The Trouble with Heroes

41hsl4kXpeL._SX341_BO1,204,203,200_One hundred years after his death, Teddy Roosevelt remains one of America’s favorite presidents. What’s not to love? Exuberant in personality and with a Santa-like, kid-friendly appearance, he was a man’s man and a family man who did cool stuff most people love, like work as a cowboy, charge up San Juan Hill, create national parks, and dig the Panama Canal.

TR’s Last War, by David Pietrusza, is not that Teddy Roosevelt.

This new biography covers Roosevelt’s later years, a period of time most biographers gloss over. And it’s easy to see why. I’m as guilty as anyone of idealizing the past and making heroes out of yesterday’s leaders, assuming they were more noble and high-minded than politicos of today. Therefore, it’s beyond disconcerting to read this account, which might as well be ripped off today’s Twitter feed. TR hurled insults at foes like Woodrow Wilson that would have made Trump blush, and rivaled the Clintons in his (often ethically dubious) machinations to reclaim the White House.

As the US approached World War I, a portrait emerges of a violently divided nation driven as much by irrational passions and partisanship as by reason. Blinded by ambition and driven by personal demons, TR beat the drum for war with ultimately tragic consequences for himself and his entire family.

I love history books that shed new light, and TR’s Last War brings Roosevelt to life not as “the lion in winter” but as a man with very real feet of clay. I look forward to reading more books by David Pietrusza.

I wanted to share this beautiful visual depiction of the geometry of musical notes — fascinating!

867dc557b5efba0f437b5b2260aea513Worth some thought. Be kind to yourselves, my friends.


Trouble Right Here in River City


The flood that raged down the Colorado last month was a startling reminder that the river isn’t just a nice recreational centerpiece for Austin. It is the defining geographical feature of the entire Central Texas region. And disastrous flooding isn’t just part of history. It’s the risk we take every day for the privilege of living in this location.

I got interested in the Austin Dam Disaster of 1900 a few years back because I saw the parallels with the Austin I had grown up with and resided in today. It’s one of the great themes of Austin’s existence to be a city on the move and on the make. But occasionally, Mother Nature administers a dose of humbling reality. Watching these events unfold over the last couple of weeks was like watching the 1900 flood come to life—fortunately, the consequences this time were far less permanent.

Austin was chosen as the capital of Texas in part because of the potential water power of the Colorado. But for the first century of the city’s history, the river was more of a foe than a friend. It may come as news to Austin’s many newcomers, but Central Texas happens to be the most flood-prone region of the entire United States.

The reason? Austin sits at the intersection of the Gulf, Pacific, and Plains weather systems—a recipe for rain events of incredible magnitude. Pair that with hilly geography, thin soil, and shallow creeks and rivers. Well into the 1930s, Central Texas was subjected to devastating flooding on a regular basis. And as we saw last week, even the full capacity of the six dams and lakes operated by the Lower Colorado River Authority can only mitigate a major flood event, not prevent it altogether.

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A rare view.

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As in 1900, the 2018 flood began with an unusual series of rain storms that soaked Central Texas with the wettest September on record. On October 8, a rain bomb over the small Hill Country town of Junction dumped 12 inches into the Llano River in just a few hours, rampaging through an RV park and sweeping four people to their deaths. It was the LCRA’s job to move this water carefully through Wirtz and Starcke dams and into Lake Travis, which was specifically built to protect the city of Austin from flooding.

A week later, a weekend of heavy storms climaxed with a strong cold front. This time, the Llano came out of its banks even more disastrously. Most dramatically, the FM 2900 bridge at Kingsland was carried away by the force of the waters, and Kingsland, Granite Shoals, Marble Falls, and other lakeside communities endured major flooding. For the first time in history, all six of the Highland Lakes dam were open in a remarkably orchestrated ballet of floodgate operations. Lake Travis reached an astonishing 143% of capacity—the fifth highest on record.

Several people have asked me if the dams were ever in any danger of failing, as the “Great Granite Dam” did in 1900. Fortunately, the answer is no, that is not a realistic fear. The river is far better understood than it was in the 1890s, and the Highland Lakes dams are infinitely better designed and constructed. The LCRA performs frequent upgrades on the dams to keep them current—in fact, the river authority began work in August to replace the floodgates on Tom Miller dam at Lake Austin, one of the most extensive modernizations the dam has ever received. I believe the success of the Highland Lakes system is the most significant (and under appreciated) component in the exponential growth of Austin over the last 70 years.

The fallout for the city of Austin in 2018 was far short of the death and destruction wrought by the 1900 disaster. However, the city did not escape unscathed. On Monday, October 22, the unprecedented amount of silt contaminating the city’s drinking water supply caused Austin Water to issue a citywide boil water notice that remained in place for an entire week. For a short time, it was feared that the city’s water pressure might drop below the level necessary to supply the fire hydrants. Our 1900 counterparts didn’t have it so easy. Back then, residents digging out from the dam disaster had to haul water, and it was nine months before any basic utility service returned to the city.

Want to know more? Check out my book The Austin Dam Disaster of 1900, available on Amazon or at your favorite Austin bookstore. It also makes a great gift for the Austin history lover or the engineer in your life.

Announcing My New Book, “The Austin Dam Disaster of 1900”

5cec2c9c-8ee7-4e23-b0ae-0fc4781c6f9cI am so pleased and excited to announce that my new book, The Austin Dam Disaster of 1900, is now available! Pre-orders are underway and the book’s release day is January 29–next Monday!

Part of the Images of America series from Arcadia Publishing, this book tells one of the great forgotten stories of Austin history–how a little town of 15,000 people built the largest dam ever constructed in the 19th century, anywhere in the world. It’s a story about dreams, and hubris, and Central Texas weather. Most of the research was conducted at the Austin History Center, and the book contains dozens of historic photos from the Austin History Center, the Lower Colorado River Authority, the Texas State Archives, and the Briscoe Center for American History, among others.

As a lifelong Austinite, I grew up in a city still celebrating the taming of the Colorado by the Highland Lakes dams. Aquafest attracted thousands each summer to celebrate the existence of Town Lake. A few years back, I learned that Red Bud Isle, now a beloved dog park, was formed from the wreckage of the old Austin dam. As I delved into the subject matter, I discovered that the Austin dam disaster of 1900 not only illuminated the journey of Austin from dusty frontier capital to modern-day tech magnet–it embodied the ambition and hubris that even then characterized the city.

I’ve always been fascinated by our unique weather, and the drama of the dam’s failure is the centerpiece of this story. I’ve learned over the years that people really do love to discover their own history. This was something I had never heard of, and it has so many fascinating aspects–politics, engineering, geology, disaster, and the sheer grit it took for our city to come back from a catastrophe that was as much self-inflicted as it was an act of God.

In 2016 I learned that Arcadia Publishing was looking to add some more Texas titles and I approached them with the idea of this book. The City of Austin and the Austin History Center gave permission to use their material, which makes up the majority of the images, and we are grateful for their generosity.

I hope you will enjoy this book as much as I did putting it together. The Austin Dam Disaster of 1900 is available on Amazon, directly from Arcadia Publishing, and will be available at your favorite Austin bookstores including BookPeople, Book Woman, and Barnes & Noble.

Please check out the events calendar! I would love to see all my friends at the book launch party on February 18 at BookPeople or any other of my upcoming “book tour” events! There are several more in the works, and I am actively seeking more local speaking engagements–feel free to reach out.

Making an Impact

When you’re busy, it’s easy to get so caught up in the details of what you’re doing that you forget the whole reason you’re doing it. Recently I was looking back on the customers I’ve served the last year or so, and it was fun to thinking about making a difference.

I’m a pretty practical person with a lot of experience in traditional businesses. Most of my work comes from companies that offer IT solutions that solve practical, real-world problems from detecting fraud to checking out library books to managing local elections. As you can see, the end users of these solutions are experts in their fields, not computer geeks. My actual customers are usually marketing managers and directors in charge of content, marcom, or demand generation. They need to offer these end users real, substantive information, and the projects are usually pieces like white papers, case studies, or trade articles.

However, IT companies are not the only organizations that need writers. Because of my unique background in the cultural heritage arena, this past year I did two major projects for government. My largest single project of the year was writing a very extensive e-commerce catalog for a public museum. I also did a large research project for the 100th anniversary of the Texas Department of Transportation. My government customers have varied titles, but are concerned with outreach that is accurate, inviting for the public to read, and controversy-free.

Finally, I work on book projects, which I’m hoping to expand in 2017 and beyond. I worked closely with an old Austin family to create a corporate history of a legacy Austin business—a great project for a company anniversary or to celebrate the retirement of a founding executive. I also contributed research and editorial services for several book projects. Want to propose or submit a chapter to a business anthology? I can help with that, too.

As a one-person shop, I can generally handle only about 3-5 clients at any given time. I’m currently scheduling into the summer and looking for 1-2 new clients. I’d love to talk to you about your writing needs.

Today’s laugh:

Photo Mar 09, 6 32 05 AM


International Women’s Day: Five Great Role Models

Last year, I was privileged to work on several organizational and corporate history projects. I’m looking for more of this kind of work. It’s hard to put into words how satisfying it is to research and bring to life the history of a business that has truly stood the test of time, especially when the client holds the finished, illustrated book in their hands for the first time.

I’ve been involved professionally in the history field since 2000. A few years back, I was developing supplemental materials for a client who ran amazing tours for history buffs (alas, a casualty of the 2008 crash). I got to work directly with the historians to develop reading lists for the tours. But there was one historian who refused to work with me because I’m a woman. He said that a woman couldn’t be a historian. Fortunately, few people share his attitude these days, though there are still too many with unexamined prejudices about what women like to write about.

In that spirit, I wanted to take the occasion of International Women’s Day to salute five amazing women authors who inspire me. I chose these women because I recently purchased their books or have them near the top of my to-be read list!

Candice Millard has authored two of my favorite books of all time: The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey and Destiny of the Republic: Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President. She is one of history’s most gifted storytellers—I would read anything she writes! She is a former writer and editor for National Geographic. A mom of three, she writes during school hours. Her new book on my list is Hero of the Empire, the story of Winston Churchill’s daring adventures in South Africa when he was only 24 years old.

Lynne Olson began her career as a journalist, working as a political reporter for AP and the Baltimore Sun and as a foreign correspondent in Moscow. She’s authored seven books of history, most of which focus on World War II politics and diplomacy. There is so much to learn about today’s world by understanding our past. Her book on my list is  Those Angry Days: RooseveltLindbergh and America’s Fight Over World War II, 1939–1941. Her next book, Last Hope Island, is about the tide of refugees who poured into Britain fleeing Hitler’s blitzkrieg. It comes out next month.

Mary O. Parker is a freelance writer from right here in Central Texas who writes about travel and nature. Her new book Explore Texas: A Nature Travel Guide, is original, substantive, and delightfully written.  Her husband Jeff contributed beautiful photography. Living in a big city, it is sometimes difficult to know how to connect with nature. This book does the heavy lifting for you no matter where in Texas your travels take you.

Zoey Goto is a London-based journalist and author who writes about fashion and design. She is also a mother and a banjo player! As an Elvis fan, I often think there is nothing new to learn about The King, but the new book Elvis Style: From Zoot Suits to Jumpsuits proved me wrong yet again. Full of great photos I had never seen before, this book is all about Elvis’s cultural influence and has many new stories about the wildly original, playful, and creative person he was.

Finally—have you been a witness to history yourself? You don’t have to be a professional journalist, writer, or researcher to share it. Some of my favorite books are behind-the-scenes looks at history written by ordinary people. Peggy Grande was personal assistant to Ronald Reagan for 10 years after he left the White House, until he became too ill from Alzheimer’s to be able to work. Before she went to work for Reagan, Grande was a salesperson at Nordstrom! Grande’s book The President Will See You Now is high on my to-be-read list.In addition to learning more about Reagan, I’m interested in this book because of my own experiences trying to help preserve the independence and dignity of my aging parents.

History is never “over.” It’s full of stories that need to be told—and sometimes it takes a woman to tell them!

Today’s thought:

Photo Feb 28

Today’s links:

What is the Philosophy of Data Science (and Should Data Scientists Care?)
The Nerdy Charm of Artisan, Hand-Drawn Infographics
How to Beat Solopreneur Blues

Show and Tell


Today I want to share a couple of recently completed projects. Above is a special issue of Texas Highways magazine, produced for the 100th anniversary of the Texas Department of Transportation. My role was to research and locate historical photos in the agency’s archives. This was my third project that has involved the history of Texas highways and the agency and I hope it won’t be the last. I love working in their archives, and it was especially fun to use what I’d learned from past projects to find rare photos that would be new to readers. The magazine turned out beautifully!

The second project is a white paper I wrote last month for my great client Hart Intercivic, which manufacturers voting equipment. The white paper is a guide for localities planning to purchase new voting systems, a huge commitment that is made only once every decade or so. It was very interesting to learn about this topic and I’m very happy to report how pleased the client was. Check it out: Voting System Procurement Prep: 4 Steps to an Informed Choice.

Since the first of the year I’ve been working on eliminating distractions and getting back to long blocks of time for creativity. One thing that is starting to help is meditating. I’m using an app called Headspace with 10-minute guided meditations that I like very much. It’s starting to help me become more aware of my state of mind and all the distractions such as social media, and bring focus back to the matter at hand. Baby steps…

Today’s laugh:


Today’s links:

Lessons in Creativity and Innovation from the Mad Scientist Named Tesla
Democracy on Rails