Jimmy’s First Day at School

The story's author when he was about the same age as Jimmy and just as much a believer that the six-gun won the West.

The story’s author when he was about the same age as Jimmy and just as much a believer that the six-gun won the West. In this photo he is mimicking hero-rancher Clay Hardin, played by Errol Flynn, in the 1945 film “San Antonio”. People acquainted with that film will recognize the holster position as reflective of Hardin/Flynn’s.

© 2015 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

NOTE TO READERS:  The gun-pushers in my town are preparing for their annual “Gun and Knife Show” this weekend. The event is similar to a flea market affair where attendees can haggle, swap and sell guns from pistols to rifles and shotguns, as well as various styles of hunting knives and daggers with artistically modelled handles.
     This, after all, is “the last frontier” where most of the coffee shop conversations are about cattle, horses, boots, thousand-dollar hats, and guns. This morning, at one table in the coffee shop I most often frequent, the fellows at one table were so excited about the upcoming show that I expected one of them to start handing out cigars, such as new fathers do when their wives deliver.
     To help them celebrate, I thought I would write a short-story, which you can read below:

ʘ  ʘ  ʘ  ʘ  ʘ  ʘ

Mrs. Fopwrangler waited in the foyer of her ranch house for her son to enter from the kitchen, where he was just finishing his cereal.

“Come on now, Jimmy,” she called. “It’s almost time for the school bus, and I want to check out your new school clothes, and I have a surprise for you.”

Jimmy ran to his mother, whom he saw holding a new western belt with a holster latched onto it, and in the holster was a small caliber pistol. It was the gun his father had been teaching him to quick-draw and shoot. He had shot his little sister Elsie in the hand with it a couple of months ago; he hadn’t expected to miss the apple she was holding as his real target. But his parents were more than understanding.

“Don’t give it a second thought, Jimmy,” his father had said. “Doc Leech can fix her up as good as new in no time. Of course, if and when she gets married, she might have to wear her wedding ring on another finger, depending on how effectively Doc Leech reattached the one you hit.”

Today was Jimmy’s first day at school. All the kids were going to be toting their new pistols to school, which the Supreme Court had ruled they have a constitutional right to do. God help the rascal that tries to disarm them.

“But, now, don’t shoot any teachers or the principal, Jimmy,” Mrs. Fopwrangler admonished. “We’ll have to start paying them hazardous duty pay if you kids do that. And they’re already complaining they are underpaid.

“Only shoot armed intruders into the school…or bullies, Jimmy…after you’ve dared them to draw, of course. Gotta be fair, you know. Honestly, not many people are even aware what fair play is anymore! Now here’s your lunch. Get along, cowboy!”

Jimmy stood at the corner for about fifteen minutes. He started to get antsy. Why did he have to go to school, anyway? He figured that everything he needed to know, his pop and mom could teach him…in fact, already had taught him: how to shoot

Finally the bus arrived. The bus driver was some black guy whom Jimmy had never seen before. He was black and he had kept Jimmy waiting fifteen minutes. Jimmy was getting even more irritated; he pressed the palm of his right hand upon the butt of his pistol and gave the driver as steely a blue-eyed glare as any of his cowboy movie heroes had ever mustered.

But the bus driver only smiled and said, “Good morning, Jimmy. Hop in.”

That poured cold water on Jimmy’s heated temper. How did the fellow know Jimmy’s name? What else did he know about him?

After the kids were unloaded at the school, they were arranged in two columns, and little colored ribbons—half of them blue and half red—were pinned to their shirts and blouses. Jimmy got a red ribbon, which pleased him, since in all his six long years he had never liked the color blue. But then the teachers told them that the kids with blue ribbons would be in the “blue bird class” and be called “blue birds”, while those with red ribbons would be called “red birds”. This was to section them off into continuing groups during their first year, one teacher explained, until the teachers could learn their names, and the kids could learn each other’s names.

Jimmy was pleased to see that all the other kids—even the girls—were wearing their holsters, stuffed with pistols; and he was fascinated by the variety of holster designs and presumably calibers of pistols. This looks like it’s going to be a fun day here at school, Jimmy mused. Maybe we’ll have quick-draw competitions. Maybe even some target-shooting.

Well, it did not turn out that way at all. The kids had to sit in stiff-backed chairs with small desks in front of them. They had to memorize numbers and the alphabet. They had to sing songs about America the beautiful and some crazy girl named Clementine who led a bunch of ducks down to a river, tripped on a splinter, fell into the river and drowned. And her boyfriend couldn’t swim, so he didn’t try to save her. This place is loony! thought Jimmy, and he began to get hot under the collar again.

But there was this pretty little red-haired girl sitting across from Jimmy in the next row. He had never seen anything so pretty. Not even his horse. The sight of her sort of made the scene a little less nutsy.

When the bell rang for lunch period, a “blue bird” boy grabbed Jimmy’s lunch sack out of his hand, saying, “I’m bigger than you are, little red bird, and I’m hungrier, too, so I need this lunch more than you do. My dad’s a CEO and we’re one-percenters, so everything we want belongs to us. Got that?”

Jimmy’s eyebrows lowered. His jaw tightened. He was really, really angry. He backed up five paces and held out his right arm.

“Draw!” Jimmy demanded.

The blue bird backed up, too. Even his pistol was bigger. And it had a pearl-inlaid grip.

Both boys fired at the same time. And both missed their intended targets.

The blue bird’s bullet zipped past Jimmy’s ear and hit the vice-principal—who was on his way to prevent the duel—between the eyes.

Jimmy’s bullet also went past his adversary’s ear, ricocheted off a steel fire extinguisher, and hit the red-haired girl in the left side of her chest.

Both boys were taken to the principal’s office, written up with ten detentions each, lectured to about gun-fight protocol, and sent back to their classes.

Meanwhile, all the other students spent the day marveling at what great trick shots those two boys had performed: one right between the vice-principal’s eyes and the other straight into the little brown-haired girl’s heart.

Jimmy pondered the situation all day and into the evening. I never got my lunch sack back, he moaned. And I sure am gonna miss that pretty little brown-haired girl.

“You are lost and gone forever, O my darling Clementine!” Jimmy sang to himself.


Of Haircuts and Barbers

Barber cutting hair of mature man

Barber cutting hair of mature man
Source: Getty Images

© 2015 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

Do you have an ideal haircut (or hairdo) style? Have you been able to find a barber or hair-stylist who could create it to your specifications?

I have had such a dream “do” for many years now, ever since I gave up the flat-top of my high school years. Initially, it was patterned after Paul Newman and then after Cary Grant. After ensconcing myself dutifully in the barber’s chair, and after he had chokingly tied a sheet around my neck, I would gurgle, “Make me look like Cary Grant!” The barbers used to take me seriously, although they had no photo of Cary (or, earlier, Paul) to use as a model. A couple of decades ago, however, they began to chuckle. Now I don’t even mention movie stars anymore. Sad to say, my only unintentional reflections are the senators and representatives; it’s not my fault they want to copy me!

Once upon a time, while I was residing in Monahans—a town one-sixth again larger than my present “hometown”—I would drive sixty miles over to Odessa to shop, dine at a cafeteria, drink beer, and get my hair cut. (Odessa has about fourteen times the population of Monahans.) After one of those jaunts I liked my haircut so much that I had my girl-friend of the time photograph me under it; I intended to show that photo to future barbers as the model of what I wanted. I haven’t done so in a long while, but recent experience is pushing me in that direction. (That photo at the top of this page is not of me, by the way, but it is of a man apparently not very far removed from me age-wise…and he looks like a nice enough fellow. But why hasn’t he removed his glasses?)

My first barber in this town was an old-timer who came here in the 1950s, a colorful chap who could relate all the news he had heard in his shop that and the prior days. He was more reliable than the local news media. He retired about six years ago, sold his business to a couple of the women who worked for him, and moved to Central Texas to be near his children and grandchildren.

Then one of his female successors finally obtained her master’s degree in geology and left. Things went downhill: The other partner just did not have her heart in the business; one could never be sure when she would open up, go to lunch, how long she would be out to lunch, or when she would close. I believe she lost a lot of business; anyway she lost me.

My next barber was a woman whose shop was in a retrofitted house on the south side. Her primary appeal for me was that she, at that time, was charging only $10, while almost everybody else was charging at least $14, for cutting a man’s hair. Despite her comparatively low fee, however, she was living high on the hog. Of course, she had a husband who also worked somewhere; but they had a fairly nice middle-class home, and her shop was large enough and well-maintained. She also had a fairly new Cadillac sedan, which I spotted one day through one of her windows, parked beneath an attached carport.

I made the mistake of teasing her about the Cadillac. (I have a terrible habit of teasing waitresses, barmaids, and barberettes. Just terrible!) “You know what?” I said. “You’ve got it made. You cut hair off no telling how many skulls in an hour at ten dollars a whack, and so you can afford a new Cadillac. Say you cut six haircuts in one hour, each one taking up five to ten minutes, at forty hours a week that’s twenty-four hundred bucks a week…not counting the tips that others leave, not I.”

“It’s not enough. I’m going to raise it to fourteen dollars.”

“Oh, don’t do that! I’m a poor boy. The main reason I come here is because your rate fits my billfold.”

“Everybody else in town charges fourteen.”

“Maybe so, but they’re professionals. They’ve gone to barber college.”

She got huffy. “I’ve been doing this for forty years. That’s enough training. I’m a professional.”

Shortly after that conversation, she stopped answering the phone when I called to set an appointment. I started going to one of the fifteen-dollar fellows in town.

There really isn’t much competition in this little hamlet. You have to take what you can get for the price they ask. It’s the same with doctors and auto mechanics.

I try to make it a month between visits to the barber shop for two reasons: the high cost and the frustration.

I’m sure $15 is no significant drain on most of my readers’ pocketbooks, but for me it equals one and a half meals…sometimes two. Consequently, each time my haircut day comes up, I dress in my most worn-out garments to lend a little more evidentiary point to my poor man’s image.

As for the frustration, do you have the same problem that afflicts me: virtually blooming hair-growth about the ears, and strands practically going to seed on the crown? I try to describe to the barber what I want, but without much success. “Looky here,” I say, “Please cut close around the ears but leave enough for people to see there’s hair there…and I want to be able to part my hair…to comb it all over…but I don’t want to look like Bozo the Clown a week from now.”

But what does he do? He trims it close all the way to a 16th of an inch below where the part line is and then clips even more off the top. I bow my head and wish I could cry. Nonetheless, when I get home and comb my hair the next morning, initially brushing it downward toward my eyes, there are three or four center strands that dip down below my eyebrow. I look like a Marine just out of boot camp.

I have not always had a problem with barbers. Hate to say it about my little town here, where I have resided for the past thirteen years, but the problem must have something to do with the amenities. Any really adept barber—just like any other really adept professional—is going to go to, or stay in, a more civilized, cosmopolitan city, if he or she can successfully compete there. Those unable to do so will venture to the hamlets where they do not have to compete…at least not as fiercely.


Foggy-minded Folk

Confused Baby

Photo Credit: Bing Images

2015 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

Last week I pontificated a little bit about fiction’s weak-minded strongmen. That clearly argued delineation of frail heroes, however, did not really cover the entire subject of brawn versus brain. For the brainiacs have their flaws, too.

First, a little full disclosure, as the TV commentators customarily announce.

My parents and some of my teachers early recognized that I had some intellectual gifts, particularly in the arts of writing and drawing. However, they also were perplexed by my weakness in arithmetic, which, because of my embarrassing exhibitions at the blackboard, I grew to hate. In the fifth grade one day, I sat in the arithmetic class and drew a picture instead of working on my assignment. The teacher, walking the aisles, noticed my crime and told me I should be calculating the numbers, not drawing people.

“This is an arithmetic class!” she admonished me sternly.

“I hate arithmetic!” I replied with all the vehemence I could muster.

The teacher ordered me to come to her classroom after the final bell rang that day. I, supposing her intention was to punish me with a detention or worse, mounted my bicycle and rode off to see a movie.

The frustrated teacher sought support from the principal, but I had recently won a city-wide lyrics-composing contest—to a degree highlighting the school—and he was disinclined to discipline me. That night the teacher called my mother and told her that she did not think I was a genius but that I was the most gifted child she had ever seen and yet I was having a severe problem with numbers. She urged Mother to enroll me in a private school where I could receive special attention toward my gifts while also being more directly guided in arithmetic, learning to incorporate the latter with the former as full learning. But Mother could not afford the tuition for a private school; plus, the nearest private school was more than ten miles away, and she could not take me to school and get to her job on time too.

So, I plodded through arithmetic and math courses for the next seven years. Well, you can count that as fifteen when you include college years. I still have a distaste for numbers, especially when some clerk and I are determining how much money I should give her or how much change I have coming.

Over these many years, I have pondered the imbalance among my abilities. Oddly enough, I had a fairly high proficiency rating in acquiring foreign languages, an ability which some psychologists have said involves the same part of the brain adept in math. The only conclusion I could draw was that back in the first and second grades—when we had arithmetic bees as well as spelling bees during class time—I stumbled enough during the former to develop a fear of and then a hatred toward numbers in general. Other than some undetectable missing math-related cells in my brain, that is the only explanation I can see for my disaffection for arithmetic. I am so handicapped in that area now that I almost entirely rely upon calculators in my phone and in my computer to keep my checkbook register accurate.

A more important and unusual aspect of intellectual imbalance that I wish to discuss here, though, is that of the brilliant person who is deficient in common-sense. I first heard about this phenomenon just weeks after graduating from high school. I was visiting a girl next door, a girl I had seen occasionally during the year of my residence there but had never spoken to her: I had had a girlfriend with whom I broke up just before this episode. I was not really trying to start anything with my new acquaintance; she just had invited me over to her house for supper with her and her mother. While we were in the living room after dining, the subject of a boy in her class (she was just starting her senior year) entered the conversation. The girl told her mother that the boy was brilliant but didn’t have any common-sense. My ears perked up because, although I knew she was not describing me, I identified with the boy, and my interest was piqued by the seeming paradox of a brilliant person not having “sense enough to come in out of the rain”. Please pardon the hyperbolic extravagance of that cliché, but it strikes the right note here, for we who are thus afflicted do often find ourselves confounded by the simplest puzzles or social etiquette.

A second such episode entered my life about forty years later, while I was visiting an old lady in Grandfalls, Texas. Her first daughter, in Dallas, had urged me to drive down there and talk to her about reviving the woman’s monthly newspaper. Deep in my heart I knew the project was senseless, at least from an economic standpoint, but I went anyway. When I explained to the old woman what her daughter had dreamed up, she stood astonished for a moment and then swore, “Goddamn it! That girl is brilliant but she hasn’t got any common-sense!” I drove back to Dallas, saddened a little but not surprised really.

Then just a week ago, I was sitting at a table in a local coffee shop with the owner and one of his employees in a contracting business he also operates. I will not name the man they were talking about, but the café-owner said, “That guy might be brilliant and well-educated, but he hasn’t got any common-sense!” That was my cue to mention the episodes I related above, and for several minutes we speculated as to how some people can solve big, technical problems but seem confounded by small, everyday issues.

I am not here discussing idiot savants. Nor are “absent-minded professors” the topic of this essay. No, this is about very smart people who have difficulty in reading the elements of a situation right in front of them, as well as the signals apparent in other people’s faces and movements, until well after the time for appropriate remark or action has passed. We might call them “foggy-minded folk”. And, sad to say, I am one of them.


Strong, Foolish Heroes


Der Gerblendete Simson “Samson Blinded” by Lovis Corinth (1912) : Google Art Project

© 2015 By Bob Litton

Yesterday I received in the mail a book  I had ordered. It was Fredrick Klaeber’s Beowulf and The Fight at Finnsburg. This book, the latest of four editions published since 1922, virtually immediately became recognized as the sine qua non of Beowulfian studies and has pretty much remained so to date, although many scholars have debated some of its premises since 1922. Even Klaeber continued to work on revisions for years afterwards. Nonetheless, much basic material remains in it that no one expects will ever be superseded.

I had to buy Klaeber’s book when I signed up for the course in Old English at Southern Methodist University in 1967. I no longer have that volume, for I sold it years ago to a used book store for a pittance of its actual value. (I have sold many of my books, read and unread, upon moving from one town to another.) When I first glanced at the Klaeber, I saw it as daunting, but later it appeared to me as simply challenging. Anyway, I had wanted to study Old English (also referred to as “Anglo-Saxon”), and that desire was strong enough to dilute any threat of difficulty. To take the course, however, one had to enroll in the English master’s degree program. Although I felt I could learn anything else about English literature on my own and was not really interested in pursuing another diploma, I signed up for the entire program. I concede, though, that this ol’ professional student still viewed academia as more enticing than the tax office at Dallas City Hall, where I was working at the time.

But I see I am straying from my topic. Pardon me, dear reader. I will return to Beowulf later.

As a child I hungered for heroes. You would waste your time asking me why, for I haven’t the faintest notion. I believe it all started in 1949 when Mama took me downtown to see the film Samson and Delilah, starring Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr. I’m not sure that was a very wise move on Mama’s part, because it depicted male-female relationships in a very negative light. Those definitely were not the years of women’s lib! Luckily, I did not have to contend with female barbers until well into manhood. However, being a young boy eager for a future of adventure and renown, I concentrated more on Samson than on Delilah…at the time. Most of you will be acquainted with the story, so I won’t recite it here; if you have not read the folk tale and are interested enough, check out chapters 13-16 of “Judges” in the Old Testament; it’s not long. After I saw that movie, I had to relate the story to my playmates and re-enact the part of Samson pressing against the temple’s pillars, bringing the whole place crashing down upon the Philistines. I even prayed to God that he would allow me to be a Nazirite, just like Samson, and, especially, as strong as my hero. Well, you can imagine how long that fantasy lasted.

Despite my disenchantment with biblical literature in general, there remain some parts of the Bible that I still admire or at least fondly recall: one of them is the story of Samson. You see, a more mature reading of the story revealed to me what a dunderhead, what a disappointment for his people Samson was. Yet, in the film (not in the Bible) Samson experiences a moment of recognition: Just before the Philistines blind him with a heated sword, he prays to God, saying, “My eyes did turn away from you . . . Now you take away my sight, so that I may see again more clearly.” I don’t recall how I responded to that line when I was nine years old, but it struck me as quite profoundly spiritual, even poetic, when I viewed the film on VHS recently. (I had bought a copy through a local video store.)

In fact, I now see that film in an even more favorable, though not as childlike, way than I did in 1949. The script seems almost as though it had been written for an opera, it is so concise and dramatic, both in the soft, romantic scenes and in the rousing action scenes. And I still love Hedy Lamarr. Samson’s film character, too, is more plausible, more sympathetic than the biblical one: in the latter, his numerous, mostly petty exhibitions of strength and the dimwittedness of his responses to Delilah’s repetitive cajoling reduce his stature as a tribal leader. My mature appreciation of the story, as Cecil B. DeMille told it, is on a higher level than the boy’s perception.

The story of Heracles (a.k.a. Hercules) is very similar, but the Greek demigod is a bit more self-aware than Samson. His feats of strength are, for the most part, assigned to him; and his moments of weakness, such as when he gets drunk at Admetus’ house, just while—unbeknownst to our hero—his host is mourning the death of his wife Alcestis, are usually accidental or beyond Heracles’ control. After Heracles learns the facts of the case, he becomes remorseful and takes it upon himself to descend into Hades, wrestles Death into surrendering Alcestis, and returns the queen to her astonished husband. The late classicist Edith Hamilton summed up Heracles’ character this way:

“There is no other story about Hercules which shows so clearly his character as the Greeks saw it: his simplicity and blundering stupidity; his inability not to get roaring drunk in a house where someone is dead; his quick penitence and desire to make amends at no matter what cost; his perfect confidence that not even Death was his match. That is the portrait of Hercules.” (Mythology, Chapter 11)

Heracles’ story, too, is more tragic than Samson’s; for he kills his wife and children during a period of madness brought upon him through a magic spell cast by Zeus’ wife Hera. Still, I think everybody agrees that Heracles was not very bright. He never was a hero for me.

I can say the same for Richard Wagner’s romantic hero Siegfried, whom I introduce in this essay partly because I love hearing the late Anna Russell’s satirical description of him. In this third music drama of Wagner’s magnum opus, Ring of the Nibelungen, “Siegfried”, our hero is the lover of Brunnhilde, one of eight Valkyries (those armored equestrian women who flit about over a battlefield, gather up dead heroic warriors, and tote them up to Valhalla). There is a huge difference in the character of Siegfried when compared to either Samson or Beowulf, for Wagner presents him from the beginning as stupid, in fact so stupid that he cannot feel the emotion of fear: he doesn’t know what fear is, but he knows it exists and he has an overwhelming desire to understand it so that he can feel it. In other respects, he is pretty much like Samson and Beowulf.

In her hilarious “analysis” of The Ring of the Nibelungen, Anna Russell describes Siegfried this way: “He’s very young, he’s very handsome, he’s very strong, he’s very brave…and he’s very stupid. He’s a regular Li’l Abner type.” Here is the current URL to Ms. Russell’s performance; I, of course, cannot predict how long it will be active:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m69aPAo1rXE

Now let’s return to Beowulf. This epic, believed to have been composed sometime between the 6th and the 8th centuries, is similar to the Ring cycle in that it is at least partly derived from Germanic mythology, especially with its inclusion of an extraordinarily strong hero, a dragon, and a heavy emphasis on gold and the lust to possess it.

A different Weltanschauung pervades the Beowulf, however, a primitive mixture of the Germanic warrior code and Christianity. I won’t go into the world-view element in detail here; I will simply point out that it is exemplified in two kings: Hrothgar and Beowulf. Both kings battle enemies to protect their peoples, rule justly, generously reward their faithful followers with gold rings and gems,  are sympathetic toward the sufferings of others, and are magnanimous. And, in accordance with the code, Beowulf urges Hrothgar not to mourn the loss of his favorite retainer but to avenge his murder: revenge is more effective than grief.

Unlike Hrothgar, though, Beowulf has been gifted with super-human physical power: he allegedly possesses the strength of thirty ordinary men. In the poem, he wins a long-distance swimming match with a companion named Brecca and kills two troll-like water monsters in his youth and then a dragon in his old age. The whole epic is considered by most critics to be a mirror of what a good ruler should aspire to be; we might contrast it with Machiavelli’s The Prince.

Comparing  Samson, Heracles, Siegfried, and Beowulf, I note the over-weening self-confidence of all four: Samson was certain he could ward off the Philistines even after his hair had been cut; Heracles had a contempt for Death, which he eventually had to force upon himself; Siegfried’s over-whelming lust for learning how to fear is one of the most comical depictions of stupidity I have ever read; Beowulf lost some of his warriors to the maws of Grendl and Grendl’s mother because he had led them to Heorot even though he intended to combat the demon unassisted.

There are numerous insights one can pull from these stories, the most obvious one being that physical strength without modesty, humility and common-sense is not ultimately admirable. Yet we still look up to such heroes because we have an eternal hunger for a deliverer–someone who will eradicate evil beings and cleanse our communities, even the world as a whole–of all the faults which we are too weak to conquer ourselves. I faintly recall a movie during the 1970s of one of two films–either Walking Tall (1973) or Death Wish (1974)–in which the reviewer likened the main character to Beowulf. Both films’ protagonists were basically vigilantes, although Buford Pusser (Joe Don Baker) in Walking Tall was a sheriff, and Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) in Death Wish was simply an angry citizen. Both men were out for revenge, the old Germanic warrior code tenet.

Beowulf is depicted in his battle against Grendl : (Google Images)

Beowulf is depicted in his battle against Grendl : (Google Images)


Gaggers Held At Bay…Somewhat

© 2015 By Bob Litton

In my last blog post, I introduced readers to a small slice of my community’s political structure and conflicts. After describing briefly the intention of our city council to reduce the opportunities for citizens to comment at council meetings, I pledged to combat their scheme. I therefore attended the next council meeting (August 4) and stated my case against the limiting of citizens’ comments to the very beginning of meetings. (Actually, I read my case because in my senior years I tend to forget the most common of words, not to mention names and dates; so I write out my comment whenever I know beforehand that I intend to say something.)

Below is a copy of that statement. Since, however, the city council is the smallest governmental unit in one of the world’s oldest democracies, and many readers of my WordPress blog do not dwell in similarly governed countries, I think it necessary to provide some background information here so that the sentences can be more readily comprehended. Another element that makes such background info desirable is that some of the facts and persons mentioned need their separate clarifications.

Firstly, our council consists of five “council members” plus the mayor; each of the council members represents one of the five wards in the city. Two places on the council are up for election in one year for a two-year term; and the remaining three places are open the next year. The mayor is elected for two years also.

As for “citizens’ comments”, for a decade or more, the order of the agenda specified three times when citizens could voice their views, after being invited individually by the mayor: (1) at the beginning of the meeting (after an invocation and pledges of allegiance to the nation and to the state); (2) during the “discuss/act” part of the meeting, as each item was taken up by the council; and (3) at the meeting’s end, after the council members have made their own comments about a variety of things.

Nearly every year, that order has been attacked by some of the council members as being disruptive and time-consuming and as a perceived invitation to verbally attack council members, either individually or as a group. Last year, after a contentious debate among themselves and some heavy criticism from several citizens, the council did away with the last period of citizens’ comments. This year, four of them wanted to drop the second period as well. However, after half a dozen of us citizens protested at the second, and expected final, reading of the ordinance the council was persuaded by our arguments that the wiser course would be to drop the first “citizens’ comments” period instead.

Another elitist element in the council’s proposed revision of the agenda was to restrict citizen-comment opportunity to persons who owned property or who operated a business within the city limits. Non-owners of property might speak, provided there was enough time after the council and property-owners had had their say. Since I agreed that non-property owners—such as myself—should not say anything regarding the property tax rate or anything else involving personal property, I did not object, although I felt that the council would be depriving themselves of potentially informative and sagacious advice.

I was the first to address the council; and, after I had had my say, other frequent attendees at council meetings (including one recent member of the council) pretty much echoed my sentiments.

During the “discuss/act” portion of the meeting, I found myself compelled to respond to some remarks by three of the council members. They had complained that citizens did not call them and express their views over the phone; and they brought out their statistical research which indicated that our town had more comment periods than most of the cities in the state, many of which do not allow for citizens to comment at all. I responded that many citizens—like myself—find it hard-going to talk to people, even friends, over the phone, especially about controversial subjects, because we cannot perceive and therefore cannot adapt our remarks to their reactions, positive or negative. Also, I said, we prefer to comment at council sessions because we like to hear our fellow citizens’ views on the same topic; we like the sense of community fellowship. As for the reference to statistical matter, I said, if the councilman wanted to compare us to the rest of Texas, why not go all out and bring up the world? Gauging our governance by comparison with many other countries—seeking the lowest common denominator—would leave us with no citizens’ comment period whatever.

Now for some clarifications:

  • Ray Hendryx is the retired owner of radio stations KVLF-AM and KALP-FM. He reported on city council meetings before I assumed that responsibility in 2002.
  • Ted Cruz is the freshman U.S. senator from Texas and currently a candidate for the presidency.
  • The “Texas Open Meetings Act” (TOMA) is a state legislative prescription for how all meetings by public entities (city councils, school boards, hospital district boards, etc.) are to be conducted and how public officials are to conduct their actions and speech at meetings as well as out in the public arena. Ludicrously as well as hypocritically, the state Legislature exempts itself from the TOMA’s rules.
  • The reference to “street signs” has to do with my protesting—on two occasions—petitions by groups of citizens seeking to have their streets’ signage changed from either a numeral (“1st Street”) or a letter of the alphabet (“Avenue B”) to the name of some individual they admired. I had experienced several problems with such changes, for my avenue’s name had been changed from 2nd Street to Fighting Buck Avenue. You readers can imagine at least some of the problems that can cause. Nonetheless, I failed to prevent the changes.
  • The reference to individuals parking their vehicles in hangars at the airport actually involves only one person—a construction contractor who parked his business truck and other business-related materials in his hangar at the city airport. The city rents hangars to local pilots at a very sweet rate of ten cents per square foot per year! Other local businesspersons, of course, pay much more for warehousing elsewhere.
  • The “pipeline issue” refers to a 42-inch gas pipeline which two billionaires—one a Texan and the other a Mexican—want to lay between the oil patch a couple of hundred miles north of here to the U.S.-Mexico border (the Rio Grande River) and beyond. The project aroused a big protest in our county and in two of our neighboring counties because of the potential for huge explosions and the resulting risk to lives and properties in this area. Although my property was not at risk, my life was, so I felt it was appropriate for me to comment.
  • “Molly” is the City secretary. She was recording the minutes of the council meeting while I was speaking.

Below is the text of my comments to the city council on Aug. 4, 2015:

My name is Bob Litton. I reside in an apartment on Fighting Buck Avenue, in Ward 1.

I will offer my view—perhaps for the last time—on the council’s proposed revision of Ordinance 2014-08-01…or Action Item Number 9… on the agenda.

I have been attending Alpine City Council meetings since August 2002, when I started reporting on the meetings for radio station KVLF. I retired from that contracted career in 2011, but I kept coming fairly regularly because I was interested in what was happening and what was going to happen here through the City council’s efforts. There used to be more regular attendees than there are now, including Jack McNamara, Pete Smyke, Bob Brewer, and Bennett Jones who was very interested in pushing the council toward alternative energy sources. They were all energetic participants in the conversations here. Jack moved to Oregon; Pete is still here, as is Bob Brewer; I don’t know about Mr. Jones. Anyway, they don’t come anymore, or only seldom. It could get a bit rowdy in here at times; there was even a little dirty politics. The meetings could extend overly long, up to five hours, mostly because of a mayor who was inept at moderating the sessions.

There were attempts to squelch comments. On one occasion, when the council passed what became known as the “gag rule”…this was before I started reporting…Ray Hendryx arose from his chair and stomped out.

Yes, we have citizens who hem and haw, who repeat what has already been said by someone else, who yell or at least have naturally very loud voices, and some who don’t understand an agenda item well enough to say anything sensible about it. But this is a democracy, people! City council chambers and state legislature forums all over the nation, and the congressional meeting room, have regular exhibitions of rambunctiousness and absurdity. Do you recall Senator Ted Cruz’s reading a Dr. Seuss book during his filibuster?

This is not a corporate boardroom, ladies and gentlemen. I repeat: this is not a corporate boardroom. This is one of the meeting halls of the people in this community. Instead of trying to squelch the odd democratic conversation, you should be trying to broaden and enliven it.

I like the format for the council meetings as it is now. But what do you want to do? You want to limit people’s comments to early in the meeting, when hardly any citizen knows the details—the pros and cons—of proposed actions. If you wish to persist in being autocrats, then delete the first comments period and retain the citizens’ opportunity to comment during the “discussion/action” period of the meeting, when they can have a clearer idea of what the hell is going on.

As for your limiting comments to property-owners, I—as a renter—would accept that with the proviso that the rule applies only when matters affecting private property are being considered. I have never commented on the tax rate. Nor have I ever commented on anything that concerned how people take care of their property. I have restricted my remarks to the Open Meetings Act, street signs, and individuals who have been using airport hangars to park their private business vehicles. I did also suggest an approach to the pipeline issue. Molly, correct me if you recall any subjects I have omitted.

I suggest that you drop this silly revision and leave the agenda as it is, which is quite satisfactory.

Good evening.


Off My Head

© 2015 By Bob Litton
During the past 2-1/2 years I have written a few posts “off the top of my head” because I had no deeper topics ready for publication. That is the case again today, but I feel that old journalist’s demon — deadline — breathing hotly on my neck.

It is very odd for me to feel any deadline pressure, since this blog is not a job in the sense of working for somebody else and expecting remuneration; nor do I solicit advertising. The blog is supposed to be a labor of love, yet I often find it to be a spur in my side because I don’t want my regular readers to imagine I have tossed away my computer or died.

I do in fact have a couple of longer, more serious topics roiling in my noggin, but they need more time to develop; so I will let them simmer for a while.

In the meantime, I have pulled out my cylindrical kaleidoscope and will now twist, peer, and record.

Citizens’ Comments

Every year about this time, the city council of this little town (population: 6,000+) reviews the order and procedures for council meetings as published in the city charter. And each time they do that, some two or three council members, in concert with the order-fanatic titled “city manager”, connive to set tighter restrictions on citizens’ comments.

This year, a revised “order and procedures” ordinance has already been approved on first reading and is scheduled for its second, final reading next Tuesday (August 4th). The salient changes are (1) the “citizens’ comments” period would be restricted to early in the meeting — before items are discussed and acted on by the council; no citizens’ comments will be allowed during the “discussion/action” period as they have been allowed to date; and (2) only citizens who own property or operate a business within the City limits will be permitted to comment. Non-property-owners will be allowed time at the mike only if there is enough extra time available, a decision that belongs to the mayor. Each commenter’s time to speak will be limited to three minutes, a limit that has been in effect for a long time.

I have no problem with the three-minute limit. I know it seems too brief in print, but actually I and most of the other citizens who have commented during those nights I was in attendance have managed to utter our opinions and suggestions unhurriedly within the three-minute period. Last year, however, the city manager wanted to reduce the comment time to two minutes. After a bunch of us citizens raised hell about that reduction, the proposal was dropped.

Other suggested changes last year — ones even more arbitrary and authoritarian than the time issue — included (1) requiring citizens who wished to comment to come into City Hall a couple of hours prior to council meeting time and sign a roster; (2) limiting the number of commenters to eight; and (3) reducing the periods open for comments from three to one. (In the past, citizens could comment prior to the discussion/action time, during the discussion/action time, and at the end of the meeting.

I and several other citizens complained about those proposed changes, pointing out how absurd and draconian they were: an acceptable compromise was worked out in which all the proposed add-on requirements were dropped, and only the end-of-the-meeting comments period was deleted. Such is the agenda we have today, which is threatened by the proposed ordinance revision.

Will any of my readers in the United Kingdom, Canada, India, France, Brazil, etc., be surprised to read that I am “mad as a wet hen(rooster)” about the suggested new restrictions on citizens’ comments? I wonder.  Well, I’ll tell you now, I intend to be present at next Tuesday’s council meeting and fuss at them. I just hope a bunch of other citizens will be there as well.

Twist the kaleidoscope again and peer:

Bird potties

The campus on which my apartment is located is dotted with a surplus of trees: scrub oak and non-bearing pear. The scrub oaks are scattered all over the place; the non-bearing pear trees line the drive and parking area.

The only positive things I can say about  the scrub oaks is that they provide welcome areas of shade and, like all other trees, clarify the air of some carbon atoms. The bad thing about them is that, when their old leaves fall, they get blown to, and collect on, my porch—right in front of my door. The leaves are devilishly reluctant to be swept off, too. (I swear they are sentient!)

As for the non-bearing pear trees, I will acknowledge their great beauty in the spring when they blossom in gorgeous white petals for a few weeks. Also, they attract honey bees, which I favor because I love honey and appreciate the good deed bees perform in pollinating our food plants. The bees’ survival is now threatened by some kind of virus and predator wasps.

The negative aspect of the pear trees, as such, is that they exude a sap after their blossoms fall, and that sap drips onto our parked vehicles: it is no fun to wash off. The fallen blossoms are a headache for the lawn keeper to sweep, but that is not my problem.

But the biggest nuisance of all when considering the pear trees is that, since their canopies are partly above the parking area, the perching pigeons, sparrows, swallows and even the occasional song birds bomb our cars and trucks with their blasted poop.

Now, you all know, I am sure, that bird baths and bird feeders have been around for a long, long time. We have a few bird feeders here on the campus, but no bird baths. Perhaps the apartment manager should invest in a couple of those. However, I wish somebody would invent a bird potty and train the birds to use it. It would take only a generation or so, I should think, for the birds to become accustomed to the innovation: It would become part of their nature.

Time for one more twist of the kaleidoscope:

Food and Drinks

Well, it looks like “Big Brother” is leading the way!

I have read recently that bathing every day is not a necessity; in fact, that it is bad for your skin cells. We need, they say, a layer of dead cells to protect the developing new cells. So, a bath only once or twice a week should be sufficient. I have been able, so far, to maintain the twice-a-week regimen; but I cannot stand my masculine aroma after a weekly regimen.

Moreover, they are saying now that the old recommendation of eight glasses of water a day to drink is too much. I did not pay much attention to that article, since I drink only about three glasses of water (with my pills) a day.

They are even searching for alternatives to water, such as treated urine. You recall, do you not, how NASA installed a urine-purification system on the space station. I have not heard yet how the astronauts and cosmonauts have reacted to that.

As for food, the new cuisine now apparently includes ants, crickets and grasshoppers. I recall a 1962 film, Mondo Cane (Dog’s World), in which an affluent couple dined on a $125-plate of chocolate-covered ants in some exclusive New York restaurant: The thesis of the documentary film was how foolish we humans—all over the world—are. Also, there was the 1960 film, The Savage Innocents, in which the Eskimo protagonist (played by Anthony Quinn) offered a small bowl of maggots to an intrusive missionary; when the missionary refused that food as well as an invitation to “laugh with” the Eskimo’s wife, the Eskimo became angry and cracked the missionary’s head against an igloo wall. I read somewhere years later that maggots are in fact rich in protein, although they are more readily accepted as food when transformed into insects.

And now it is time to put my kaleidoscope up. Good night!!!


Secular Epiphanies Revisited

© 2013, 2015 By Bob Litton

NOTE TO READERS: A few of you, I feel sure, will recognize the essay below, for I first published it on this site in April 2013. At that time, thanks largely to a fortunate connection with another writer’s article in a major newspaper, my post drew slightly more than 300 readers over a two-and-a-half-year period—a response that still occasionally resonates. For a blog that does not rely on social media publicity, that is a remarkable count.

Still, my blog has attracted a bunch of “followers” and no telling how many non-blogging, regular “visitors” since then who, I believe, did not have the experience of perusing it. That fact, in addition to a current dearth of readable topics in my brain, has spurred me to repeat “Secular Epiphanies” with a slightly adjusted title.

Anyway, I hope you gain some entertainment from reading it—even if you are reading it for the second time.

— BL

“Not Ideas about the Thing but the Thing Itself”
                                              — Wallace Stevens


In 1970, while preparing myself for the M.A. in English oral exam at Southern Methodist University, I bought the seven-volume set of Penguin’s Guide to English Literature.  One of my first desires was to read something about James Joyce.

Within the section on Joyce, I read some paragraphs discussing his theme of secular epiphanies.  I was fascinated by the example cited, something about the protagonist’s concentrated attention on a spigot.  For many years after reading that section I carried in my mind the memory of the protagonist (or author) intently observing a beer keg’s spigot in a pub as the bartender pulled a pint of the dark drink.  I found out only recently that the “spigot” was not a spigot at all but a “faucet” in Leopold Bloom’s residence in the novel Ulysses, and the liquid was only water.  However, the topic of this essay is not faulty memories but secular epiphanies.

Originally though, “epiphany” denoted a religious event: a manifestation, especially of a divine being.  The prime example of that meaning of the word was the appearance of the Magi at the nativity, as a preview of Christ’s reception by the Gentiles.  Later, “epiphany” took on a more secular connotation in literary theory, especially through the influence of Joyce and Proust, although it still retained a slightly mystical cast.  For Joyce, the critics inform me, the concept evolved from a sudden perception of some ordinary object’s essence, or an event, to an intuitive grasp of reality.  In both Joyce and Proust, the sudden recognition by a character of his or her condition is triggered by a brief occurrence which brings back the memory of a similar occurrence.  The example used by one critic is of the sound of a street organ heard by the young woman in Joyce’s short story “Eveline”, who, while anxiously pondering the wisdom of her planned elopement with a man she doesn’t really love, is reminded by the street organ of a similar sound the day her mother died.  Modern though this literary theory is, is it really all that much different from Aristotle’s remarks about anagnoresis (“discovery” or “recognition”) in his Poetics?  Joyce’s “aesthetic theory” of epiphanies seems more like a fine-tuning of Aristotle’s idea than an original idea; but that’s okay; not many ideas are original.

My fascination with the concept of “epiphany”, however, does not extend to any character’s recognition of his or her condition; I am entirely interested in the object or whatever is being focused on in an “epiphany of the mundane”.  The clock of Dublin’s Ballast Office in Joyce’s novel Stephen Hero is a good example of the mundane object, as is the faucet at Bloom’s lodgings.  Relying completely on my cursory reading about the “spigot” in the Penguin Guide, I wrote a brief essay which I titled “Epiphany on a Robin’s Egg”.   Although it was a fun exercise, however, I realized after completing it that my essay was not an epiphany at all, simply a closely imagined pondering of an object nowhere in sight.  I had simply listed and philosophized about the various qualities and purpose of an egg.  To write a valid epiphany about an object — to elicit its most intimate whatness — the writer needs to have the object before him.  (Wallace Stevens’ poem “The Snowman” is an excellent example, I believe.)  I never got around to trying the exercise with a real egg.

Nonetheless, the idea of epiphanies remained deeply embedded in my consciousness.  When I became an adjunct instructor of English composition at one of Dallas County’s community colleges, the first assignment I gave to my students as soon as I entered the classroom was, “Take out a piece of paper and a pen and write whatever comes to your mind about that clock on the wall!  You have five minutes!”  The assignment had two purposes actually.  Firstly, it was a warm-up exercise to get them ready for our discussion on writing about the concrete, not the abstract/the specific, not the general.  Secondly, it was a first step toward my goal of getting them to pay attention to all that surrounded them every minute of the day: to recognize the essence of otherness.

Fortunately for me, the first time I assigned that writing exercise, one of my students did a superb job of writing an epiphany.  I had divided the class into five groups of about five students each, told them to share their papers with each other, and then agree on the best “essay”, to be read aloud to the whole class.  When the young man who had written the essay I mentioned above finished reading his paper, a woman in another group asked, “What are you doing in English 101?”

Of course, I didn’t grade those papers.  As I said, they were just a warm-up exercise: a practice I retained for the beginning of each subsequent class session — with different subjects, naturally.  Nonetheless, I really appreciated that young man’s excellent performance because he proved to the other students that the exercise was possible.

Now, although my own little essay on the imaginary robin’s egg does not legitimately fulfill the definitional criteria of an “epiphany” as discussed above, I’m going to share it with you below just to give you a sense of what I had in mind, if imperfectly:

Epiphany on a Robin’s Egg

There before us lies the egg.  Some wench-robin away from her nest — perhaps slaughtered while foraging by the whimsical marksmanship of a boy — has left us this half-incubated orphan.  I feel sure the mother won’t return now, since I have waited and watched the past two days, taking note of the egg’s condition within a bush outside my back door.  Before the scavenger ants could become troublesome I brought it inside and laid it on the dining-room table under a lamp.  I believe I can distinguish even now the faintest random tracery of cracks in its light blue shell: a holy object.

The shell seldom gets the reverential awe I think it deserves; probably because it is eventually cast off, and we ordinarily repudiate cast-offs.  And then again, eggs are generally so small that it is difficult for us to conceive the relatively heroic magnitude of activity maintained by the fragile-seeming cover.  But look at it this way: The shell, though not itself alive, is most essential to the gastrulating organism within.  It forms the boundary of the first universe and protects the embryo from many possible harms, including a mother’s weight.  The shell, by its porousness, is also the embryo’s only means of exchanging gases and fluids with the outer world.  Without the evolution of the egg shell there could never have been land animals.

But what particularly excites my admiration at present is the egg’s shape.  It is such a pleasant shape to sight and to touch and such a universal shape!  After being told for centuries that the Earth was flat — or, at the oddest, saucer-shaped — we were then converted by the scientists to the belief in a spherical globe, only to discover now that it is oval…like an egg.  No doubt any Mesolithic artist could have told us that in the first place.

Yes, there is something exhilarating to me in the percept of the egg and the Earth both being oval.  I think it is because, as a form, the oval is more aesthetically pleasing than the mathematically purer sphere or the precariously commonsensical saucer shape.  It is more philosophically absorbing, too.  You can say more about an oval in that what is said about one end cannot be entirely true of the other end; while each point on a sphere is typical of all other points.  On the other hand, anything which is intellectually stimulating stands more than an even chance of becoming the object of religious or political contention, as happened between the Big-Endians and the Small-Endians in Gulliver’s Travels.

In addition to their shape, birds’ eggs are often enhanced by little splotches of color.  The camouflage thing enters in, okay, but that must be mostly accidental, since some eggs, like the robin’s, are of a bright solid hue.  And besides, the predator must descry the nest first, not the eggs.  It seems, moreover, that the parent birds themselves are the ones most frequently fooled by the color of their eggs.  The cuckoo, which neither builds a nest nor broods its young, will mimic the pigmentation of another species and smuggle its own egg into the hosting birds’ nest, taking care to kidnap one of the legitimate eggs so that a head-count later on won’t reveal the discrepancy.

No, the coloring of birds’ eggs is just pretty, that’s all: that of most of them anyway.  I must admit that I have become slightly bored by the usual stark whiteness of chickens’ eggs.  But, some wild birds also lay white eggs, so the dullness of chicken productivity cannot be blamed entirely on the domesticity of our barnyard fowl.  Still, isn’t it in a way a commentary on civilization that the greatest variation any hen can manage color-wise is beige?

But hush!  Didn’t that crack in the robin’s egg just now extend a little more this way and…?



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