Tag Archives: texas

The Right Tool for the Job

Pick one thing and be the best at it. I’ve heard that mantra my whole life. For a Jack-of-all trades guy like myself, this idea is somewhat foreign. I’ve always subscribed to the belief that it is important to be good at many different things; to have plenty of tools in the toolbox, as it were. This weekend, however, I figured out what one thing I am best at: procrastination.

When I bought the house, I had great plans for a woodshop in the garage. My Uncle Harris had one, my granddad had one and I wanted one. Never mind that my knowledge of wood working was fundamental at best, honed to a dull edge in middle school shop class. At least I learned how to use the tools of a wood shop. Being the Jack-of-all-trades guy that I am, I knew I could build a workshop and I could make any number of creations. I had dreams of building a crib for my grandkids (the youngest is 9 years past crib age now), a book stand, book cases and storage solutions for my wife’s craft center. All I needed was to finish the workstation that would serve as a router table, a table saw guide and a stand for a scroll saw. I had it envisioned, I had it planned, and all I had to do was build it. If you build it, it will work…or something like that. Right?

Anyway, I bought the tools I would need: a combo router, a scroll saw, a table saw, a circular saw, several clamps and a few other tools that any respectable wood shop needs. I bought lumber. I bought hardware. I bought a shop vac. I have even used these tools from time to time. I was well on my way to having that dream workshop, but there was one thing that kept me from realizing my dream. Well, several things to be honest, but I blame it all on this one: The Heat. I live in Texas and in the summer, my garage gets unbearably hot. Even in the winter, it can get uncomfortable out there. If only I lived in a more temperate clime. I kept putting off finishing the project because of the heat (and TV, and vacations, and a good book, and homework, and…well you get the idea).

I started on that book stand several years ago, but I needed a router table to do the kind of joinery I wanted for it. Being someone who often shoots too high, I wanted to build the router table myself so it would do all the things I envisioned. I started that project, but it ran aground in the heat so both projects languished on my work bench all these years. There they sat, buried under tools and materials so deep that archaeologists could define the time by counting the layers. Then, as if out of nowhere, my wife foiled my procrastination plans.

She gave me a honey do! The true enemy of the procrastinator. Only the elite of the elite procrastinators can withstand the withering gaze of a wife with a honey do.

Michelle has been wanting to do more improvements to the bathrooms since we changed the flooring last year. New faucets, new light fixtures and new toilet paper holders were straightforward projects, but she also wanted to update the mirrors. Since the sheet glass mirror was glued to the wall, Michelle thought that if we (read I) were to frame the mirror it would make it look so much better.

My new router table on top of my unfinished homemade router table.

My new router table on top of my unfinished homemade router table.

This meant, of course, buying molding and cutting it to fit the glass. In order to get the look I wanted, it meant cutting the wood to wrap around the edge of the glass. This meant the tools I needed were my router and router table. Since I knew finishing the router table would take too long and take more money, I just bit the bullet and bought a Craftsman router table and set it atop the table I had been building. It worked. I trimmed the wood I needed to trim. Of course, by that I mean that it only took trimming four of the four corner pieces before I mastered the technique. I get good at it just when I don’t need to do it anymore. Anyway, the mirror project is almost done, only needing the lengths of the molding to be cut and the pieces glued to the mirror. The cutting job really needs a chop saw, rather than the table saw I currently have. Maybe I should go get a nice chop saw to round out my woodshop.

A good procrastinator can put things off indefinitely; an elite procrastinator can go forever doing nothing. I have put many things off, especially things I have no interest in doing. I do have many interests though. This is my procrastination’s undoing; getting me interested in new tools. Lure me from my recliner with the promise of a new router table or a new chop saw and I’m working on projects. At least until I get tired of the heat again. OK, so maybe I’m not the best at procrastination, but I am pretty darn good at it.

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Filed under Humor, Personal

Off The Beaten Path

I have mentioned in past blogs that my wife and I enjoy driving out of the city to see as much of small-town America as we can. We have been through most of the small towns around Houston, San Antonio and Austin and have thoroughly enjoyed those visits, but that means that now we have to venture out farther and farther. This weekend, we drove to Oklahoma and passed through a number of small and not-so-small towns, such as Harrison and Henderson before going through Kilgore and Longview. Our route took us along highway 259 to our destination in Idabel, Oklahoma, but not before detouring us along other roads on several occasions. Sometimes the best discoveries are made when one leaves the planned path.

The weather on this trip couldn’t have been better had we controlled it. While hot for a summer day in Texas, it wasn’t the hottest day of the year. In fact, for a late July day, it did not even break a hundred degrees. The sky was mostly sunny with just enough clouds to break up the blue expanse and also be interesting. I did read on my news feed that some parts of Houston got serious rainfall, but fortunately we missed it. Traffic was light and the drive pleasant as we jammed to our favorites playlist over the Bluetooth on the car stereo. Since we both have family in Arkansas, we have travelled highway 59 more than most truckers over the years, but once we hit Nacogdoches, this trip would have us veer off our usual course and onto highway 259. It was a beautiful drive for a federal highway. There were many beautiful homes and ranches along the drive, and the setting sun cast gorgeous diffuse light that brought the country to life highlighting warm yellows and ambers. As we drove along, we passed a large red barn, with horses frolicking in the setting sunlight framed by ripe corn fields waiting to be harvested.

After we passed Daingerfield, Texas, we were detoured onto highway 67 in Omaha. I had been looking for someplace to eat ever since we passed a Grandy’s in Longview. Michelle is not the Grandy’s fanatic that I am and she wasn’t hungry then. By the time we approached Omaha, however, she was getting hungry. I was near starving. We didn’t see many places to eat on Google maps that sounded good, so I said let’s keep an eye out and we might find something interesting. Now, in this day of technology dependence where people are afraid to venture out of their homes without internet access on a mobile device, most people rely on Google to show them where to go. I use the technology as well, but I am not dependent on it. And I will maintain that statement until the day my cloud drive crashes. Anyway, after we drove along 67 for a short time, Michelle saw a sign that made her chuckle: The Rear of the Steer. It was for a barbeque place just off the highway with a full parking lot.

“Stop!” I insisted. “Turn around. We HAVE to eat there. We can’t pass a place called ‘the rear of the steer’ and not eat there.”

After some debate, she agreed and pulled over to turn around. There was only one other car on the road, so we had no problem with traffic. Omaha is so small that it looked as though most of the town was already at the Rear of the Steer. Inside, there was a small line at the counter to order, but as most of these people were probably regulars, it went quickly. We ordered and sat in a place that looked as though it had been there since the 50’s. It was quite clean, and well maintained, but the décor was not retro; it was authentic.

So was the food. I had the hamburger steak while Michelle had the chicken fried steak and both meals were quite good. We sat and listened to some of the other patrons as they talked about their day, shared stories and jokes. One gentleman told his companion the story of how the place got its name. Evidently it is very well known for its hamburgers, and hamburger is taken from the Rear of the Steer. As this couple left the place, he yelled to no one visible “See you later, old man,” to which the reply “Take Care” came from an unseen voice back in the kitchen. Later, the owner of that voice would come out bearing several plates of food, looking very much like Mel, from Mel’s Diner on the TV show “Alice”, only dressed better. He said hi to everyone he passed and stopped to talk to more than one before hurrying off to the kitchen for more food.

We liked the place so much I bought a T-shirt. It was a great beginning to the weekend that promises more good times, especially if we remain open to leaving the planned path every once in a while. Which is kind of the point of the trip.

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The “Open” Road?

The open road calls to people the world over to get out and drive, to see the countryside, to go places. We enjoy the freedom of going wherever one wishes on the roads which are open to the public. The US has one of the more expansive highway systems in the world and the maintenance of all that concrete and asphalt has created several agencies at several levels to administrate it. Of course, with all those agencies—the department of transportation, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Department of Public Transportation to name a few—comes the need to fund them. This does not include the actual construction and upkeep of the roads themselves either. Americans pay fees for driver’s licenses, license plates, vehicle registration and in some states, property tax in addition to fuel taxes in order to fund the highway system and the states get funds for the federal highway system from the Federal government which is paid for by income taxes. So since we pay over and over again for these roads, why then do we have toll roads? We pay an ever-increasing amount of money in tolls to drive along sections of road that, by definition, are no longer “open.”

The interstate system has traditionally been funded by the federal government but maintained by the counties through which the roads pass. The states and counties also tax the citizenry who use the roads to pay for this maintenance. This system worked fine for decades. Then cities began to grow and wanted more and better roads than the existing system could fund.

In Houston during the 50s, the city determined that the I-610 loop was going to quickly become insufficient for traffic management to avoid traffic jams downtown so they commissioned an outer loop called the beltway. In the 70’s, they built a section between I-45 and Hwy 59 called it the north belt and people drove on it waiting for the complete loop to be finished. The project languished for years because the city didn’t have the money to pay for the completion until, in 1982, the city passed a bond referendum to establish the toll authority. The idea being that the users of the road would pay for its construction.

Ever since its completion, the city has become so reliant on the revenue from the toll booths, that several more toll ways have been added and many more are on the drawing board. The sad part is that we continue to pay these tolls long after the construction costs have been defrayed. In fact, so many people use the Westpark toll way that HCTRA considered raising the tolls merely to discourage people from using it.

In order to maximize revenue and ease congestion, HCTRA installed EZ Tags so that drivers don’t have to slow down to pay the tolls. Money is simply charged to a credit card automatically when a driver uses the system. They do aid in traffic flow, but more to the point, HCTRA now doesn’t have to pay someone to sit in the booth and collect the money. The Westpark toll way is entirely EZ Tag and several exits off the Beltway are as well. In fact, the managed lanes of I-10 require an EZ Tag if you do not qualify for the High Occupancy Vehicle access during set hours.

If they are making so much money from the toll booths and EZ Tags, why then do we still have to pay such high fees to drive our cars or get our licenses or registrations or even our gas? It seems to me that if we continue to pay tolls to drive on these roads as well as the new batch of coming toll roads such as the Grand Parkway toll way, we should pay less for our vehicle registrations and fuel tax.

I have been driving in Houston since 1980 and I have driven all over this country and others. On a cool sunny day with the windows open or the top down, a drive along a lonely country road taking in the sights, enjoying the scenery and going new places still stirs the heart. There’s nothing like a drive in the country answering the call of the open road, but with all the tolls one must pay, it seems these days it’s calling collect.

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Filed under Politics, Society

Chilled to the Bone

Frozen evergreens in Bavaria

The temperature here is approaching record lows for the day and the media is stirring up the panic about freezing pipes and school closings and traffic snarls. Makes one miss the days when the weather report said “it’s going to snow tomorrow and temps will stay below freezing throughout the week. When we come back from the break, Joe Smith will have the latest sports scores.” Instead, we get sensationalized reports designed to evoke fear. Ah the good old days. It doesn’t help matters when the power company does rolling blackouts because they say the power drain is too great (which is a complete fabrication since Texas has the most robust power grid in the country).

I have lived in Houston since 1977 (aside from 9 years in the army and 6 years in Arkansas) and I have seen all kinds of weather from hot to hotter. I have always said that Houston has a 9-month summer, a 2-month spring, a 3-week autumn and a 5-day winter. Even in that 5-day winter, it has gotten bitter cold at times; there has even been snowfall. Usually once every seven years, about a half-inch of snow might accumulate—not enough for a snowman, but good enough for a short snowball fight.

Perhaps that is why I love travelling where snow falls. Last month, I spent four days in Philadelphia where I got to enjoy snow and, a few years ago, I was in Chicago for the first snowfall of the season and on occasion, I can manage to be in Little Rock when its annual snow fall happens. This is not to say I can’t handle the heat, quite the contrary, I have been a Houstonian long enough to acclimate to almost any climate. I went to Las Vegas in the heat of July (and it’s a dry heat that will suck the moisture out of you real quick) and I have been buried in the snow in sub-zero temperatures in Germany.

When I was in the army, I was a medic in an infantry battalion and my job was to provide medical coverage for training exercises. One time I was covering a night fire exercise in my two-and-a-half-ton (deuce-n-half) truck after installing a cab heater. Only medical trucks got to have cab heaters so our IV fluids (and our butts) wouldn’t freeze. It was scheduled to get to 20 below that night and the platoon leader had taken the necessary precautions with a warm up tent for the troops and other steps to prevent cold-weather injuries (except, of course the most obvious one which was to cancel the fool exercise and go home). After I had been sitting in the cab with the heater going and reading my book (there wasn’t much else for the medic to do if no one was hurt) someone came up to the truck. I opened the door and stepped down to the running board. In just that amount of time, the moisture in the fabric of my trousers froze so that they frosted and crackled as I stepped down to the ground. It was so cold that a cup of water thrown into the air would freeze before hitting the ground.

Another time, I was covering a field training exercise and I was in a squad tent with 6 soldiers when the snow began. As a medic, I had a thermal blanket in my medical kit that I wrapped up in inside of my sleeping bag which kept me toasty warm that night. It was so cold that night that the diesel fuel in the stove froze. The next morning, we literally had to dig our way out of the snow. Only the very tip of our tent was visible sticking out of this huge mound of white powder.

I can say with a fair amount of certainty that I would probably get tired of snow if I lived somewhere that dealt with large amounts of the stuff on a regular basis, but speaking as a Houstonian, I just love snow. Give me more snow. Bring it on! But please don’t turn off the power when it happens. It’s just cold weather. It happens every year. There is no need to panic about it so just chill out.

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Filed under Media, Personal, Society

An Occasion To Remember

Many men fall victim to their own memory when it comes to anniversaries. Fortunately, my anniversary falls in the same ten-day period as Valentine’s Day and my wife’s birthday. While making this easy to remember, it does have its issues, but nothing I can’t handle.

On our wedding day, we drove to Smithville Texas, the site of the movie “Hope Floats” featuring Sandra Bullock (yes, it is a chick-flick, but it is a good one) and stayed at a bed and breakfast called The Katy House. Now, for those who read this blog (yes, I am talking to you) you may remember that Michelle and I love to tour small towns off the beaten path. Well, Smithville—with a whopping population of 3,900—certainly qualifies as small and it does sit just off of state highway 71, which is a beaten path.

This town has a quaint old style main street with buildings built around the turn of the century (not the recent one, mind you) and a train depot (which is not really a functioning depot anymore, but it serves as the chamber of commerce and a railway museum). Most of the buildings that are occupied house antique stores or craft boutiques, while many sit empty. The other streets are filled with old houses dating back to the late 1800’s when this town was built by the MKT railroad. The Katy House is one such home.

Built in 1909, it was originally named the Chancellor Residence after its first occupant. Many others have lived in it since, but it is now a very comfortable B&B run by Sallie and Bruce Blalock. They made our wedding night stay quite pleasant, setting us up with a bottle of bubbly and getting us reservations at the town’s pre-eminent restaurant, The Back Door Café (make the trip if for no other reason than to eat here, it is that good). Because the stay was so memorable, we come back every year to celebrate our anniversary with them.

Re-enactor in roundtop.

This year, we also visited Round Top, an even smaller hamlet even farther off the beaten path. It boasts a population on its city sign of 77. Yes, that is two sevens. Seventy-seven. That is all. Now, while we were there, we ran into more than 77 people. It seems this town has a draw many weekends of the year, not the least of which is the thrice-annual antiques festival. This weekend was not that event, but rather a re-enactment of life in the 1800s. People dressed in period specific clothes sat around some restored or replicated homes from the period.

There are also a few art galleries in the town featuring many different kinds of art forms. It makes one wonder how they can stay open with such an esoteric activity, but they seem to do fine. The highlight of the visit, however, was lunch at Royers café. This small, colorful dining establishment was once featured on CBS Sunday morning and offers several dishes for any palate. It also has a wide variety of pies—my kryptonite. The food was good, subtle but flavorful. I recommend the creamed corn. The cherry pie was great, not so sweet as to make you cringe, but not too tart either.

Now, as this year’s anniversary trip winds down, we know that we will be back again next year, and looking forward to visiting our friends and seeing more of small-town Texas.

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Filed under Personal, Reviews