Monday, January 31, 2005

double take

I saw a truck on the road the other day whose corporate logo shocked me. It was for the Hollywood Crawford Company. Hollywood Crawford!? Years ago I did a commercial for them, but never actually heard the commercial aired (it was for the Dallas market), or had independent confirmation of their existence. So. There really is a Hollywood Crawford. Hm. Wonder if they still use my commercial.

Friday, January 28, 2005

cowboy breakfast

Well gosh darn it, I just got home from the Cowboy Breakfast. Amazingly, it was the first one I've ever been to (at least, that I can remember). That's amazing not only because I'm a rather involved San Antonian and I do all that charming community stuff, but also because of the Costanzic lengths I'm capable of going to to get a free meal.

The dealbreaker is, though, that it's so dang early. 5 am to 9am. Not really my hours. But this morning, I was on my way home from an all-night studio affair, and thought, why not head on down to my very first Cowboy Breakfast.

If you're not from here, you might not even be aware that such a thing exists. It originally started, in the deep mists of time, as the coming together of the various trailriders for the Stock Show and Rodeo (which begins this weekend, and which I *have* been to, many times). Somewhere along the way, it turned into a great big breakfast for people who aren't necessarily strictly cowboys, though you do find a high concentration of real-deal cowgear among all the city slickness. I noticed several sets of fringes that could only be worn by people who Mean It; one fella was wearing a hudson's-bay coat, traditional cream with multicolored stripes; and I saw more than a few sets of spurs. More common were the high-school jackets that said things like "Judson FFA." More common still, sweaters and jeans.

You still might not have an idea, if you're not from these parts, how big this thing is: the Guiness folks once counted them serving 19,000 people in a single hour. These days it's right around 50,000 folks for the morning, with breakfast tacos, sausage, potatoes, gravy, biscuits, hot sauce, and hot coffee — what a smell, on a wet winter's day! — accompanied by an Ivesian assault of Tejano and C&W bands on several stages. The event even gets its own edition of the Express-News, whose articles all cover the subject of.... the Cowboy Breakfast.

Now I've got to convince my Catherine to go to the Rodeo. I haven't made it out there in a few years, and she never has; worse, last year we missed Fiesta altogether. We didn't miss it much, though: those bibulous crowds are little match for being naked on a tropical island.

Thursday, January 27, 2005


I'm sitting here writing a cadenza for a bass concerto that a friend of mine is playing. (Ah, the lost art of improvisation!) My own background music is Catherine's sobbing. She's sick, with nausea, aches, throat stuff, all the usual.

And it's sobbing. Not just crying or weeping, but full-scale fairy tale boo-hooing. It pierces my heart every time I hear it, and I've heard too much of it. So I'm having flashbacks to last summer. Health is so important, so taken for granted, so elusive!

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

sibilant english

I was just reading an article in which someone mentioned the unusual sibilance of the English language. Is this true? It seems natural to me, but then come to think of it, Japanese and Chinese don't have nearly as many sibilants as English. Weird.

I'm also reminded of the Lord's Prayer, known to some as the Our Father. I always love hearing groups recite it, so I can hear all the sibilants of "forgive us our tressspasssess, ass we forgive thossse who tressspasss againssst usss." Then all the t's: "and lead us noTinToTempTation" — it always sounds so prickly.

Well you do have to be thinking of *something* during that thing, right?

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

wal-mart welfare

An alarming article about Wal-Mart, the latest in a barrage of such stories, served up the following statistic:
In analyzing Wal-Mart's success in holding employee compensation at low levels, [a report by the House Education and Workforce Committee] assesses the costs to US taxpayers of employees who are so badly paid that they qualify for government assistance even under the less than generous rules of the federal welfare system. For a two-hundred-employee Wal-Mart store, the government is spending $108,000 a year for children's health care; $125,000 a year in tax credits and deductions for low-income families; and $42,000 a year in housing assistance. The report estimates that a two-hundred-employee Wal-Mart store costs federal taxpayers $420,000 a year, or about $2,103 per Wal-Mart employee. That translates into a total annual welfare bill of $2.5 billion for Wal-Mart's 1.2 million US employees.

And that's Fortune magazine's "Most Admired Corporation?"

Monday, January 24, 2005

acme catalog

I've had fun looking over the entire acme catalog — that famous source for all modern inventions used by Wile E. Coyote. Certainly part of what makes those cartoons work so well is that the audience not only sympathizes with the Roadrunner, the underdog, in wanting to see Coyote foiled, but also the audience sympathizes with the Coyote, who tries to fit modern technology with ancient urges, with varying degrees of failure. Who hasn't had that experience?

Sunday, January 23, 2005

sheffield birthday vision

I was just thinking about Charlie Sheffield. He died the other week. The last few years of his life were spent very bent over, walking with a couple of canes, but he never let any infirmity stop him from being involved in the real life of our church. He stood, or sat, as a greeter on Sunday mornings, he helped out with the Wednesday dinners, he added his sunny demeanor, the sunnier because it shone through a face wrinkled and worn with years and hardship.

One Sunday morning a few years ago, it just so happened to be a landmark birthday for him, and the congregation sang to him, with pipe organ accompaniment. He had to be called in from his post at the door. I couldn't help but imagine it from his point of view. Someone comes out and grabs him and takes him in to the sanctuary, and suddenly he sees two thousand people all standing and smiling at him — people he's known for decades, and complete strangers, his dearest friends, everybody — and singing the happy birthday song, and then bursting into a long, long standing ovation.

What a moment of truth for him. Every so often, we get a glimpse of heavenliness, heaven on earth, a peek at the operatic joy and intensity and purity of the eternal home. And I can't imagine a more perfect picture for Charlie than that moment. Then I remember that he's actually experiencing, in the eternal now of his journey's-end, the true love and joy of which that birthday day was only a whiff.

Which reminds me to whiff away.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

for the president

On this day, after a March-of-Time inauguration speech, Bush officially becomes our president for four more years, God willing. Pray for him. Agree or disagree, love or hate or care more or less, he's there.

The most important fact about him as a human is that he's our brother. He says he prays and listens to God; let us hope that that is true and becomes truer, and that he will be convicted and inspired to do God's work in the world like never before.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

inaugural thoughts

On the eve of the inauguration, I remember Bush's last inaugural speech. It was one of the best speeches in recent Democratic Party history; certainly, it was reassuring. But of course, a speech is only that. And, to borrow a notion from Michael Chabon's great novel Summerland, in the eldritch worlds a promise is, sadly, nonbinding.

Nonetheless, I do think about the prospect of four more years. For one, Alberto Gonzales. Here's a man who, when he was Bush's fella here in Texas, summarized the cases of death-row inmates for review by the governor. In one case, he failed to note that the defendant was retarded and the defense lawyer slept through the trial, and that the appeals process was in keeping with that sorry record; Bush, the poor man's last chance, read Gonzales's report, devoid of any such mitigating info, and said, "pass."

Then there's Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. I remember my parents and grandparents bragging about how well we treated the Nazi prisoners of war. It was in keeping with their idea of who America was: no matter what they did to us, we'd treat them right. Today, though, we have the likes of Gonzales giving a definition of "torture" that makes Clinton's definition of "sexual relations" look like broad constructionism. All those people who were so outraged at Clinton's dissembling about ... a blow job? Where is their outrage now? Does anyone doubt that if a Clinton operative had redefined "torture" in such a torturous way the radio waves would be dripping with red blood? And what price does Gonzales pay for the guilt that leads, paper by paper, right back to his desk? Why, he gets promoted: he's now your Attorney General.

Where were the Democrats who could have held this man accountable, and who could hold the Administration accountable to nominate decent men and women? Where, in God's name, were the Republicans who want to preserve a shred of honor in the party of Lincoln?

My prayer is that, God forbid, if, someday, terrorists get hold of Gonzales, and if they sic dogs on him, or force him to simulate oral sex with his compeers, or to balance on a box with electrodes attached to his hands and genitals lest he fall — my prayer is that after they're done with all that, they'll refrain from torturing him.

Damn us all.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

slipping the surly bonds

Catherine and I went to a party recently over at the McMains' house, where they have a trampoline. Never ones to miss an opportunity, we hopped on; not too many moments later, Sean got out his keyring or pocket protector, or whatever has a camera, and snapped a few shots of joy in motion.

Check them out:

What is it about mere jumping that is so much fun?

Monday, January 17, 2005

first date anniversary

Today marks the third anniversary of my first date with Catherine. We more than hit it off: a marathon conversation in a coffeebookstore. Today we went back there and had another.

Then we listened to Rush's "YYZ," which Catherine had never heard. She really liked it: yet further proof, if any were needed.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

vocabulary lesson

Catherine's father, Ron, a history teacher, tells us that the other day a student started complaining that he uses too much fancy language, and that she can't understand him when he tosses out big words like that.

The word that set her off? Yep: Diagonal.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

grapefruit mentos

Oh yes, my friend.

Oh yes.

They came in. The grapefruit Mentos, that is. Catherine and I discovered them on our honeymoon, these glorious candies that are pretty much the perfect food. You can't get them in America: some marketing manager has made a very very bad decision. But you can order them, and that is exactly what I did.

So they came in, two boxes of them. That's 40 rolls, which should last roughly a week. To paraphrase a Catherinism, it's like Thailand in my mouth!

Friday, January 14, 2005

more from rich in sri lanka

Another word from my brother Rich in Sri Lanka:

We've had many powerful experiences that I look forward to telling you
about; touching, spiritual, hygenically disgusting, and as frustrating as you
can imagine when working with this type of government. Some harrowing
road trips, on roads where lane lines are merely a suggestion, and not a
strong one at that.

Just wanted to say Hi and thanks for the prayers - we have felt them!!

Thursday, January 13, 2005

kind of blue revisited

I've been listening to Miles Davis's Kind of Blue tonight. Haven't gotten it out in such a long time. It's one of those things that's overplayed and overfamiliar, and, since it's one of those must-have recordings for people who are just getting into jazz, it's easy to think one is "past" it when one moves further in.

Easy, but entirely wrong. What a great masterwork it is! One of the great works of the twentieth century, pulling off that Shakespearean simultaneous appeal to commoners and insiders.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

wine rules. wine rules?

GQ has a little blurb about wines every month. This month's talks about general rules for what wine matches what food: flavor intensity wants to match (strong with strong, mild with mild), spicy food wants sweet wine, fatty food wants acidic wine.

Reading that made me think of pizza. It's strongly flavored, spicy, and fatty. So it wants a wine that's strongly flavored, sweet, and acidic. But instead of wine, my thoughts turned to Coke: distinct strong flavor, very sweet, and very acidic, all three. Turns out the perfect drink for pizza is Coke after all!

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

from rich in sri lanka

Finally, a report from my brother in Sri Lanka, through his wife. First, a bit of background:

Children's Emergency Relief International (CERI) received an urgent request from Gospel for Asia (GFA) and the government of Sri Lanka to open five new emergency child care centers for the care of children orphaned by the flooding devastation in the country.

The area of Sri Lanka they are concentrating relief efforts from Batticaloa south to Pottuvil. There is an estimated 30,000 people who need relief in this area.

GFA has two child care centers set up in schools in Batticaloa which opened on January 5th. One has about 1000 and the other 800. GFA has approval to set up more child care centers including in their target area.

The CERI team currently consists of two senior staff members with expertise in emergency shelter operations and foster care programming, medical director with experience in providing medical care in 3rd world countries, a communications officer from the BGCT, a specialist with significant training and experience in mass care mitigation and planning, a specialist in long-term foster care management, and [my brother] Richard [an experienced psychologist and family counselor specializing in children].

January 9th: CERI's 1st day at actual work site

CERI, UNICEF, TBM, UN, and several other organizations are currently in Batticaloa (east coast — one of the worst hit areas). There are many scattered tiny villages up and down the coast. Everyone on the CERI team feels healthy and safe (there is a strong military presence).

Environmental Experiences:
· Hot, steamy, humid — everything covered in gritty sand
· Terrain in ruins, looks like a war-zone, took more than 9 hours to travel less than 200 miles
· The stench is overpowering

Spiritual Experiences:
· Church was held in rooms in someone's home
· Many awesome things (good and bad) have already been experienced by the men. One of the MOST awesome events (to date) was talking to a joyous Christian man. Although he had lost his home, his wife and 10 children, he was thankful and praising God! He was thankful for the CERI team. Wow! His faith is inspiring (and humbling).
· They kneel down and hold hands when they pray. Very powerful, spirit-filled worship.
· Church was an overwhelming experience for the team: long — full of worship, praise, random prayer and choruses. They have a translator so they were able to 'follow along.' They sang 'This is the Day the Lord Has Made.' What an incredible experience, these spirit-filled, joyous people singing this chorus in their native song and our team singing with them in English.

· The people are very polite, respectful and deferential. Rich had a small flying toy and the children actually lined up in a straight line and waited patiently and quietly for their turn.
· The children were amazed, intrigued and tickled by the digital camera. When they were shown their photograph, they would laugh and laugh... and then... they quickly became children and were all over Rich wanting to see their picture. The adults came over to see what was going on and they too were amused. What a great moment. A few minutes of pleasure and joy to take them away from their losses.

Pray For:
· All the victims, the relief teams, missionaries
· The children who are hiding — terrified and traumatized
· The CERI team and guidance for their mission

For additional information, or if you are interested in supporting CERI, go to their web site.

Sunday, January 9, 2005

jury duty

Catherine and I have had such a great weekend together. Saturday is our true Sabbath, when we hang around and promise to do absolutely nothing except love each other. We slept in late, toodled over to Chipotle's to have a 3pm sunch; then (after sundown) went to see niece Hannah appearing in her school play, "Grease." Her part was wonderfully well played, as were most of the colorful character parts; the leads, as usual, were a bit weak. (This is so true most of the time, isn't it? Disney movies, Harry Potter, local school productions, you name it. Why is that?)

And we had a similarly lovely day today as well. Tomorrow, I report for jury duty at 8am downtown. The reason I don't like jury duty is far different from most people's reason: after all, I'd actually love to serve on a jury. I see it as being part of the machinery of democracy. This is where it all comes down, folks, and you and I can be part of it.

Except some of us never will, because of the peremptory challenge. Most know it as "jury selection," by which we mean jury weeding. You don't actually get to handpick who's going to be on your jury, from the pool of 50 or so folks. But both parties get to cross off a certain number of people without giving any reason at all.

So, here's how it's always gone in the past for me (I've done this a few times now), and how I'm expecting it to go this time:

Defense: So, you have a Master's Degree?

A: Yep. English, 1995.

Defense: Ahhhh, thanks.....

Plaintiff: Hmmm, "Brake." Any relation to Joe Brake?

A: Yes. He's my dad.

Plaintiff: The defense lawyer?

A: That's right.

Plaintiff: Ahhhhh, thanks.

This time just might be magic. Who knows? But in the meantime I'll savor the Hellerian irony that being both qualified and enthusiastic about serving my country in this way is a one way ticket to being disqualified. Sheesh.

Saturday, January 8, 2005


Epiphany was technically the other day, and it's celebrated tomorrow — head on over to and read my piece on the holiday. It's understressed in Anglo-American life, but it used to be the major holiday, eclipsing Christmas. The twelve days began at Christmas day and apexed at Epiphany, or Three Kings' Day.

Just think, you could have still been getting Christmas gifts up till last Thursday!

Wednesday, January 5, 2005

rich in sri lanka

The other day I got hit by some news: my brother Rich is going to Sri Lanka — tomorrow.

The program that he's the head of has been tapped by the Sri Lankan government to go over there and set up five emergency child care centers, and teach people how to run them. Rich, who's a psychologist, will be helping some of the kids there who lost their parents, and training workers there in how to deal with such kids.

Read the press release that tells more about it, and I'll have updates here as I receive them.

Amazing! We'll all be praying for you, Rich.

Monday, January 3, 2005

logic! why don't they teach logic at these schools?

I was talking with a friend about a rule of thumb a minister at our church, Jim, formulated some years ago: "If you're not involved in a church, you're probably not growing spiritually."

Interesting statement, that: notice that it's about involvement, not mere attendance, and that he said "probably" rather than definitely — it's simply an observation that's based on experience with lots of people, and I generally think it's true, whatever your religion is.

My friend's first response was a retort to Jim's implication that going to church would make you grow spiritually. When I pointed out that Jim had made no such claim, and tried to show it by breaking it down into pure syllogistic logic, the conversation ended with my friend in tears. No kidding. The issues included: the merits of Jim's statement, the intelligence of my friend, the spiritual validity of my friend's choices, my own sloppy thinking. I was making no statement about any of these, of course, in discussing the logic of it: I was only clarifying that if I say "all p are q" then you can't criticize me for saying "all q are automatically p," which I haven't said at all.

One example I used: suppose I say you can only get food at this restaurant. If you don't eat at this restaurant, you'll go hungry. Now, I'm not at all saying that everyone who walks in will automatically be filled. You *could* sit in the restaurant and not eat at all. My claim only says what it says it says: that if you *don't* eat here, you *won't* eat.

Friend's response: but I take issue with the entire argument, because you can get food at lots of places! Not just at that restaurant!


And I reiterate the conversation ended in tears. Folks, it is vitally important to know the rules of logic. When you know the meaning of post hoc ergo propter hoc, and how it applies to logic, you can cut through hours and hours of presidential campaigns, religious folderol, family squabbles, and just about anything else. Being able to reduce a line of thinking to its purely syllogistical form is a skill that brings much clarity. Plenty of people — my friend is an example — are wonderful folks, incredibly intelligent, spiritually alive, socially and interactively observant, humanly empathetic, far more skilled in many areas than I'll ever be, who could benefit from sitting down and studying the beauty of logic.

Eventually you get an easy familiarity with, say, the concept that an A proposition holds no existential import (something that would have not only helped my friend see my point but avoid tears), or the concepts of Boolean logic that start off seeming bovinely obvious but quickly escalate to serpentine subtlety (again, knowledge that would have been a boon in this conversation).

The crux of this issue, then, was a syllogistic one: Jim said "If not A then not B," and my friend got "if A then B" from it. Invalid. Some of the world's smartest people — my friend included — wouldn't see the flaw in that, but I did, not because I'm so dang special but because I've made a formal study of formal logic since I was about 11.

If what you say is important to me, then it's essential for me to know what you're saying when you say something. Some folks consider logic and emotion to be enemies. That's not just wrong; it's dangerous. Logical thinking makes the emotional life resonant and focused. Logic is, as is emotion, a handmaiden to love. Learn it! Live it!

Paul's reply

Saturday, January 1, 2005

new years news

New Year's has been for us, these first twelve hours, a capsule of our year: delirious romance, joyful commitment, Thailand, and illness.

We spent the evening at a beautiful hill country bed and breakfast, ate some fantastic food, and fell in love all over again. How beautiful my bride is! Radiant and lovely. And she loves me so deeply. We're both deeply grateful.

When we got back home, we figured it was a good time to try to call Moon, our Thai friend whose beach resort was probably hit by the tsunami. We started clicking around on it. My brother had sent a reassurance that Ko Chang was spared because it was in the Gulf of Thailand and not the Indian Ocean. But he didn't know that there are two Ko Changs, and we stayed on the less famous one, plum in the Indian Ocean, right in the path of the wave, with only its twin island to the south to possibly protect it.

We couldn't find any news releases on it, but we did see mention that Ranong — the nearest seaside town — had 94 dead. Not encouraging. Catherine suggested, though, that we try to follow bulletin boards. Thanks to a site cached by Google, we found mention of our Ko Chang, and, several minutes later, actual news of the area.

It said that the twin island, Ko Payyam, was hit pretty badly and there were rumors that a few had died, but that Ko Chang had it pretty mild. What did that mean? Everything destroyed but everybody alive? Another post said that the supermarket was laid waste. The "supermarket" is a cement shack the size of our bedroom, and it's only a few hundred yards from our bungalows. But then — mirabile dictu! — someone else said the magic words: Tommy's bungalows. They'd had their boat fill up with water, but nothing else. No other damage? Our hope had been correct: they're on the southernmost tip of the island, a hero's swim from the twin island which had totally protected it — and the protection was so narrow that the neighboring inlet's single building, the market, had been flooded. Gratitude. We tried in vain to call Moon; the call didn't get through. But we went to bed relieved.

Relieved and a bit sick. I've had a bad headache for several days, and there hasn't been a day the last month I haven't coughed up goop. Catherine was feeling pretty bad too. This morning, I awoke to the sound of her coughing and then crying in pain. She went to get a yak bucket, and came back and kept crying and writhing, just like it was July again.

I was reminded of how much I love her. I leaned over and kissed those bitterly distorted lips, still flexed in a sob, and laid my arm over that heaving breast, and prayed that things would get better.