like to install a chain-link fence on the alley.”

“You can’t make any improvements until you own it.”

That caught me by surprise, but I had a ready answer. “I’ll do it on my own nickel, and if someone else wins the bid, they can have the fence as a house-warming gift.”

“If you do anything to the property, you will disqualify your bid.”

In the following weeks, all the loose items in the house were conveniently removed by the local denizens at no charge to me. Just one of the many perks of living on the wrong side of the gentrification line.

Then one day I got a call. I had won the bid. I directed a smile in the general direction of Mr. Toad Potter and went over to inspect the premises. No damage. In fact, the local looters had done me the service of hauling off junk that would have cost me money to be rid of.

The house sat vacant for a long time, the utilities turned off. I had blown my wad on the bid and had no available cash to renovate it and rent it out. Then one day I experienced a revelation. I could run an extension cord and a garden hose from my house to the kitchen and move my darkroom to the vacant house.

I had a new darkroom. It only cost me $5,151, a garden hose and an extension cord.

But I could quit at any time.

Time progressed, and The Number One Son was nearing graduation from middle school. We were concerned about the gang activity at the high school he would attend and started pricing private schools. It didn’t take long to realize that we could take that money and apply it to a house in a better school district.

And that is how it came about that we sold our 1917 mansion, used the money to make the darkroom habitable by opening a door between two of the apartments, and move into it. We rented out the other apartment.

And I sold the darkroom equipment.

I told you I could quit at any time.


It was bound to happen. I was in pretty deep—skipping work, trolling through all manner of neighborhoods, wandering down alleys, trying to score the perfect shot.

Then Jodi told me about the HOT Fair photography competition. They had categories and stuff. Just what I needed—an incentive to escalate my monomania.

Not that I’m competitive. No more so than the next man. Assuming the next man is Homer Simpson. Let’s put it this way. You know how some dads let their kids win at games?

I remember the day I beat my dad at chess. Do you think I would remember that moment 50 years later if he was in the habit of letting me win? No, he made that moment special with the knowledge that if I beat him, it was because I had earned it.

That’s part of the job of being a dad—to prepare your kids for the real world. Nobody’s going to hand it to them on a platter.

[note to self, find the fisher waiting for the firetruck photo]

One day I showed The Wiz a photo of my penultimate grandkid sitting on the curb. “He heard a firetruck. He’s waiting for it pass by.”

“You’re the granddad. It’s your job to go find that truck and make it pass by his house.”

“Nope. It’s my job to make sure he knows that you don’t see firetrucks by sitting on the sidelines waiting for them to come to to you. You have to go out and find them.”

[note to self, look at notebooks and albums for competition details]

But we’re talking about the HOT Fair photography competition. The deadline was only a few days away. I pored over my existing prints and then roamed the town and surrounding environs to fill in the gaps, burning through 24- and 36-exposure rolls like a pyromaniac. I submitted an entry for every category except flowers, but everyone knew that category was only for pansies. (I know it’s not a PC joke, but really the pun was just hanging there, and I couldn’t resist.)

When the fair opened, I rushed to the photography tent. Jodi was there, not especially pleased to see me or my photos. She would have won a few categories if she hadn’t told me about the competition.

I was walking along, seeking out my entries, when I came upon a clutch of girls clustered around a photo.

“That’s him, Brenda.”
“Not it’s not.”
“Really. Tell her, Stacy.”
“Tell her what?”
“That’s David Koresh.”

I looked where she pointed. It was the self-portrait I had entered into the competition, decorated with a second-place ribbon.

I was particularly proud of this shot because of what I had set out to do.

I set up the camera on a tripod in front of the house in bright sunlight, had Spyrison sit on the steps and shade his eyes. I then metered the shadow and set the f-stop wide for a shallow depth of field and a fast shutter speed to correctly expose the eyes. Then we traded places and he snapped the picture. As I anticipated, most of the detail was washed out, and the background faded into white.

Seeing the red ribbon on my self portrait, I released a silent cheer and backed away quietly before the girls noticed me. Koresh had come to a fiery end six months earlier, and I was afraid if they turned around and saw me standing there, they would freak.

A few years later I was doing computer work for a camera/photography store when I noticed they had a  competition with a deadline in two weeks. All entries had to be shot on Fuji color or Ilford black-and-white. I bought several rolls of each and spent the next ten days scouring the town for photos.

I told Nelson, a co-worker, about the contest. I’d been beating him at the HOT Fair competition for the last few years and he was out for revenge.

[nelson eyeball photo?]

Two weeks later, Nelson won in the flower category. I took first or second in the rest and won the $500 grand prize with what is likely the best photo I’ve taken.

[photos of the competition]

Which meant that after the cost of film, processing, enlarging, and matting, I basically broke even. I don’t think Nelson wanted it bad enough. Maybe he had the wrong grandpa.

The firetruck isn’t going to come to you unless you’re on fire.

Getting Serious

At some point, a photographer who has been bit by the bug, who has drunk the KoolAid, gets ideas. Begins to aspire to art. And that’s when it gets dicey.

Know thyself. -Socrates

Some say this is the primary task of any human. I say good work if you can get it.

As the son of an honest Southern Baptist preacher, I say the primary task of a human is to justify your existence on the planet. Did you do your best? Did you leave the planet better than you found it? That there is a full time job.

Say what you will about evangelical preachers, the ones who are in it for The Kingdom–which is not the same as being in it for your kingdom. The true believers don’t laugh all the way to the bank. They rejoice all the way to their ultimate reward. And by ultimate, I mean not in cash. And by reward I mean not in cash. Either way, cash is not involved. At least not in any appreciable quantities.

This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
-Polonius, Hamlet Act 1, scene 3, 78–80

Here’s the thing about Polonius. He gets a bad rap. Yes, he may have been a “windbag” or a “foolish prating knave” as some critics have said. Say all those things. Say he penned every kitschy inspirational placard to be found in every cheap gift store, every annoying bumper sticker or internet meme.

Who’s to say those terms don’t describe all of us at some point in our journey? I dare you to read those three lines of advice from Polonios the Windbag and tell me you have that down. Checked the box. Mission accomplished. Arrived.

If you have the temerity to take that route, I refer you to Socrates and offer you this slim nugget of wisdom panned from six decades of experience.

Humans are past masters at the art of self-deception. -The Wunderfool

Hold on. I seem to have wandered far. I was talking about photographers and pretensions to art. That’s the thing with writers. We get going, and God only knows where we will end up. Down philosophical rabbit trails chasing a wild hare. Cul de sacs. Dead ends. This is what happens when you are your own editor. Self knowledge is such a tricky thing.

What I meant to say is that somewhere along the way I grew bored with straight lines and smooth curves. Bored with things as I saw them, captured faithfully in the lens and transferred to film. I yearned for something more elemental. I found myself drawn to an image that was less precise, more elemental.

I awoke one day, starting the morning as I usually do, which is to say searching for a reason to actually get out of bed and do the needful. This is my life. Each morning I wake up feeling like I’ve been dragged behind a truck, struggling to justify starting everything all over again. Existence is relentless, and you don’t get coffee breaks from reality. In those moments, I reflect upon a central truth.

Life is so interesting, it’s hard to stop. -Garrison Keillor

I dragged myself from underneath the covers and looked out the back window. I could barely make out the house across the alley for the fog. The ramshackle dog house in the back yard glowed in a romantic haze. All the prosaic elements of my unremarkable world had been redrawn into images that I had wandered far to experience and capture.

This is how you know you have a problem. Just search the online checklists. Choosing your addiction over other responsibilities and obligations. Indulging your addiction in secrecy.

That morning I didn’t go to work. I went for my camera bag. And I didn’t tell a soul.

[curate photos from that day and intersperse commentary about f-stops and shutter speeds.]

I showed up at the office around noon, quietly euphoric after shooting several rolls of film, put my head down, and went to work justifying my existence on the planet. It is the way of my people.

When I got the prints back, I felt a second rush. This was jazz, the next thing I was looking for. Shooting on the fly, pushing the exposure to compensate for the internal light meter, bracketing my shots to make sure I got the picture I saw.

[work in the still life[

In the following days, I pondered on the question of how I could shoot in full daylight and yet approximate the style of the impressionists and post-impressionists. You know. Monet, Manet, Van Gough. Those guys.

As I pondered this problem, I realized that water was the key. Real life produces smooth, continuous lines. I needed something that would break up those lines.

I started with puddles. It worked, but I quickly realized I needed something much larger, so I sought out the Brazos River and Lake Waco, but I was constrained by whatever was on the opposite bank. Then it hit me. The Riverside Water Treatment Plant off Colcord.

I pulled up to the gate of the plant, parked my car and pulled out my camera bag. I didn’t see anyone around, so I walked on in and started shooting. It was exactly what I was looking for. The tall smoke stacks were fractured in exactly the way I had imagined.

Then the the authorities showed up in the form of two workers at the plant. They said access was restricted to authorized personnel and I couldn’t just wander around on the property. I apologized, explained why I was there, and asked them to pose for a photo.

Suddenly their demeanor changed, and they obliged by posing for a half-dozen shots. Fortunately, this was not my first rodeo and I knew what I needed to do to get what I wanted.

I didn’t write down their names, so I titled the shot Rocky and Bullwinkle.

[shot goes here]

Life takes us to places we don’t see coming, and in the next twenty years it took me to a lot of places I never could have predicted. But everything comes down to choosing a thing and doing it like we mean it.

For the things that matter, you do it not for the payout, not for the cash, but for the love of the thing itself. To bring some beauty to this world. To leave it better than you found it. Even if it is just one photograph that tells the truth while distorting the image.

We are all a collection of pixels, a perception rippling across the face of time. Make it count. Do it for love.

Doubt thou the stars are fire;
Doubt that the sun doth move;
Doubt truth to be a liar;
But never doubt I love.

-Polonius, Hamlet Act 2, scene 2, lines 1211-1214

Wandering Far

Winning is relevant only if battle was inevitable. Fighting unnecessary wars is stupid. -Sun Tzu, The Art of War

May 29-June 10, 1989

In the summer of 1989, when the women started talking about a working vacation in Colorado, H and I knew better than to put an oar in. There’s such a thing as winning the battle and losing the war, and we’d both been married long enough to know the difference.

I have a thing for unlikely matches.

Back in the day, nobody saw The Woman and me as an obvious match. In fact, one night her roommate staged an intervention, listing all the reasons why she should break up with me at her earliest convenience and set her sights on a suitable life partner.  The main theme focused on her perception that I was a dope-smoking, long-haired loser who couldn’t go the distance when the going got tough. Turns out, two out of three ain’t enough.

To my shame, I can’t resist a touch of schadenfreude when I observe that The Woman and I are 40+ years deep in marital bliss with no regrets. In fact, it is our life theme.

Live without regret.

It is an attitude, a way of approaching life that I highly recommend.

As everyone knows implicitly from the moment they meet her, and as the inevitable global empirical study has verified beyond contradiction, The Woman is the nicest person in the world. And I am a high-functioning goofball. This is known.

I have spent a lifetime playing Court Jester for my Queen without a nanosecond of regret. If you want a diverting, amusing conversation, I am your man. If you run into one of life’s many tragedies, you want The Woman at your side. This also is known.

To set the stage for the working vacation, in the early 80s my band broke up and my closest friends left town. (A story for another time.) I was left adrift, but I assumed that as I had made friends before, I could make other friends just as easily. I had not taken into consideration the degree to which I am an odd duck.

I have a theory. We are all looking for our tribe, and we live our best life when we find it. In the most unlikely environment imaginable, a radically conservative East Texas college, I lucked into my tribe. I ended up in the aforementioned band with select members of my tribe. It just happened. And because it fell into my lap, I had no idea how rare a thing it was.

I should have known better. I had spent my childhood as a stranger in a strange land. I had bounced around six schools across state boundaries without finding my people. I was a fool to think it would be a small thing to stumble upon another miracle. The band broke up and after a year of concerted effort, I awoke to the truth. You can’t fashion a golem into a soulmate.

I put my head down and soldiered on. I knew the drill. I had lived it most of my life. You take what you can get, even the crumbs, and keep going. Get up in the morning. Do the needful. Pay the bills. Lie down. Rinse and repeat.

Then a thing happened. In the mid 80s, due to various life circumstances, The Woman’s closest friends left town. At first, I chalked it up as the way of life, but as the months passed I realized that what was business-as-usual for the gander wouldn’t fly for the goose. Unlike me, she hadn’t built up an immunity through a lifetime as an outsider. Her nature couldn’t accommodate the life of a drudge. Something must be done.

Her search was no easier, but one thing became clear. It wasn’t enough to find a new friend for her. The relationship would never survive as a one-to-one proposition. It had to be couple-to-couple. And, although he never suspected it and is probably still unaware, that was how it came down to H and me.

Talk about an unlikely pairing. There was nothing obvious about it, but I was determined to make it work. I studied his interests as I have never done for another person before or since. I studied his ways, discovered his favorite music. His favorite reading. His favorite pastimes. We hung out independent of the women. Guy time.

Thus came my first Superbowl hangout. My first dove-hunting trip. I learned the sacred rituals of tobacco and pipes. Watched Agatha Christie movies and read the novels.  Was initiated into the mysteries of sitting quietly on the deck, watching the sunset with pipes and sparse conversation.

Months passed. Years passed. And one day I realized I had set out on a quest to fill the vacuum left by the departure of The Woman’s friends, but in the process I had unwittingly had found my tribe. A new tribe. A tribe of two.  And that worked for me.

For my part, I introduced H to jazz. That was my sole contribution, but it carried weight. Jazz is the essence of relationship. Improvisation. Trading ideas. Building on what is laid down by the other. In the moment. Evanescent. Solid.

Some might ask if a true friendship can be engineered with such deliberation. To them I say you know not of which you speak. I can’t speak for H, but for my part, we came to know each other as brothers. The warp and the woof, the good and the bad.

Here is the test. If you can sit in comfortable silence with a man, speaking only when thought or occasion demands, and feel no awkwardness or compulsion to fill the void with mindless chatter, understanding each other without need for words, then what would you call him if not friend? The best kind of friend in my view.

If you find one such person in your life, you are fortunate. If you find more than one, you are indeed rich and need not defer to anyone. And if you lose that bond, it is a loss to be mourned.

But I digress. This is a story about wandering far.

Thus came the women and their proposition of a two-week working vacation in Salida, Colorado. An older couple had a vacation property in a small town that needed repainting. We had one week to paint and another week to enjoy Colorado, all rent-free. Sweat equity as it were.

I was not a fan. Neither was H. But as intuitive students of Sun Tzu, we knew when to choose our battles. There are some things, objectionable things, that one must shut down immediately regardless of the cost. Then there are things that, while objectionable, if one objects, one will incur consequences far more objectionable than the thing itself. This was one of those things. The second kind. The objectionable objection kind.

And that is how on one hot Texas summer day we came to be driving a rented extended van packed with snacks and children on a trek from Texas to Colorado to paint a house and embark on adventures. Of course I packed the camera. And the chess set.

The chess set had one purpose—to keep me awake on the first leg of the journey.

Here is a life tip. If you have a long road trip ahead of you, start just before sunset and drive through to sunrise. Of course, you must employ strategies to stay between the two ditches. A good selection of podcasts is a good bet, but we had no podcasts in the 80s. I took the midnight shift, H riding shotgun, the wife and kids in the back. My plan was threefold: conversation, chess, music.

I talked with H as long as I could, but when conversation flagged, I engaged The Number One Sun in a chess match. He sat behind me, magnetic pieces on metal board. I gave him the first move, he told me his move, I told him mine, and he made the move on the board.

We proceeded in this fashion for a hundred miles or so, getting into the occasional fracas when he failed to move my piece as instructed and the game on the board failed to match the game in my head. He fell asleep before checkmate and I resorted to CDs  to distract me.

The sun came up somewhere around New Mexico and we switched drivers.

Eventually we arrived at our destination, not much worse for wear beyond a road-weary bone ache and an exploded bag of Ruffles in the back of the van. Altitude and air pressure, real things, with or without ridges.


The first week was devoted to painting a two-story, gingerbread-infested house too cute to live. But I wasn’t allergic to work.

In high school I worked summers on a truck farm, picking all manner of vegetables and fighting off bull nettle and various wasps and snakes and other varmints. In college I paid the bills as a janitor, a brickyard worker, a resident Gentile in a conservative synagogue, on the cleanup crew in a turkey processing plant, and stripping airplanes for painting. And as the editor for the college newspaper, but I don’t tell anyone about that.

During that week in Colorado I learned a few things about myself. The most salient detail for the job at hand was that when it came to heights, the best I could hope for was clinging white-knuckled to a ladder while painting the trim on a second-story window.

Some people will tell you that you need to push the edge of the envelope, take it to the next level, face your fears and conquer them.

Those people are idiots. I say that in a spirit of love. To the idiots. I love you, but you are an idiot.

When you’re climbing 20 feet in the air with a four-inch brush in your back pocket and a bucket in one hand, trying to figure out how to take the next step without taking your hand off the rung in front of your eyes, all the Tony Robbins burning-coal pep talks in the world can’t peel your fingers from the one bit of aluminum that stands between you and certain death. 

Tell it to the next guy, the gee-whiz aw-shucks guy who was born yesterday and just now fell off the turnip truck.  But don’t tell it to me. If that is what it takes to soar with the eagles, I’m happy to roost with the turkeys on a lower branch. Those turkeys are smart. Just ask Ben Franklin next time you’re chatting with him.

I did manage to paint the accent color on the trim of a circular window that looked in on the landing of the staircase, and I was proud to do it.

That left it to H to hang off the roof with one hand while painting the gable window with the other. We made a good team, the groundhog and the gable monkey. But I must point out that he was a lineman for the county, and I could beat him in chess. Just saying.

What you looking at?

I think I might have gone off course there. Where was I? Oh yeah.

The highlight of that week was listening to KDMN 1450 AM (now KSKE) out of Buena Vista, which the locals called Byuoona Vista, as we learned when we made the half-hour trip there to pick up a spray rig to paint the broad expanses of the house. It was the kind of radio station that read the principal’s honor roll students, high school, junior high and elementary, and good on ’em. 

My favorite news stories of that week were of a power outage and the new truck stop in Fort Collins on I-25.

The first story started with reports of a garbage truck fire. The announcer said, “Sightings were reported at the 700 block of Main, the 800 block of Main, the 900 block of Main . . . ” The driver continued, oblivious, to the dump, where, when he checked his rear view mirror and realized his truck was on fire, he panicked and hit a utility pole, knocking out power to half of the town for a few hours.

He reminded me of a dump-truck driver I knew during my time working at Henderson Clay in Marshall, Texas, a wiry twist of a man with an attitude to match. He could cuss a streak so blue it should rightly be called indigo. Since I can’t recall his name, let’s just call him Twitch.

The job of taking tickets from the drivers dumping sand was the cush job, but Stormin’ Norman had it locked up, mainly by being worthless at doing anything else, so I spent most of my time stacking wet bricks on railroad cars headed to the kiln or dry bricks headed to construction sites. Not a cush job by any stretch, the curse of the competent.

One glorious day, Norman quit and the one-eyed foreman tapped me. It was a simple  job. Sit on a log in the shade and wait for dump trucks to arrive, guide them to the edge of a 40-foot cliff of sand where they would back up just enough to hang the tailgate over the edge without backing over it, and then dump their load. That done, I would hand them a ticket and they would head back for another load.

All the other drivers accomplished this task without drama, but Twitch was his own worst enemy. Sometimes, despite my coaxing, he wouldn’t back far enough before dumping his load, leaving a large pile that would block the next driver. Then I would have to track down the front-end loader to come and push it over the edge.

On this occasion, Twitch couldn’t seem to line up with the edge. After several attempts, he slammed the truck into first, popped the clutch, and the truck convulsed forward. He slammed on the brakes, ground it into reverse, and popped the clutch again, but the truck did nothing. Horrible noises emanated from the transmission as he shoved the shifter hither and yon and tried again.

Eventually I walked up to the truck, looked under the chassis, and noticed that the front end of the drive shaft was lying on the ground. I tapped on his window, cringing at the thought of his reaction when I told him that he had busted the U-joint.

It took me a while to get his attention, but eventually he climbed down out of the truck and looked underneath. When he grasped the essence of the situation, without a word he reached into the cab, grabbed his smokes, walked over to the log in the shade, sat down, and smoked a cigarette. I bummed one, sat down next to him, and we smoked in silence.

After five minutes or so, Twitch stood, tossed the butt into the dirt, twisted it under the sole of his boot, and walked away without a word, leaving the truck behind.

I never saw him again.

But I thought of him as I stood on a ladder two stories in the air cutting in on the trim of the landing window, seeing him in the driver’s seat of the garbage truck driving though downtown Buena Vista, Colorado, his load on fire behind him, taking out the power of half the town and  tossing a cigarette behind him as he walked away in silence.

Was he walking back to a woman who would welcome him home or fear the sound of his step on the threshold? Children who would rush to greet him or retreat to a safe corner? What were the ingredients required to put together this incarnation? What was handed down to him and what did he bring to it?

If he put his mind to it, could Twitch become the kind of man who backed to the edge with precision, dump a perfect load every time, calmly notice the the fire in his truck and grab an extinguisher to deal with it instead of plunging half the town into darkness?

Could he become the kind of man who could swing off the edge of the dormer thirty feet in the air to paint the trim one-handed with nary a thought of the thirty feet of empty air between him and death or remain the kind of man who clutched a rung of the ladder with one hand while holding out a trembling brush to paint the circular window trim in a carefully chosen accent color?

But then I realized I had quit preaching and gone to meddling. I finished off the window, slowly returned to earth and rinsed off my brush like a sensible person.

I did hear one more story of Twitch, delivered by Saunders, who had snagged the cush job while I had been ordered back to stacking bricks. One day Saunders guided Twitch to the edge, but Twitch was over eager and backed too far. His rear wheels sank into the soft sand left by previous drivers, and the truck transitioned into a slow-motion tumble down the soft 40-foot cliff as Twitched bounced around inside like a BB in a box car. Saunders said Twitch survived and walked away. I never knew if he was an owner-operator of the truck or just an employee, but I have my suspicions.

Meanwhile, back in Colorado, the other news story of the day was the opening of a new business on I-25 called Debbie Does Donuts, a topless truck stop. To make sure we’re all on the same page, the topless part applied to the waitresses, not the trucks.

All decent-minded residents of Fort Collins had risen up in arms to protest it. The news story led H and me to multitudinous speculations of possible marketing slogans. As they say in the math textbooks, the solution is left as an exercise to the reader.


All good things must come to an end. More to the point, all things eventually come to an end, both good and bad. And indifferent things. All the things. They end. It’s the nature of a temporal world.

Things happen and then they stop happening and something else happens. That’s the whole truth of it, but nobody will put that on a poster. Doesn’t scan, really, and who can blame them? I mean, who would buy that poster?

[inspirational poster that says: Things happen and then they stop happening and something else happens.]

The point is that eventually we painted the dang house and cleaned out the spray rig and took it back to Buena Vista and got our deposit back. Didn’t see Twitch driving a garbage truck, but I have no doubt he was lurking in the offing.

Thus began week two. The fun week. We did many things in that week, but once again two things stand out.

You know how it is. You decide to visit some exotic place, a locale nothing like your basic Central Texas black-dirt flatland, and you are reduced to depending on travel magazines and brochures in the visitor center to tell you what to do.

These days, no matter where I am, I know what to do. Hang out on the deck with scotch and cigars and good company. Good things come of such moments.

It’s funny what happens when a body finds a thing to do that diverts the mind from the relentless demand for interaction and releases the fretful self to wander free.

I wish I had learned to fish
To embrace the hours and not the outcome
To marinate in the moment
To learn what would come

Some find it in fishing. Some find it in gardening. I’m told some find it in meditation, but like prayer, I found it led me to sleep, not enlightenment.  But this is a topic for another time.

Like any good American tourists, we sought out the quintessential experience for the locale, and we found it in a trail ride on a fourteener, one of the 96 mountains in the US that rise more than fourteen thousand feet into the sky, 53 of which are in Colorado. More specifically, the most proximate fourteener, Mt. Princeton, a half-hour drive away. 

“John Spencer, where is the sky?”
“It’s up there.”
“And where does it it start?”

Pause. “At the ground.”

We are all of us walking in the sky.

We gathered at the corral, were assigned horses and dutifully allowed our horses to follow the trail guide, a youth barely old enough to vote, as we wended our way through the aspens and across creek beds. The Good Daughter rode in front of me, The Number One Son behind. 

The day was pleasant, the temperature in the seventies, a stark contrast to the nineties we had left behind in Texas. The sky was a startling robin-egg blue, flecked with friendly clouds.

But we know about things, don’t we? Good or bad, they come to an end, and the next thing comes.

We eased up onto a plateau at about ten thousand feet. The vista opened up, dotted with cactus and scrubby mesquites, and we saw other fourteeners in the distance.

Then the wind kicked up, and the temperature dropped ten degrees or more. Dark, swollen clouds rolled in as if guided into place by malevolent stage hands. But we were prepared, clad in flannel for the cooler climes of the mountain. No worries.

Until the rain set in. A soft, gentle rain. A female rain as the Navajo name it. A rain that slowly and relentlessly soaked us, clinging our shirts to the skin. And then the temperature dropped another ten degrees and the sleet lurched onstage, intermittent at first, but then as merciless as a barrage from BB guns. 

We were on the mesa. There was no escape, but it was no use telling the horses. My particular mount sought refuge under the mesquite trees, whose branches started within an inch or two of horseback height.

The horse could duck its head down and edge underneath, but I was not given the option. I had the choice of being dragged off the horse by a branch or jerking the reins toward open mesa. I did the needful.

Ahead of me, The Good Daughter’s horse plodded along, enduring the inevitable.  Behind me, The Number One Son had a different issue. His horse decided the best course of action was to buck and canter, coming up alongside my horse.  He called out.

“Daddy, help!”


“My horse.” He left unspoken what needed no explanation.

That damn horse! What could I do? I was no cowboy.  I lacked the experience to  control my own horse, much less ride up next to him and make his horse behave. 

I had only seconds to respond. As I pulled on the reins to avoid being swept off my horse by a proximate mesquite branch, I uttered these timeless words of wisdom to my ten-year-old son.

“Son, there comes a time in every man’s life when he has to deal with the situation at hand. This is that time.”

It was all I had to offer, however paltry, but it seemed do do the trick. He soldiered on.

Somehow we escaped the mesquites, and the sleet abated. The guide radioed to home base, and a few minutes later we approached a road where a truck with a horse trailer waited to take the kids and their horses back to the corral. The adults had to take the final thirty minutes of the trail ride on horseback, soaked to the skin, looking like drowned rats.

Whatever my failings as a father in that moment, I console myself with the knowledge that The Number One Son took that message to heart.  He has weathered much worse storms than he encountered on that mountain, has descended into deeper valleys than I could have ever imagined, but has done what a man must do.

When it all comes down to what it comes down to, I think the best we can hope for is to leave the world a better place than we found it.  Will those who come after us be better for us having been here? Only time will tell.

The next day we set out on the next must-do item, whitewater rafting down the Brown River Canyon. The women volunteered to mind the younger two kids and meet us downstream at the pickup point. Wimps.

The guy took our money and paired us up with a captain who was a dead ringer for the trail guide from the day before.  He regarded us a doubtful gaze and said, “Do you want paddles?”

“What for?” I had endured a week of hard labor and terror for the chance to enjoy my vacation. I had paid money for a ride, not a job.

He nodded, his judgments confirmed, and led us to the raft.

I’m not allergic to water. In fact, back in the day I was a bit of a water rat. Always up for a swim, even after that one time I almost drowned. But that’s a story for another day.

What? I keep putting off stories for another day? Well, okay, then. Put a pin in the Brown River Canyon. I’ll tell it now.

It was the spring of 1975, freshman year in college, and the April showers had been doing their best to guarantee May flowers. Figuring the creek would be up and running, Fred, Donece and I set out for our favorite swimming hole outside of Marshall, Texas. 

Not long after I arrived on campus, I met Fred and discovered we were as near as could be to soulmates. Birthdays two days apart,  read the same books, listened to the same radio stations, played guitar. Heck, we even had scars in the same places. We eventually became roommates. If you want to get a feel for Fred, check out the character of Bubba Culpepper in the Fred books, especially the later books in the series.

Donece was a different species. In fact, many thought he was actually an alien. Like from another planet, not just from across the border. Have you ever met someone who saw the world from an angle so oblique to your own that you figured they would naturally be cognizant of  how far outside the mainstream they were? Like out where the buses don’t run. But instead, they were constantly amazed when you didn’t see the world they did. If you want to get a feel for Donece, check out the character of Phyllis in Escape from Fred.

Donece operated on another wavelength, the frequency of his high-pitched, nasal giggle, the noise he made just before he gave rein to  his otherworldly impulses. Think Muttley, the cartoon dog, only with less of a smoker’s wheeze and more of a whining machine-gun burst at around E-flat in the fourth octave.

The noise he made when he dyed his sleeping roommate blue. The noise he made as he stole the freshly-baked pie from the dorm mother’s kitchen. The noise he made when he sawed an 10-inch gash in my door with a saw-toothed bayonet in retaliation for a failed water balloon attack. And when he did the same for Hensarling in payment for taking his girl on a date.

Different wavelength, man. Different wavelength. But Donece had one thing we didn’t have. Wheels.

Thus the three of us donned our cut-offs and set out to the swimming hole at the foot of the falls. In normal conditions, two or three inches  of water dropped five or six feet down to a pool about about six or seven feet deep, but which quickly leveled out downstream to a couple of feet. It was sufficient to jump in, do some cannonballs, thrash about and generally cool off on a hot day.

Given the recent rainfall, we figured we’d see some decent action, and we weren’t disappointed. There was a good foot of water rolling over the edge, dropping three feet into a boiling, churning cauldron of brown, silt-laden water that filled the bowl of the pool from bank to bank.

We shucked off our shoes and shirts, tossed our towels on the bank, and inched our way across the rock ledge, seeking firm footing for each step to keep from being swept over. We eventually reached the middle of the creek and stood for a minute, taking it all in. The awesome power of the current, the wide expanse deep enough to dive into for once.

I stepped forward and jumped in, cannonball style, sinking down as the water buffeted me. When my momentum slowed, I stretched out and stroked my way to the surface.

Only to be sucked back down just as I cleared water. At the point directly under the falls, the water falling from above forced the water in the pool into a combined current that went only one direction. Down.

Within seconds, I found myself back at the bottom. I fought the current, pushing back up to the surface, gasped for air, and was immediately taken back under.

As I descended into the depths, I waited until I felt my feet hit the rock at the bottom, coiled myself like a spring, and thrust with all my strength. I broke water up to my waist, leaned forward, and swam with all my strength downstream, only to be sucked down once again.

A thought crackled through my brain like electricity. This was it. this was the day I would die. But it was only a spark. I would deal with that thought later at my leisure. I more important business at hand. 

All that water that was pulling me down, it had to be going somewhere, and there was only one place it could go. Across the bottom and downstream.

I curled myself into a ball, relaxed, and let the current pull me down as far as it would take me. Then I opened up, searching for the rock bottom that I had used many times to shoot toward the surface when this deadly pool was sane. I found it, pushed against the wall of water until I was against the wall of the falls, put my feet on it, and pushed off with all my strength, clawing my way downstream.

In a few seconds I ran into the gravel of the rising bottom, pushed forward until the current abated, crawled to my knees, and stood, taking deep gulps of air as the  water swirled around my knees.

As the living world flooded my senses, confirming that I was still alive, the first thing I heard over the roar of the falls was a shrill, mad-scientist giggle.

“Oh, man. I thought you were dead.”

I turned to face him. If I could have swum upstream, up the falls, laced my shaking fingers around his scrawny neck, and tossed him into the depths, I would have. Instead, I slogged to the bank, climbed back up to the top of the falls, and walked out to them.

Fred said nothing, but his eyes spoke for him. For every second since I had made that foolish leap, he had been down there with me, fighting against death, grasping for life. I nodded and turned to Donece.

“There’s a bit of an undertow. I suggest you jump farther out.”

But that was a decade and two kids before this story. Back in a time when I had trained myself to hold my breath for two minutes. Now I was careening toward middle age like a rogue locomotive.

The captain installed H and me in the front, The Good Daughter and The Number One Son in the back, and took his elevated position in the middle, grasped two ridiculously long paddles, and pushed us out into the current.

It was a pleasant afternoon, much like the day before it. And like the day before, we had a pleasant drift through the calmer waters before the clouds rolled in and the temperature dropped. Before long we were churning through rapids, being soaked by water that was snow a few hours ago.

But by now we all were old hands at imitating drowned rats. Even the kids. We dug in like troopers.

Meanwhile, the captain earned his money, but I wept no tears for him. He was saving money on a gym membership, staying buff for the ladies while getting paid. Living the dream, really.

That was thirty years ago. I’d gladly pay the cost of a whitewater ride to see a photo of him now. The ten years or so that separate us now are nothing compared to the difference back then.

On second thought, I’ll rescind that offer. He might still be buff, while I’m the same, only ever so much so. Gloating is never attractive, whatever your age.

After an hour or so of water torture, the captain advised us that a few minutes downstream we would have the opportunity to go ashore, clamber up a granite precipice, and jump into the icy depths. 

I looked at H. He looked at me. I shrugged. Might as well get our money’s worth. Plus, this was no time to wimp out. It was ten years since I had jumped into unplumbed depths. You have to do that at least once a decade or you might end up in a rut.

Ten years later I jumped into a larger pool, a depth I had never attempted, and had to learn to sink or swim. After lassoing The Woman, it was the best blind risk I ever took, an adventure in wandering farther than I had ever dared. But once again, a story for another time.

The captain guided the raft to the shore. We climbed up the rock, a good twenty foot drop in front of us, and jumped. I won’t lie, it was cold enough to knock the breath out of you. But there was no deadly current, no malevolent Mother Nature trying to kill me. Just a jump into water, and a swim to the boat.

For our next adventure, we decided to visit a ghost town, something that all of us could do, or were willing to do. You do the math.

The rented van couldn’t make it up one particularly aggressive slope, so we had to abandon ship and hoof it the rest of the way. H, always a better man than I, carried the youngest on his shoulders. At the destination, we quickly got our eyes full of the handful of ramshackle buildings that had not yet been reclaimed by that mercurial Mother. As we rested, each contemplating in their hearts the long trek back, a four-wheeler arrived with a few tourists. After a serious bit of bargaining, all eight of us gained passage back to the van.

The next day we packed the van and quit that down.

As I mentioned before, ten years later I wandered farther, ranging from South Carolina to Arizona, Colorado and Hawaii. In 2000, I paid state income tax in three states. After ten years of wandering, I returned to Texas.

In modern America, our first friendships are formed in school, from elementary school up to high school. We are thrown into a cauldron of kids from all kinds of life situations. Kids from families foreign to our experience. By the time we reach graduation, we have a tight group of friends we think will remain in our inner circle.

For some, college replaces that circle of friends, people we can’t imagine we will grow distant from. 

Either way, life proceeds and the onboarding opportunities for new friends narrow and the attrition opportunities expand. For me, one high school friend went the distance. Until distance and marriage made it inconvenient. From college, three stayed in the running. Post college, H was the only solid friendship I formed. And Spyrison. But that is a story for another time.

Distance, sustained distance, is a hard row to hoe for most folks. I have only three friends from those days. I took it hard at first. I don’t make friends easily, but I have a strong loyalty gene. Got it from my father.

I had to learn that some people just aren’t built that way. You can’t blame them for being who they are. It’s not fair to them, and it’s not fair to yourself.

When you choose to wander far, you not only choose for yourself, you choose for them. So choose wisely.

Wandering Near

When the photography bug bites, you go wandering. How far you go depends on the length of your leash.

The truth is, if you have the right vision and the right lens, you can find a wealth of images without leaving your house. But rare is the man who has the vision to limit his scope. To find the profound in the prosaic.

Common wisdom tells us that to capture grand images, one must have a grand subject. Ansel Adams and Yellowstone. Any National Geographic magazine you’ve ever seen. How can you capture the captivating story in a pedestrian setting?

Special wisdom tells us that grandness can be found in small things, but who among us can attain this level of awareness without effort? The memory of Eden fades as we claw our living out of the unforgiving soil. How long did it take for the children of Israel to forget the oppression of their Egyptian taskmasters and yearn for the fleshpots of their captivity? Humans are incredibly dense. It is the way of our people.

I had learned the lesson of finding the profound in the prosaic back in Fred, but I am of the denser sort of my race. It had been only a decade or so since I had wielded a camera with a solid purpose, but it seems that, like my nomadic brethren, I am destined to learn my lessons over and over until they are ground into my consciousness.

It came down to the length of my leash. First and most important, I had lassoed a star—The Woman. Only a fool would stray from such a luminary, and though I was, and remain, a fool, I was not such a fool as to forsake my pole star. And there was the matter of the kids. I was well and truly anchored and with no regrets.

I might be a fool, but I was no fool.

So I turned my attention to the radius of my delimited world. The longing of a domesticated canine contemplating the length of his leash. The tension between three squares a day and the great unknown, the primal wildness that beckons from the other side of the screen door.

[Inside looking out dog]

The sacred  geometrical rite of loading the dishwasher.


The mystical mist of a sprinkler in summer.


The convergence of a freshly plowed field.


The weathered shake shingles over a  window.


The primary palette of a robotic fire hydrant.


The chance sighting of Marty Feldman’s spiritual grandson at the t-ball game.


The ascendant motion of a vent pipe in an alley.


The Fibonacci curve of a spiral staircase.


The evanescent fluff of feather grass in summer.


Of course. to capture such images I had to dip into the realm of the technical, the domain of my father. But I must confess that I learned only as much as required to tell the static story of a moment frozen in time. Depth of field through the proper selection of an f-stop, frozen motion by virtue of a fast shutter, blurred motion via the slow shutter, the delicate balance of aperture versus time. I was never a technician. I would never be an Ansel Adams or an Ernst Haas.

But sometimes life conspired to widen my palette.

The Next Camera


Fifteen years after my first tentative steps into photography, The Woman did what she does. Out of the blue, she bought me a camera for my birthday.

I hadn’t asked for a camera, hadn’t even talked about photography. She just bought the dang thing and who knows why.

Here’s a life tip for you. If you’re in the market for a wife, forget the Hollywood glam-mag fantasy images of some impossible vision of physical perfection. Look for The Woman of your generation. Selfless. Generous. Ebullient. Full of life and as giving as life itself. Look for someone who is better than you could ever think of being, and then spend a lifetime trying to be worthy of that transcendent vision. Count yourself lucky if you have the good fortune to capture lightining in a bottle. Live with her day-by-day, sharing a breath of the same air, walking side-by-side with true grace of the spirit. Do your best to avoid snuffing out that flame of eternity. Rinse and repeat.

But, as I was saying, she bought me a camera. A Canon AE-1. I was mystified, but I didn’t let that hold me back. In fact, I went crazy.

She might have had occasion to regret the gift. After a few rolls and a decade-and-a-half beyond my initiation with the Argus C3, I rediscovered the seduction of life from behind the viewfinder.  I can’t count the times I threw myself prostrate on the floor or the street, or hung out over empty space, to acquire the right angle.

For the perfect shot of the Peeping Tom

[Peeping Tom]

Or The Good Daughter


Or The Number One Son


A photograph is the antithetical symbiosis of jazz. Photography is skill and inspiration frozen in time. Jazz is skill and inspiration launched into the evanescent moment, best if absorbed, diminished by the attempt to capture it. Both are an exercise in simultaneously embracing and letting go.

And that is the lesson of life.  A balance of owning and releasing.

As a wise man once said, you have to hold it loosely.

In For A Penny

There’s a thing about a real camera. It’s seductive. One minute you’re ripping off snapshots, the next you’re trolling the neighborhood for real shots.

The snowstorm offered obvious opportunity and I took advantage.

[snow pics]

But such photos are child’s play. Anybody can capture a compelling scene if it’s been airbrushed by nature for the purpose. Snowstorms are rare in Fred, Texas, and when the photogenic layer melted away, the easy targets evaporated.

Without the softening layer of snow to provide the glam-photo landscape shot, I was at a loss. In my view, my environment didn’t offer the best subjects for dramatic portraits. As a student of National Geographic, I envisioned grand vistas, exotic locales. How could I take great photos without great subjects?

Some have said that familiarity breeds contempt. I say that familiarity engenders blindness. For the creative mind, familiarity is the curse of existence. We live with a thing to the point that we can no longer see it for what it is.

For the prosaic, an ear is an ear. But but when properly considered, the whorls and caverns of an ear embody a wealth of nuance and design. Given time and opportunity, a thoughtful mind can get lost in its intricacies.

Thus it comes as no surprise that my omnivorous mind sought out less predictable targets, and suddenly the small world of Fred opened up to me.

A few shots from my nascent photographic explorations survive.

[Other Fred shots]

It took me a few decades to translate that experience from image to words in the form of the Fred books, but it was a lesson that would serve me well.  And I commend such thoughtful cross-discipline considerations to the general populace.

Forget thinking outside the box. There is no box. Dare to think. Dare to do.