Saturday, February 20, 2021

The Great Texas Freeze-Out of 2021

by Scott D. Parker

Well, that was something.

As a native Houstonian, I used to look north at winter with a sense of missing out. Look, they had snow. That all changed when I spent a semester in grad school back in 1996 in Kent State University in northeast Ohio. I got a taste of winter and a new understanding came over me: I was not, in fact, missing out on anything. Don't get me wrong: snow for skiing is still awesome. But I was done with cold weather, and I vowed, as I crossed back into Texas that summer never to complain about the heat again. 

And I haven't. Partway through this week, I told my son I can't wait for August in Texas. 

Winters here in Houston are relatively mild most of the time. I kept my Ohio winter jacket but rarely need it. A few years ago, we literally got winter for a weekend. A big cold snap that killed plants but we were back to our normal Houston winter the following week. No problem.

But this week was a problem. For me and my family and millions of others. 

This past weekend was normal. My wife and I watched some television on Sunday night before she retired to bed. My son returned from his job and ventured into his room to watch some anime and YouTube. I had Presidents' Day off so I stayed up later than usual. I channel surfed before falling asleep on the couch, a rarity for me. So tired was I that not only did I fall asleep in my clothes but I didn't plug in my iPhone.

Two hours after midnight on Monday morning, the sleet arrived and the power blipped out. As a resident of the fourth largest city in the country, when our power goes out, it's usually back on in minutes or less. As a preemptive measure, I lit the gas fireplace. I didn't turn it off until Wednesday night when our power was restored. Fifty-eight hours in case you were wondering. 

Monday and Tuesday were the worst, with Monday night the coldest weather I've endured since Ohio. But at least in Ohio we had power and heaters. For two days, during the worst cold to hit the city in thirty years--some say over a century--there was no power in the house.

Our house is U-shaped. On one end was the TV room. That's where the fireplace is. It faces north which, during hurricane season (they come from the south) is a good thing. No so much for winter weather. We put sheets over the back glass door and the short front hallway. We closed the hall door to the back of the house. When we had to let our dogs out, I used the back game room as the 'airlock.' Every door in the house was opened and closed. We could literally feel the temperature drop as we went into each room. 

We stocked our essential refrigerator food into the ice chest and took it outside. Ditto for the frozen food. The irony there was that we needed simply to leave it outside. It was cold enough. We brought in the sleeping bags and the air mattress that we discovered held no air into the main room and hunkered down.

Fearing burst water pipes, we preemptively turned off the water at the house. As of yesterday morning, we still hadn't turned it back on. We wanted Friday's sun and another day's worth of home heating to warm the pipes and pray they didn't burst. For the bathroom facilities, yes, we harvested snow for the bathtub. My dad--who grew up in Tyler, Texas, and dealt with spotty electricity as something that happened frequently enough that they had lanterns around the house--reminded me of the rhyme about hygiene without water: "If it's yellow, let it mellow. If it's brown, flush it down." 

The clothes I fell asleep in back on Sunday consisted of jeans, undershirt, button down shirt, and a wool sweater. Monday morning, I added a knit sweater and a hoodie. For my head, I put on a stocking cap. In the house. Despite the gas fireplace (and gas stove), the temperature continued to drop. The lowest it got in that room, with three people, two dogs, and a cat, was 39 degrees.

With no power to charge our phones, my boy and I went out to my car, which is now the oldest of the three cars and gets to spend its time in the driveway. Lucky for us. I had filled the tank and the boy and I sat for hours, charging phones, listening to classic rock radio, and getting warm. The wife opted to stay inside with the dogs and the fireplace, layered up, and read or played Plants vs. Zombies. 

Driving around on Monday with the snow and ice on the roads, some of my old Ohio skills returned. I used it as a teaching experience. We found a Walgreens open and bought some more batteries, a trio of flashlights, and some ground coffee. I buy coffee beans and grind them myself, but without power, those beans are as good as useless.

There's something to be said for being a parent and not being able to keep your child warm. Sure, he's nineteen, but there's still that part of you that knows your child will go to bed cold and there's nothing you can do about it other than offer him more blankets. Ditto for your wife. 

With no other distractions, it is amazing how long an hour can feel. Then a day, and then another day. Cell service was spotty so we'd get our news in fits and starts. We brought in an old battery powered jam box on Tuesday evening--hard to remember where it was--and we three settled into a pleasant waiting experience. Sure, it was fifty-something in the house, but you'd be amazed how warm that felt. 

Wednesday around lunchtime as the boy and I were in line for gas the wife called. The power had blipped off/on/off and then it came on. We drove to a battery store and called my parents. They had lost power, too, but it had come back on. The boy and I feared we'd get the call from the wife that the power had gone off again, but, by the time we got home, it was still on. And it stayed on the rest of the week.

Yet we still operated like we had no power. We were asked to conserve and ratio power so we did. We finally turned off the gas fireplace to conserve natural gas for others. We only used a single lamp in the TV room and didn't turn on the TV. We still used flashlights to get around the house, including when taking the dogs out. We repeated the exercise Thursday night, but did turn on the TV for news and escape. 

Speaking of escape, I got to thank my Kindle yet again. With its light feature and a lot of time to kill, I read Open and Shut by David Rosenfelt most of the way through. 

It's Friday morning as I write this. The sun is shining and I hear the sound of a chainsaw down the street. Sure, I'm still wearing three layers in the house and the thermostat shows 63 in the house--more shared conservation--but I'm hoping today will be the first normal day since Sunday. I'm looking forward to turning the water back on. Sure, we'll have to boil our water, but we'll have running water in the house. Which means we won't have to worry about mellow yellow in the toilet. Which means a shower, a luxury we've not experienced since Sunday. Had a short laugh on Wednesday night when I finally changed out of those Sunday clothes and into fresh PJs and caught a whiff of the body odor the five layers were masking. 

There will be investigations, accusations, blame, and accountability in the months to come. Our legislature is in session this spring so I hope something will be done to ensure something as severe as the Presidents' Day Ice Storm of 2021 doesn't happen again. Well, we can't prevent Mother Nature from doing this again, but we sure as hell can prepare better. 

This was my story as my family experienced it. We're going to learn a whole lot more as we get some distance. Many of those stories will be heart-wrenching and anger inducing and deservedly so. But there will also be stories of shared sacrifice people coming to each others' aid. Let's be sure to listen to them both, commiserate with those who have suffered and celebrate with those who came through. 

My family and I came through. Ain't gonna lie: it was hard but manageable. I consider us blessed to have persevered as smoothly as we did. Other did not. Let's keep them in our prayers and figure out ways to help them now and prepare us all for the next time. Because if we're talking Mother Nature, there will be a next time.

It also made us very aware of just how much electricity we use. As the boy and I drove around the west side of town on Thursday night, much of the power was back on. Office buildings and parking garages were lit up with abandon. So were various commercial places. It was a lot of power at a time we are supposed to conserve. We can't do much about those places, but already we are ensuring all lights and nonessential appliances in our house are turned off. It's a lesson we've certainly learned and will carry forward, thankful for what we have.

But I also want to leave you with this wonderful story: the family who welcomed their newborn son into the world while stuck at home without power or water. Wow.

Update: The pipes held although the water flow in a couple of the sinks have low flow. We think it is the rust of the pipes that have settled and now is clogging those little filters at the faucet. We'll have to fix that this weekend.

Update 2: As of Friday evening, the house was more or less back to normal. We still have pots in the kitchen full of clean, pre-storm water to drink. But it's a little surreal to walk through the house again, the sheets having been taken down and the sleeping bags back in the garage. It's good to be back to normal. May it last a long, long time. 

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Spinning plates and a diva


This week, Beau Johnson takes a look at Derek Farrell's Death of a Diva.

Danny Bird is having a very bad day. In the space of just a few hours he lost his job, his partner and his home.

Ever the optimist, Danny throws himself headlong into his dream to turn the grimmest pub in London into the coolest nightspot south of the river. Sadly, everything doesn’t go quite as planned when his star turn is found strangled hours before opening night.

Danny becomes the prime suspect in the crime, and then the gangster who really owns the pub starts asking where his share of the takings has gone… it seems things are going to get worse for Danny before they get better.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Heath Lowrance and Raccoon Books

 Stolen from Heath Lowrance's IG:

“So, Heath, why ‘Raccoon Books’? What’s that all about?”

Well, since you asked: I am not a patient man. I love working with the small presses, and in the last few years I’ve been lucky enough to work with some of the best; New Pulp Press, Snubnose, Beat to a Pulp, Shotgun Honey. They’ve all been very positive experiences. But a small press, like any business, has its own agenda and its own schedule. And since the world revolves around ME, clearly, that often clashes with MY projected schedule.

At the end of this year, THE BASTARD HAND will see print again from an established small press, and my agenda involves releasing some short story collections leading up to that release. I can’t in good faith expect any small press to fit that in their schedules in the way I want.

So... I started my own press. It’s nothing, really. It’s just a name to work under, to put this stuff out in the manner I want. #heathlowrance #thebastardhand #digtengraves #raccoonbooks #noirfiction #speculativefiction #author #shortstories

The first release from Raccoon Books will be DIG TEN GRAVES, coming in the next couple days, the first of three projected volumes of short stories over the course of the year. After that... who knows?

“No, no, Heath, I mean... why do you call it ‘Raccoon Books’?”

Oh. Well, because I like raccoons, man, that’s all.

Follow Heath here 

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

The Importance, or Not, of Asking Why

By Scott Adlerberg

Scott Adlerberg
Yesterday, a holiday, I went for a long walk with a friend of mine.  This is something he and I do every month or so.  He's someone, about 10 years younger than me, who I've known a good 27 or 28 years now, a guy who has been teaching a long time at a public university in New York City.  He's a fully tenured professor who got his doctorate in Speech Communications, which is the department he belongs to at his school.  It was in relation to job stuff and his experience over time on various things from grading students to conflicts with colleagues that he revealed to me, during our walk, that he has given up on asking people the question "why" when someone tells him something about themselves or about their actions that he doesn't understand or agree with.  

"It serves no purpose," he said.  "Gets me nowhere."

I realized that I've become similar in how I deal with people.  This goes especially for people at work or anyone I'm not close to.  Asking why usually accomplishes nothing other than annoying the person you're talking to; the question itself often provokes a defensive reaction, as if the person asked thinks you are criticizing their belief or thought by merely bringing up that interrogative.  I said what I said or did what I did or believe what I believe. That's enough for you. How dare you ask "why".

On the walk with my friend, I thought about how different this is than the world of fiction, where psychological and emotional understanding of people is a key part of the experience.  A writer may have the most eccentric or deluded or disturbed characters, or characters who live more or less humdrum lives without outre personality traits, and that writer does everything he or she can to make their actions understandable to the reader.  How often, in crime fiction, in horror fiction, in any sort of darker-tinged fiction, do you hear a reader say, reflecting what a certain type of writer shoots for, "I don't need to like a character as long as I can understand them."  

So this has to be yet another area, I'm thinking, where fiction serves as a counterbalance to life.  Much is made of the eternal appeal of detective stories where a figure or a team, within the limited realm they inhabit, solves a crime and thus brings a measure of order and justice to an otherwise chaotic and unjust world.  Fiction as consolation.  That's one of its greatest appeals.  And this emphasis on "why" in fiction seems related.  A person in your day-to-day life does something stupid or selfish or hurtful.  A person says something repugnant about race or expresses a political view you find abhorrent.  They sound off on social media with disinformation and hostility.  Someone at work goes about their business in such and such a way, clearly not helping the overall process.  Do I really need to know the "why" behind their actions or speech?  I don't.  In regular life, with too much to do and not enough time to do it in, where most transactions of any kind are about a result that needs to get done, bringing up "why" puts a kink in things.  Occasionally, the question helps, it fosters a meaningful conversation, but those times are the exception.  I'm less concerned about a person's motives than in doing what needs to be done in whatever is the most beneficial way, the most effective way, with that person.  For a deep dissection of the "whys" that compose another human being, people I like and those I find disagreeable, even horrible, I go to fiction.  It offers that interest and solace.  It is the great playground for the exploration of motive.

Monday, February 15, 2021

Cicely Tyson



“And here in my ninth decade, I am a woman who, at long last, has something meaningful to say.” 

–Cicely Tyson 


by Cicely Tyson 

Cicely Tyson passed away January 28 at the age of 96, just two days after the publication of her first memoir, JUST AS I AM.

This remarkable and beautifully written account reveals to the reader the full and epic life of Ms. Tyson before and during her fame and the often turbulent, historical times that played backdrop. Written with Michelle Burford, who has also worked with Alicia Keys, Toni Braxton, Diane Guerrero, Olympic gymnast Simone Biles, and Paralympian Amy Purdy, the book is divided into three parts, each telling the legendary actor’s amazing story. Planted. Rooted. Bountiful.

Early on Ms. Tyson faced challenges. Born to West Indian parents, racism and hatred were typical elements in her young life. Her home life was often filled with fighting and she had a difficult relationship with her mother. Eventually, her parents divorced. Then, at the age of 17, before she could graduate high school, she became pregnant. Forced to marry the father, after two years they  divorced, and Ms. Tyson became a single mom. Though she had big dreams and a love of the arts she took jobs in offices and typing pools. It was while working downtown for the Red Cross that she was discovered. This chance meeting brought her to her first role and gave us all a great gift.

JUST AS I AM is a graceful telling of Ms. Tyson’s personal and professional life. Although she is one of the most famous actors of our time, only now, with this memoir, do we learn intimate details she had previously kept private: the abuse her mother endured from her father, the lack of meaningful and equal payment for some of the most iconic roles in movie history; SOUNDER, THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY of MISS JANE PITMAN and ROOTS. We read about her delicate and fiercely protected relationship with her daughter and her rocky but resolute relationship with Miles Davis. The life she lived was filled with hard work and hardships, and made all the more poignant by the racism and sexism she endured and survived.

She details her life in New York City with her fellow artists of color that gathered and created there. There are tiny tales about remarkable people: Aretha Franklin, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, James Earl Jones, Ossie and Ruby Davis, Louis Gossett Jr., Richard Pryor, Maya Angelou, Alex Haley, Nelson and Winnie Mandela, Michelle and Barack Obama. Tyson also shares details on her important friendships with Diahann Carroll, Roxie Roker, Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey, Tyler Perry, Kerry Washington, Shonda Rhimes, Ava DuVernay, and Viola Davis, who wrote the foreword for JUST AS I AM.

Cicely Tyson’s life was epic and historical. She received an honorary Academy Award, three Emmy Awards, eight NAACP Image Awards, a BAFTA and a Tony Award. She was a Kennedy Center Honoree in 2015 and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama in 2016.

Ms. Tyson leaves a large legacy, one filled with momentous roles, great loves, and stellar examples of perseverance and determination. And though this memoir is personal and candid, it is also revelatory of a much bigger picture; for Cicely Tyson’s story personifies the difficult life all women of color face and shines as an illustration of the bravery and fight they find or create within themselves to simply live their lives.