Archive for November, 2008

waterIt’s not for nothing that there’s more dirt than water in that cover photo. Last year, the year before I got here, was a record good water year on Texas rivers, a long wet spring. This year, substantially less so. This year, the year after I left, was the best canoeing season in western Montana in years. It feels like god’s yanking my timing chain.

I’m about halfway through the book, which is new, and endlessly fascinating to me. It’s where I learned after years during which I should have known that the Trinity River sucks waste from Dallas and Houston, two of the largest metro areas in the whole country (living in Houston you’d never notice the Trinity’s backwater presence near town), and is Houston’s primary drinking water supply (I would have guessed Lake Houston), and feeds into Galveston Bay, which, despite being positioned at the ass end of more than 5 million sausage-stuffed Texans, is one of the most productive fisheries in the country (which gives me no confidence in Galveston Bay oysters).

I paddled a 10-mile stretch of the Trinity today, south of Dallas, past downtown and into wooded floodplain lowland euphemistically called the Great Trinity Forest, with a freelance writer named Ian. This isn’t an Austin-dissing-Dallas sort of thing, but the Great Trinity Forest just isn’t all that great. To the untrained eye, it looks a lot like a bunch of trash trees tilting in the mud around an occasionally stinking ribbon of styrofoam-strewn brown water.

The sun shone for about three minutes when we put the boat in the water, but otherwise it was gray and hat-chilly.

The Trinity is not one of the Texas Rivers you hear recreationists talk about, or environmentalists, much. The Trinity has already been fucked up a long time. The section we canoed plays a role in a perpetually pursued revitalization proposal, the defining characteristic of which, characteristically, is a series of bridges.

imgp0374Worth doing, though. Saw three beavers. A big hawk. A floating dead turtle. An F-150. Chased two big blue herons downstream. Any day on the water is a good day, right?

Then when we took out under the Loop 12 bridge, where there’s a muddy concrete boat ramp, there were the two Latino dudes fully bagged out in gangsta gear, watching us drag the blue boat up the steep concrete side slope to avoid having to lug it up the slick mud ramp. I don’t know why but I didn’t think anything of it. They were standing at the edge of the slope over a box of bottled Coronas. Why not?

We said hey, stood there talking to them for a good three/four minutes. Then a black dude got out of the truck he’d parked at the top of the ramp, behind us. Everybody wanted to know where we’d come from, what was out there. They were standing there in their shiny jackets and huge hoods and me and Ian were standing there in fleece and Cloudveil and I knew it probably looked a little unlikely, if I was looking at it from a distance, but it didn’t feel strange at all, up close.

The gangsta kid who was maybe the alpha asked more than twice, looking upstream, “where does it go?” That threw me because I’m used to thinking that it, the river, the water, goes downstream. He was thinking of it more like something that connects one thing to another. It goes a lot of places, up into a maze of forks and reservoirs. I don’t know.

We said so, cool, so long and loaded up and drove away, and halfway through the loading up, when the speedy-looking white woman in another truck pulled up and asked where we’d come from, I noticed that the gangstas had gotten in a black truck and driven back out the bullhead service road toward the highway frontage, where, on our way out, I noticed them pulled over to the side behind a small berm, just waiting imgp0395for us to leave, and it suddenly became clear to me that we had merrily paddled right down that shit-sewer smack into the middle of the local dealer’s dead-end rendezvous, dudes were probably armed, and neither Ian nor I’d had a clue. That probably could have turned out worse.

Yeah, and there was this presumably holey boat.

More pictures here. FAIR WARNING: It’s an ugly damn river.

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darkspacesTwo somewhat unlikely facts that I suspect make me slightly less than fully human, but oh-damn-well: I have never broken a bone (unless maybe a toe bone that you never know for sure and can’t really do anything about anyhow), and I have never spent a night in jail.

Knock on wood.

Read my Missoula Independent review of Dark Spaces, Montana’s Historic Penitentiary at Deer Lodge.

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“Try Van Loc,” Red Meat Brad suggested in an e-mail. “Although I can’t make any recommendations other than the Tofu in Clay Pot, because I’m in so love with it, with mushrooms in a peppery broth. That’s all I ever order.”

Brad is a red meat kind of guy. He fears no grease and not only revels in all manner of low-grade mystery meat, but also seems to enjoy holding these predilections in the faces of food snobs. 

Brad is the anti-food snob. He believes that the highest quality Mexican food is made of the lowest-grade ingredients. I’ve seen him sneer at vegans, mock vegetables and generally relish his contrast to my healthy, elitist culinary views. I’d have thought the Pope would sooner make a porn movie before Brad would eat tofu, much less gush about it with such touchy-feely nostalgia.”

Thus was I queasily pleased a few weeks back to find myself not just the editor but the subject of my friend Ari LeVaux’s syndicated weekly food column. I obviously didn’t edit my e-mail to Ari.

skilletAri and I once had a Chicken Fried Steak Off in my orange kitchen in Missoula. I basically followed the recipe in Skillet Cooking, at left, which I’d eagerly snaked from the slush pile of the Missoula Independent, with an extra touch of advice from my mom. My batter, my meat, and my fry bath were exceptional. My gravy was dismal. Ari didn’t even try gravy, that I recall. He chicken-fried elk and venison medallions, and he used Japanese panko flakes instead of egg batter. His were good, but they were no kind of chicken fried steak.

I just spent Sunday with my grandmother in Tyler. Granny is famous, to me at least, for once managing to feed me five kinds of meat in a single 2-day weekend. You don’t believe me I can tell.  Steak. Deep-fried frozen chicken “strips.” Baked ham. Fried large-mouth bass. Venison stew. Cow, chicken, pig, fish, deer. Plus sausage and bacon for breakfast of course.

Ham was my absolute favorite food growing up. I like bacon salt in my Bloody Mary. 

Granny doesn’t cook much anymore. We went out for shrimp Saturday night. Sunday she made fried eggs and sausage in a little clamshell counter grill and baked refrigerator biscuits. For lunch we made Hamburger Helper with ground venison. It was “bacon cheeseburger” flavor and it came with a “cheese sauce” consisting of a bag of powder and a quarter-cup of milk which was disgusting and I threw it away. I used to be able to eat that kind of stuff easy, but I hardly can anymore.  She heated up a few slices of prepackaged cooler-section brisket as a side.

When I mentioned how much I’d enjoyed those fried shrimp — fried shrimp having marginally supplanted my love of ham as an “adult” — Granny offered to send me home with a high-quality home-kitchen deep fryer. Granny is always sending me home with shit. I do not need a high-quality home-kitchen deep fryer, and I’m sure I’ll use it once and no more, but Granny is getting up there, and I can’t imagine worrying any more knowing there’s no longer a high-quality home-kitchen vat of boiling oil in Granny’s house.

So I took it. It seems inevitably greasy. I have a small kitchen. On a shelf it goes.

For Christmas, Granny tells me, I’m getting a deer. A whole deer, processed. The aunt and uncle and cousins hunt, with bows, in east Texas, and they are generating too much meat, and Granny can’t chew that well anymore, and so I am getting my very own deer.

I’m going to deep fry at least part of it and have it with beer and ranch dressing.

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This is overdue: Studs Terkel died Nov. 1. My connection was down or I would have blogged about it then.

Studs Terkel wouldn’t have had much use for that excuse. One of his most prominent tools of the trade was a tape recorder — a reasonably new technology when he began using them as aids in the oral histories at the studsroot of some of his best books. Terkel was about my age then, in the early 1950s, and in his 2007 memoir Touch and Go he writes about his early technophobic fumbling with the machine as a humanizing prop that encouraged interview subjects to sympathize with him, opening up under the rules of a different dynamic. I liked hearing that bit. It sounded right.

He was 96, and his biography is insanely full, so it’s hard to get all bent out of shape about the terrible unfairness of death. He was from and thoroughly of Chicago, home of Carl Sandburg, another activist/poet of sorts, and of the new president, for that matter. I don’t think it’s presumptuous to think he would have liked to have seen his country yesterday

I read Working and Hard Times sometime in high school. I must have gone through a phase, because my sister turkelsig1remembered, and last year when she happened to pass by a Studs Terkel reading in Atlanta, she picked this up and had him sign it for me. It may be the only book she’s ever given me. Terkel wrote “peace”.

I think if you had to make a list of the 25 most important people of the 20th century, you’d have to consider putting Studs Terkel on it. He’s on mine. I admire the hell out of him.

Curiosity: Studs Terkel, who I never met, reminds me quite a bit, in type, of my friend Andy Nelson, who drank himself to death a couple of years ago. I’m sure Andy knew all about Studs. And I’m sure Studs knew all about drinking.

Oddity: Because I grew up aspirationally middle-class, my parents owned a few acres of weekend recreation land on a reservoir near Houston during most of my youth. Because my parents — mostly my dad, really — was uncomfortable with his aspirations, he named the place “Hard Times.” I’m pretty sure the land was named before Terkel’s book came out. Maybe dad was thinking of the Dickens. Maybe he was just playin po. He eventually lost it in a bankruptcy, so maybe he wasn’t just playing.

Trivia: Touch and Go is also the name of a Chicago-based record label that put out a bunch of cool stuff by the Butthole Surfers and Jesus Lizard and a lot of touring loud rock bands I used to see at Emo’s in Houston, as per below:



I believe Studs was too much the jazz man to much appreciate most Touch and Go bands, but I bet he would have checked them out. I bet he did.

“Curiosity never killed this cat,” he was known to say, and that sounds right to me too.

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englishmajorJim Harrison’s English major teaches school for a while and then becomes a farmer and then becomes a divorced farmer with no land (thanks, ex-wifey) and then becomes an old guy driving around the country trying to figure out what to do with his life while renaming all the American states and more than a few of the birds.

The English major that is me (class of 1990) never had the good sense to get into farming, and renaming the states, to be honest, sounds like a time-killer on the way to revelations unrung. Take it from someone who knows how to kill time on the way to revelations unrung.

I sure do enjoy Jim Harrison, though. One of my editors recently asked me if he was the only American writer I ever reviewed positively. I don’t think that’s strictly anywhere near true, but it sure does make me stop and think.

My review of The English Major came out in the Houston Chronicle a few days ago. You can read it here.

My review of Harrison’s The Summer He Didn’t Die came out in the Missoula Independent in 2005. You can read that here.

P.S. A note on the covers: Harrison’s covers are almost always paintings by Livingston, Montana artist and Harrison running buddy Russell Chatham, as per the cover above, which is the copy the publisher sent me for review.

51owuyyzznl_sl500_aa240_(An aside: Chatham has his own arty publishing house, Clark City Press, which has salvaged some fine old out-of-print works, and savaged at least one contemporary novel with its too-fussy (and yet not fussy enough) attentions.)

But the copy of the The English Major that Amazon is selling doesn’t have my cover. It’s got this half-assed departure from form at right. Not that it has anything apparent to do with the book’s subject matter, but I’m glad I’ve got the original first edition. Maybe it’ll be collectible someday.

P.P.S. If you’ve never heard Harrison speak, and you’re laboring under the prose-suggested impression that he’s some sort of latter-day Hemingway tough guy, do yourself a favor and listen to this Scott Carrier interview (linked at the bottom of Harrison’s Wikipedia page). It’s a treat, a walk along the Yellowstone River with a sweet old man who, since the passing of Kurt Vonnegut, has probably inherited the mantle of World’s Greatest Grandpa.

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