Allen Varney, Writer and Traveler


Live Shots From The Austin Chronicle (4 of 5)

by Allen Varney


Outside Dobie Mall, 7/1992

Saw workers erecting an electronic display sign here last month -- rows of yellow lights, flashes time/temp, ads, you know? Paused by it at the stoplight yesterday. Works fine, but wordy.



[Says that in cold print beneath!]



[Time, temperature?]




Light changed. Never learned source of Dobie pride. Thought of William Strunk's The Elements of Style:

"Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell."

Page 23. Look it up, Dobie.

Mail Fraud

Mailboxes citywide, 2/1988-4/1988

We were heading west of town on 360, and conversation turned to junk mail. The driver said, "I kept getting these strong come-ons from a company selling real estate -- out about here, in fact. They said I had definitely won one of these terrific prizes, a thousand bucks or an all-terrain vehicle or a washer-dryer. If I would only go out and listen to their pitch, I'd get one of these prizes."

"I got some of those, too," I said.

"I ignored the first few," he continued, "so then they started getting more urgent. 'This is your last chance to claim your prize, or we'll give it to someone else.' Finally I got curious, so I called the Better Business Bureau. And I figured I'd get, you know, the usual clean bill of health. 'We have no complaints about these people on file,' and like that.

"So I called and mentioned the company, and the woman said, 'Wait a minute, we have a tape about them.'

"She put me on hold for a moment, and then I was listening to this pre-recorded tape about five minutes long, talking about all the complaints against this company! Turns out the 'all-terrain vehicle' is a lawn chair with wheels. The washer-dryer is a plastic box with paddles inside. And you have to pay 'handling charges' for these, thirty or forty bucks. The $1000, for which you also pay handling charges, turns out to be some kind of trust fund or something, that pays you a thousand bucks -- in thirty years.

"The Attorney General sued these guys a couple of years ago for the same deal, and won. And now they're bringing suit again because these guys haven't stopped. It really increased my opinion of the Better Business Bureau. I thought about calling these guys and playing along with the pitch, and then asking about this suit -- see how long it took them to hang up."

Moral of the story: Caveat emptor.


Convenience and candy stores, 10/1988

My corner 7-Eleven put up a big display promoting the long-awaited new packaging for Nerds Brand Tiny Tangy Crunchy Candy, and they slashed prices to three boxes for a dollar. Taking advantage of this discounting frenzy, I ate a bunch, and here are the results for waiting Nerds followers citywide.

Every candy lover recognizes the plump little Schmoo-like creatures that decorate the Nerds package. On the new box they have proliferated, covering both front and back. The latter herd replaces the former promotions for tacky Nerds merchandise like sunglasses with hollow Nerd-filled frames -- junk only a kid could want. Willy Wonka Brands (a division of Sunmark Inc. of Itasca, Illinois), the Nerd makers, must finally have recognized that the candy's appeal bridges all age gaps.

Fans will be relieved to know that Wonka has retained the traditional and ingenious two-compartment package. Time-honored flavor pairs Orange/Cherry and Grape/Strawberry return, and now there are Watermelon Nerds, backed with a "Rainbow" mix of all the other flavors. Most innovative: "Hot" and "Cool." Hot copies the familiar irritant of Red Hots, the drive-in candy, while Cool is generic sugar with a minty aftertaste.

The package also trumpets the news, "NOW! PLUMPER!" over a picture of an especially fat Nerd. Indeed, the candies' appearance and texture have changed. The colors are brighter, the pieces larger, and the outer flavor coating thicker than previous Nerds.

Well, I don't like them. Though the colors shine forth with admirable intensity, the thickened coating amplifies the "Crunchy" of the subtitle beyond a desirable maximum, to the level of Wonka's Everlasting Gobstopper Tiny Jawbreakers candy. Nerds should be of a finer and more delicate texture. Also, the larger size, especially of Cherry and Grape, makes it more difficult for the consumer to roll the candy around in his or her mouth in the previous pleasant fashion.

This is the same insidious principle that infects so much of modern culture, the misguided spirit that gave us New Coke, the Susan B. Anthony dollar, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and those little square mailbox arrays in apartment complexes that the mailman has to cram your mail into to make it fit. Wretched!

I wrote Wonka a letter of complaint. I imagine most of the letters they get that complain about their candy relate to empty or underfull boxes, or rat parts that found their way into processing, or food poisoning. They couldn't grapple with my letter in Itasca, because they sent the standard rat-parts apology letter: "Every precaution is taken to assure that a product leaving our plant is fresh and free of any contamination. Unfortunately . . . occasionally a customer is faced with an unpleasant experience." And they enclosed a bunch of candy -- Wacky Wafers, Bottle Caps, Runts, Tart 'n' Tinys, and, ironically, Rainbow Nerds of the old formula. Yum!

Maybe I feel a twinge of guilt for this extortion of unearned sweets. But somebody had to make the point: If it ain't broke, don't fix it! Stand up for tradition! Bring back the old Nerds recipe!

A. C. Nielsen TV Ratings

Week of 5/7/1987 to 5/13/1987

Reviewed by a participant, Allen Varney

No one involved in an undertaking should review it. But I, for one week one of the infamous "Nielsen Families," had so little to say in its results that reportorial detachment is easy. The Nielsen Television Research company, of Dunedin, Florida, through inscrutable random methods, decided that I was a cross-section of the American TV-viewing public. Acting on this ludicrous idea, they sent me a one-week viewing diary, ready to be filled out and mailed in (postage stamp already supplied). They also sent a scrupulously polite cover letter and a crisp new one-dollar bill. I was not among the elite that have the little box attached to their TVs -- just as well, since my black-and-white RCA Victor is so old it probably couldn't handle the thing.

The Nielsen Ratings help determine advertising rates for commercial programs, and can make or break a show. Even as one of thousands of homes surveyed across the country, I felt a rush of power. At last, a chance to root for my favorite shows!

--And lambaste the bad ones, too, for the back of the diary includes a space to comment, as the Nielsen company puts it, "about TV in general. You may wish to comment about local programming, such as news, etc." While my single diary is a mere scintilla in the national Nielsen picture, it is important on a local level. So I finally got to say what needed to be said for too long: that Channel 24's Tim Ross is by God the best weatherman in town, but otherwise 24's evening news show is shallow, biased, and dull.

I said a lot more too. It will all have been worthwhile if I produce some small trouble in the professional lives of that hairsprayed male anchor on 24 and the phony used-car salesman purring the weather report on Channel 7.

More constructively, I got to support the final episode of Hill Street Blues (for what good that does), Nature on PBS, and Star Trek. But there were frustrations. I usually watch PBS -- no, really -- but that doesn't come through in the diary, due to the interminable auction that pre-empted KLRU's prime-time shows. And there were no Fred Astaire movies this week (sigh).

If you dispute these opinions and rail against their undeserved influence, don't get mad at me. Blame the system. After all, if it hadn't been my arbitrary opinions in that diary, it would be someone else's -- maybe yours. What if you were put in charge of deciding what the country watches? If the idea doesn't scare you, it should.

A Prairie Home Companion -- Final Show


I still meet lots of people who have never heard of this show, even after the cover feature in Time and the broadcasts on The Disney Channel and the bestselling Lake Wobegon Days and the Powdermilk Biscuits T-shirts and all those cassettes on sale in bookstores. And now it's too late. Garrison Keillor, host for 13 years of this syndicated American Public Radio program, at the very height of popularity and excellence, is calling it quits and moving to Denmark. Denmark!

If you don't know the show, the standard capsule description is not helpful. "Old-timey radio variety show with comedy spots and eclectic folk music" doesn't convey the stunning, phenomenal appeal of A Prairie Home Companion. But hear Keillor speak. Let that slow baritone voice tell one story of his fictional hometown, Lake Wobegon, Minnesota. That hooks most everyone.

Keillor ("America's Tallest Radio Humorist") brought back the grand old gab, an enchanting style of narration lost for a generation or more. Those tales, filled with good humor, insight, sadness, and lots of laughs, enthralled two million people at dinnertime every Saturday night. To hear him, you could believe in those old Conradian sailors who sat on boat decks and narrated 80-page novellas. Keillor talked for half an hour at a time, effortlessly, holding every listener in his spell until the closing line: "That's the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, and all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average."

I've planned my Saturdays around this show since 1980, before it was chic. In the last couple of years, one out of every three monologues might drag, sustained only by Keillor's great ability to improvise. But as this final show neared -- as each broadcast became another stop on a farewell tour -- the quality of the stories rose to its former consistent level, ending this amazingly sustained career in style. Featuring longtime guests Chet Atkins, Leo Kottke, and many others, the final episode was maudlin and self-indulgent. But after 13 years, there is no more appropriate time for such displays.

As a shy person who made good, Keillor's weakness is his pretentiousness at these capital-O Occasions. This show and the earlier 10th Anniversary episode were marred by uncharacteristic excess and solemnity. Likewise, when he gets behind a typewriter, Keillor evidently feels the weight of ages upon him, for his prose can be leaden. (Lake Wobegon Days is a ponderous synthesis of the endlessly lively monologue material.) Too bad the program is giving way to Keillor's less promising literary pursuits. But we fans must be happy that it lasted as long as it did, and take heart from the show's final song: "Till We Meet Again."

Denmark! Gad.


Austin area, week of 5/31/1987

Of course the farmers need it, and it reduces the danger of grass fires, and it recharges the Edwards Aquifer. But really, all this can be done outside regular working hours. Thunderclouds need not loom over us day after day, always threatening downpours and lightning bolts, loosing them just often enough to back up the threats. Let them come at night, when we're asleep. (And none of that thunder, either.)

Like many romantics I enjoy a walk through a gentle summer rain, when warm mist bedews the cheek and the air brings faint whiffs of ozone and greenery. But here again this current product fails to satisfy. What romance is there in venturing out into a gentle drizzle, only to see it become a frog-strangling flash flood a minute later? Gene Kelly wouldn't sing in this rain. These clouds are not capricious flirts, promising beauty. These are full-time professional storms, entering with a crash and turning gutters into rivers with cold efficiency.

The modern computer age makes us sensitive to these showers, for lightning that strikes a power line can create a voltage wave that rips through surge protectors and melts delicate silicon chips into slag. (I speak from painful experience.) Thus the modern office must turn off and unplug its machines until the storm is spent. In fact, I wrote this in longhand as I stared out at the rain, my ten-cent pencil handling what the $2500 word processor dared not. The scribes of Sumer could not write in the rain, for their clay tablets could not hold the cuneiform strokes. So we come full circle.

Raspyni Brothers

UT Steindam Hall, 12/9/1987

Comedy Central, 15th & Lavaca, 12/10-12

Fresh from stints on Carson and Merv Griffin, the opening act for Robin Williams in Vegas with an audience of six thousand, headed to Atlantic City as headliners in a new revue, the juggling Raspyni Bros. played at Comedy Central to a cheering crowd of thirty, maybe forty people. On their way down? No, just a favor to their friend Mario ("for a good mime call Mario") Lorenz, who books talent for the new club. "Mario's been performing forever," says one-half the Raspynis, Barry Friedman. "He's kind of a legend."

With mime and music, emcee Mario showed the stuff of legends in heroically relieving the tedium of the opening acts (Thursday show only, unfortunately). Then the Raspynis trotted on, and did that joint light up!

Barry and his partner, Dan Holzman, like their juggling peers the Flying Karamazovs but unlike entertainers The Mills, Everly, Smothers, Ritz, and Marx, are not brothers. But they're almost Siamese twins onstage, throwing clubs, knives, jokes, and ad-libs with equal facility. Dan's been performing for a decade and acts like he could go ten more. Barry, though, wants to leave show biz and go into the family business, selling pools and spas in L.A., "but I can't afford the income cut right now." Barry, Barry . . . spa selling is a cutthroat business, and there's a broken heart for every kidney-shaped pool in Pasadena. Stay on stage, where your family knows you're safe and prosperous.

On opening night about fifteen of us from the Texas Juggling Society jammed into the front row of tables, like Baptists at a revival meeting. Seeing this world-class act six feet away, in a tiny beer joint on Lavaca, I thought, "How much more Austin can you get?" We made up in enthusiasm what we lacked in numbers.

The real head-trip came on the Wednesday before the show, when the Raspynis hit our regular club meeting. The TJS has met Wednesday nights in the campus ROTC building for about ten years, and some of us are pretty seasoned. But when Dan and Barry showed up it was like the entrance of the gods into Valhalla from Rheingold.

Barry floor-bounced seven balls and cascaded five clubs, to general applause. And Dan did a three-ball "warmup." How prosaic a term for that stunning defiance of gravity! Those white spheres rested on his head, shoulder, knee, and elbow like trained poodles, then dove into swooping loops and Immelmanns, while jugglers looked on like hypnotized chickens. I have never heard such absorbing, reverent silence, more impressive than the loudest applause. A magic moment.


Lumberyard, 5/10/1989

I enrolled in a country-western dance class. It meets in a big Lutheran church on Tuesday evenings, then again on Thursday nights to practice in a not-quite-sleazy C&W dance hall in Round Rock. This past Thursday I showed up there, spotting fellow students by the cheap yellow scarves we all display.

Because of pressing business I had missed the last lesson (waltz turns and two-step variations) and the previous Thursday's practice, and I was nervous. Actually, I'd been busy since April, as far back as the party I threw on my 30th birthday. That party, the first I'd ever thrown, proved a spectacular success. Scores of friends showed up, beer and conversation flowed freely, and everyone buried me in gifts. That happiness, that feeling of arrival!

The Lumberyard dance floor was not crowded. I danced a two-step to the music of a band badly misnamed the Debonairs. My partner: a beautiful yellow-scarved lady with lustrous hair, dazzling smile, bright eyes, and trim figure. Five years ago I could hardly speak to such a woman in complete sentences. Now, with speech impossible over the deafening Debonairs, I twirled her and spun her without incident. And then I tried a turn.

Even now I shudder. Mister Ed, the Hindenburg, Clem Kadiddlehopper! Weeping relatives hold watch by hospital deathbeds; bums search for shelters near the University; the Earth plummets toward financial and environmental ruin; and there on that dance floor, I added my jot to the sum of human misery. The lady's smile froze, and for a fleeting moment her eyes widened in what I took to be panic.

Somehow the song ended. We left the dance floor. The soul of courtesy, she thanked me and gracefully exited to find another partner. I sat down.

The Austrian composer Gustav Mahler once wrote of the horror of viewing a dance from a distance, beyond range of the music. The dancers' stilted, apparently irrational movements appear grotesque. Growing up, I knew that feeling well; but in my time in Austin, I have learned, slowly, to hear some of that distant music. Yet just then, as I sat in a dark, noisy room, surrounded by strangers, all disguising blunt lusts or social ineptitude in a pathetic charade, I urgently wanted out.

I couldn't leave, for I had come with friends, so I fled to the pool room. I sat on a stool in that damned room for an hour, in an agony of humiliation. Five years, gone! Not a freelance professional, not a party host surrounded by friends . . . through one misstep, I had reverted. Back to that wretched time when I could sneer at anyone, when I knew friendship just led to trouble and life was a rotten deal.

From the doorway I peered out at the dance floor. Tourists on dark ghetto streets start at sudden noises; families in Beirut listen in dread for the whistle of incoming shells; ladies in nursing homes shiver at an orderly's approach; and in that pool room I also felt fear, true fear, that my friends would find me and pull me back to the dance floor. Five years of slow progress, undone in a moment.

I'd hoped by writing it down that I could dig some moral out of this sordid episode. Maybe it's that your ideal behavior depends on a given environment . . . the larger the environment, the healthier you are. I don't know. Just putting down the words is cathartic. These pieces fly out into the unknown, like sitcoms broadcast across the universe; I have no idea whether anyone reads them. The silence is liberating. Live Shots: cheaper than therapy.

Live Shots index, File 1, File 2, File 3, File 5

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Copyright (C) 1999 Allen Varney.