Archive for December, 2011

My best New Year’s Eve ever was the one spent with my children on a cold night in an East Texas park where we had an entire state campground to ourselves to ring in the new year. I wrote about it for the (now defunct) Texas Magazine, which was a product of The Houston Chronicle, where of course I spent many years as a working-slug reporter. I’ve posted that magazine piece about the New Year’s campout here before, and so many readers of this blawg liked it that I’m posting it again.

I like it too; it’s one of the few things I ever wrote for publication in my writing life that I was ever satisfied (almost) with. There’s never been a harsher critic of my own writing than my own self.

Anyway, it’s been a great year here at jitterbuggingforjesus.com, and another great year in my life, but not as great as 2012 will be. Thanks for coming here and may the Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make His/Her face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up His/Her countenance upon you and give you peace (from Numbers 6:22-27).

Where the dooh-dah man waits
PAUL MCKAY Staff Writer
SUN 01/25/1998 Houston Chronicle, Texas Magazine

It’s the perfect campfire, a crackling pile of logs and flames with ambers that create a warming in the soul, and glowing ashes that scatter like fireflies in the night.
The right kind of campfire chases away the mystery of darkness – it keeps the “dooh-dah” man at bay -even as it creates its own mystery.

This occurs to me, late on a chilly New Year’s Eve, as I stare into our campfire with my kids at Huntsville State Park.

I have friends – such good friends that they feel free to speak bluntly to me – who have told me that camping on New Year’s Eve is “lunatical.”

They tell me that nobody camps out on New Year’s Eve – especially not with children and most especially not in a tent – all of which is true. Which is why we’ve come camping. We have a major portion of Huntsville State Park all to ourselves.

Around our campfire, we hoot, we holler. We get downright primal.

We get lunatical, disturbing no one, with the possible exception of the coons in the trees.

The night is growing colder by the hour, but we’ve built the perfect fire, composed of the right blend of hard-burning pine wood and soft-burning hard wood, with a few chunks of mesquite thrown into the mix to produce a smell as tranquilizing as incense.

The flames are flamboyant shades of red and blue, orange and yellow. The blinking coals at the base of the fire would be perfect for cooking, but dinner time is past. We’ve had our campfire meal, and we’ve had our fill of what once were lush, white marshmallows that the kids cooked. Roasted to a crispy black and seasoned with dirt, marshmallows are not that hard to take, once the taste buds adapt to the initial shock.

We’ve come to the hour when we gaze quietly into the fire and get mesmerized by it. We probably will bring in the New Year not with a bang but a crackle.

We occasionally swivel our heads around and marvel at the stars. That’s one of the benefits of staring deep into the mysterious glow of a campfire. You can’t help but look up, from time to time, and search the stars. It’s always a satisfying search, even if you don’t know what you’re looking at – even if you don’t know what you’re looking for.

I think back to a night when I was about 12. My father let me tag along with him and a group of his buddies for a night of camping on a bluff overlooking the Brazos River. I remember two wooden tables at the campsite that were so huge as to be in scale with the trees that towered above the men. They sat at the tables to play games of chance and sip from bottles of strong drink by the light of lanterns.

A lantern is a moveable feast of light. You can hang it up, set it down or carry it around. No matter how you use it, it provides a circular glow that – if you’ve a mind for the intrigue of light – can be as interesting, almost, as a campfire light.

While the men played poker, I prepared to venture off with a firearm, a lantern and a flashlight, in search of coons.

“Watch out for the dooh-dah man,” one of my father’s friends warned.

As if I were scared of any dooh-dah man, whoever or whatever he was.

I exposed numerous coons in beams of light from my flashlight, exposing the sorrowfulness of coon eyes. I did not have the heart to kill my prey, but I thoroughly enjoyed finding my way in the wilds by lantern light, having my flashlight and a warm gun as extra security.

I have always enjoyed hunting as long as there was no killing involved.

Later that night, when the friendly gaming broke up around the tables, the men sauntered over to the campfire. Earlier, around those tables, there had been hooting and hollering and playful ribbing. But now the hour was late, and someone stoked the dying campfire to a full blaze.

I remember the stillness around that fire, how the men became withdrawn, seemingly hypnotized by the flames. Suddenly, one in this group of grown men dropped to one knee, seized by the flood of his own tears. The other men were alarmed and crowded around him, but he waved them off.

“I’m all right! I’m all right! I just need to get it out!” the weeping man shouted.

I learned later that he had been reduced to tears by the memory of his wife, who had died several years before. Apparently, the firelight stirred the emotional outburst. For sure, the tears were in no way triggered by strong drink, as he was a teetotaler.

It goes to show how deeply the light of a warm fire, on a dark night, can penetrate the soul and summon up intense emotions, including sorrow.

And yet a flickering fire can be a calming influence. Like whittling, the very act of sitting by a fire and getting focused can clear the mind in such a way that insights rise to the surface. Whittling around a campfire at night has to be about as therapeutical as therapeutical can get.

You can gaze into a good fire and vividly recall the past, or clearly consider the future. Best of all, firelight can chase away worry and tension so that the here and now – the present moment that God and mental-health experts so strongly urge us to live in -feels like a warm coat on a winter’s night.

On this night at Huntsville State Park, my 14-year-old son announces that he wants to tell a ghost story. His younger sisters shiver at the thought of a chilling yarn in the backwoods on a late evening, and I do not want to be up all night with a pair of young girls too scared to sleep. I tell my son that the story of the headless soldier will have to wait until the light of New Year’s Day, if the story gets told at all.

In lieu of ghost stories, we share really corny jokes. A joke is nothing more than a story, and no campfire would be complete without some stories told around it. Storytelling, like creating a perfect campfire, is an ancient art, older than a coon’s age.

One hour away from 1998, the jokes have gotten so lame that there is yawning all around. We snuff out the fire. By the circular light of a lantern, we trudge toward the chilly tent where we huddle under piles of blankets for a cold night’s sleep.

We hear ruffling outside. The kids ask what’s out there. I am tempted to say it’s the dooh-dah man, but the thought of the dooh-dah man – whoever and whatever he is – being outside our tent near midnight gives me the jimjams.

“It’s probably a sad, old coon up in the trees, trying to get some sleep,” I explain.

We nod off around the midnight hour, like a bunch of blissful, lunatical maniacs who don’t have sense enough to come in from the cold – while the rest of the world brings in the New Year with the usual bang.

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"Ring in the common love of good . . . "

One of the first poets who really grabbed me–the poet whose Muses really sang to me in my formative years–was Lord Alfred Tennyson. In a tribute to him, William Howitt wrote this perfect description of Tennyson’s poetic sensibilities:

“From all these places–from the silent corridor of an ancient convent, from some shrine where a devoted knight recites his vows, from the dreary monotony of ‘the moated grange,’ or the forest beneath the ‘talking oak’–comes the voice of Tennyson, rich, dreamy, passionate, yet not impatient, musical with the airs of chivalrous ages, yet mingling in his song the theme and spirit of those that are yet to come.”

In Memoriam, [Ring out, wild bells]
by Lord Alfred Tennyson

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light:
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind
For those that here we see no more;
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

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Hey Fido, would it kill ya to get up off your lazy dawg ass to eat them Kittles???

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“No, the word is very near to you, it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.”
— Dt. 30:14

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So this morning I was going through drafts of postings I’ve never posted for whatever reasons. In doing so I found this very cool song from Bill Withers with Grover Washington Jr. on his sexy sax.

I remember putting this posting together on a really rainy day here at your favorite blawg and not having time to finish it and post it. Today is sunny and bright here in Dallas, the World Headquarters of *Jitterbuggingforjesus.com, but this song is cool music therapy no matter what the weather. I never get tired of hearing it.

[*Jitterbuggingforjesus.com is the blawg that is saving the world with its wit, wisdom, provocations and stimulations while possibly (probably!) alienating whole towns, nations, cities and states–the blawg that asks the question, “Whatever happened to that loud-mouth frog Sarah Palin?”]

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“We live in a deranged age, more deranged than usual,” the late and great writer Walker Percy wrote, “because in spite of great scientific and technological advances, man has not the faintest idea of who he is or what he is doing.”

At the end of the day, Percy–who was an oblate at the Benedictine Abbey where he is buried–believed God was our only hope, a very present help in times of trouble–and a total mystery.

Percy understand that nothing, not even God Himself/Herself is a certainty, but rather a mystery, like life itself.

Christian faith is about the love and the mystery of God and the mystery of all things God, but it’s what I always refer to as “a magnificent mystery.”

And for me, that’s more than enough, as it was for Mr. Percy.

This is from the late and great writer’s self-interview in the December 1977 Esquire Magazine . . .

Q: What kind of Catholic are you?

A. Bad.

Q: Are you a dogmatic Catholic or an open-minded Catholic?

A: I don’t know what that means . . . . Do you mean do I believe the dogma that the Catholic Church proposes for belief?

Q: Yes.

A: Yes.

Q: How is such a belief possible in this day and age?

A: What else is there?

Q: What do you mean, what else is there? There is humanism, atheism, agnosticism, Marxism, behaviorism, materialism, Buddhism, Muhammadanism, Sufism, astrology, occultism, theosophy.

A: That’s what I mean.

Q: I don’t understand. Would you exclude, for example, scientific humanism as a rational and honorable alternative?

A: Yes.

Q: Why?

A: It’s not good enough.

Q: Why not?

A: This life is too much trouble, far too strange, to arrive at the end of it and then to be asked what you make of it and have to answer “Scientific humanism.” That won’t do. A poor show. Life is a mystery, love is a delight. Therefore I take it as axiomatic that one should settle for nothing less than the infinite mystery and the infinite delight, i.e., God. In fact I demand it. I refuse to settle for anything less.

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Photo by the fine and very fine photographer in Sante Fe, New Mexico, Katie Johnson, at

Let the heavens be glad and the earth rejoice; let the sea and what fills it resound; let the plains be joyful and all that is in them. Then let all the trees of the forest rejoice

— Psalm 96: 11-12

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