Coincidence? That's nuts!
October 30, 2016 3:44 PM | Posted in: ,

Have you ever found yourself in a situation where, if the details were only slightly different, the outcome would border on disastrous? Perhaps you drove through an intersection and when you looked in your rearview mirror, you saw a car run a red light and t-bone another vehicle. Or perhaps it was something as simple as coming back into the house from the garage before a weekend trip because you forgot your car keys, and finding that you'd left the cooktop on.

I've experienced these "happy coincidences" on a number of occasions through the years. For example, after a 20 mile ride through the Texas Hill Country, our bike chain inexplicably* fell apart...two blocks from the B&B where we stayed. Then there was the time our bicycle's rear wheel self-destructed while we were plodding along on a flat road at about ten mph, making it an annoyance; the weekend before we had barreled down a hill at three times that speed, and if it had happened then, it had the potential to be fatal. And I'm sure that many of us have the shared experience of finding that our car battery has died in the garage, rather than in the middle of nowhere.

I wouldn't try to argue with those who would claim that these things are simply the luck of the draw, although my belief is that there is some Divine intervention at work. Because sometimes, those "coincidences" are just too unlikely to have any other explanation. We experienced that earlier today.

I took my truck to the dealership on Friday for regular scheduled service, a part of which involved rotating the tires. I picked it up Friday afternoon, and drove it around town on various errands for at least fifty miles through noon today. I didn't notice anything out of the ordinary during that time.

As we returned home after lunch today, I turned down the alley leading to our garage, and noticed a shiny object lying in the middle of the alley, one house down from ours. I pointed it out to MLB, who hadn't noticed it, and she retrieved it after we parked. She brought it to me, and remarked that she thought it was part of a tool. It looked really familiar...I identified it as something similar to the locking lug nuts on each wheel of the truck. In my post chile-relleno-and-enchilada stupor, I decided that perhaps it had rolled out the alley from the garage of the neighbors behind us, and I decided to return it to them.

The mystery object
The mystery object

As I walked past the truck on the way out of the garage, my mind suddenly clicked...this didn't just look like one of the locking nuts...this was identical to them. Oh, surely not. I walked around the truck and when I came to the rear wheel on the passenger's side, my suspicion was confirmed. This was my lug nut.

The mystery object
A sad...and frightening...sight

The mechanic at the dealership had obviously neglected to tighten the nut sufficiently on Friday and it eventually worked its way off the wheel**. But the "coincidences" are fairly obvious, aren't they?

  • What are the odds that the nut would fall off mere feet from our garage after a multiple days and miles of driving?

  • What are the odds that I would notice it before someone else found it and disposed of it?

  • And consider this: we have some pretty significant road trips coming up soon. It's one thing to drive around town with a missing lug nut; quite another to log six or seven hundred miles at highway speeds.
I immediately remounted the lug nut, and checked all the others for tightness. The other three locking nuts were very slight loose - I could budge them perhaps 1/32nd of a turn with the wrench - while the non-security nuts were all perfectly torqued down (obviously down with an air wrench).

So, as it turned out, this situation resulted simply in a blog post (if you think that's a disaster in and of itself, well, keep that to yourself), rather than something much more serious. Feel free to consider this a happy coincidence and us as incredibly lucky. Personally, I'm casting my vote for an overworked guardian angel dispatched by a loving God.

*Inexplicable, except for the fact that I later found I had mounted the chain incorrectly. Go me.

**I have some experience with insufficiently tightened lug nuts. That's another story for another day; suffice it to say that seeing one of your car's wheels roll down the road ahead of you isn't something you easily forget.
Earlier this year I reported on the grand opening of the West Texas Food Bank's main facility in Odessa. That facility - the crown jewel of the Food Bank's physical presence - was the first result of a $13 million capital campaign (an amount raised in only 13 months). The second step was revealed last night, when a sneak preview grand opening (the official public grand opening is this morning) was held at the new Midland location - the official name is the "Midland Community & Volunteer Center" - the first physical presence of the Food Bank in our city. Debbie and I were once again privileged to attend, and I wanted to share some photos from this great addition Midland's benevolence infrastructure.

[Disclaimer: These photos were taken with my phone, amid a crowd of people, so please excuse the obvious quality and framing issues.]

The new facility is located at 1601 Westcliff Drive, just south of the Andrews Highway, near the Midland County Tax Offices. The main building is a repurposed existing structure that was donated by Mike and Cindy Black and Lea and Melanie Crump (the lobby bears their names). It's only about a third of the size of the Odessa location, which is 60,000 square feet, but it purposes are a bit different and don't require the same scale.

The lobby shares some features of the Odessa facility, including the striking green logo wall, and the installation of dinner plates showing the names of the donors who made these facilities possible. A unique aspect of the Midland location is the integration of actual wooden food pallets as an architectural feature, as shown below.

West Texas Food Bank's Midland Facility - Lobby

Here's a sample of some of the donor plates mentioned above. I felt compelled to highlight the plate belonging to Debbie's and my employer, SM Energy Company.

West Texas Food Bank's Midland Facility - Donor Plates

Immediately off the lobby is the H-E-B Client Choice Pantry, where clients can "shop" for an assortment of food, both fresh and non-perishable. This pantry will be stocked with items specifically geared toward the nutritional needs of senior adults. H-E-B is a major donor, giving generously of both finances and food, and at the event last night their spokesman surprised the crowd with an additional $25,000 pledge.

West Texas Food Bank's Midland Facility - Food Pantry

Moving further into the facility, you come to the Wayne & Jo Ann Moore Charitable Foundation Volunteer Center. This is where the work of unloading, inspecting, processing, sorting, and boxing donated food takes place...primarily by community volunteers. It is equipped with a loading dock; a "cold processing room" for inspecting meat, dairy, produce, and eggs; and a "sorting and isolation room" for storing and sorting non-perishable items.

West Texas Food Bank's Midland Facility - Volunteer Center

West Texas Food Bank's Midland Facility - Loading Dock

Moving to the other end of the building, you find the administrative offices, the Bobby & Leona Cox Demonstration Kitchen, and the Henry Foundation Community Training Room.

The kitchen (named after the creator of Rosa's and Taco Villa) will be used to educate the public on how to prepare healthy meals. It has four cooking stations, and will be available to other collaborative agencies for cooking and nutrition classes.

West Texas Food Bank's Midland Facility - Demonstration Kitchen

The training room has audio-visual capabilities and will also be made available to area groups for meetings and training opportunities.

West Texas Food Bank's Midland Facility - Training Room

The exterior features of the facility are as impressive as the interior. There's a great playground (the Miles & Laurie Boldrick Playground) to entertain children while their adults are shopping or learning. And, in case you're wondering, there will eventually be grass on that playground (this is a REALLY new facility!). And, yes, that is my thumb in the upper right corner. Don't say I didn't warn you.

West Texas Food Bank's Midland Facility - Playground

In the background of the preceding photo, you can see part of one of the two greenhouses at the site, named in honor of the J.E. & L.E. Mabee Foundation. These state-of-the-art greenhouses will be managed by the Permian Basin Master Gardeners, and will be used to educate the public about gardening, composting, etc.

The two greenhouses are configured differently, with one being a "Chinese-style" greenhouse surrounded by earthen berms, and the other being a more typical West Texas greenhouse. Both will be served by a 5,000 gallon rainwater collection system tied to the guttering on the main building.

West Texas Food Bank's Midland Facility - Greenhouse

West Texas Food Bank's Midland Facility - Greenhouse

West Texas Food Bank's Midland Facility - Rainfall Collection System

There will also be an area where children can plant and tend to their own gardens (still under construction as shown below).

West Texas Food Bank's Midland Facility - Children's Gardens

The entire facility, designed by the Parkhill, Smith & Cooper, is environmentally friendly. It will eventually be equipped with a 75kW photovoltaic solar panel system that will provide up to more than 100% of the location's electrical needs (putting electricity back into the grid during the spring and fall). The building material incorporated reclaimed materials (such as the pallets I mentioned above, as well as 50 gallon drums used as light fixtures). And, finally, the polished concrete floors in the lobby contain recycled glass aggregate, and the flooring in the training room is 100% recycled compressed aspen wood.

The West Texas Food Bank is a critical asset in our region, serving millions of meals to hungry people in 19 counties across the 34,000 square miles it serves. I can't think of a more deserving recipient of your philanthropy, if you have the financial resources to share.
Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink...'

Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?'

The King will reply, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.'

Matthew, Chapter 25
Alert Gazette readers may recall that last year I wrote about ARCO's corporate artwork collection in Midland, and my role in helping dispose of it after BP gutted us acquired the Company. That post served the dual purposes of documenting an interesting period in my career and also providing an enduring (to the extent that anything on the web endures) glimpse at the art via the rudimentary website I built to showcase it.

A couple of months after posting the article, I received an email from someone in Los Angeles who had stumbled across it, and discovered that she'd purchased a copy of one of the works in the collection. Small world, huh?

I've been blogging a long time, and I'm no longer surprised at that sort of serendipitous encounter; Mr. Google has a way of working magic like that. At least, I thought I was immune to surprise. But, I received an email a week or so ago, and I have a new appreciation for the power of the web. Here's how it started:
Wow, just found your fascinating Blog (The Fire Ant Gazette) and had to contact you. I worked directly for Herbert Bayer and Curator Leila Mehle in the Los Angeles office (then Arco Plaza) in downtown LA back in the late 70's.

So it was with great interest that I found and read your Blog and toured your Virtual Gallery! Bravo for creating this!  
The composer of that email is David Halver, and that link that I put on his name will lead you to his IMDb profile. Go ahead and hop over and read about Mr. Halver; I'll wait right here.

David's email went into a great deal of detail about his work with ARCO's art collection, including some great anecdotes about the acclaimed Bauhaus artist Bayer and ARCO's legendary founder and chairman, R.O. (Bob) Anderson, and he has followed up with several additional missives. David was kind enough to grant me permission to share his letters, and I want to do that mainly to add some color and context the documentation of a piece of American corporate history that probably isn't well known.

Rather than copying and pasting David's email in its entirety, I'm taking the liberty of excerpting it and adding my own observations where possible. However, these excerpts are unedited.

On Anderson's artwork collecting habits...
I had the pleasure of meeting and working with [Herbert] Bayer on numerous occasions in Los Angeles as well as at his home outside Santa Barbara. It was Bayer's close friendship with CEO Anderson that got "Bob" interested in collecting; and as Bayer told it, Bob would often go on shopping sprees...hitting contemporary galleries in nearly every city he had business in; buying on impulse anything that he liked (with a then unheard of Platinum American Express card) and had them shipped to his ranch in Roswell, or his homes in NYC or LA or the huge penthouse suites overlooking the marina in Marina Del Rey, CA. 

As he soon tired of seeing them, he quickly replaced them and they all ended up in the offices in LA.  In the meantime, he had commissioned Hebert to select "important" pieces that were hung in the executive's offices, conference rooms, lobbies and waiting rooms. You mentioned 15,000 pieces...by the time Arco acquired Anaconda and built the Anaconda Tower (near the Brown Palace in Denver) it was closer to 30,000...thus the donation by the Bayer Estate to the Denver Art Museum. 
On the cataloging system used for the collection...

David was able to shed some light on the numbering system employed to keep track of the artwork.
In the process of working and trying to document the quickly growing collection, Mehle and I developed an inventory system of assigning an ID code (on a small aluminum tag) to the frames or pedestals of all artworks in LA offices; where part of the code ID'd the Artist, a "letter" code indicated the medium, and then a group of numbers indicated which specific piece; thus B001 was Bayer, SG stood for serigraph, and as he had several 100s in the collection, there were four (4) spaces for an ID number after that. As I recall, a code similar to L004.PT.0003 would be for a Lichtenstein original Painting and the third one in the collection. These ID numbers were included in the slide library for reference.
Notice the casual reference to Lichtenstein. Original paintings by the pop artist sell for more than $40,000 nowadays. The Midland office wasn't fortunate enough to land a Lichtenstein.

I wasn't alone in my efforts to document the collection via photographs.
I too had the honor to photograph the collection and built a massive slide library housed in the 515 offices (the North Tower). As the collection grew, and I had previous Art Gallery experience (installing and packing) in LA, I became the chief "installer" for the newly acquired pieces that were sent to Denver for the Anaconda Collection.
In subsequent emails, David expressed an intent to locate the slides and digitize them. I hope he's successful in doing so.

Herbert Bayer's 'Double Ascension' sculpture installation at ARCO Plaza in Los Angeles
Herbert Bayer's Double Ascension.
According to David, "Bob [Anderson] loved the original title, Stairway to Nowhere,
but he thought the Board of Directors wouldn't approve!)

On the sometimes amusing reactions by ARCO employees to some of the artwork...
One evening I was changing a framed print in one of the "hidden" xerox work stations (also used as the secretary's lunch area) behind one of the many extraordinarily crafted wood paneled walls...and a gentleman came in to use one of the many xerox machines. While it poured out dozens of collated copies, he asked me if I could help him get rid of that "awful painting" in his office.

He led me to his office and his polished chrome "name-plate" by the side of his door (the walls were covered with a dark beige wool) ID'd him as the VP of Arco's Chemical Division. The previous curator (prior to Mehle) had hung a rather dated and not very appealing framed print above the couch and chairs that his desk faced, and a small abstract watercolor over the built-in credenza behind his desk...not at all fitting for a man in his position. 

He asked about getting a Currier & Ives print or something that related to the outdoors "...anything would be better than that horrendous thing!"

As I had hand-carried the new print for the xerox room and was taking the old print by hand, I couldn't do anything about it at the moment, but promised him that I'd speak with the Curator the next day. The next night I was installing the pieces she had selected and he walked in (it was late as I recall, well after 9PM) and at first he got pissed... "What the hell is that? This is worse! What is that supposed to be?"

It was an extraordinary abstract multi-layered oil painting that had an extraordinary glaze covering it that gave it a brilliant glow. I had been prepared by Mehle in the event that this would happen. "The Curator thought that as you are the head of the Chemical Division that you might enjoy this. It's called "Cold Fusion of Diverse Elements"; the Artist was inspired by photographs taken by an electron microscope."

He stared at it for a while, then noticed an extraordinary B&W Ansel Adams surrounded by a wide cold white matte and framed in an elegant thin welded chrome frame over the credenza. "Now that...I like. But this other one, well, I'll have to think it over. Thanks."

Less than a week later, he sent a Thank You note to Mehle and months later, while I was doing something on the 50th floor, his door was open and I heard him telling someone... "The artist was inspired seeing a chemical reaction in a microscope. I love it!" I had to keep from laughing out loud.

A very similar thing happened with an extraordinary painting (actually, four side-by-side canvases) called "Into Plutonian Depths" ... I did a Google image search and all that comes up is that it was the title of a pulp fiction sci-fi novel back in 1950... sadly no images of the painting. Anyway, the images were extraordinary and lined up side by side (each was around 40" square) it was like looking out the portholes of a space ship at an Alien Landscape. It was on the same executive floor where the VPs of geology had their offices... and was immediately disliked. But once the Curator had a small plaque installed with the title and a brief explanation that it was in fact supposed to be "...the view from the bridge of a Mining Vessel that had just landed on another world to do geological exploration.." Needless to say, it was a big hit.
His accounts ring true, in my experience. The artwork didn't always elicit positive responses from employees, and the closer to oilpatch you got, the less openminded people were about some of the more avant garde or impressionistic works. (And lest you think I'm immune, I never did understand this one. Or this one.) But if you are able to explain the context or make the piece relevant to something in the viewer's experience, you're more likely to get acceptance, if not outright enthusiasm.



David has shared a great deal more about life in general around ARCO's Los Angeles offices, including how the buildings were featured in the 2005 movie, Fun With Dick and Jane, for which he served as location liaison. I'm most appreciative of his willingness to take the time to record his experiences with my longtime employer's art collection, and for his kind permission to share those experiences with you. And if he's successful in locating that slide collection, I'll do my best to talk him into sharing a few of the more important works.



Corrections & Amplifications: 

The original version of this post incorrectly referred to an office covered with "a dark beige wood," when in actuality the walls were covered in wool. On behalf of hard-working sheep everywhere, I apologize for this misstatement.

The original version of this post implied that ARCO had original Roy Lichtenstein paintings in its collection, when in fact it had "only" hand-signed/hand-pulled lithographs and serigraphs. I regret ARCO's cheapness.
My tenure as a boy scout was pretty short (even counting the preposterous time I spent as a Sea Scout in landlocked Fort Stockton), but the "be prepared" mindset stuck with me. I'm blessed/cursed with an imagination that places me in the most disastrous alternatives of any given scenario, and the fact that one of those alternatives hasn't yet occurred only means that the time of its arrival is closer than ever.

Granted, some of this is paranoia, but it's also common sense. Take jumper cables, for example. I've put a set in both of our cars, because you never know when you might encounter a dead battery (either yours or someone else's). Of course, the problem with jumper cables is that you need another car in order for them to be effective. This is not a problem if you're stranded in a populated area and you don't mind calling on the mercies of kindhearted (you hope) strangers, but you don't always get to choose where your car battery gives out.

DBPOWER jump starter carry case
The unit comes in a nice zippered carrying case.
The simple solution is to also carry a portable power source, one strong enough to start a car. Fortunately, advances in battery technology have given us that capability in a small, easy-to-use package...like the DBPOWER 600 amp jump starter, which I purchased after reading a review on this site. (Note: At the time of this writing, the unit is on sale for Prime members for half price at Amazon.com; just click on the preceding link.)

The lithium-ion battery that powers the device is strong enough to start a 6.5 liter gas or a 5.2 liter diesel engine. No, that won't start your Bugatti Veyron's V16 mill, but it will handle the largest engine you can get on a Ford F-150. That is impressive for a device that weights just over a pound and fits comfortably in the palm of my hand.

The DBPOWER 600 also serves as a power source or charger for home electronics, including USB-powered devices, and it has a plethora of adapters - none of which are Apple-compatible, by the way - for that purpose. It has a built-in flashlight (because batteries never die during the day) with strobe and SOS modes. And, inexplicably, it has an integrated compass...for which even my overactive imagination has thus far failed to identify a valid use.

OTOH, the compass does imply other non-car-related uses. While the carrying case is somewhat bulky, the unit itself would easily fit into a backpack for a hike or camping trip, and provide plenty of power to recharge a camera, tablet, or phone.

DBPOWER jump starter carry case
Accessories are easily retrieved.

DBPOWER jump starter
The unit itself is compact and easy to handle.

The manufacturer claims that the battery needs recharging only every four months, assuming that it hasn't been used. That's a fairly impressive standby time. It also purports to be able to jump start 30 cars before requiring a recharge. However, I'm of the opinion that if you're jumping 30 cars at a time, you're either incredibly helpful, or you're engaged in activities of questionable legality. Alternatively, if you're jump-starting your own car 30 times in succession, just go buy a dang battery, OK?

The device can be recharged either via your car's 12-volt DC outlet or a 120-volt AC plug. It does, of course, come with adapters for both.

DBPOWER jump starter controls and ports
The controls are clearly labeled and easy to use.

All of this is theoretical, of course, so I decided to put it to the test on my own vehicle, a Honda Ridgeline pickup with a 3.5 liter 6-cylinder engine. Not having a dead battery (there's never a mechanical malfunction around when you need one), I disconnected the battery leads, sacrificing my clock and radio settings for your edification. I figured this would be a true test of the device, because even when a battery doesn't have enough power to start an engine, it may still be providing some residual current that's additive to whatever the jump starter is providing. (I'm not a mechanic or an electrician, so I could be wrong about that.)

In any event, I powered up the jump starter, attached its clamps to the battery cables, and - voila! - the truck started immediately. I turned off the engine, disconnected the device, and then repeated the process. Again, the engine fired up without hesitation. And after two starts, the power level on the jump starter dropped from 99% to 98%. The 30-start-per-charge claim may actually be conservative based on this admittedly limited test.

By the way, if you've been intimidated in the past by jumper cables - knowing which to clamp to what - this device is drop-dead simple to use. You can only connect the clamps to the device one way...the correct way. Then, the red clamp goes on the positive battery terminal; the black goes on the negative. If you get them switched, the unit has circuitry to keep it from damaging your car's electronics, and that's A Very Good Thing.

DBPOWER jump starter with attached cables
Clamps attached, armed and ready for action

You can bet it will be a constant companion in my truck because, you know, you can never be too prepared. And, by the way, this would be a perfect gift for a student heading off to college for the first time.

Now, if I could only remember the code that's required to access and restore my navigation and audio system settings...
The 50-mile stretch of US Highway 385 between Fort Stockton and Marathon, Texas, has always been one of my favorite drives. If you encounter five other vehicles during the trip, it's a heavy traffic day. It's a perfect showcase for the desolate grandeur of the Trans-Pecos region of West Texas, winding through some of the largest ranches in the country and significant geologic phenomena, and never failing to present the traveler with a wide array of wildlife.

On various trips, we've encountered mule deer, antelope, javelinas, coyotes, snakes almost as long as my truck is wide, and more rabbits (jack and cottontails) than we could count. But on a recent trip, we encountered something that none of us had ever seen before.

Earlier this month we drove from Fort Stockton to eat at the 12 Gauge Restaurant, adjacent to the historic Gage Hotel in Marathon. Our group consisted of MLB, my brother and his wife, and my mother. After the usual excellent meal, we hit the road about a half hour before dusk. About twenty miles into the drive (see map below), we came around a curve and I spotted something out of the ordinary a few hundred yards down the road. 

"Quick...grab your cameras and get ready!" MLB and my sister-in-law immediately armed their iPhone and iPad, respectively, and focused on what I saw: a bull elk standing in the highway right-of-way, just off to our right. 

Initial sighting of elk
The initial sighting

The typical absence of traffic on this highway worked to our advantage, as I was able to stop on the shoulder to photograph the elk, as well as back up and pull forward to stay alongside him.

Bull elk in West Texas
"Are you looking at me? Are YOU looking at Me? Well, are you?"

The animal wasn't particularly exercised by our attention, although he ambled back and forth in a mildly annoyed fashion as the paparazzi recorded his movements (see the short video below). After a minute or two, he calmly stepped over the fence and wandered into the brush, and we left feeling like we had been privileged to witness something magical.





The presence of elk in West Texas is a somewhat controversial topic. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) classifies elk as an exotic species, meaning that they believe it's a non-native species. However, not everyone agrees with this designation. Some researchers believe that elk have inhabited West Texas for centuries, and their evidence and arguments are compelling.

It's not a purely academic dispute. By classifying elk as non-native exotics, TPWD allows them to be hunted year around, with no limits on the number of animals that can be killed. In fact, because the agency believes elk compete with native (and endangered) desert bighorn sheep for food, it recommends that ranchers hunt the elk to the point of elimination.

I'm not a hunter, but I understand and agree with the benefits of controlled hunting for certain species. I just find it hard to believe that the relatively small elk population poses any serious threat to the food supply for another scarce species, especially given the vast landscape in which both reside. The cynic in me can't help wondering about the influence on the TPWD of the hunting outfitters and ranches who benefit financially from year-round elk hunts.

Regardless - or perhaps especially - in light of this situation, it was a memorable encounter on that lonely Texas highway, and we came away with a new appreciation of the natural wonders of the Trans-Pecos region.

Bull elk in West Texas
It's no secret that the Texas Hill Country is akin to Ground Zero for the state's live music scene. Austin is the mother lode for gifted musicians, but it seems that every surrounding town also has its own homegrown talents, and that translates to a lot of dancing opportunities.

I've already reported on some of our favorite Hill Country dance venues, which almost exclusively feature country music. MLB and I have enjoyed many country dances during the three years we've been transient residents headquartered in Horseshoe Bay, but we've not been able to replicate the active ballroom dance scene that we have here in Midland. I'm happy to report that we've made a couple of recent discoveries that significantly changes that situation.

The Flashbacks Big Band - Kingsland


A couple of weekends ago, our friends Doc and Sharon invited us to attend a Saturday night performance of The Flashbacks Big Band in the Kingsland Convention and Community Center [which is a pretty highfalutin label for a facility located in a town of 5,000 residents]. The promotional material billed it as a free concert and a dance, but we had no idea about how suitable the venue or music would be for dancing. Boy, were we pleasantly surprised!

According to the website, the Community Center includes a 4,900 square foot meeting hall, which is quite spacious...depending on the actual setup. As it turned out, the space set aside for dancing was more than adequate for the attendance. There were about 75 people present, but with 40 of them being members of a Sunday School class from a Baptist church in Marble Falls, the number of dancers was much lower.(1) (2) At any given time there were at most ten couples on the dance floor.

The Flashbacks were a revelation as well. Sixteen skilled musicians played classic ballroom dance tunes for three hours, with a sound as polished as anything you'd find in large cities. They're the real deal.

The Flashbacks Big Band

If you're a dancer, there are a few things to keep in mind. There's no food or drink available at the Community Center, but you're free to bring in anything you like. The floor is vinyl and a bit tacky, so leather- or suede-soled shoes are a necessity; apart from that, however, it's a really good dance floor. The dancers we saw that night were older, enthusiastic, but not really tuned into dance etiquette (one couple insisted on occasionally dancing clockwise around the floor, in opposition to everyone else). Dress is casual.

Also, the music skewed heavily toward fox trots and swings; don't expect to get much Latin dancing done. The band will take requests, but only for songs they've recently practiced, so don't be surprised if the response is "we'll make a note of that for next time." Finally, while there is no admission charge, tipping the band is encouraged because they are actually paying for the rental of the facility. My personal recommendation is to tip the same amount you'd expect to pay for a formal dance elsewhere.

The Flashbacks play at the Kingsland Community Center on the first Saturday of every month, 7:00-10:00 p.m.

The Republic of Texas Big Band - Lakeway


We extended our weekend stay in order to check out the Lakeway Activity Center where the Republic of Texas Big Band (ROTBB) was performing at yet another free concert and dance.

Lakeway is a thriving suburb of Austin, and the city's Activity Center is a multi-purpose facility featuring several meeting rooms and banquet halls. The banquet rooms can be configured several ways, with the largest layout being 3,675 square feet...again, potentially more than adequate for dancing.

Since this was our first visit to Lakeway and we weren't sure where the facility was located, we were among the first to arrive and thus picked out a table next to the dance floor. There were enough tables set up to accommodate well over a hundred people, but about half that number actually showed up...including a contingent from a local nursing home. Again, this was primarily an older audience, although there was a sprinkling of younger (i.e. 30-40 years) folks.

However, there were many more dancers in attendance than at the Kingsland event. We sat out several dances because of the crowded conditions. The dancers also tended to be a bit more accomplished than at the other venue. As at Kingsland, dress is casual.

The ROTBB was at least equal to The Flashbacks in musicianship (I noticed that one musician was a member of both groups), and had both male and female vocalists who were simply awesome. Their repertoire was slightly more varied, but still heavily tilted toward fox trot and swing tunes.

Again, this is a free monthly event - it's been taking place for five years - and it's strictly BYOE (bring your own everything). The floor is also high-end vinyl and well-suited for dancing provided you have leather- or suede-soled shoes. Tips for the band are encouraged; in fact, someone carries a bucket around to each table during one of the breaks to make sure everyone has an opportunity to make a tangible expression of appreciation. Unlike the Kingsland event, the band plays for two hours.

The Republic of Texas Big Band

My one suggestion for improvement is that the dance floor could be expanded by removing a row of tables on each side, although I'm sure it's difficult to predict attendance at a non-RSVP event like this. But considering the overall quality of the venue and the music, this is a rather insignificant complaint and is not a factor for future attendance.

By the way, the ROTBB makes occasional appearances at The Oasis on Lake Travis, a big honkin' restaurant and bar best known for its views of sunsets over the lake.

The Republic of Texas Big Band plays at the Lakeway Activity Center on the second Monday of every month, 7:30-9:30 p.m.

In summary, following several years of wandering through a virtual ballroom desert, we discovered in one three-day stretch that there's a life-sustaining musical stream literally minutes away. Country music may rule the Texas Hill Country, but big band music hasn't faded completely away.
 
(1) The reader should not be misled; not all Baptists are non-dancers, this writer being a prime example. [Return]

(2) It so happened that we attended services at that church the next morning, and we were greeted by a couple of people with "you're the dancers from last night, aren't you?"...in a purely non-judgmental way, of course. [Return]

Rooftop Serenade
June 19, 2016 6:16 PM | Posted in:

Lately, this is what we've been hearing, coming down our chimney and serenading us, unbidden.



If you live anywhere in North America, you no doubt recognize the random stylings of Mimus polyglottos, otherwise known as the Northern Mockingbird (although the georeference seems superfluous since there's no Southern, Eastern, or Western Mockingbird). The mockingbird is the state bird of Texas (and also of plagiaristic, lesser states such as Mississippi, Arkansas, Florida, and Tennessee).

I'm not opposed to having a songbird share his musical gifts with us, but I became curious this afternoon as he competed with the soundtrack of the mindless movie we typical nap to on Sunday afternoons, and I wondered just what it was he found so attractive about our chimney. Was there a nest up there? Was he teaching his young offspring how to sing?

You should forgive my anthropomorphic tendencies on Father's Day, as I had just read an article in the Wall Street Journal in which the case was made for male birds being superior dads to their mammalian counterparts, at least those of non-human species. Among other things...
Male songbirds tutor their young on how to produce the distinctive songs of their species in a sophisticated process that may help to explain how other animals, including humans, learn complicated skills.

Darwin called birdsong "the nearest analogy to language." Indeed, song-learning in birds turns out to have striking similarities with how humans learn speech, from the process of listening, imitating and practicing all the way down to the brain structures and genes involved.
Armed with the knowledge of this theory (my usual substitute for any actual knowledge), I envisioned dad holding forth to a bevy of attentive younguns, eager to emulate his own emulations (they're not called "mockingbirds" for nothing). My curiosity aroused me from the comfort of my recliner, and I climbed onto the roof in search of the nest that I was sure kept that bird coming back to the same spot day after day.

Of course, there was nothing up there, other than the shade of the chimney vent, that apparently being a sufficient platform for his vocal gymnastics.

Mockingbird on our chimney

My disappointment at not being able to confirm the avian-dad-as-teacher theory was tempered by the good news that we won't have to endure an amplified group singalong by a whole bevy of birds. But here's one thing to keep in mind: if you want to keep a secret, don't share it in the general vicinity of a chimney, because it makes an awfully efficient microphone.

Captured by The Highwaymen
June 8, 2016 9:26 PM | Posted in:

As I drove home after work yesterday, Mojo Nixon was interviewing Mickey Raphael on Sirius XM's Outlaw Country channel. I'm not a big fan of Nixon's work, nor do I usually listen to anything but music in the car, but I was intrigued by the subject matter. It seems that a new boxed set of music and video from The Highwaymen was released in May, and Raphael - who you might recognize as Willie Nelson's harmonica player - was talking about his experiences playing with Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, and of course, the Red Headed Stranger. It was fascinating stuff from an insider's perspective. 

In the course of the conversation, Raphael mentioned that a documentary about The Highwaymen had recently aired on PBS and is available for streaming via its website, so later that night I began to watch it. I found the video, entitled The Highwaymen: Friends Till The End, under the American Masters category (or you can just click this link), and it will be available for streaming only until June 25, 2016. If you're a country music fan, or simply interested in American popular music history, this is a must-see documentary.

The Highwaymen are credited as country music's first "supergroup"* although Cash was probably the only member who landed firmly in the middle of the traditional country music genre. Regardless of where you slot them in terms of music, all four are legends whose influences are far-reaching, and the claim that the roots of the so-called Outlaw Country genre began with them is hard to dispute.

The documentary traces the evolution of the group from its inception (the four first united during one of Cash's Christmas specials for TV, filmed in Montreaux, Switzerland) until its disbanding a decade later, in 1995. Jennings died in 2002 and Cash a year later. Kristofferson and Nelson are still active, although the former--who will turn 80 this month--is battling memory loss even as he continues to write and record.

Along with concert footage and interviews with the principles, the documentary features a great cast of supporting characters including:

  • John Mellencamp (who competed with Prince and Sean Combs for the most stage names); Mellencamp has collaborated with Nelson to produce Farm Aid for 30 years

  • Marty Stuart (who competes with Mellencamp for the most awesome hairdo)

  • Ray Benson (Asleep at the Wheel frontman)

  • Toby Keith

  • Jessie Colter (Waylon's wife), Annie Nelson (Willie's fourth and current wife), and June Carter Cash (Johnny's wife)

  • and several of the other musicians who backed the group.
Gene Autry, one of Willie Nelson's heroes, also makes an appearance.

The documentary provides a brief biographical intro for each of the four, with some great archival footage and photos (witness the clean-cut, pre-outlaw images of Waylon and Willie below). It explores the special bond that the four formed over their shared music...and trials. They each took a shot at success in Nashville, and found it was, well, let's say it was not to their liking. They chafed at the country "establishment" that controlled the music business, so they either left and made their own way, or stayed and through sheer force of will (and talent) bent the system to their own visions.

Photo - Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson in the early years
Waylon and Willie - The early years

The video doesn't shy away from the seamier sides of their lives, especially the struggles with substance abuse that Jennings and Cash fought (and eventually conquered). They also shared health problems; at one point, both of those men were hospitalized at the same time after heart bypass surgeries. We learn that Cash was in almost constant pain during his time with the group, thanks to a broken jaw suffered during botched dental implant surgery.

But they all had a spiritual side, and while the details aren't fleshed out in the documentary, you get the sense that they each had finally faced down personal demons, and their friendship and mutual support provided a calm and sense of peace that was perhaps missing for most of their lives. I had the distinct impression that had health not failed, they would still be happily making music together.

I've seen Willie Nelson in concert, but I never got to attend a show with the other men. Thankfully, through efforts like this documentary and the new recordings and videos, we won't miss out on some truly historic musical performances, and it's not likely a group with such charisma and talent will pass this way again.



*The term "supergroup" is used as a pretty wide net, encompassing musical acts as diverse as Cream, The Three Tenors, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. It's a dubious appellation, and I apply a stricter definition than, say, Wikipedia. The Highwaymen definitely fit my definition (as do acts such as The Traveling Wilburys [George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, and Jeff Lynne] and the Texas Tornados [Freddy Fender, Doug Sahm, Flaco Jimenez, and Augie Meyers]), in which band members who each have a separate active and successful career come together for a limited time to tour and record, and then return to their primary careers.

Attraction Satisfaction
June 2, 2016 3:59 PM | Posted in: ,

Perceptive Gazette readers will recall our recent traumatic bicycle wheel failure, which necessitated the replacement of both wheels on our recumbent tandem (the rear wheel failed, but we also replaced the front one out of an abundance of caution as well as to make sure the two matched). I'm happy to report that after a delay of more than a month, we're back on the road sporting new wheels, spokes, freewheel hub,  and cassette, and everything looks mahvelous.

Bike computer magnet pickupHowever - and there's always a however, isn't there? - I overlooked the fact that the new wheels and spokes meant that I would also have to recalibrate our computers. We have a Planet Bike wireless computer on the front and a wired model on the back, and both rely on a small magnet (see photo at right) mounted on a spoke to generate a signal transmitted to the computer that allows it to measure distance and speed. Each revolution of the wheel moves the magnet past a pickup mounted on the fork, and when calibrated to the wheel's circumference, the time it takes for each revolution is the key component of the speed and distance algorithms. With me so far?

Obviously, when the bike mechanic replaced the spokes, he had to remount the magnet. But since he had only the wheels and not the whole bike, there was no way for him to know exactly where to place the magnet. So, when I returned home with the new wheels, I had to put the magnet back in the right place, so that the transmitting unit would generate a signal.

That was pretty easy for the back wheel, but I ran into a puzzling problem on the front. No matter how I placed the magnet on the wheel, I couldn't make the transmitter send a signal to the main unit. I even replaced the battery in the transmitter, to no avail. It was as if the magnet was no longer strong enough to generate the signal (and I say that as if I understand exactly how the thing works, which I don't).

I knew all along that I was stretching the limits of the wireless unit to their max; the computer was designed for a "regular" bicycle, not a long-wheelbase recumbent, and the distance from the main unit to the transmitter was now - for whatever reason - just a tad too far.

As a last resort, I contemplated just buying a wired computer, but then I wondered whether the magnet strength had any bearing on the strength of the transmission. Yes, that's right: we're gonna need a bigger...magnet. And I knew just where to find one.

I happened to have two magnets from an old hard drive laying around my workbench. [What? Doesn't everyone disassemble their old hard drives and harvest the magnets?] If you've ever toyed with one of those neodymium magnets you know that the size-to-strength ratio is incredible. If the bike computer transmitter simply needed a stronger magnet, the hard drive component would likely provide a transmission of length of, say, from here to the moon.

I tested my theory by removing the transmitter from the fork, and waving the hard drive magnet over it while standing a couple of feet from the main unit. Sure enough, the unit immediately displayed speed. All I had to do was figure out how to mount the magnet on the spokes, reattach the transmitter to the fork, and get the two aligned.

That actually proved to be a pretty simple task (and if you've followed my DIY projects, you know how truly amazing that statement is). The magnet's mounting holes were exactly in the right place to affix it to two spokes using thin zip ties. In addition, the strength of the magnet meant that the transmitter's alignment didn't have to be as precise as in the past, so that was easily accomplished. Here's what the final installation looks like (I've highlighted the magnet and transmitter in yellow to make them easier to discern).

Hard drive magnet mounted to front wheel of bicycle

Now, if this was a race bike, this would be a really stupid thing to do. The new magnet is quite heavy, and the last place you want to add weight on a bicycle is the wheel. But this wheel by itself already weighs almost as much as some entire bikes - only a slight exaggeration - so the additional rolling weight is just not an issue. The only thing I worry about now is whether we'll be picking up stray pieces of metal from the side of the road as we cycle along...you know, things like old car wheels, anvils, or lengths of discarded rebar.

The morals of this story are twofold. One, there's always a solution if you can get creative enough. And (b), always tear up your old hard drives and save the spare parts.

In the interest of full disclosure, I admit that I haven't actually tested this setup to see if the accuracy of the computer has been affected. After our next ride, I'll compare the distance reading to that of the rear computer (and probably also to my Map My Ride phone app) to see if this really was a workable solution.
Three years ago, I blogged about the theoretical consequences of the construction of a proposed 58-story office tower in downtown Midland. I was specifically concerned about the impact on the City of Midland's logo, which features the city's skyline, and I literally illustrated that impact by creating a tongue-in-cheek parody logo.

The post garnered exactly one comment - which was probably more than it merited, to be honest - and I never gave it a second thought. Until yesterday, that is, when I received an email from the city's public information office. Here's an excerpt from that email:
A couple of years ago you had made a parodied version of our logo in relation to the proposed Energy Tower development. It was a pretty funny post at the time, but I am still dealing to this day with people using the tongue-in-cheek Energy Tower version of the logo to represent us. The hospital literally just put out a joint release with that logo on it! I didn't think much of it originally - just chuckled and let the reporters who used it for their stories know that they shouldn't be pulling our logo from Google image search, and then I waited and hoped for it to fall down in SEO results. However, since it's still an ongoing issue (3 years later), is there any way that you could maybe change the meta data of the file so that it no longer contains the phrase "City of Midland logo," as it currently does in the file name and description? It's mostly frustrating that people can't tell it's a fake, but because it has a file name that appears to represent it as our logo, I was hoping that you might be willing to help us possibly ensure that the correct logo is given more priority in a Google image search of "City of Midland logo."
Well, I did what any fiercely-independent American blogger would do when confronted by The Man about something I created: I folded like a cheap suit.

The first thing I did was hop over to Google and did an image search for "city of midland texas logo." Sure enough...mine lands in the second spot, but still behind the city's official graphic. Why someone would pick the one I created over the real one, which is much higher quality, is beyond me.

Nevertheless, I immediately renamed the parody logo and changed the alt tag in the HTML to completely remove any association with the City of Midland that Google (or other search engines) might try to make based on the coding of the website. In hindsight, I should have done that to begin with, but in keeping with the title of the post, the unintended consequences sneaked up on me.

I appreciate that the city didn't ask me to completely remove the image and post (I'm not sure of the legal implications surrounding this issue), and given the reasonable nature of their request, I was more than happy to cooperate.

I'm not willing to completely shoulder the mea culpa all by my lonesome, though. Anyone who pulls a logo from an image search without checking the source - or in this case, without even looking closely at what they're grabbing - is not going to garner much sympathy from me if the image turns out to be, well, you know - a lame parody.

Unintended consequences. They're everywhere.