Barber Tight

I stopped in a barbershop in El Paso this week to get a much needed haircut. It’s always a gamble but the sign on the road said “Voted Best Barbershop” so what the heck.

The young man who cut my hair was named Jesse. He looked like he was in his early 20s. You can always tell an experienced barber by the way they handle the tools, whether it be clippers, scissors or razor, and this fellow’s skill and care seemed that of someone with a lot of experience. He told me he was born in Los Angeles but had grown up in El Paso and he had been cutting hair for a long time, since he was about 16. On the street. He was a street barber in his neighborhood. “But I decided I should get my license, be a real barber.”

He was doing such an awesome job I asked if he would trim my beard and mustache, to clean it up. I told him it’s sometimes hard to get it even yourself in the mirror. “Yeah, we’ll get it ‘barber tight.'”

I went back a couple months later and he wasn’t there. I know barbers move around a lot but I wonder whether he moved on or went back to street cutting.

John Graves

John Graves passed this week at the age of 92 on his ranch called “Hard Scrabble” near Glen Rose, Texas. Graves was a writer, best known for “Goodbye To A River,” a book that has been described as one of the finest works of Texas literature ever written. I’m not sure whether calling something “Texas literature” is meant to describe it or apologize for it. Or maybe it’s used in simple enjoyment of the novelty of having the words “Texas” and “literature” in the same sentence.

Graves could be considered in many ways the literary offspring of the revered Texas Triumvirate – writer & folklorist J. Frank Dobie, naturalist Roy Bedichek and historian Walter Prescott Webb – his writing distilling the craft of all three into one man’s words.

I was lucky enough to have my photography linked to those words when Texas Monthly hired me to make a photograph for an article about the epidemic of Oak Wilt Disease which was rapidly devastating the Texas live oak population. At that time there were just a few pockets of widespread Oak Wilt and Texas A&M wasn’t exactly sure what it was or how to stop it. I took my old 4×5 up to a ranch not terribly far, in Texas terms, from Graves’ Hard Scrabble and photographed a single majestic oak standing naked against a patented Texas sunrise. When the article, titled “Dead Oaks,” came out I was proud to see the byline “by John Graves” next to my photograph.

I never knew John Graves and I have a horrible confession to make as a Texan educated back when Texas cared about education: I never read “Goodbye To A River.” Oh, I’ve read things that Graves has written, many things, but it’s been a while. On the occasion of his death somebody posted a link on some social media site – that ephemeral medium that is instantly gone and never yours – to another article in Texas Monthly, much more recent, about guns that Graves had written. I looked it up and started reading.

My god, I’ve sure been reading a lot of crap in the last several years. The best make it look so easy and effortless, like watching Eric Clapton play the guitar. The first sentences of “Great Guns” are simple, evocative prose that connects and constructs, and reminds you of the power of language in the hands of a true artist. And then it gets better.

Are there literary offspring of John Graves’ generation of Texas writers? I’m sure there are. Name your favorites in the comments. In the meantime I know what book I’m reading next.

Great Guns

by John Graves

The author John Graves, photographed on August 22, 2006, holding a Winchester Model 97 shotgun outside his home in north-central Texas. Photography by Michael O’Brien
I AM NOT A MEMBER OF THE National Rifle Association, nor do I collect rare firearms, attend gun shows, or subscribe to gun magazines. I am not, in other words, a “gun nut” and, in fact, can sympathize to a degree with the views of those who detest all such weapons and want them regulated. You can’t have lived in a large American city for any length of time, as I have, without seeing that such people’s opinions may have a certain amount of validity.
But I grew up in a time and a region that almost automatically sparked interest in not only guns but also the hunting of birds and beasts, in which pursuits such weapons were and still are central components. Nor did a war experienced in the U.S. Marine Corps and a functional country life during most of the past forty-odd years do anything to hamper the affinity.

On writing

I wrote the following to a friend, a writer, editor & scholar.  Then I decided it should be here.

UntitledSeems like each creative interest ebbs and flows throughout my life and swings between photography, music and writing, although the writing has never really blossomed.  And lately I have a strong pull to write but I’m uncertain exactly how to get on with it.  I’ve even thought about taking some kind of online writing course but wouldn’t know where to find a good one, or if it would do more harm than good… y’know…?  I kind of want to write short articles/editorials/essays/whatever that (hopefully) well-express a point of view that will help make people think about issues and (hopefully) act as a result.  Kind of like this and this.

I realized a few days ago that I pour whatever creative juices I have for writing into… emails…  I could make myself feel a little better about this and use the word “correspondence” instead, painting a picture of Jefferson, Emerson, Vonnegut in my head, writing letters.  But it’s emails.  I realized that often I’ll draft, craft and edit so that whatever I’m saying to whatever person is exactly the way I think it should be.  I’m doing it now.  And I think that’s a little stupid, perhaps even sad.  But when I sit down to Write something (with a capital W) it’s so fucking hard to pull it together to actually write.  I realized that the reason I do that is because, mostly, emails have to get written – someone is expecting a reply or a contact from me.  Essays don’t have to be written.  In an email there is probably just one person, someone I know at least a little, and they aren’t reading it like it’s anything more than what it is.  It’s out the door, read, and then it’s gone.  No big pressure, no big expectations.  Same with music and photographs. Music is totally transitory.  And with my photographs I long ago found that emotional place where I can just put it out there and if people like it great, if not, great too.  People look and they move on.  Writing seems so very different than those.

Even as I’m writing this one possible bit of self-advice is forming in the back of my head.  Authors of books I’ve read offer up their wisdom and experience.  I hear Stephen Pressfield saying, “Just sit down and start writing. Keep doing it. Every day.” and Anne Lamott saying “Yes, it will be shitty. It will get better.”  I know.  I just have to impose some sort of structure and deadlines on my own writing I guess.  And not just to do the writing but to share it.  Seth Godin is now saying: “You have to ship, just creating isn’t enough.”

So, here’s the first shipment.

What Are You Leaving Behind?

What are you leaving behind?

via Seth’s Blog by Seth Godin on 5/26/12

Trail after wildfire, Davis Mtns. Texas

I love watching contrails, those streams of white frozen exhaust that jets leave behind. It’s a temporary track in the sand, and then the sun melts them and they’re gone.

Go to Montana and you might see the tracks dinosaurs left a bazillion years ago. Same sort of travel, very different half-life of their passage.

All day long you’re emailing or tweeting or liking or meeting… and every once in a while, something tangible is produced. But is there a mark of your passage? Fifty years later, we might hear a demo tape or an outtake of something a musician scratched together while making an album. Often, though, there’s no trace.

I’m fascinated by blogs like this one, which are basically public notes and coffee breaks by a brilliant designer in between her ‘real’ work. Unlike tweets, which vanish, Tina’s posts are here for a long time and much easier to share and bookmark. Her trail becomes useful not just to her, but to everyone who is interested.

What would happen if you took ten minutes of coffeebreak downtime every day and produced an online artifact instead? What if your collected thoughts about your industry became an ebook or a series of useful instructions or pages or videos?

What if we all did that?

Adventures in the City: Anjela gets her wallet stolen

Anjela got her wallet stolen Friday. We’re not sure if it got lifted from her purse or fell out somehow but within minutes of her last seeing it someone started using credit cards at a Target store in N Austin, charging $1200. Also within minutes I got a call from USAA fraud department asking if we had made these charges and if we had our cards in our possession. I had mine so I called Anjela. “Of course I have it, I just… Shit! My wallet’s gone!!” Luckily she doesn’t carry much in her wallet: a few credit/debit cards, her driver’s license, insurance cards, a couple rewards cards, a store gift card, a “lucky” $2 bill. We started making calls. The process for canceling the cards was quick and painless. New cards are on their way. She was very near the driver’s license office so she went directly and got a new DL. En route she called the police and, surprisingly to me, they were interested, assigned a case number and detective, asked us to contact them if the credit card companies could give us any details about when and where the cards had been used. They were appreciative when Anjela called back and gave them this information and said they would use it to look at the security footage to see if they could identify the culprit. I kind of figured in a city of this size the cops just wouldn’t really pursue something like this. I’m glad they do and hope they catch the person(s).

The hardest thing was to wrap our head around “How does someone do that?” If they lifted the wallet then that’s one thing, but if it fell out how does someone see it, pick it up and think “Yeah! Let’s steal some shit!” It’s hard to understand. What if it was their wallet?

But it gets better… About 8:30pm I got a phone call. “Is this Todd Jagger? Do you have a wife or girlfriend named Anjela Garcia? I found her wallet in a Target bag on 183.” He sounded older, very Texas country. I asked if we could meet him. He said he was at Mehl’s Motel on N Lamar near Airport Blvd. I vaguely remembered some seedy motels in that area. But he gave me his name and his phone number, told me what he was wearing and that he’d be outside. Before we left I told Anjela she should call the police and let them know someone found her wallet. She did and they told her, “Do not go there without a police escort. Go near the location, call 911 and give them your case number and wait for a patrolman.” We were kind of torn on this. I mean sure, the guy may or may not be associated with the thieves. Certainly he was hoping for a reward though he didn’t ask or even mention it on the phone. Probably just a guy trying to do the right thing. We didn’t want to jam him up with the cops, y’know? We decided, “Well, let’s just drive by and have a look. If it looks cheesy we’ll call the cops.”

Mehl’s Motel is an old 1950’s motor court, the kind that has a single lane arch-covered entrance and exit. You hardly notice it in the slow gentrification of that area of Austin. It was very run down, very dark, looked very dicey. There was no way I was going to drive or walk in there. We went to a new BBQ restaurant a half block away and called the police. We still felt conflicted about putting something like this in motion but it seemed like the only reasonable course. They said a patrolman was on the way. It took a bit longer than we thought it would but about 13 minutes later I saw a patrol car coming down Lamar. I tried to get his attention but he drove past, passed the motel then turned around and drove past us the other way, then turned around again and came into the parking lot. I guess he was checking things out. He was a big guy, 6’3″ 230 lbs. He almost crushed my hand with his handshake without even trying. We told him that the guy seemed like he was trying to do the right thing and we didn’t want to cause any trouble for him. The officer said, “Yeah, you want to think people are okay but the sad thing is you just don’t know. You’ve got to be careful. I’ve been working this area for a long time and, well, Mehl’s Motel isn’t the La Quinta, you know. He may be the one who stole it, you just don’t know. Let’s roll over there and talk to him.”

He didn’t drive into the court either. He parked the patrol car in front of the complex. Immediately people started scattering, movement in the shadows of the motor court, a guy briskly left the complex trying to look nonchalant as he walked away from the patrol car at a clip. Taking the cue we didn’t pull in either, we parked on the street next door. As the big cop walked into the court and more people saw him they shuffled inside rooms shutting the doors behind them. It was a little surreal, like a scene from a movie. He found the room and the man came out. He wasn’t nervous or upset that we had brought an officer with us. I kind of apologized saying we already had a case and they told us we needed to bring an officer. He said no problem. He handed Anjela a Target bag with just the cards in it, no wallet. Most of the cards were there but not all. The main thing was her driver’s license – we didn’t want that out there for identity theft ease. I guess the thieves probably took out any cards they thought they could use and tossed the wallet with her insurance and store cards, then tossed the bag with the cards after when they realized they had been flagged stolen. Of course it’s also possible the man was involved somehow. The cop took the man’s ID and asked us to wait by his car. I handed the man $50, thanked him and shook his hand. He didn’t seem like a thief. He said “I just thought ‘What if I had lost my wallet, I’d want someone to do the same.'”

So that’s the kind of stuff that happens in the city. I guess it can happen anywhere but you just don’t think it’s going to happen to you. From memory can you name everything in your wallet? What about the account numbers and numbers to call? Right now, take everything out of your wallet and take a picture of it or put it on a scanner – front and back. If you have neither of those write the numbers down. Don’t carry your social security card or any little pieces of paper with passwords, PINs or personal information. Do have a contact phone number. Use gift cards right away – they can’t be traced or replaced. Have an alternate credit card somewhere so you aren’t left without resources. And watch out for thieves.

Adios, Amigos

It’s been a tough fall losing friends.  Each time it happens I try to remind myself that every day is a gift and to use it wisely, to try and progress ever so slightly towards a better world and to help others, too.  The reminder is easy.  Doing it isn’t.  But let’s take a minute and remember some of our friends who’ve left this earth.

Doyle Bramhall, Sr.

We had the great pleasure of getting to know Doyle Bramhall over the last few years after he moved to Alpine.  What stood out for me about Doyle was his genuine graciousness and camaraderie.  We had the honor of playing with him at Padre’s.  There was no ego, it was as if everyone on stage was old friends – he was totally at ease musically and personally with those around him, and that came through in the music and the performance.  He was an amazing musician and I wish I would have the pleasure of playing music with and just being around him more often.


Tim Henderson

It’s true that Townes Van Zandt used to call Tim Henderson for advice when a song he was writing wasn’t coming together like he wanted.  Tim approached songwriting with the same precision and detail as his day job writing technical manuals for Tracor and Texas Instruments.  He could tell you the difference between a “refrain,” a “bridge” and a “chorus” and where you would want to use one or the other and why.  Not only that but he was damn funny.  I could sit and listen to his stories for hours – and did.  J.C. was right when he said he was loved by all who knew him.


Drew Castaneda

Drew Castenada was the banjo player on our bluegrass version of Jimmy Cliff’s “The Harder The Come” from The Border Blasters’ “Blast From The Past” CD, and my friend since Country Day School kindergarten in Austin in the early 1960s and he was in all our bands through the 1980s.  Drew was probably the most technical musician in our bunch – if he heard a banjo break he wanted to emulate he would sit down and figure it out note by note and practice it until he could play it perfectly.   It saddens me greatly say but Drew fell on hard times, mainly due to troubles with addiction.  Booze mostly.  It took a hard toll on him personally and professionally.  But the Drew I’ll remember, always, is the one we had so goddam many good times with.  Not just playing music but fishing (we’d go down to Town Lake with a pole and a six pack of Pearl beer, find snails in the brush and pull perch out all afternoon; “light perchin'” we called it), driving around as kids, talking about philosophy and girls) – I’ve missed that Drew for a long time.

Joe Gracey mixing “Blast From The Past” at Lone Star Studios, Austin, Texas

What can you say about Joe Gracey that hasn’t already been said?  Joe was the engineer and co-producer for “Blast From The Past” and was also a friend.  JR built him a wine cellar at this place in Spicewood to pay off his fees from the session.  I corresponded with Joe fairly regularly and kinda became better friends with him via email once that became common.  I helped him and Kimmie with some of their technical web stuff (and still host their web sites).  Joe once sent an email or blog post where he mentioned “the best liquor I ever had was a bottle of bootleg ‘sotol’ Todd Jagger brought back from Big Bend.”  I remember that bottle and it was good.  Bought at the Park Bar in Boquillas Mexico – they would put the booze in whatever containers they had, this one in a Wesson bottle.  Joe was one of the undisputed founders of the Austin music scene.  I fondly remember his rapid-fire insight, jokes, rants and cussing on whatever brand of  ‘magic slate’ he could find – Barbie, X-Men, Care Bears, My Little Pony…  and can still hear his long-lost voice signing off KOKE-FM (“Super Roper Radio”): “Drink plenty of water, stay off yer feet and come when you can.”  Thanks Joe.

Clockwise from top left: Todd, TJ McFarland, JR, Joe Gracey, Phil Johnson

Steve Jobs

I’m not the only person who has compared the loss of Steve Jobs to losing John Lennon. Precious few humans alter the course of humanity with their gift and their genius. Jobs did that for sure. And when we lose someone like that there is Before, and there is After. There is a real and palpable void that can never be filled. And there is that brief moment when we reflect on our own lives, our own mortality and what we have done, or not, to make the world a better place. Hold on to that. Carry it with you every day. Wake up to it every morning.

A few of my favorite quotes from around the web.

“There may be no greater tribute to Steve’s success than the fact that much of the world learned of his passing on a device he invented.” – Barack Obama

“If Steve Jobs were alive, he’d be going to work.” – Bob Lefsetz

“It’s one thing to miss someone, to feel a void when they’re gone. It’s another to do something with their legacy, to honor them through your actions. Steve devoted his professional life to giving us (you, me and a billion other people) the most powerful device ever available to an ordinary person. Everything in our world is different because of the device you’re reading this on.

What are we going to do with it?” – Seth Godin


A new CCC

One of the things I’m most thankful for about spending the last couple years with my Mom and Bob before their passing was spending hours talking to them about their lives.  I wish I would have recorded some of it.

Bob told us of looking for work during the Depression.  FDR was already in and had ramped up the great recovery for the nation.  The best jobs were the ones as part of that recovery; building the great dams, roads, bridges.  And those with the Civilian Conservation Corp building our state and national parks, forest roads and other infrastructure.  Bob got a job in Washington state planting trees.  I don’t know whether the planting was done to reforest clearcutting, a fire, or what, it doesn’t matter.

He talked about having a toe-sack full of seedlings and a kind of a long bladed hoe.  You would take a few steps, whack the hoe into the ground to make a small hole, put a seedling in the hoe, then step on the divot with your other foot – all in one fluid motion; 50-75 men heading up a hill in a line all doing this same dance, the seedlings replenished when their sacks were empty.  They were told the trees would be ready to harvest in about 80 years, right about now in fact.

That was the mindset of that time:  We’re putting men to work now, creating something that our generation will not benefit from, and maybe not even our children but their children.  It’s good for us and it’s good for the country.

How far we’ve gone off course from that kind of mentality.  If it doesn’t work right now, today, then we shouldn’t do it.

The truth, of course, is that short-term fixes rarely work now or tomorrow.  Why do we keep trying them?

As I drive around Summit County, Colorado, certainly one of the most beautiful places on god’s earth, everywhere you look you see the forest devastated by pine beetles.  In some places 3/4 of the trees are dead.

This year I see there have been some (I assume) US Forest Service crews cutting the dead trees and stacking them in large piles.  This has only been done in a very few areas easily accesible by vehicles.  On the one hand it’s kind of weird to see large acreage devoid of pine trees, with just a few firs, aspens and other non-pines.  On the other it looks like an amazing opportunity to do just what our grandfathers did when they put people to work in the 1930’s.

We need a new CCC.  There are many thousands of men and women ready to build this country back up again.  Let’s put them to work.  One project, of a grand scale but worth every penny, would be to cut the dead trees.  Make biofuel energy from them. Replant new trees.  It’s a multi-year project with both long and short-term benefits.

Why can’t we think big any more?

The Give-A-Shit Button is mostly off, it seems

Seems like a majority of people I run into on a daily basis just don’t give a shit – about their job, about customer service, about doing the right thing, basic courtesy or pretty much everything. Not everyone but most folks. Just this morning I was treated to several examples of this, two in the same store (Academy on Research Blvd); a situation that would make one believe the give-a-shit button is turned off at the management level as well. If you run a business you depend on customers. If your customers do not feel like they matter why should they shop at your store? Seems pretty basic to me but apparently it’s an advanced concept in today’s world.