i just wanted to drive around

I came back to the small town
where the dreams came from
way out here
— Daniel Makins

I’m not a big believer in magic chickens. But maybe.

The tale began with an email from Niece the Elder telling me there would be music Friday evening at the Chicken Farm. She didn’t know who was playing, but I figured what the heck.

Over the years at the Kerrville campfires, I learned that everyone has a good song or two waiting for an audience. Tonight, that audience would include us.

I wasn’t familiar with the performer, Daniel Makins, but he started on time, always a worrisome sign in a musician. Luckily, his first chords revealed he’s a formidable guitarist, and an impromptu goofing around during his opener that doubled as a soundcheck showed he didn’t take himself too seriously. I was sold.

And then.

He looked out and said he was glad to have Rick in the audience. He said that over the years, Rick’s writing had inspired him to spend endless hours on West Texas’ backroads in search of bluebonnets and old courthouses.

And it’s true. You couldn’t read my brother’s columns without getting the urge to roll down the windows and follow a little two-lane farm road wherever it happened to go. Those were the days before a phone gave you directions. Maps? Maps are for suckers. You just followed the stripe on the asphalt to see where it went.

It was a great set, and the hour went by way too quickly. I’ll never know why some people become famous and some don’t, but it sounds like Daniel’s life has given him a pretty great soundtrack, even if it’s now playing in Abilene. Sorry, Abilene.

As Daniel was about to launch into his final song, he stopped. “Before I play that one, I want to share a song that Rick inspired,” he said. And then he played a song called “Way Out Here.” You can find it on Spotify. It’s a wonderful ballad about life and exploring and growing up, and it really is a fitting anthem for Rick, a guy who spent his life wandering across this little piece of cactus-thorn heaven.

Rick loved it. He flashed a huge, embarrassed smile and gave me the elbow. He NEVER gives me the elbow.

Kathy asked a couple of days ago what people can do to help as Rick continues his journey down this new road. I think Daniel found the secret. Do what Rick would do. Stage a Club Sandwich. Write a story. Sing a song. Fling some bluebonnet seeds. Take too many selfies with courthouses. Live your life. Way out here.

Rick never liked to be in the spotlight. He was the guy always pointing the spotlight on other people and places and small dogs you wouldn’t notice otherwise. Now it’s your turn. Pick up his spotlight and make it your own.

Try something new each day, Maude told Harold. After all, we’re given life to find it out, she said. It doesn’t last forever.

I wrote Anne afterward to marvel at the twist of fate that landed us at this particular place with this particular person on this particular night.

“Chicken Farm Magic,” was all she replied. She’s a smith girl. She knows things.

Rick’s not going away anytime soon. but someday when he does, I know what song I’ll be playing.

Magic chickens indeed.

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the longest mile (ok, three-tenths)

It’s an almost unfathomable distance, but it’s too late to back out now. We’re at the start line of the San Angelo Clubhouse 0.5K.

Yes, that’s right. Half a kilometer. For those who don’t speak metric, that’s 0.311 miles, a distance possible by car or jetpack, but surely testing the limits of human endurance on foot.

The organizers, realizing this, offer copious amounts of coffee and whipped cream before the start. If I must die, let me go out with whipped cream in my mustache.

The race is for a worthy cause. The San Angelo Clubhouse is a nonprofit that helps adults with mental illness reach their potential. If you must suffer, what better reason?

The official starter is hoisted onto the race director’s shoulders. Suddenly 30 feet in the air, she starts bawling, a signal the race has started.

It’s a small troop of True Believers in the race, the way it always is in ultras. Young, old, two and four legs, Frida roller skates, sloths. We march as if one along the river walk.

After a seeming eternity, and 0.155 miles, we finally reach the aid station and find Gatorade and pizza rolls. I’ll just say pizza rolls should be mandatory at all race aid stations.

We pause to watch the mid-race entertainment, an amazing juggler. We have to continue onward before he juggles the dog. The sacrifices you make while racing …

Refueled, we make the push to the finish. The last few hundred meters are an endless blur. A long straight, a water crossing, a left turn and finally the finish line at the Clubhouse.

There we are met with hard-earned pastries, brownies and fruit. We bask in our accomplishment. Our battered legs swear we’ll never take on the 0.5K again, while knowing the pain will fade and in a couple of days we’ll be looking forward to next year.

Challenges are relative. We’re all climbing our own mountains. It’s an honor to help others climb theirs. A half-kilometer at a time.

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the shirt

It’s in the back of his closet, quietly waiting for the next revolution.

it first appeared back in the early ‘70s. rick was a bit of a rebel back then. the vietnam war was winding down, but a political divide had split the nation. i know, i know, hard to imagine these days.

those were tense times, made more so when rick showed up at the parents’ house one day wearing an american flag shirt. dad was outraged.

in those days, wearing a flag was seen as a sign of blatant protest against the establishment, before the whole american-flag clothing thing was appropriated by the right wing, much like long hair, electric guitars and psychedelic mushrooms.

dad, his face the color of the flag’s red portion (apparently not a violation of the flag code), told rick he could NOT wear it. so of course it became his favorite shirt. rick was never much of a hippie, but he loved to question authority when needed. it became his form of button-down civil protest.

i suppose it worked. the war ended without us having to burn our draft cards. rick became a newspaper columnist and a voice for little people and lost dogs. the shirt went in the closet, its job done.

i hadn’t thought about that shirt in forever till i saw it in the closet yesterday. i asked June about it. “yep, that one’s a keeper,” was all she said.

Sometimes in life you have to take a stand. Attend a rally. Join a movement. Burn something. Raise some hell. Do Something.

i don’t know where our nation is headed. but it’s good to know the shirt is still there, waiting. just in case.

Vive la révolution …

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foam rubber, usa

Watch out you might get what you’re after
Boom babies strange but not a stranger
I’m an ordinary guy
— the prophet byrne

They are dressed in their Sunday finest, assuming you’re consuming acid on Sunday when you choose your attire. There’s music and hugs and lights and absurd costumes and fire. Everywhere, fire.

It’s odd to be a total outsider at an event that is half party, half worship service, half concert. Unless that’s two many halves. In a fiesta of steampunk and bursts of colors, I’m wearing a ratty giveaway T-shirt from a defunct minor league baseball team. OK, so I don’t fit in. But it’s an event for people who don’t fit in elsewhere, so I figure it’s oddly fitting. I was at an alternative music festival once when folk singer Richard Thompson took the stage. “I guess I’m the alternative to alternative,” he said. That’s me.

I never much had the urge to attend Burning Man. Rick always wanted to. He was always pushing me. This is the year, he would say. This is the year. But the year never came. And now, as I stand with the flames heating my face and the hula hoops in flight, I feel a deep regret. Why didn’t we?

There’s something about the vibe here. It’s people with a common goal, although I’m not quite sure what the goal is. But I love it. They’re a tribe. I need a tribe.

So for one evening, I borrowed theirs. I’m an ordinary guy. Burning down the house …

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life is funny, part 384

It was a pretty great love story.

OK, the movie was already well underway by the time I got there. The popcorn line was long, and it took me a long time to find the right person to go to the cinema with.

But it was easy enough to catch up with the plot. They were inseparable. She loved him, and he was totally devoted to her. They lived in a place where it always rained, and yet they endured the storms because they knew a rainbow would always be waiting on the other side.

He wasn’t perfect; he was a guy. It’s in the Guy Code that we have to screw up from time to time so the other guys don’t look bad in comparison. But you only had to be around them a minute to see he was totally devoted to her. She was his life. The years flew by.

And then, a big storm rolled in. He was understandably concerned the day she had to go in for the surgery. But the procedure went well. They came home. End of movie. But then.

Suddenly, she couldn’t talk. He could sense something was terribly wrong. I’m calling 911, he said. She refused. He called anyhow. Soon afterward, she was back in the hospital.

The phone rang at our place in the wee hours. It was him. I never heard him so upset. This had to be bad. It was a stroke, he said. They didn’t know how severe. And then.

She underwent another surgery. A miracle cure, a new procedure. Out of the hospital a couple of days later. All because of his quick action.

He saved her life, Amanda said. She must have said it 50 times over the next few days. He saved her life. He. Saved. Her. Life. He might have messed up a few times over the years (see previous part about the Guy Code), but when she needed him most, he was there.  They were going to be OK. End of movie. But then.

A few days later, he was sitting in his chair and went to sleep. He never woke up.

I suppose it could be a coincidence. But maybe, just maybe, he had done The Thing He Was Meant To Do. He had been there to save her life, and then his work was done.

I don’t understand life most of the time. Too much war, not enough compassion, raisins in oatmeal cookies. But I know a great movie when I see one. You want people to live forever, but of course they don’t. Going out as a hero seems as good an ending as any, even if the movie was shorter than we hoped for.

He loved her. He saved her. And then he had to leave. And that was the end of the movie.

It was a pretty great love story.

Life is funny …

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down in the cellar in the Boho zone

He wanders up and pulls a drum out of the bag. And then, his life begins again.

He’s an old guy. Has his own fold-up stool, the sure sign of a drum circle veteran. He joins maybe 10 or 12 guys already playing a never-ending rhythm. Some pause occasionally, taking a drink of Red Bull or Coca-Cola, depending on their generation. They occasionally acknowledge each other, but mostly they sit with eyes closed, swaying to the beat of white guys tapping into tribal tradition.

He just sits there for a minute, hands resting on his well-worn djembe. Slowly, he begins to join in, a beat here and a flourish there.

A young guy, pleasantly stoned, sits next to him, bandanna covering his dreadlocks. He nods at the old guy. They lock into the same beat, swapping solos. Others in the group keep the rhythm with a bass drum, congas, dununs cowbells, wood blocks. Anything that can make a joyous sound.

The beat goes on. I listen to it from a distance as I wander around downtown, stopping occasionally as I make loops. The old guy is intent. I’m not sure I get drum circles, but I know they’re doing what they love. I drift back to those Dead shows and that feeling of being young and a part of something special. Maybe a drum circle doubles as a time machine.

Drum circles are like life, I suppose. They’re going when you arrive. You sit down, join in, make your little contribution, hope someone notices. And then you leave.

He puts the drum back in the bag and folds up his stool. He walks into the night and slowly fades away. The drums go on without him, never missing a beat.

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life with an artist, part 18

“I NEED TWENTY BUCKS!!!”

I’m standing on the sidewalk outside a row of semi-legit art galleries on First Friday when the woman walks up to me. Normally in these situations I shrug and walk the other way. But she’s very attractive, and I’m scared of her in this frantic state. Mostly, that second one. Also we’re married, and I seem to recall some vow about richer and poorer and till a 20 dollar bill do you part.

I tell her all I have is a five. “We need to find twenty bucks,” she declares. She is clearly on A Mission.

Mo doesn’t become desperately smitten with art too often. But when she does, there’s no stopping her, at least without a fire hose. I survey the vicinity and there appears to be none. So we’re off for money.

The artist, who apparently deals in cash only, has told her there’s an ATM in the liquor store down the street. I veto this immediately, pointing out we would likely be handing out twenties to many people if we tried that. So we go to the car and head out on our treasure hunt.

The problem: Downtown is in total lockdown. The Diamondbacks’ season opener is tonight. And there’s some sort of festival that has shut down half of the streets in the area. Mo is undeterred.

We use the GPS to find the nearest ATM for our bank. A mere go straight, right turn, veer left, turn right, U-turn, go through alley, you’re here later, we arrive. Alas, it appears to be the interplanetary headquarters. No parking, no ATM, no twenty.

So we head out for a convenience store. A mere seven hours of turtle traffic later, we arrive at one.

There are basically two kinds of convenience store: Those with a security cop outside, and those without. This is the first kind.

I buy a soda while a woman screams at another woman. The clerk, helping me, never even looks up. You can’t do that, he tells her. She continues screaming. The cop steps in. “Is there a problem?” he asks. I ponder an alternative universe where a screaming woman is not a problem. Luckily, the uproar provides cover as I get 40 bucks from the clerk and make my way out. Mo buys a Dr Pepper. Sometimes the situation requires a Dr Pepper. Mo is wise.

From there, we just have to make our way back to the gallery on Grand Avenue. Except we’re backwards now. We’re watching on the wrong side of the road so it takes forever to find it. Luckily, the 3 mph traffic means I’ve lost all sense of space and time.

And then, there it is. Mo jumps out and runs in. She comes back out, triumphantly waving the painting, which she had at first accidentally given the guy a 10 dollar bill for, assuming the store clerk had given us twenties.

And that was how we came to own a painting that passes the Kondo test of sparking joy. Mo is happy, and when Mo is happy, I am happy.

The best part: After all that, the artist said, “Oh, I would’ve taken a credit card. I just prefer cash.”

Artists are funny.

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