Thanksgiving, 2015

“Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of a passionate intensity.”
— from “The Second Coming”, by William Butler Yeats

©  2014, 2015 By Bob Litton

NOTE TO READERS: Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday for reasons that will appear in the essay below. This Thanksgiving, however, world and national events have rendered me doubtful if there really is anything left to be thankful for. I have lost faith in humanity — in much of it anyway. That’s why the lines above from Yeats’ prophetic poem keep popping up in my mind.
     Still, I have a few faithful readers here and around the world, and I have not published anything in nearly two weeks. Oh, I have my judgments on current events; but they have all been uttered quite eloquently, if sporadically, by others in the media. I don’t want to weary you with a refrain of the same.
     I looked through my files for something a bit more comforting to rehash, and I located the column I wrote for The Monahans News back in 1979 and re-published on this blog last year. It contains all the sentiments I still feel about Thanksgiving, if ever so faintly.
     I am banking on the assumption that some of you were not reading this blog last year; so, for you at least, it will be fresh reading. I hope my disposition will improve soon, for I do have a couple of different topics to write about; both of them, however, will take some heavy-duty reading and compilation. And I just am not in the mood for that. For now, though, enjoy the post below!

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Some things you’re better off not looking at too closely. One of them is Thanksgiving.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re Christian, Jew, Muslim, or pagan. How can you count your “blessings” without their being contrasted with somebody else’s “lacks”? If you are blessed, are they therefore condemned?

How can we keep from choking on our turkey when we know people are starving here and across the world? Still, it is not, strictly speaking, our fault. We have tried to get food to war-torn areas as well as to places where natural disasters have rendered people homeless and even isolated. Even to share our “bounty” has sometimes become such a problem as to require diplomats, as was the case in Cambodia in 1979, when I published the original version of this essay.

And yet I wouldn’t have Thanksgiving not be. It has always been my favorite holiday — based on a religious origin yet not as heavily saccharine as Christmas, nor as ridiculously extended.

Many of us will be taking off to distant places (if we can afford the gasoline or plane tickets) in order to spend a few days with our relatives, whom we may not have seen for a year or more.

We’ll all disappear into warm houses and have a cordial meal. We’ll look at photos and watch three or four football games. If we’re wise and not too lazy, though, we’ll walk a few times around the park to aid digestion before we bury ourselves in those easy chairs.

That’s what I like about Thanksgiving, getting all muffled up with only the face exposed to get a red nose from the frosty air. It will be dusk, with just enough daylight to create an orange-red horizon as though there were a forest fire going on over the nearby hill.

The trees, without a single leaf left, will lose their definition as we observe them from trunks to twigs, and they become a mousy gray mass at the top, where they meet the golden and purple sky.

All the field of grass will be brown and quiet, not a breath of breeze to disturb it. But no, a rabbit just jumped out of a clump of bushes we were passing and darted in a triangular pattern into another hedge.

Down the road a ways, some little boys will be playing football in the park, in their imaginations identifying with their NFL heroes of the time. As they fall and roll they collect bits of the brown grass and dead leaves on their coats and stocking caps.

The next day we can return to the concerns of Iraq and our own stumbling democratic discourse. Just for this day it is better to forget it all and to lose one’s self in a revery of the scene of frost and trees and boys playing. That’s what I can be thankful for.


NOTE: Due to historical changes since this essay’s first version was published in the Monahans News (Nov. 22, 1979), I have altered its content so much as to render it almost a different writing.
— BL


Beauty in Ordinary Things


One of the fleeting, annual days of beauty at my apartment complex. Photo: Courtesy of Chris Ruggia.

© 2015 By Bob Litton

“You find the beauty in ordinary things. Do not lose this ability.”
                                                 — Note from a fortune cookie

I love serendipity. It has played such a prominent role in my adult life that I have granted it mystical powers, for the things I find while looking for something else have often spoken eloquently to my mind, my heart, my soul. Sometimes the messages have not been as positive as the epigraph above: sometimes they have been melancholy, but more often they have indeed been enlightening and even funny.

That cookie fortune, for instance, I came upon serendipitously just a few days ago while clearing my computer table of the mass of larger papers on it. Of course, I obtained the fortune months ago when I ate lunch at a local Chinese restaurant. I saved it for some reason I have forgotten; I would surmise, however, that I liked its assessment of me and the sentiment attending that assessment. Even the imperative sentence that follows is appreciable: it both exposes the fragility of the attuneness and enjoins me to nurture it. Not the sort of “fortune” I expect to find in such cookies; it does not predict anything.

So, how does that relate to the above photo of leaves? Well, the more obvious connection should not be difficult, dear reader, for you to perceive. Most people, I believe, look forward to the few weeks when the crisp air causes the leaves of the many trees to change from green to russet, gold, yellow, maroon, brown and even combinations of those colors within the same leaf. The last mentioned aspect is typical of the non-bearing mulberry trees on my apartment’s campus. I have been fascinated and amused by the color combinations in some of the leaves on the sidewalk and the driveway: one leaf, for instance, was a perfect imitation of a soldier’s camouflaged field jacket — tan and olive; another leaf was yellow with small brown dots, almost uniform in size and shape, that reminded me of a ladybug.  I picked up four of the leaves the other day and laid them on my computer desk, where I am admiring them now even as they curl with dryness.

I have always enjoyed the color changes of autumn, but it seems that only this year have they meant so much to me that I practically adore them. This sudden acuteness to the sight of leaves is akin, I believe, to the vividness that the sounds of the acorns falling and rolling down my roof revealed; remember that I wrote about the acorns a few blog posts ago (Oct. 3). All the senses participate in this miracle of perception.

You remember, don’t you, Karen Carpenter’s song “Where Do I go from here?”? The early lines are:

Autumn days lying on a bed of leaves
Watching clouds up through the trees
You said our love was more than time.
It’s colder now;
The trees are bare and nights are long;
I can’t get warm since you’ve been gone….

Well, without the evocative music — not to mention Karen’s voice — some of the point I wish to make loses some of its emphasis. Those words remind me of my youthful days in Dallas, during the early winter, when the skies were a solid gray, with sagging clouds promising snow. The darkness of such a day was paralleled by the stillness of it. Someone unattuned to the fall season might imagine that such a scene would be depressing, but it did not strike me that way; as long as there was not a strong, cold wind I felt comfort in that setting. Now that the seasons are vanishing, the romance has diminished also.

Another old song — from ancient days when lyricists actually said something worth paying attention to in their lines — is “Autumn Leaves”, one of Andy Williams’ first hits:

The falling leaves drift by the window
The autumn leaves of red and gold.
I see your lips, the summer kisses,
The sun-burned hands I used to hold.

Since you went away the days grow long
And soon I’ll hear old winter’s song,
But I miss you most of all my darling
When autumn leaves start to fall.

Now, I will concede that these two songs do reflect melancholy, but it is a melancholy of gentle love…of the yearning for coziness which only two bodies hugging each other can provide…which a fireplace cannot.

We also view the color-changing and falling leaves as symbolic of the transiency of Life itself. The curse in the fruit of Eden’s tree is not just new awareness of nakedness and fear; it also includes more momentously the anticipation of death. While fore-knowledge of death is not restricted to humans, we do seem to have a more lifelong curiosity and occasional fear of it; perhaps what sets our knowledge of death apart from that of other creatures is that we can visualize it, to an extent, as pre-existing within ourselves.

But then, after the leaves have been swept away and a few snowfalls have bonneted the bare limbs for a few months, the buds of new leaves appear. I wonder how many people, like me, are a bit disconcerted by this cycling from chartreuse and forest greens to a multitude of fiery tones. And then their disappearance. Yes, it is a topsy-turvy world where winter symbolizes our giving up the ghost, and then the spring interrupts our acceptance with a “Hey, hold on there! Don’t give up just yet! There is more to this show!”

And so, we start all over again…a bit surprised, a bit amused, a bit perplexed.


To add a little seasoning to the above essay, readers, you might want to check out the YouTube presentations of the two songs I mentioned. Try the URL’s below:

“Where Do I Go From Here?”  (Karen Carpenter)

“Autumn Leaves” (Andy Williams)


Vernon The Hustler

Stanley Vernon Litton May 15, 1928 - January 16, 2011

Stanley Vernon Litton May 15, 1928 – January 16, 2011

NOTE TO READER: Back in October 2014, I started what I called a “triptych” of my two brothers and myself. Logically enough, I began with the eldest of us three — Vernon. Not long after I had finished the first two mini-bios, I noticed a sudden spurt in “visitors” to my blog, most of whom were reading the bio below about Vernon; a smaller but still significant number of people had visited the post I had written about my other brother, Elbert.

I was pissed off, not because few had checked out my own bio and only slightly more had read Elbert’s, but because Vernon’s spike was so large — 40 views. Also, I could discern by the small amount of available evidence that the majority of those interested in Vernon’s story were, like him, pool hustlers and bullies. I pulled the Vernon post from my blog and filed it elsewhere.

Since that time I have lamented the absence of one part of my triptych and wondered if my motive had not been simply jealousy. I hated to see someone who had brought so much wrong into my life get so much attention in his death. But I will hasten to add here that Vernon did good things for me as well as bad things to me; in purely materialistic terms, I guess the good and the bad balance each other. That is the reason I am re-blogging “Vernon The Hustler” today. In spite of his faults, Vernon was, I believe, possibly the most interesting guy in Dallas anyone of our generation could have known.

(For the mini-bios of Elbert and me, check out the posts for November 2 and 9 of 2014.)

©2014 By Bob Litton

PROLOGUE:  Fifteen years ago I was sitting at the breakfast room table in my sister-in-law’s Dallas home. My brother Vernon, the eldest of us three male siblings, sat facing me on the other side of the small table. Our conversation about cars was interrupted when Vernon’s wife answered the door’s chimes and returned, leading in an acquaintance, a scion of one of the oldest families in the area and a member of the school board. He sat on a nearby couch, looked at Vernon and me with a curious grin, and said apropos of nothing, “Ah, the Brothers Karamazov!”

I had read  Dostoevsky’s work of that title too many years previously to recall much of it at the moment, but I did understand, I believed, the point of his allusion; for there was some correlation between us Litton boys and  the three sons  of Fyodor Karamazov, a sly buffoon and an indifferent father  in Dostoevsky’s philosophical novel. Fyodor’s off-handed off-spring, who grow to manhood almost entirely separately, are Dimitri, a sensualist and profligate; Ivan, an alienated rationalist; and Alyosha, a spiritually-inclined monastic novice, whose Elder sends him into the world to learn to cope with its seediness. Roughly considered, the parallel had its accuracies, just not totally, of course. The reader of this essay and of a future one about my other brother, Elbert, can determine for himself/herself if our visitor’s comparison was justified. I do not intend to write a similar mini-biography about myself; this whole blog series has been mostly about me; enough is enough.

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One of the funniest ironies I ever heard in my life was that Vernon, the elder of my two brothers, was birthed on a pool table in Mexico…and that he grew up to become the most notorious pool hustler in Dallas. He gained that reputation by hustling nightly at the Cotton Bowling Palace.

I am not certain now who related to me the story of Vernon’s strange nativity: it might have been my other brother, Elbert; or it might have been Vernon’s wife, Loretta. It definitely was not Vernon or either of my parents. The surprise birthing reportedly occurred during our parents’ shopping excursion to Matamoros, Mexico, in May of 1928. (At the time, they resided in the hamlet of Combes, Texas, a short drive north of the Rio Grande.) Pappy and Mother were in a hotel in Matamoros when labor activity began. For whatever medical reason, a hard surface, not a bed mattress, was needed; so whoever attended Mother used a pool table there in the hotel. I wish now that either of my parents had told me of this incident; I could have elicited more details. I wonder if a birth certificate or its Mexican equivalent was ever completed. Considering what the future held in store for Stanley Vernon Litton, I find the anecdote hilariously prophetic.

There are many basic questions I never asked any of my family members, one of which was how my parents decided on their children’s names. My own name “Robert Carl…” I could plausibly surmise because I had one maternal uncle named Robert. And another of Mother’s brothers was named Carl Lee… (their father was called Carl Anton….). Pappy had an older brother named Elbert, and Pappy’s own middle name was Barnett (I have no idea where that originated). But “Stanley Vernon”? Where did that come from? Certainly not from any of our relatives. Loretta told me recently, by the way, Vernon hated the name “Stanley”. I don’t understand that; it seems like a perfectly masculine, connotation-free name to me. When I ponder all the instances when I failed to make such pertinent inquiries, I wonder if I really was a born-journalist or not.

Pappy severely abused Vernon at least once, as my brother related to me at least three times. (Vernon had poor memory concerning matters about which he had already informed me.) The one episode he so often recounted occurred before I existed. Vernon said that our sister, Frances Vivian, whom I never knew because she died nearly two years before I was born, had accidentally locked the door to an outhouse and Pappy yelled at her, maybe even struck her. Vernon spoke up, screaming, “Daddy, don’t hurt her. She didn’t mean to do it.” Thereupon, Vernon recalled, Pappy kicked him in the chin. The first time Vernon related that anecdote to me, when we were both middle-aged, I pondered the possibility of that scene, and responded, “Pappy never hit or whipped me. To me, he wasn’t a bad daddy, just a no-daddy, since he was seldom around.” But Mother’s youngest sister Mary buttressed Vernon’s story a couple of years ago when she told me, “Bill Litton was a brutal husband and a brutal father. That’s why Vernon started lifting weights, because he wasn’t going to let Bill do that to him ever again.” (“Bill” was a moniker Pappy — whose actual name was “Haywood Barnett…” — picked up somewhere. That is another of the strange family facts for which I never sought an explanation.)

Vernon and Barnett

Vernon and Pappy lifting the exercise weight my big brother made for himself out of a steel bar and concrete. It is hard to imagine, from this photo, that Vernon was using the barbell to make himself strong enough to whip Pappy.

Vernon did in fact take up weight-lifting as a quasi-hobby; he did it too much for it to be classified as an “exercise routine”. Weight-lifting became an art form for him, almost a religion. Initially, taking into account that our family was borderline-poor, Vernon made his own barbell by pouring concrete into two large tin cans and sticking a steel bar between them. I have a small photo of Vernon and Pappy holding a barbell — one end held in the air by a teenaged Vernon and the other resting on Pappy’s head. That photo is suffused with a tint of irony. Vernon used to stand in front of the dressing table mirror and flex his arms, admiring his developing biceps, much as I would stand there whisking a cap pistol out of my scabbard, imagining myself to be Gene Autry.

Another of Vernon’s favorite activities was motorcycle riding, maintenance and, eventually, sales. In his later years especially, he had a motorcycle retail store out near the White Rock Lake spillway in Dallas, where he sold not just the vehicles but accessories as well. However, considering the paucity of walk-in customers, I believed that shop was just a cover for his sports bookmaking avocation. Still, he was pretty busy trading in luxury cars and high-end recreational vehicles.

Maryann and Vernon

Vernon and his first wife, Mary Ann, in 1955

Ironically, that motorcycle shop was positioned almost exactly where Vernon had a serious accident about three decades earlier. He was taking me to the junior high school. We were eastbound on Garland Road which lay beside the spillway. Suddenly a woman in a car darted out in front us from a side road. Vernon did not want to stop suddenly, for that might have thrown us into a spin and no telling how much harm. He slowed down as carefully as he could so that we were going only fast enough to keep upright: I was even able to dismount on my feet before the impact. Vernon would have been unhurt, too, except when the cycle overturned, the kick-starter gouged the calf of his left leg. Vernon cried out through excruciating pain, “Bobby, get this damn thing off me!” I lifted the cycle off him, and somebody in the crowd that had gathered went to a nearby business to phone for an ambulance.

Both of my brothers garnered reputations as ruffians in their teens and twenties, but Vernon was the one who made a regular avocation of it. He was, I have been told by others, a founding member of a neighborhood gang called the “Lakewood Rats”. I have no notion what those guys did; I didn’t even know they had existed as a gang until two decades after they had disbanded. It was, I imagine, just a way for a group of males, with not much else other than muscles, to explore their own identities. However, one day when I was in high school, I was walking down the sidewalk of Abrams Road, right in the middle of Lakewood, when I saw Vernon crossing the street with about a dozen fellows following him toward a parking lot behind a building that abutted the country club’s golf course, and I assumed they were seeking a secluded spot where Vernon and one of the others could engage in a fist fight. Also, after joining the Coast Guard in his late teen years, Vernon punched out a non-com officer; and, as the officer fell, his head struck a pipe, killing him. My brother spent two years in a federal prison in Louisiana for manslaughter.

As for my personal relations with Vernon, they never were very close, for I usually found it difficult to have a relaxed conversation with him. He would always approach our talks as contests of will rather than as exchanges of experiences and knowledge. You see, he had a developed case of the alpha male syndrome. He felt that he always had to be right; he could not stand even good-natured ripostes. It was usually easier just to listen to him or to leave him. However, it was not for that reason that there were extended gaps between our times together; there were several other conditions that kept us often separated, but they mostly did not have anything to do with our affections toward one another; so I won’t take up space with them here. And, weirdly, it wasn’t until I was into my middle years that I realized that Vernon’s problem was the alpha male syndrome: He always had to be the top dog, with his paw on top of everybody’s head.

On a couple of occasions Vernon embarrassed me in front of my friends in the coffee shop: once when he reacted violently to my disagreeing with him about what I should do with my wrecked car, and once when he was declaring to some people at another table that I had a college degree but didn’t know how to do anything. (While there was much truth in that, it wasn’t necessary to loudly proclaim it as he did.) Also, he tried — and to a certain extent succeeded in — cheating me and Elbert out of our inheritances. And (this is the rottenest instance of all) he either sold or gave away the books I had stored in one of eight boxes filled with my little library, some of which were irreplaceable and all of which were invaluable to me, only because he needed a cardboard box in which to store some car parts.

He would get almost insane with rage when he perceived me as saying something that was intellectual: “I’m smarter than you are Bobby, even if I didn’t finish high school.” Eventually, though, near the end of his life, he softened and allowed, “You’re more intelligent than I am, Bobby.” And all through those years I never really cared whether my brothers were more intelligent than I; they both, having had to learn to live on the streets at very early ages with little formal education to arm them, had developed high levels of what are commonly called “street smarts” — and that’s what it takes to really survive in this world, if simply surviving is what is most important to you.

On the other hand, Vernon paid my $1,500 fine after I had pleaded nolo contendere to driving while intoxicated. He helped me out with much smaller amounts on several other occasions. Also, he helped me change residence twice; and I stayed in his wife’s home for over a year during a financially embarrassing time in my life. And I believe, although there is no way to prove it, that being the little brother of Vernon and Elbert Litton protected me from no telling how many bullies at school. So, you see, Vernon did bad things to me and good things for me, a situation which was archetypically ambiguous.

On a couple of occasions since Vernon’s death, my sister-in-law has described him as “mean”. That is a concomitant of his alpha maleness, I believe. He had developed an underlying mean streak, combined with an almost funny sentimentality, from childhood on. He liked to keep dogs, particularly pit bull terriers, as pets; and he would encourage the development of their natural tendency to threaten, if not fight. I don’t believe he ever put his dogs into fighting pits; he didn’t want them to be hurt; it was just that, if anybody else had mean pit bulls, he wanted his own to be meaner, at least potentially.

Vernon was mated with Loretta for dozens of years, yet I couldn’t tell if he actually loved her. He admired her, sure, and bragged about how nice she was; but I never saw him embrace or kiss her. Also, on two occasions he said to me, on the phone, “Bobby, I love you.” I didn’t respond to those words; I just paused a few seconds and then changed the subject. I had no idea what “love” meant to him, and I wasn’t sure what love meant to me either. Nor did I want to ask him to define it for me, for I suspected that my invitation to a colloquy would end up in a shouting match.

One day, while Vernon and I were sitting on the couch in Loretta’s living room watching a movie on cable TV, Vernon asked me, “What is your favorite movie, Bobby?”

That question took me by surprise; I needed time to think about it, but I rushed myself. “Jeez, Vernon, I have several favorite movies. I’ve never taken time to determine which I liked best. It kind of depends on the genre and what mental space I was in when I saw them.”

“Mine is My Fair Lady,” Vernon calmly declared.

“Well, I’ll be, Vernon! That is certainly one of my favorites, too. How odd that it is your favorite!”

I would have thought his favorite would be Rocky.

There is no way to fully understand people, especially one’s own family…when they are self-contradictory and dysfunctional.


Vernon Litton as he liked to view himself circa 1954. The pit bull dog Vernon has on a leash was named “Killer”. I don’t recognize the while pit bull. Vernon had a white pit bull named “Pepper”, which was Killer’s sire, but Pepper was slightly larger than Killer, so the dog above could not be he…unless Killer “took him down a notch or two”.


POST SCRIPT:  I intend to write and post a mini-bio of my other brother, Elbert, in the near future…not for a little while, however. I just do not think it would be wise to publish so much family history very close together. The bios need to be near enough, though, for readers to readily gauge how much the Litton brothers and the Karamazov brothers are similar and how much they are different. Stay tuned!

A Bit Of Prowling About

Text: Bob Litton
Photo: Courtesy of Mike Howard

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In contrast with my self-description as a flaneur, I seldom go out at night anymore. Most of my sauntering about town is done during the morning and late afternoon.

One recent evening, though, I roused myself to venture to a local venue called “Brown Dog Gardens” where native plants and large crystal rocks are sold, and where small social fetes are sometimes conducted. The reason for my outing was that my friend Chris Ruggia and the two women who have joined him in a group they have dubbed “The Swifts” were slated to hold their first “gig” at BDG.

The crowd wasn’t huge — only twenty to thirty persons, several of whom I hadn’t seen since I quit the night-time bar scene a few years ago — but they comfortably filled up the available area. Most of the folks stood, sipping their wine or water and supping on chili con queso; but a half dozen folding chairs were there, and I seated myself on one near the small stage.

Nearly a year ago, Chris (at my request) brought his guitar over to my apartment and sang a song. I can’t recall which one, but it was an old pop song or maybe a folk song…one I knew. His voice at that time was soft and seemingly hesitant, and his playing appeared the faltering effort of a new guitar student. The other night, however, he came on strong vocally during the three numbers in which he was the singer. His fingering on the strings was likewise much more professional, it seemed to me. In one rendition, especially, he reminded me of Paul Simon doing one of his more energetic vocals. The heavy-set woman did most of the singing — very powerful lungs.

I really enjoyed the performance, which extended for only about an hour, beginning at 6 p.m., with a brief break. I guess they played and sang a total of approximately twelve songs, none of which was recognizable to me. The genres were a mixture of blue grass, American folk, and New Orleans blues. Chris told me this morning that one song was a slightly modified version of Elvis Costello’s “Blame It On Cain” (Post Punk Rock). A few others were “How Dark My Shadow’s Grown” (a contemporary blue grass borrowed from The Bad Livers), a rendition of Doc Watson’s “Lone Journey” (old time country), “Three Is A Magic Number” (an educational TV song from School House Rock), and the Depression era song “One Meatball”.

I regret that I don’t have a recorded file of any of the The Swifts’ songs to share with you, but maybe one day soon they will produce an album, and we can return for an encore.

The Swifts debut was very enjoyable! I wish them much success!

Above is a photo which one of my other acquaintances — Mike Howard, a former NYC fashion photographer — took at the musicale.


The Ultimate Texas Brags

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A Halloween decoration set up this month in the yard of a modest-size home just a few blocks from the author’s residence. (Photo: Courtesy of my ol’ fast-drivin’ buddy, Pancho Castillo, Las Cruces, NM.)

© 2015 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

NOTE TO READERS: I really wanted to wait until October 30th (the day before Halloween) before publishing a post about one of our favorite festival days. However, since I have to travel 65 miles next Monday to have another molar extracted, and 205 miles on Tuesday for a cataract operation on my left eye — the right eye was operated on last Tuesday — I realized that I will be either too busy or too tired to write this post the coming week. Of course I know that I could compose it now and hold off on publishing it until October 30th; but, as I have mentioned before, I haven’t the will-power to hold any production in my hot little hands more than a few hours. That’s just part of my horrific destiny!

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Too Big

The booklet of out-sized jokes Texas Brags was first published in 1944 and reportedly saw as many as 20 later editions.’s site indicates the book is now out of print. Written by John Randolph and illustrated by Mark Storm, Texas Brags at the time was seen purely as a joke book full of exaggerated depictions of what it was like to be a Texan and to live in Texas; it was not taken seriously by many people, not even Texans.

Now, though, the title of the booklet, as well as its tone, has been adopted by our governor for the design of the state’s official web page. It is another sample of the governor’s office’s on-going drive to lure industries from California and elsewhere. It turns my stomach.

Nonetheless, I am a Texan, and the bigness applies even to me. At the first of my time in the air force boot camp, I had to march and go to classes and chow wearing the initially issued pith helmet for an extra two weeks while the supply clerks located a fatigue cap that would fit my 7-5/8 skull.

Ever since then, finding shoes — without special-ordering them — has been an increasingly onerous task: it seems that with each additional millimeter in foot length the choices in patterns decline.

A month ago, a VA doctor ordered an elbow support pad for me. When it arrived, I could not pull it above my wrist; it was a Size Small. There were four other sizes available, according to the box my pad came in. I measured my elbow and discovered to my surprise that I would barely be able to insert my arm into the Extra Large, for my elbow’s circumference measured 33-1/2 cm, while the Extra Large was designed to fit elbows from 32 to 34 cm. But I got a replacement, and it will do.

The size problem more insistently struck home a year ago, though, when my dentist, pointing to an x-ray, said I had the largest sinuses he had ever seen.

And then, last week, when I was being prepped for the cataract surgery on my right eye, the ophthalmologist noted that the depth of that eye measured 27 mm, while the smallest depth is 21 mm, and the average is 23 mm. I asked the doctor if there is any advantage to having a large eye depth.

“There is a slight risk of a tear or a detached retina,” he replied.

“I don’t get it,” I said. “I’m not quite six feet tall, and I am not nearly as heavy as a lot of men I see, yet I hardly fit into anything. And now you tell me that even my eyeball is bigger than normal.”

“It is all a matter of proportion,” he said.

So, nothing to brag about, I concluded.

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And back we go to Halloween

Every year about this time, the media get saturated with documentaries about vampires and werewolves as well as the more academic aspects of our celebration of the dead — for instance, the contrast between Anglo-America’s treatment of Halloween and that of Hispanic-America’s. (It is a more serious event down south — “El Dia de Los Muertos” — where the natives allow themselves a more intimate relationship with the dead.) There are also the simply entertaining televised features such as Charlie Brown’s adoring the “Great Pumpkin”; and Hallmark Channel’s “The Good Witch” both frightening and enlightening a small New England town.

Last year, I published on this blog a “mood editorial” about Halloween which I had written for The Shorthorn, UT-Arlington’s student newspaper. Some of you might enjoy perusing it today at:

I haven’t much to add to that piece. I still prefer Halloween and Thanksgiving to all the other festivals in our nation. Halloween is not a holiday, i.e., the public offices and schools do not close on October 31st. And yet more money is spent during October than is spent on Christmas, New Year’s Day, or any other celebration here. That is what I have read in newspapers over the past few years, and I still find it hard to believe. To think about it for a minute, though, we buy a hell of a lot of candy during this month, and chocolate is pretty damn expensive. Then there are the costumes — rigs often designed to win contests at parties. The parties themselves are probably not cheap either; but I don’t go to any, so that is just a supposition.

When I was a child, I enjoyed the “Trick-or-Treat” part of Halloween. Since then, however, I lament the fact that “Trick-or-Treating” has become rather too dangerous; mean-hearted people have taken to slipping razor blades and poison in the sweets they parcel out to children who knock on their doors. Many communities have adopted the custom of arranging parties in public schools and community centers in lieu of letting their children roam the neighborhoods.

Even though some of my neighbors’ children still go out with the treat bags after sundown, they usually don’t visit my apartment complex, for the residents here are either elderly or not all-together in their wits…or both. In past years, I have bought a “bargain-size” bag of candy to dispense, but none of the little brats knocked on my door; so I, dreading the resultant weight gain, had to eat all the little candy bars. I don’t do that anymore: I just turn out all the lights after the sun goes down and venture off to my favorite bar.

For a Halloween “treat” I will provide you below with the URL to Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain”, a segment of Walt Disney’s 1940 film Fantasia:




The Dismal Science: Part II

©2015 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved. 

NOTE TO READERS: I am continuing my meandering journey through accumulated thoughts on business owners and their employees.
Before I go any further, I want to apologize for the “political incorrectness” scattered throughout these writings; I refer particularly to the use of masculine pronouns to represent any person of either gender. I do not intend to slight or annoy feminine readers; it is just that the “he/she” routine is awfully cumbersome and seems wasteful time-wise. I have lived most of my life during a period when the use of the masculine pronoun was acceptable as representing anyone, male or female.
Also, I have yet more to say on the general topic of economics; but I think that, after this installment, it will be good to take a break by writing about something more fun…or funny.

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The Entrepreneurs and the Investors…

My first inclination was to use “The Capitalists” for the subhead above, but that term is too exclusive while at the same time too smeared with political connotation; it has acquired an aura of bloated grandiosity. The truth is that our inherited economic system does not consist entirely of plutocrats; there are many more small-time players in the game, from the mom-and-pop grocery (which actually is pretty rare these days) to the owner of a small factory that employs, say, fifteen people. Each of them has invested significantly in their relatively minor enterprises with money from their earnings in a previous job, their savings, or with money borrowed from friends or some seed-money organization.

For years now, I have heard and read that any individual beginning a new business should have an initial financial surplus above their estimated operating expenses for two years: that surplus is what they are to live on during the start-up period. I sadly noticed that many new business people do not adopt that “rule-of-thumb” and they fail.

Another mistake many small business aspirers make—which I observe rather than read about—is that they, naturally enough, start a business related to their personal hobbies, abilities or interests, without checking around to see how many such places already exist in their area. Frequent choices of the sort are a boutique store, a flower shop, or an ethnic restaurant. A bizarre example of this mind-set is the bar-fly with a comfortable bank account who suddenly decides that, since he enjoys the company of his fellow bar-flies so much and he is tired of paying someone else to supply his beer habit for a couple of hours every day, he should open his own bar; he does this without thinking he is going to have to spend most of every day and night, seven days a week, tending to the place. Those people have done little to nothing in marketing research or deep personal evaluation before risking perhaps their life savings in a launch toward the American free enterprise dream. But I admire them for trying.

I have written before about how one of my brothers teamed up with a carpet-layer in opening their own carpet store, specializing in dropped patterns, slightly irregulars, and used carpet. The two men made up a good combination in some ways: my brother had had several years’ experience in selling used cars and possessed a knack for getting along with people and haggling, while his partner was the son of a carpet dealer/installer and was himself possibly the fastest carpet-layer in the city. They were successful for nearly twenty years, increasing their stores to three before my brother’s partner sold his half to my brother and moved to Montana.

But another reason I mention the carpet store here is to introduce what I call the “copy-cat” aspect of business: if you have a good thing going, someone will quickly imitate your process or product. During the first years, a man opened a furniture store right next door to my brother’s store. Not many months later, he, too, started selling carpet, although on a much smaller scale. One day he used red paint to draw out on the sidewalk some hooked arrows, pointing toward his door, and the words “Carpet in here”.  He was capitalizing on a premium ad placement my brother and his partner had in the weekly TV guides published by the two daily newspapers.

The same game is perceivable in the larger spheres of business. I noticed long ago how some soda pop brands, new to the market, copied the colors and even to a slight degree the labeling design of an established brand. And some lawyers make a pretty good living contesting copyright and trademark infringements, in the courts.

Despite the risks, drawbacks and villainies described above, I much respect the folks who venture their all to start up a small business. Such people — the smart, successful ones, at any rate, — are the economic backbone of our nation, of any nation. Reportedly, in spite of their small size, combined, they employ more people than any other entities in the country. The politicians claim to highly regard them, too; although, when I hear a politician call up the image of “small business” to buttress his assertions about whatever, I become annoyed by what I perceive to be the lowest kind of platitude.

At least one thing the small-business employer has in common with the industrialist: He or his managers have to deal with government record-keeping. The amount of such paperwork has purportedly increased incrementally since the early days of unionism, or rather successful unionism in my country. The business owner with employees has been appointed tax collector, safety inspector, and health insurance provider for those people working for him. Even though, being all my life a member of the proletariat, I am sympathetic to the working class (as it is so condescendingly described), I believe that perhaps too much such responsibility has been placed on the employer’s shoulders. On the other hand, a large part of the employee’s life-span as well as his individual skills are being expended on behalf of the employer’s business; his labor is his capital. The first contribution obviously is being consumed irretrievably, and the latter is vulnerable to injury and obsolescence; while the employer’s business will hopefully grow, and his investment in buildings and equipment can be depreciated on his tax return.

◊  ◊  ◊  ◊  ◊  ◊

…and now the Employees

This is going to get awfully personal, but there is no help for it. For, you see, I have never owned a business in my life, unless you insist on considering that year or so in my youth when I had a paper route or the decade I reported on a contract basis for our local radio station as self-employment or “businesses”. No, I have always seen myself as a member of the “working class”. And during my lifetime of working, I have always compared myself —my speed, productivity, effectiveness and collegiality—to my fellow workers. Such observing and measuring has naturally informed my view of the workers in general.

I discovered in my teens that I was slower, physically, than most people; it was a handicap that I never overcame, although I could to a small degree compensate for it by being diligent and detail-conscious. On a few occasions in various work places, the individual who was showing me how to do a task has been surprised, when I noticed a fault in something like a file or when a shipment had been overlooked, and said, “I didn’t notice that!” On some other jobs, such as being news editor at a country weekly, speed was not usually a priority, as long as I filled the news hole each week. But I was let go from several other jobs, such as house-painting, because of my turtle’s pace.

Sometimes, though, when I noticed some co-worker’s slap-dash efforts that often resulted in slight damage to a product or an ill-lined stroke of paint, I thought to myself, What is the point of rushing through some task if you’re probably going to have to do it all over again or it is going to look crappy to the customer?

Some of the people I have worked with, however, have been graceful and dedicated workers. But the best comment on such talent cannot come from me: it came rather from a carpet installer/salesman who described another installer as “an artist…his every move seems to flow so naturally that the carpet seems to lay itself.”

That brings up another aspect of my immature attitude toward compensated work: I thought the job was there primarily for my benefit. My satisfaction and comfortableness with it were my main concern. Only well into adulthood did it dawn on me that my job was to help my employer be successful, to make money for him. I remember my first job beyond the paper route , when I was fifteen. I worked for a few weeks for an air-conditioning contractor, my brother’s father-in-law. He paid for my lunch the first day, and I deduced from that, that employers ordinarily bought their employees’ lunch. I know, that sounds crazy, but you have to realize that I had had no prior training from my parents in work ethic or etiquette. I guess they thought that just came naturally.

Still, the benefits for workers have in fact multiplied since the unions began to win their extended battles in the 1930s. Paid holidays and health coverage eventually became virtually universal in the major industries and some smaller ones. Now the fight is on for paid maternity leave, even paternity leave. How different is that from my supposing that employers conventionally buy their workers’ lunch? Of course, mossbacks like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan dealt some heavy blows to the union movements as such; but those blows seem to have merely fractured the union organizations, the forces of labor now apparently have moved into the populace as a whole. I cannot say this with authority, but I believe that the current forces for change are the result of the rapidity of modern mass communication; it is like an ocean tidal wave awakened by a crack in the Earth’s crust. Not just the workers are joining in the push, but some of the billionaires themselves, like Warren Buffett. They recognize the force of change cannot be stopped, that they have more money than they can spend, that the needs of the workers must be recognized and tended to.

But there are other, contrary attitudes in play, too: the reactionaries.

Soon, I believe, the era of the worker will conclude. The inventors are designing robots and other types of mechanization for virtually every occupation from store greeters to accountants…even journalists now. The Associated Press is already mechanizing its facts-gathering and article-composing processes. Boy, am I glad I’m not going to be around much longer! Not many decades hence, the plutocratic industrialists will no longer see any use for other humans except as consumers; but how will people be able to consume if they have no jobs to pay for the things they consume. It will be a world of loafers and artists living on garbage out of dumpsters.

Or everything will be free, but, in such a world, there will be no joy in ownership, for such joy derives mostly from having worked to make the money to pay for something much desired. If there is no work other than punching a few keys or turning a couple of dials, then where will the sense of pride in one’s efforts reside?


The Dismal Science: A.K.A Economics .001, Part I

© 2015 By Bob Litton. All rights reserved.

Dear readers, I originally had intended to make this essay a single exposition. However, as I got into it the ideas, emotions and resultant words multiplied like the sorcerer’s apprentice’s mops, so I decided I had better break it into at least two, and possibly more, essays. I wanted to get the rocks out of my gut. As I write this preamble, I am nearly through with Part I. The composing procedure I have adopted is thus far slightly rambling; as you know, I have a tendency to write “off the top of my head”. But rest assured the substance is not fluff: I have been observing and pondering the economic scene in my homeland for many years now. O God, please help her!

I wrote in one of my newspaper columns decades ago that I have an aversion to economics, which has been dubbed “the dismal science”. But, like nearly everyone else on this globe, I cannot escape its various impacts on my life. I was thinking of excluding among the victims the Inuit in the Arctic and the forest dwellers in the Amazon jungle, but we have read recently of how climate change is melting away the tundra ice and thereby eliminating the surface on which some Inuit have their homes, and how some greedy gold, oil and farmland seekers are invading the Amazonians’ habitat; so, even those reclusive tribes are not excludable from the modern economic seine.

Over the past few years I have tried to organize in my mind the little I know (or think I know) about our capitalist economic system. I tried back in my early manhood to read a textbook designed for Economics 101 courses. I don’t think I got past the first chapter; any academic field that employs graphs and mathematical symbols is over my head. I just checked and saw that Wikisource has produced an apparently accessible English translation of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, which I will probably at least scan while working on this blog post, but I don’t want such reading to interfere much with my lifetime’s impressions.

That connotation-rich appositive above, “the dismal science”, evokes in my mind two images: (1) the candle-lit laboratory of the mad scientist or wizard, and (2) an above-ground intellectual field so dense and counter-intuitive as to be depressively hindering to the mathematically challenged person (me). I really believe that both meanings are appropriate, even though most people would say that the second is the one intended.

The usual wizard of folklore favors “black magic” that is intended to harm others, and he often is secretive, hiding either in some secret cave or in a vacant castle, in its dungeon or in its tower. According to a PBS program I saw decades ago, Leonardo da Vinci, probably the historical human being who epitomizes such a scientist, reportedly built, in secret, a very large telescope in a tower. Of course, he did not build it to harm anyone; he built it to satisfy his insatiable curiosity about one of his many interests: the stars and planets. The Church, however, did not see it that way; they preferred to view the whole enterprise (when they found out about it) as diabolical. Curiosity has for centuries been a bugbear. (The fact that Leonardo was left-handed did not help either.) A much more homely wizard, the king of Id’s magician, quite often makes mistakes that temporarily harm or at least embarrass him. And the ancient Chinese sorcerers experimented with many plants in their search for the elixir that would spark an eternal — or at least an extended — lifespan; their experiments yielded some poisons, for which some paid with their lives, but they also contributed a good deal to modern pharmacology. So, I see all that as indicating there is no way to avoid the bad in any science, no matter how good the intention and the final result might be. (Examine all the side effects on your medicine labels.)

And now some few words on the second image. There are many out-spoken economists these days, some of whom regularly contribute op-ed articles or columns to our magazines and newspapers. Years ago, I used to enjoy watching John Kenneth Galbraith argue with William F. Buckley Jr. on the latter’s PBS show, “Firing Line”, although I did not completely follow what either said. The two economists I follow now, whenever I happen to notice their columns, are James Surowiecki in The New Yorker and Paul Krugman in The New York Times. Both are, I believe, liberals: Krugman acknowledged as much. Although I do not grasp the thought processes that lead them to their conclusions, I agree with both men most of the time (I cannot recall any instance when I balked at one of their conclusions, although there might have been such an occasion.) They are pretty good at speaking to my level of comprehension. Some of that stuff is bound to have sunken in.

Still, there are some economic facts which I have never understood and have been disinclined, until now, to research. The oldest such matter concerns the old, hot debate regarding the “gold or silver standard” of the 1890s. From my easy chair vantage point, I could not fathom what difference it made which standard was adopted; and, since it had been settled long before I was born, I did not really give a damn. Yet, a related question continued to nag at me: Why do we marry our currency to some pretty but basically lifeless metal anyway? A barter system — what Marx called the “exchange value” of products and services — although complicated to institute, would be much more natural and true to life.

Now I would like to present my overall view of how economics rules our lives.

The world is divided into two classes of people: capitalists and workers. The former invest their money in some enterprise, either a start-up company or an existing company. Usually, the money is bet on an existing company that has already proven it can float; however, venture capital placed in an experimental or innovative effort is not unheard of; and, since the investors are “getting in on the ground floor”, when the cost of “shares” is lowest, has the best chance of “earning” a large “return” on their investments.

Just as with the wizard’s experiments, any number of hazards can cause problems for the capitalists: the company might be part of a Ponzi scheme, a CEO’s errors in judgment can diminish or even destroy the company, the company could be swallowed in a “hostile takeover”, faulty or inferior products might cause the company to lose out on desired governmental contracts or have to recall products, an extended employee strike could squeeze productivity and thus profits, and so on. Some capitalists these days, e.g. Donald Trump, Warren Buffett and Mark Zuckerberg, have gained small fortunes in a single day’s stock market activity and can afford to lose the same amount without missing a step. But for many other investors — the much smaller ones — a comparable loss can eliminate their life savings. Those are the people who define themselves as “the creators of jobs”.

So, who assumes the jobs? Who actually gets the work done? That’s the workers. What I hate most about this separation into “capitalists” and “workers” is that it has been extended from the situation at the factory to that in social spaces: homes, restaurants, theaters and even churches. Of course, social class distinctions in the latter places have been moderated somewhat during the past century, but they still exist in hardly less apparent ways, what with the current movement toward “gentrification” of neighborhoods, the robotization of an increasing number of occupations, and the constant media attention on celebrities — the vast majority of whom are wealthy entertainers, athletes, foreign royalty, and entrepreneurial billionaires. Now we are debating the fairness of income inequity and slicing up social classes into one-percenters, (vanishing) middle class, and working class. Yet the working class and those even lower on the social ladder are reluctant to revolt against this pernicious system because they view the elites as models of what they might become, if only they can get that football or basketball “scholarship” or get an agent to notice them on “open mic nite” at the local bistro or if one of the lottery tickets they are buying today with half their paltry paycheck will just vault them over the rung where hangs that middle-class person. They don’t want to destroy those privileged positions, because they want to attain them.


NEXT (I hope): A more detailed look at the two major classes.


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