For the December issue of Amarillo Magazine, I interviewed the heads of Amarillo's Police Department, Fire Department, and Emergency Medical Services. From a personal standpoint, I appreciated their personal ethics and focus on serving the community. A day in which an average citizen comes face-to-face with one of these first responders doing their job...is not always a good day. All three—APD's Ed Drain, AFD's Jeff Greenlee, and Will Hendon of Amarillo Medical Services—provided to be thoughtful advocates for their employees and the city itself.
One of the cool things about my work for Amarillo Magazine is that each month's cover story is so wildly different from previous months. For the September 2016 issue, I wrote about a support group for grieving widows. This month? Hunting dogs.
It was fun interviewing so many different hunters, all of whom were probably more passionate about seeing their dogs work than actually shooting birds. The bond between hunter and dog is a powerful thing—as is the instinct and excitement dogs show when they get out in the field.
In addition to the striking photos by Amarillo photographer Davy Knapp (a long-time friend), this piece gave me a chance to go with a slightly more creative introduction than usual, writing from the dog's perspective.
The dog knows.
As the fall months approach, the morning temperatures turn crisp. The sunlight changes. Leaves litter the ground until finally, early one morning, the dog’s master arrives, in the darkness. He opens her crate.
Maybe he gives a special command, like “Let’s go.” The dog knows what that means.
Maybe he wears a certain coat or boots. The dog knows what those mean, too.
Maybe a small change to the dog’s home environment clues her in. The presence of a certain pickup truck. A travel crate that’s been taken out of storage. A special Thermos. These are small changes to her home environment, but the dog recognizes them. She understands their significance. She can barely contain herself.
It’s hunting season.
My wife, Aimee, and I just returned from a bucket-list trip to Peru to visit Machu Picchu. Due to the epic scenery we were told to expect, we opted to take the less-regulated Salkantay Trek rather than the more famous Inca Trail. Over five days, we walked 60-plus miles (according to my Fitbit), reached elevations higher than anything we've experienced before, and got a tiny glimpse of the incredibly diverse, spectacular Peruvian landscape.
"Amazing" barely begins to describe it. We booked the tour with Valencia Travel and highly recommend them. One note for anyone interested: The elevation is no joke. You will walk and climb some serious trails. It can be done by people of all ages and body types (we saw all kinds) but definitely prepare for it before you go.
Some photos from our experience:
Some of the gear we used:
- We take this collapsible, lightweight Chico Bag backpack everywhere. An ideal daypack for travel or backpacking.
- Packable, lightweight raincoats are a necessity.
- These Saucony Ulti-Mitts are my favorite gloves. I bought them for running but they were great in this cold, high-elevation environment.
- Saucony Drylete arm sleeves allow you to stay warm even in a t-shirt. And they're easily removable once the temps rise.
- Bug repellent is an absolute at the lower elevations. These 30% wipes travel well, but in some locations you're going to want 100% Deet products.
- I wore these Makino quick-dry hiking pants the whole time and love them—especially the zippered pockets. They're Chinese, so even though I usually wear 30x34 pants in the U.S., I got an XL (I had to take up the waist about an inch).
- This Ex Officio BugsAway shirt worked well in the buggy rainforest portion. However, it's heavier and bulkier than I prefer.
- At the highest elevations, we saw temps around 35ºF. The 20º-rated Marmot Trestles sleeping bag was perfect—and super lightweight.
- Aimee and I both used our old GoLite backpacks, which proved to be a little large for this trip (porters carried the majority of our stuff). If we did it again, we'd probably take something in the 35-50L range, like the Osprey Kestrel.
No question: This was probably the most interesting cover story I've had the pleasure of writing for Amarillo Magazine. I got to take an almost three-hour tour through the storage rooms and deep archives of Panhandle Plains Historical Museum, the largest history museum in Texas. There are literally millions of artifacts the museum's busy curators are helping preserve—some of which have never been seen by the public.
Combine all the inventory of the antiques shops on Sixth Street and it still doesn't compare to this collection of art, weapons, tools, vehicles, clothing, and other curiosities. So much fun for a history lover like me.
Today is release day for 12 Major World Religions, so I'm celebrating it with a quick, self-interviewed question-and-answer session. Enjoy!
What was the writing process like?
Since the book was intended to provide a comparative approach, my research for each religious system was built around several categories—beginnings, historical timeline, major figures, major tenets, etc. Those sections are where I started with each religion. Other sidebars and different details developed from there as I studied and read. As for sources, I spent a lot of time between academic or anthropological books about the religion (like Mary Boyce’s valuable works on Zoroastrianism, for instance) and those written by leading voices within the religion (like Pickthall’s The Meaning of the Glorious Qur’an).
Is it hard to write an unbiased book about religion when you come from a Christian background?
Not as hard as you might think. It would be arrogant to pretend that I didn’t have some biases going in, though I worked to limit them. I definitely am more familiar with the tenets and teachings of Christianity than any of the other faiths I wrote about. I’m also more familiar with Christianity’s more negative or problematic aspects, too. So I think those balance out. But I want it to be clear that, despite my background, this is not a “Christian book about world religions.” I try to keep as secular a perspective as possible and approached every religion, including Christianity, from a neutral viewpoint.
What religion was the most interesting to you?
Sikhism, without a doubt. After spending hours writing about a religion, I would sit down at dinner and share a little about that faith with my wife and two teenage kids. I found myself talking most passionately about this misunderstood Indian faith which focuses on equality, hospitality, and inclusiveness. You've seen Sikhs before, especially if you've taken a cab in a large city like LA or New York—they wear turbans and have a long history of persecution, at the hands of Muslims and Hindus in India and even from Americans in the days after 9/11. There are so many things I found inspiring about Sikhism.
What religion surprised you most in your research?
Zoroastrianism, again without a doubt. I had some familiarity with this ancient and influential faith from previous books (including this one), but the more I've dug into its teachings, the more I see its similarities with elements of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The doctrinal overlap between these faiths are controversial in a lot of circles—it has to do with how you date the development of Zoroastrianism compared to the Babylonian Exile—but they are fascinating to consider.
Which religion did you like the least?
I'm not answering that. :)
What are some random religious beliefs that now interest you?
In no particular order, here are things I still find myself telling people about: towers of silence (Zoroastrianism), the Sikh principle of seva (Sikhism), naked Digambara monks (Jainism), the Muslim appreciation of Jesus as the prophet Isa ibn Maryam (Islam), the idea of work as worship (Baha’i), and Tibetan prayer flags (Buddhism). In fact, my wife and I recently hung Tibetan prayer flags on our back porch because 1) they look cool and 2) I like the symbolism.
Last September I put the final touches on my Greek Mythology book and headed to Europe on a vacation with my wife. I returned in October to an email from my editor. "I'm hoping you have had a good experience working with [us]. If you have the time and inclination, I have another project I hope you'll be interested in: a comparative look at the 12 most major religions."
Having written extensively about evangelical Christian apocalypticism, the Catholic saints, and the various afterlife teachings of a variety of world religions, it's not a stretch to say that religion has long been my "beat" as a writer of nonfiction. I've been fascinated by it since I began reading outside my own Southern Baptist faith tradition in my late high school years. One of my favorite college-level classes was a world religions survey course—a humanities elective, I think—led by a Catholic priest friend of mine.
So, yeah. My editor was right in thinking I would be interested in the project. By the end of that October, we were discussing an outline and had put together a very condensed writing schedule. During my kids' Christmas break, I began writing and researching in earnest. My deadline for the manuscript was in April.
That gave me about 16 weeks to write chapters about Egyptian mythology, Greek mythology, Norse mythology, and the teachings and beliefs of a dozen world religions in what would become an accessible, intensively fact-checked and well-sourced reference book.
It. Was. HARD.
I've written a lot of books on tight deadlines, but this was definitely the most challenging project I've ever done. But I am thrilled with the result. My author's copies arrived last week, and every time I page through the physical book, I'm surprised by the diversity of information in there. While this book lacks the snarky "voice" I've adopted in previous books—for better or worse, depending on whom you ask—it has become THE book I'll put at the top of my resume.
From the current election in the US to terrorism and other events on the world stage, religion runs the show. It drives decisions. It influences behavior. It colors our perspective of almost everything that happens on our planet, from scientific advancements to the arrival of new technologies.
We need to understand religion better—our own faiths, and those belonging to others.
12 Major World Religions: The Beliefs, Rituals, and Traditions of Humanity's Most Influential Faiths releases a week from today, on August 30. I'm proud of this book and hope you'll pre-order a copy.
Really proud of my cover story for the August issue of Amarillo Magazine. It's called "Hope Is a Four-Letter Word" and tells how nonprofits and Amarillo residents are working to transform the historic, troubled San Jacinto neighborhood from the inside out. Interviewed a ton of people for this one, from the medical staff behind Heal the City to formerly incarcerated women rebuilding their lives at Patsy's Place Transitional Home to poverty activists who have a big vision for the area. I was especially impressed with the senior adults serving a weekly meal to other senior adults at Acts Community Resource Center.
Brady Clark summarized the work happening there with a fantastic quote that found its way into the piece: "No one agency, no one ministry, no one organization can deal with this. It’s too big.”
As Heal the City continues to expand and Square Mile Industries works on bringing a grocery co-op to the neighborhood, I'm excited to see how things continue to shape up in San Jacinto.
Mile Marker 13 on US Highway 163 in southern Utah's Monument Valley is the place where Forrest Gump ended his cross-country run. It's the site of one of the most iconic photos of the American West. And because it's also sort of between the Grand Canyon and Moab (Arches National Park), we decided to drive it during our June road trip.
It's a ridiculously scenic drive. When we first got to the famous marker, we were alone. By the time we left, several vehicles and a large crowd of people had stopped.
We let our kids shoot the middle-of-the-road photo, but only with one parent looking in one direction for oncoming traffic and another looking the opposite direction. You can see a long way in the photo above, but there's a rise behind you. Could be dangerous for people not paying attention—like one guy with a video camera who almost got run over as we were leaving. He just set up a tripod right in the middle of the highway and was shooting away, oblivious to the fact that, you know, THIS IS A HIGHWAY.
Get the photo. But don't be an idiot.
Back in late 2012, I recorded an interview about the looming 2012 apocalypse with Clay Morgan, Matt Mikalatos, and JR Forasteros on a new podcast they had started called StoryMen. It was only their second episode, and I was their very first interview. Luckily, the Mayan apocalypse didn't go down as planned—surprising perhaps dozens of people—and the podcast was able to continue production.
Now three years later, they've got 132 episodes under their belt and are still going strong. This time around they had me on to discuss my new Greek Mythology book. You can listen to it or download it here. The episode starts with a mythology quiz among the three hosts. My portion starts around 12 minutes in.
We have a good freewheeling discussion about why I wrote the book, which stories are my favorite, why the Greek myths matter, how Christianity killed the Greek religion, and why I got so enraged when the guys' intro mistakenly identified me as being from Lubbock, Texas.
Download from iTunes
Download from Stitcher
I wasn't planning to write a book last summer, but in July an editor at Callisto Press who knew of my Pocket Guide books asked me if I was interested in writing a book along those lines about Greek Mythology. I was always fascinated with mythology as a kid and in high school, and I try to be in the habit of saying YES to new opportunities.
So...I agreed to do it. By the end of September, I was finishing up this manuscript. As of June 21, 2016, you can read it yourself. Kindle and e-book versions will be available, but if you want all the sweet illustrations, I suggest pre-ordering the paperback.
For the April issue of Amarillo Magazine, I had the honor of talking to a couple of local families whose children are on the autism spectrum, along with the parent-led organization that works with these families. An excerpt:
“If you’ve met one child with autism, then you’ve only met one child with autism,” says Tiffany Coto, whose son, Christopher Wilborn, had the same developmental delays and frequent breakdowns as Lucas. “When I tell someone he’s autistic, they always say, ‘He doesn’t look autistic.’ But what does an autistic kid look like?”
Unlike, for instance, Down Syndrome, autism doesn’t have a physical component visible in a child’s appearance. Instead, it impacts their behavior, communication and social skills. “You could see three different kids [with autism] in one day and you’d never know until you interacted with them,” says Coto.
The two moms I spoke to for the article both commented about how heartbreaking it can be when autistic kids have breakdowns in public, often triggered by sensitivities to light, sound, or motion that researchers are only beginning to understand. The parents are often glared at, or told they just "need to give that kid a good spanking." That's why many autistic families start going out in public altogether. It can be incredibly isolating.
Be kind, everyone.
I wrote about Amarillo philanthropy icon Eveline Rivers-McCoy and her Sunshine Cottages for the April issue of Amarillo Magazine. This organization invites single moms and kids to live in a cluster of homes while the moms finish their education. There's a built-in support system, and it has been truly successful. It's an amazing idea...and ought to be happening elsewhere. (It's not.)
The moms are laughing and talking about their day at school. When Eveline Rivers-McCoy joins them on the sidewalk, dodging kids in the process, she laughs as she pulls the moms into three sincere hugs. The four women don’t look alike, but the affection and familiarity they show one another is like that of a family.
A long-time icon of local philanthropy, Eveline has another word for it. “We call it a sisterhood,” she says. “All the moms are going through the same scenario. All the children are a part of the scenario, so their friendships have bonded, too.”
One of my favorite pieces in awhile to write and interview.
[photo by Shannon Richardson]
I have a big compost pile in my backyard. We program our thermostat, pay for recycling (it's not offered locally), experiment with vermicomposting, have a home garden, and do our best to minimize waste. In a city that's pretty unfriendly to "liberal" ideas, we're attempting to be good stewards of the environment—as much as possible around here. So I was thrilled to get to interview local green builder Brandon Dumas and write a feature about energy-efficient homes.
Biggest surprise? Environmentally friendly homes are a hard sell here. That doesn't work as a marketing pitch. It actually makes some people mad. But everyone's happy to save money. So what other cities call environmentally friendly construction we call "energy-efficient" construction. That way everyone's happy, including the environment. (Shhhhh.)
[Illustration by Kayla Morris of Amarillo Magazine]
I wrote a fun cover for the March issue of Amarillo Magazine, which was all about beef. I interviewed local butchers. I visited a traditional Mexican meat market, where I tried lengua (tongue) tacos. I spoke to the legendary Big Texan Steak Ranch impresario Bobby Lee about how to prepare a steak. I immersed myself in all the different cuts of beef.
I got hungry.
[illustration by Kayla Morris of Amarillo Magazine]
For the December issue of Amarillo Magazine, I profiled a number of local volunteers working hard to make Amarillo a better place. They included:
- A singer who entertains dementia residents at a skilled nursing facility
- A former CEO who participated in three different service projects on a single Saturday
- A 15 year-old who recruits her peers to join her in volunteering
- An accountant who spends her evenings organizing parties for the homeless
- A victim of domestic violence who raises money for other victims
- A Hispanic social worker who promotes higher education within her community
I loved interviewing these people and telling their stories. In a time when a lot of people have grown cynical about Amarillo's leaders, these quiet leaders are driven by a passion to help people. "I know I’m supposed to do this,” one told me. “If I don’t, shame on me.”
Politics and religion are two things I used to post about quite often, back when I was a blogger building a "platform" so I could sell books and establish myself as...something. I wrote a lot about religion, so I would opine on that. And I care about politics, so I would opine on that, too.
I don't do either of those much anymore. Most of my writing career is for other companies, organizations, or people these days—often not even under my own name—so I like to hold my opinions close to the vest. But the sudden vitriol this week coming from the Republican party against refugees fleeing Syria was just too much. Too much hypocrisy for the party associated with conservative religious beliefs, the authority of the Bible, and the Evangelical Christians who comprise so much of its base. I don't often feel compelled to take a stand, but I did this time.
I wrote a short piece about it, pitched the idea to editors at The Guardian, and they published it yesterday. The formal op-ed style isn't my favorite genre of writing—it can be pretty stilted, under a very limiting word count—but I always think it's good to write in a format that stretches you. Here's an excerpt from "Republicans like to invoke the Bible yet ignore what it teaches about refugees":
While it is understandable to be concerned about safety, taking an anti-refugee position is contrary to the beliefs of the faithful voters these Republican leaders rely upon every election day. They are also taking a position contrary to the Bible these leaders supposedly care so much about.
Throughout the Gospels, Jesus taught his followers to love their enemies (Matthew 5:43-44), welcome strangers (Matthew 25:40), and show mercy to those in need (Luke 10:25-37). No doubt these teachings apply to families on the run from ISIS.
These passages represent only a sliver of biblical teaching on the topic, and the Christians I know don’t just believe these verses, but act on them.
Read the rest of the piece, in which I discuss some of the work my conservative, religious family members have done on behalf of refugees in Amarillo—and why the Republican party seems to be abandoning this work of the faithful out of concerns about security. I continue to be so saddened by this direction taken by the GOP presidential nominees and governors.
The last few months have seen a lot of chaos and dissension in Amarillo, related to the MPEV vote and the drama surrounding our City Council.
The last week has seen a lot of chaos and dissension in Texas and the U.S., related to the attacks in Paris and the Republican push-back against Syrian refugees.
It's maddening and saddening and all the voices are entirely too negative. Which is why I'm glad I've been interviewing local volunteers for the December issue of Amarillo Magazine. These are regular people who give hours of their time to help other people.
They say things like:
- “I think we’re here to serve. It doesn’t matter what your religious background is. We’re here to help other people and I think that’s what life is about.”
- "I want to try to make a difference in the world. I just really love to help people."
- "Every person, to me, is important. I think they are precious."
- "I know I’m supposed to do this. If I don’t, shame on me.”
Yesterday, in the middle of a rollicking Facebook conversation about refugees, someone told me I was too idealistic. I couldn't refute it. My excuse is that I've been talking to good, caring, compassionate Amarillo people all week. And if given the choice, I'd rather be an idealist than a pessimist any day.
The December issue comes out the weekend after Thanksgiving. It's a good one.
My cover story for the November issue of Amarillo Magazine was all about alcohol. The idea for the feature was that the city's growing interests in organic food and higher-end food choices were also spilling over into an appreciation for better choices in drink—from craft beer to specialty cocktails. So we provided an in-depth guide to the local drinking scene, from one of the best wine lists in Texas (Macaroni Joe's) to one of the top two or three bars in the United States in terms of number of beers on tap (I Don't Know Sports Bar & Grill).
In early October, my wife and I traveled in Europe with our friends Trace & Becca Bundy. Trace is a fingerstyle acoustic guitarist with an international following and was doing several shows in the UK and Europe. We tagged along. Our families parted ways when he left for performances in Finland while Aimee and I headed for a weekend at a floating B&B in Amsterdam.
Within a few hours of arriving in Jyväskylä—a Finnish city whose name I won't even try to pronounce because I'm afraid of umlauts—Trace gleefully texted us a set of menu photos. His hosts had taken him to a popular Tex-Mex place called...Amarillo. That's right: A Finnish restaurant named after my hometown.
From the restaurant's website:
The best Tex-Mex food in town and rocking parties at the bar
Amarillo was born deep in the heart of Texas. Our chefs have crisscrossed around Texas and sat at the campfire on both sides of the Rio Grande so that we could offer you the best Tex-Mex this side of the ocean. Hamburgers, fajitas, bolillos, wings, 'dillas and other delicacies in the Amarillo style – imposing and fulfilling servings!
I've never had bollillos in the "Amarillo style" or otherwise. Those are authentic Mexican delicacies but not really Tex-Mex in this part of the country. I've had all the other stuff, and I guess those fajitas and whatnot have been both "imposing and fulfilling."
In fact, I was at a local place just the other day when a boot-wearing patron stood up and announced, "Boy, howdy, was that an imposing and fulfilling chile relleno!" All the chefs looked up from their campfires and nodded knowingly.
One more thing: Everyone in Amarillo, Texas, knows never to order wings or hamburgers at a Tex-Mex place. That's just dumb.
The November issue of Amarillo Magazine has articles on the best places for beer, wine, whiskey, and craft cocktails in Amarillo, plus a bunch of other stuff I wrote.
I think it's going to be a popular issue.