Friday, June 30, 2006

Fort Worth

"All these people, they're all downtowners," Mike says. Mike is a big, mestizo-looking guy, so big, in fact, that people mistake him for "Hawaiian" when he leaves Texas. I think he may mean Samoan by this, but I don't press the issue. When I ask what he does for a living, I think he says "horse breaker," but it's too loud to be sure and I don't press it.

We are at a cowboy bar in downtown Fort Worth, as much as you can have a cowboy bar in downtown Fort Worth. Mike the Horse Breaker may not like the crowd much, but he's in their territory, not the other way around. Most everyone is drinking Coors or Coors Light even though Shiner Bock is much better, the same price and made in Texas.

It is here, after Mike leaves, that I first encounter Twang among the Lawman jeans and autographed cowboy hats. Twang comes wrapped like a tiny present in square wax-paper packets, which you open and dump in your mouth, then gargle with beer. It looks, to the uninitiated, like the adult version of Pixie Stix.

In Fort Worth, all the urban cowboys use Twang somewhat surreptitiously, hiding the packets in the palms of their hands. I text message my friend Sasha in San Francisco, who's far cooler and more worldly than I am, to ask what this crazy cowboy drug is. The way you use it is so weird, I think. Sasha doesn't know, so I am even more perplexed.

And it's not until I get to Houston that I learn that Twang is just beer salts. It's a part of life so not-worth-mentioning that everyone I ask thinks I'm trying to describe something much more esoteric and obscure. Twang becomes, then, an anti-climax.

I like this story, but I can't tell it often. It doesn't play very well or, perhaps, just not in the way I like it to. I only repeat it to fellow outsiders, because somehow, in the South, it becomes a story about my ignorance, rather than the space between places.


You can't see the same line of sight down Elm Street today as Lee Harvey Oswald saw 43 years ago. For one thing, the trees have begun to overgrow the road—not completely, as all three lanes are still visible in part, but enough that imagining the motorcade from up on the 6th Floor Museum is difficult.

Oswald's spot is at the corner of the building, which has been recreated behind sheets of Plexiglas with period-correct boxes. The rest of the museum tells the story of John F. Kennedy and of his assassination. One of the difficulties for the curators of the 6th Floor Museum is that no one knows exactly how those boxes were arranged, as the police photo-ops after the assassination all showed the boxes in different configurations. This provides even more fodder for the conspracists who stand on the street below, newspaper clips at the ready, ready to charge you to hear their theories.

On the street itself, in the second lane, are two white Xs. These are the two spots where Kennedy was shot, though everyone is quick to point out that they are "approximate." I suppose this means that the actual location might be a foot or two in either direction, which is close enough for me.

I spend a lot of time in the shade of the WPA shelter on the grassy knoll, watching the traffic pass. Something unusual happens when cars reach those Xs: they move out of the way. Of every hundred cars, maybe five treat Elm like any other road and move straight over the assassination spot. Most merge into other lanes for a moment; some skirt the edge of the middle lane, tires on one dashed line.

Whether this is respect for the dead or driver's instinct, I can't say.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Glen Rose, Texas

You should plan to arrive at the Creation Evidence Museum on the hour, because that's when the tour begins. Actually, "tour" would be more accurate, since at the Creation Evidence Museum the word refers not to a physical journey that involves a series of stops and ends at the starting point, but an explanatory video in a single-room trailer home. The narrator of the video is Carl Baugh, founder of the CEM, doctorate in a field that varies from time to time, and tireless researcher of research that only he understands.

When you get to the museum, you will most likely have your choice of seats, as things haven't been too busy lately. The future looks bright, however, and the construction of the building next door should continue soon. This new building, the permanent home of the Creation Evidence Museum, will contain the world's largest hyperbaric biosphere, since everyone knows that the prediluvian world had an atmospheric pressure much greater than ours today, and that the crystalline matrix that separated the waters of the earth from the waters of heaven—as described in the Book of Genesis—filtered out all wavelengths of light except for magenta. It was this matrix that God punctured (here Baugh gestures with his finger, as if popping a bubble) to cause the world to flood, and bringing us to our modern day.

Baugh comes off like a slight creepy Mr. Wizard. He's avuncular and didactic, but from his tone of voice it is clear that you have to accept that he's right without question or investigation. He only appears at the museum in public on the first Saturday of every month, to give a lecture on recent developments in creation science and occasionally lecture on the Museum's work, such as sending missionaries to Papua New Guinea, where they observed pterodactyls.

But the museum has put out a good number of staff publications, available for purchase at the museum. These address questions such as "an DNA matching prove that man did or did not come from primates?" and "Why did God create spiders & vicious animals?" One such publication, authored by David V. Bassett, M.S., CEM Staff Writer, ends

I do not hear many calls coming from the people talking about global warming to bulldoze the rain forests. If they really believe in global warming, the rain forests, the rotting wood and the insects in those rain forests are the worst contributors.

If you read Baugh's dissertation—which is either about education and teaching creationism in schools, or about archeological evidence that dinosaurs and man were contemporaries—long enough, you'll come to a section entitled "Darwin's Phobias," in which Baugh psychoanalzes Charles Darwin. He concludes

It is, then, the conclusion of this author that Darwin experienced unithanatophobia (defined as: an obsession with universal death) and anisotrophobia (defined as: fear of designed structure in nature culminating in man).

I don't have a dictionary of psychology at hand, but it is worth noting that neither unithanatophobia or anisotrophobia are in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, and that Google, Yahoo, and MSN Search turn up exactly one usage: Baugh's dissertation.

It's fairly easy to discover that Baugh's credentials are questionable at best. He claims his (first, current) doctorate in education from the Pacific College of Graduate Studies, which does not have a website and is likely a diploma mill. He previously claimed a degree in anthropology from the College of Advanced Education in Irving, Texas, which does not exist. His most recent doctorate is from the Louisiana Baptist University (née Baptist Christian University), an unaccredited correspondence school in Shreveport.

But if you show up late on a sticky weekday afternoon, you don't know that. The room is air-conditioned and dark, and it contains unlabeled exhibits behind glass cases and Baugh's first hyperbaric chamber, magenta gels over its windows. On tape, Baugh is charismatic and seems to speak the language of science, countering counter-arguments, explaining the mural along one wall, inviting you to understand the truth about the world.

Ten minutes after the movie stops it begins again.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Waco, Texas

On the second floor of the Dr Pepper Museum and "Foots" Clements Free Enterprise Institute, is an exhibit about Dr Pepper's contribution to the war effort. This contribution, near as I can tell, consisted of selling soda to the army and lobbying Congress (successfully) to declare Dr Pepper vital to the war effort and therefore exempt from sugar rationing.

The museum has the dual charge of commemorating original formula (ie, non corn-syrupy) Dr Pepper and promoting libertarianism among school children. The museum's mission is

to educate and entertain the general public through the collection, preservation, interpretation, and exhibition of objects relevant to the history of the soft drink industry, and through that example, the free enterprise economic system.

This plays well in Waco, apparently, as the museum is a popular place for school tours. Like pretty much everything associated with the museum, as a child I would have been ecstatic to come, but now the whole thing makes me leery. It's one big paean to the Dr Pepper-7-Up-Cadbury Schweppes Company, and doesn't seem particularly educational. There are televisions with repeating loops of Dr Pepper commercials. But what most encapsulates this is the museum's summer camp, for kids aged 8 to 13, where they can learn the ancient art of soda jerking, create a soda, and generally eat sugar and business all day. All the cool kids are there, though, I'm sure.

Up on the third floor is the WW "Foots" Clements Free Enterprise Institute and, for me, the main event, the BeverageWorld Soft Drink Hall of Fame. Think of it: little shrines to each aluminum can, a short history of the drink, perhaps all of this on a bronze plaque, like Cooperstown. Would RC Cola make the cut? What about Dr. Brown's Cel-Ray? Or Crush?

I have set myself up for disappointment. The Hall of Fame is for soft drink executives, and has small brass plaques that read

Harry E. Korab
Society of Soft Drinks
Technologists and
Operational Persons
Inducted in 1990

James B. "Bud" Lindsey, Sr.
Bottling Company
Bakersfield, California
Inducted in 1988

Myron E. Weil
Royal Crown Cola
Bottling Company, Inc.
Inducted in 1990

Kenneth E Kingsley
Alpac Corporation
National Soft Drink Association
Inducted in 1983

and so on, with colored pencil pictures of the executives beside them. It is, perhaps the worst Hall of Fame I have ever been to. There are no stories, nothing of interest, really, unless you are one of the inductees. Even then, I can't imagine that you'd make a trip to Waco to show, well, anyone.

The letters of the entrance sign aren't even applied straight.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Austin (III)

The other thing to do in Austin—other than a promenade along 6th Street—is a visit to Barton Springs. Barton Springs is a swimming hole, not far from the center of Austin and recommended by, well, everyone. The water is 68 degrees Fahrenheit year-round, and while the Austinites tell say that that's cold, you have to realize they live in a place where it's normal for the temperature to be 85 degrees and humid at 2:30 am.

The 900 foot long pool costs $3, but cheapskates and fellow travelers can swim for free in the rapids or the stream just past it (and in front of unenforced "no swimming" stencils). The pool was actually closed for three months in 2003, after the Austin American-Statesman reported high levels of arsenic and benzene in the water, but government scientists found no true hazards.

Still, the city closes the pool on Thursdays for cleaning, which makes Fridays the best day to go. That is, unless you visit downstream, which is where they push the algae.

Jocelyn—my friend-for-a-day in Austin—and I both agree that the water in Austin tastes funny.

"It's like the water's moldy," Jocelyn says, and she's right.

"It's like the water gets moldy from the heat," I say.

"Maybe," Jocelyn says.

The Colorado River runs through Austin, which doesn't make any sense. The Colorado has its mouth in the Gulf of California. The Rio Grande outlets into the Gulf of Mexico. So, we outlanders ask, do the Colorado and the Rio Grande cross? How is it possible that the Colorado is here?

Just as Nashville has a second Parthenon, Austin has a second Colorado River. It flows for 600 miles from Lamesa, Texas (more or less) to the Gulf of Mexico, and is the longest river solely in Texas. No canyons, grand or otherwise, though I suspect that this Colorado River always reaches the sea.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Austin (II)

At nightfall, the bats appear from the Congress Avenue Bridge. In the air, flying in schools, they seem frantic and twitchy, darting every which way. But individually they are all graceful arcs and quick turns, dives and swoops and long spirals. And fragile: they are Mexican free-tail bats, with bodies no longer than my index finger.

The bats, I learn, aren't blind, which helps them navigate their close-quarters emergence. On Fridays and Saturdays nights in summer the area around the bridge is packed, hundreds of people in the parking lot of the Austin American-Statesman, above the lake, and in kayaks and paddleboats along the water. The best place to watch the bats emerge, according to the weekend tablers from Bat Conservation International, is atop the bridge. From there you can see the bats as they stream out over Town Lake, the reflected light left in the sky mirrored in the water below.

The Austin colony is the largest urban colony in the country and, perhaps the world. (The world is a big place, and Texans like biggest.) Between 500,000 and 700,000 bats live in the expansion joints of the Congress Avenue Bridge, exclusively females and babies; a similarly sized colony of males lives nearby. They eat somewhere between 10,000 and 30,000 pounds of insects every night, depending on whose numbers you trust. In October the bats will migrate south for the winter, and the viewings will end, to resume in the spring of next year.

Farther south is a colony of 20 to 40 million bats, and according to Bat Conservation International, the emergence is even more spectacular.

The Austinites love the bats now—or the bulk of them, anyway—but it wasn't always so. In the mid-80s, when the bats moved in, the American-Statesman unilaterally declared a public health crisis, mostly because everyone knows that bats carry disease, drink blood, and are really blood-sucking vampires. In reality, of course, bats tend to inhibit the spread of disease by eating insects, but facts have rarely inhibited good yellow journalism.

Today the colony is, well, an attraction. All the tourists I met had gone or were planning to go, and you can buy postcards of the bats at the convenience stores nearby. The American-Statesman has come around as well, and now provides free parking in the evenings for bat-watchers.

Best of all, there's a bat statue at the corner of South Congress and Barton Springs Road. It may look more like the bat of the Batsignal than an actual living, flying bat, but still, it's easier to find—and more recognizable—than the statue of Stevie Ray Vaughan.