Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Jesus And Me...

email from the Ozarks

(Vol. 1, No. 3)

Bradley David Williams

“Hi from Eureka Springs, Arkansas -- the funkiest little town in America and perhaps the entire world.”

September 26, 2007

Lordy, lordy, look who’s 40, indeed… ;p

I had a great birthday and heard from all kinds of people I wouldn’t have if it weren’t for this blog. By the way, I am officially a blog now and you can find current and archived entries at … Day after tomorrow, I’m off on a big three-week road trip all over the eastern U.S., which you’ll hear all about next time, but I doubt I’ll be blogging from the road.

The big unexpected result of this whole blog thing, for me, has been the instant gratification achievable through blogging. I just have to unleash the blog on the world, and ten minutes later, I already have fabulous ego-stroking emails of praise from friends and complete strangers all over the place. Instant gratification, you may know, is a rare thing when it comes to writing.

Well, I finally submitted to the full Passion Play experience. As I have previously written, Eureka Springs has a Christian theme park of sorts, where they put on “The Great Passion Play” and also boast three religious “museums,” a re-creation of the “Holy Land,” a restaurant, two wedding chapels (weddings are a huge industry in Eureka), a big chunk of the Berlin Wall with the 23rd Psalm scrawled on it in German, two gift shops, and the 67-Foot Jesus, “Christ of the Ozarks.” Last blog, I mistakenly wrote that the mastermind behind Jesusland, ol’ Gerald L.K. Smith (the white-supremecist founder of the fascist organization known as the “Christian Nationalist Crusade”) was buried near the foot (“feet?”) of 67-Foot Jesus. It turns out Jesus has no feet. Second only in size to the Jesus statue in Rio de Janeiro, our seven-story Jesus was supposed to be even taller. But that would’ve required putting a flashing red light on top of his head to keep planes from accidentally crashing into it, so they cut poor Jesus off at the knees.

You can’t really write about Eureka without writing about Jesusland, but it probably would’ve taken me a very long time to force myself to experience it if I hadn’t gotten in for free as a journalist. The all-inclusive ticket, which gets you the whole enchilada, an all-day affair, costs $47.00.

First stop was something I’ve truly been dying to see since arriving here -- the Museum of Earth History, devoted to the insane notion of creationism. Where to begin… Well, it takes almost an hour if you listen to all of the recorded audio tour, transmitted through a wireless hand-held device that you hold up to your ear. The narrator, one G. Thomas Sharp, runs an outfit in Oklahoma called the Creation Truth Foundation, which is responsible for the museum’s content (PLEASE go to their website -- -- and click on “Museum of Earth History“ and you will see a stupefying TV commercial for this attraction).
You Texans will be thrilled to learn that Sharp is building a similar creationism museum in Dallas (naturally), on the campus of something called the Christ of the Nations Institute. According to Sharp’s bio, he earned a PhD from South Florida Bible College and Seminary “with an emphasis in the philosophy of religion and science.”

With a southern accent and terrible grammar (he talks about things happening “simultaneous” for example, rather than “simultaneously”), Sharp confidently outlines the “facts” about how the Bible MUST be interpreted literally if you want to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, the earth is only 10,000 years old, and humans coexisted with the dinosaurs. I guess they’re trying to lure the young ’uns with the ridiculous dinosaur theme. The museum’s gift shop is called the Dino-store and they sell all kinds of dinosaur stuffed animals and other dinosaur-related gifts and souvenirs, as well as books and videos on creationism.

Amongst the almost fifty exhibits at the museum are several “museum-quality replicas” of dinosaur skeletons (they don’t tell you they’re not real unless you ask), and at one of these, the narration starts like this: “Were dinosaurs on the arc of Noah? This is a commonly asked question. The Biblical worldview on this issue is rather straightforward...”

OF COURSE there were dinosaurs on Noah’s arc, idiot, because the Bible says there were two of “EVERY” animal! Sharp explains that most of the dinosaur fossils that have been excavated, which are nowhere near as old as the evil scientists of the world want us to believe, have been the size of a cow or smaller. And of course Noah would’ve used young dinosaurs that could fit on the arc more easily. I’m thinking even baby T-Rexes could’ve gobbled up the two kitties and the two rabbits, if not ALL the other pairs of critters.

In the interest of full disclosure, my sister and her husband are right-wing fundamentalist Christians who home-schooled their three children so that they could teach them this “Biblical“ view of the world. They have a bumper sticker on their car that says “Vote Pro-Life,” although they are proudly apolitical and, to my knowledge, have never even been registered to vote.

But I digress… At the Museum of Earth History, as described in the brochure, “visitors journey through three epic periods of ancient history: life before the fall of man, the post-fall world and life after the devastating effects of the great Genesis Flood.” But it’s fun for the whole family!

I quickly made my way through the other two “museums” -- the Bible Museum, featuring “over 10,000 bibles in 625 languages and dialects,” and the Sacred Arts Center, a vast collection of mostly contemporary “Christian art.”

Next it was time for the Holy Land Tour, where they take you around in an open-air “tram” (with a “God Is Awesome” license plate), letting you off for “Moses’ Tabernacle,” “Bethlehem,” “The Sea of Galilee,” and “The Last Supper.” Various characters from the Bible, dressed in the traditional robes and Velcro-strapped sandals of the period, explain what these places represent. All the actors, even Mary, have Northwest Arkansas accents and, again, hideous grammar. The tour is two-and-a-half hours, but it goes by like five years. I thought it would never be over.

Now it was time for the extremely mediocre (I’m being nice here) buffet, at which you are forced to endure a hillbilly Christian family singing about Jesus, followed by what we had all come for, “The Great Passion Play” itself. The spectacle, which features camels, sheep, donkeys, doves, and a cast of hundreds of humans (many of them local hippies trying to pay the rent), lasts two hours, but it goes by like four decades.

Performed on a 550-foot-wide, multi-level stage built into the side of a mountain, in an outdoor amphitheater with 4,100 seats, the show goes on, rain or shine (you can buy a plastic poncho with the “Great Passion Play” logo all over it) five nights a week, May through October. This, “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” is billed as “the number one attended outdoor drama in America,” but the show has been struggling for years, with occasional rumors that they might have to shut it down altogether.

Did I mention that the actors in the Passion Play are mouthing the words to a pre-recorded audio tape with movie music in the background? At the end of the two hours, after we have witnessed the excessively gory crucifixion, Jesus (whose voice sounds like that of an average Joe from Fayetteville) is lifted up by barely visible wires, not into the heavens but into the trees.

The entire Jesusland experience seems ultra-tacky to me on many levels, but these Christians EAT IT UP! There is constant ooh-ing and ah-ing about how “just wonderful” it all is. Most of these Christians appeared to be retirees, many of them morbidly obese. I cannot imagine how, with Jesus on their side, these people cannot resist Satan’s high-calorie temptations!

I will say I didn’t detect anything overtly homophobic at Jesusland. Of course this could be a calculated attempt to keep Eureka’s shockingly huge gay and lesbian community from picketing outside the entrance.

Calling myself the “Atheist in the Ozarks,” I feel compelled to explain my atheism and spiritual history here, but I’m running long, so that will have to wait. But according to the frequent admonitions of the Passion Play staff throughout the day, people like me are going straight to the fiery flames of hell on account of us not “accepting Jesus into our hearts.” Believing in a God that you are supposed to “fear” is something I cannot grasp, just like I could never make sense of the whole “he died for our sins so that we could have everlasting life.”

And of course these folks believe the end is coming very soon. I say let’s get it over with. As the bumper sticker says, “Jesus is coming! Look busy!“
But enough about me and Jesus…

Youtube has become my best friend at the writers’ colony, where television is banned. If you are ever having a bad day, just go to and type in “ethylina ring” and you will discover an over-the-top Liza Minnelli impersonator named Ethylina Canne performing, at a gay pride event in San Luis Obispo, California, my favorite Liza number, “Ring Them Bells.” I saw Liza perform this at an AIDS benefit in Houston in 1994 with my favorite women in the whole world -- Ann Richards, Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King -- in attendance (the concert was tied in with an “old-timers“ tennis exhibition benefiting AmFAR).

Written especially for Liza by the brilliant Kander and Ebb, “Ring Them Bells” is like an entire musical in one song -- an elaborate farce about 31-year-old spinster Shirley Devore, who lived in Apartment 29E at 5 Riverside Drive in New York and had to “travel ’round the world to meet the guy next door.” It is ten year’s worth of psychotherapy in five minutes! Don’t deprive yourself, kids.

I gave this advice in a recent note to somebody who really needs it -- the international jet-setting socialite and arts patron Lynn Wyatt of Houston. I became friendly with Lynn, and a number of other Houston socialites, partly through my fundraising work at the Houston Grand Opera. Lynn is best friends with Liza and Elton John, and her home in Houston became known as the “Wyatt Hyatt” over the years, as everyone from Princess Margaret to Truman Capote to Mick Jagger enjoyed Lynn’s hospitality. Well, Lynn’s husband, oil tycoon Oscar Wyatt, is currently on trial in a federal court in New York, accused of giving kickbacks to Sadam Hussein in exchange for lucrative oil-export contracts in the U.N. “oil for food” scandal. Oscar is 83 years old (the ageless Lynn is 72 but looks 30), and it is hard to believe they would send him to jail at his age, but he is facing the possibility of spending the rest of his life behind bars if convicted.

Lynn, who has often appeared on international “best dressed” lists, has been arriving with Oscar at court, dressed in appropriately subdued dark suits, but with head held high and flashing her ever-present beaming smile. Even in the eye of this storm, she has insisted on continuing her fabulous life pretty much as usual.

"People are going to think what they think anyway," she told the Houston Chronicle, "and I don't pay any attention to that."

She has, however, curtailed her time on the French Riviera, where until now she always rented a villa in Cap Ferrat for the summer. But she did fly back and forth to Europe this summer, staying with friends in France, attending designer Valentino’s 45th-anniversary celebration in Rome, visiting Lord Jacob Rothschild’s archaeological digs in Greece, and spending personal time with Prince Albert and Princess Caroline in Monte Carlo (Lynn was friends with the late Princess Grace and Prince Rainier). Lynn’s annual birthday party, which she hosted each summer at her villa, became hugely famous, but this year she was treated to a more intimate black-tie birthday party by Elton John at his estate in Windsor, England.

Oscar and Lynn were big Ann Richards contributors, and I had an emotional phone chat with Lynn the day after Ann died. She has Ann’s Texas drawl and star power, and as one of her friends told the Chronicle, “There's nothing Lynn can't handle, nothing she doesn't do gracefully. As so many have said and have experienced here and around the world, she's the best of Houston, a sublime ambassador for Texas.”

I had planned to write about Carry Nation, the crazy hatchet-carrying prohibitionist who spent the last several years of her life in Eureka Springs, but that will have to wait.

October is peak tourist season here in Eureka, as this is one of the hotspots where Americans flock to see the fall foliage. It’s not too late to book a room, and you could combine looking at the gorgeous red and yellow and orange leaves with Willie Nelson’s concert on October 26th (I‘ll be back by then). Of course you shouldn’t miss the Passion Play experience, but if you don’t want to shell out the $47, you can get an exquisite tour of Eureka with the “Atheist in the Ozarks” for a whole lot less. ;p

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Reluctant first blog...

email from the Ozarks

Bradley David Williams

August 29, 2007

Hi from Eureka Springs, Arkansas -- the funkiest little town in America and perhaps the entire world!

This place has so much character -- and so many characters -- I can't believe it took me 40 years to discover it. A mere village of just 2,000 people, Eureka Springs is New Orleans meets Aspen meets San Francisco meets Hooterville! I got here two weeks ago today, and I'm here for good! ;p

So how did this Houston-based journalist end up in the alternate universe that is Eureka Springs? After spending the first week of July at the Rainbow Gathering, camped out with 5,000 hippies and freaks of every stripe in the gorgeous Ozark National Forest of Arkansas, my two traveling companions and I descended on Eureka Springs, just an hour's drive to the north, to come down from our Rainbow experience. Somebody had told me that the town had a writers' colony, so we found it, chatted up a young Israeli writer in residence, and when I got home, I went to the colony's website and filled out the online application. I was accepted, and not even two months later, here I am. I'll be at the writers' colony through November and then plan to find a place here to live.

When we first arrived here in Eureka Springs after the Rainbow Gathering, we checked into the Matterhorn, a 33-room, $50-a-night motel with posters everywhere depicting the Matterhorn, the famous Swiss mountain peak, but the architecture more resembles a Bavarian farmhouse than a Swiss Chalet. The town has given itself numerous hokey nicknames over the years, not unusual for a town built around tourism, and the most absurd of all is "Little Switzerland." No ski slopes here in the Ozarks -- at just 1,200 feet, the area rarely sees more than a few snowfalls each winter -- and of course it is no tax haven for the wealthy… Nope, it's not alpine here in the least, and the town's zany political landscape could hardly be called neutral. (There IS good chocolate here, including a famous fudge shop called "Two Dumb Dames.")

It's a town that has brought together quite a diverse populace: hippies, gay men and lesbians, artists, writers, historians, massage therapists, foodies, musicians, mountain folk, antique dealers, innkeepers, outdoorsmen, bikers, retirees, environmentalists and lots and lots of wacky right-wing fundamentalist Christians. Oh yes, this place has an array of tacky Jesus attractions, including a huge complex where the Passion Play is performed, a number of small religious "museums" (including a new one devoted especially to the ridiculous concept of creationism!) beckon the ignorant science-phobes of the world, and a garish 62-foot statue of Jesus -- "Christ of the Ozarks" -- can be seen for miles around. We also have the famous Thorn Crown Chapel, recognized nationally, even by atheists like me, for it's architectural greatness.

Needless to say, the religious zealots around here were none too happy when the city council unanimously passed a "Domestic Partnership Registry" on May 14th of this year, recognizing the town's many same-sex couples and inviting gay tourists to come "get married" here. One local Reverend inadvertently boosted gay tourism by publicly scorning Eureka Springs in the national media as "the most homosexual city in the South."

On my first night in town, I attended a packed meeting of the fledgling Gay Business Owners' Guild, where I got to introduce myself and even met the mayor, a stylish woman who is a classically trained pianist and gives ghost tours of the historic Basin Park Hotel, opened in 1905, on the side. Most of the gay community adores Mayor Dani (inexplicably pronounced Dana) Wilson, given her support of the Domestic Partnership Registry and efforts to boost gay tourism. The fact that this tiny town has become something of a mecca for the gay tourist is nothing short of amazing. Some twenty percent of the town's accommodations are gay-owned inns and Bed-and-Breakfasts.

Still, with all these gays in the Ozarks, I have yet to have a date! :( It's mostly boring gay couples here, I'm afraid.

But this gorgeous, funky little village is a dream of a place to call home. It's the best-kept secret in America, I am convinced. While many have heard of Eureka Springs, it is criminal the number of Americans who have never experienced its quirky charm. I hope to help put this place back on the map, bringing back the prosperity of 100 years ago, when the unofficial population was said to be at least five times what it is today and tourists flocked from far and wide to drink and soak in the "magical, healing" waters emerging from over sixty picturesque springs throughout the town. Among some thirty hotels back then, the city boasted a huge limestone castle in the wilderness called the Crescent Hotel, built in 1886 and still thriving today.

I have resisted the blog phenomenon until now, and because I detest the computer-geekiness of the term "blog," I am thinking of this instead as a mass email to the world. I don't want to be a slave to this thing, and I may get a webcam at some point and just do a video blog, so for now I just plan to do my "Email from the Ozarks" as an occasional thing. I'll report on the crazy goings-on in this heathens' hamlet, and will rant on any number of subjects. I aspire to be "the Hunter S. Thompson of the Ozarks" -- I tell people I want to be the gay Hunter S. Thompson, "but without the suicide hopefully." I have coined the term "gonzo-gay journalism" for my brand of reportage and am working on my first book here, a memoir in the form of a collection of confessional, humorous personal essays.

I am enjoying the last days of my thirties. I turn the big 4-Oh! on September 13th. Last year, on my 39 th birthday, my beloved friend, mentor and former boss Ann Richards died (right out of the University of Texas, I worked on her historic 1990 campaign and then became one of her press aides in the Governor's Office), so it will be the one-year anniversary of her death on my big day. The Rainbow Gathering helped me solve my decades-long mid-life crisis, and I am thrilled to be starting my 40s in this extraordinary place that I am calling home for the foreseeable future.

This sudden and unexpected relocation to Arkansas, "The Natural State" as the license plates say, coincides with the presidential campaign of former Arkansas First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. I'm a big supporter of Hillary's, and I just got to talk to her last month at Lady Bird Johnson's funeral in Austin. "You're going to win," I told her, and I believe that. Love her or hate her, she is the most competent and qualified candidate in the race, and I believe she deserves to be our first woman president. I'm not predicting she will undo all the damage George W. Bush has done, but I believe she will do a good job and may be able to lead us into a more civilized, enlightened and inclusive era as a country.

"I talk to a lot of people," I told Hillary in Austin, "and people say, 'Hillary thinks she's better than everybody else.' And I say, 'She IS!!!'"

This had her doubled over with laughter. She does have a sense of humor, and I think it will gradually come out over the course of the election.

In the short time I've been in Arkansas, I have visited all of the Clinton sites -- Bill's childhood home in Hope (I was there with Ann at the 1992 Democratic National Convention at New York's Madison Square Garden, where he accepted the nomination and ended his speech with, "I still believe in a place called Hope."), the impressive Clinton Library and Museum in Little Rock, and the house he lived in while attending high school in Hot Springs.

And just last week, I visited the house in Fayetteville where Bill and Hillary lived for several years while teaching law at the University of Arkansas. I couldn't stay long, but I got a quick peek at the room where they were married, and there in a glass case was Hillary's hippy, granny-style ivory wedding dress. Imagine my disappointment when I got home and read in the brochure that it is a REPLICA of the dress she wore! Why? Better a photo of the actual dress than a fake reproduction, I say. Upon further investigation, I learned that the original is in storage at the Clinton Library, and I assume Hillary is saving the sacred garment for her own presidential library.

And as for Owen Wilson, who I have always adored (the Wilson brothers are from Dallas, where their dad ran the local PBS affiliate and their mom, a protégé of Richard Avedon, is a respected photographer), let his shocking suicide attempt remind us not to take ourselves so seriously. Life is too short to spend it making ourselves miserable over the ridiculous pressures and stresses of this often absurd world we live in.

For a fabulous (and cheap!) vacation, and possibly a life-changing one, come see me in Eureka Springs. I shouldn't be hard to find -- just ask for the "Atheist in the Ozarks." ;p

Blog from my 40th Birthday... ;p

email from the Ozarks

(Vol. 1, No. 2)

Bradley David Williams

"Hi from Eureka Springs, Arkansas -- the funkiest
little town in America and perhaps the entire world!"

September 12, 2007

Blog Numero Uno got so much attention -- I've been swamped with positive feedback from people all over the country and lots of townspeople here in Eureka Springs, where it got picked up by the local website -- that I find myself already cranking out my second blog just two weeks later. Notice how comfortable I already am using that insufferable term "blog." If anybody out there knows how to get rich with a blog, let me know. I did send it to Arianna Huffington.

Today is the last day of my thirties! I turn the big 4-Oh! in a matter of hours now and am inviting the whole town of Eureka Springs to help me celebrate! I will be holding court at New Delhi (name another American town of 2,000 people with a fabulous Indian restaurant!) tomorrow (Thursday) night from six until nine, and then it will be on to the terrace atop the Crescent Hotel, the very grand limestone "castle in the wilderness" built in 1886, for a toast.

Television is verboten here at the writers' colony, which is quite a challenge for a CNN junky like me, so for occasional entertainment, I have been watching old episodes of "Absolutely Fabulous" on a British website I found ( I love the "Birthday" episode, written by the brilliant Jennifer Saunders, who also plays Edina. When the bookish daughter Saffie wakes her mother up on her 40th birthday, Edina says, "I couldn't sleep. I could feel the forty-ness coming upon me in the night, dahling. Have a look out the window. Are the buzzards circling, sweetie?"
But I am embracing the occasion and have already been celebrating. As a gift to myself, I hopped in the Honda and raced down to Texas, listening to Hillary Clinton on CD reading her very presidential "Living History" the whole way, for Friday's dedication of the Ann Richards Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin. It was so wonderful to see some of my favorite people in the world ¾ the characters I met working for Ann. As I wrote in my first blog, Ann died on my 39th birthday, so it will be the one-year anniversary of her death on my big day.

Naming the bridge for Ann was the perfect tribute. Ann often walked under and across that bridge on the hike-and-bike trail, she saw it out the window of her office during her post-governor years, and she was fascinated by the bat colony that resides underneath the bridge and emerges in a majestic swarm at dusk. (My maniacally opinionated Jewish intellectual neighbor in Houston said they should call it "The Old Bat Bridge," which Ann would have thought hilarious. Yes, Ann could be an old bat, but she usually had a sense of humor about it.)

But Ann became forever associated with the bridge during her campaign for governor in 1990. At some point, she started ending every fiery stump speech by telling the crowd that together we would win, and then on Inauguration Day, "I'm gonna meet you on the Congress Avenue Bridge, and we're gonna march up Congress Avenue, and we're gonna take back the Capitol for the PEOPLE OF TEXAS!!!!"

When we won, it suddenly became one of Cathy Bonner's Inaugural assignments to pull off this promised march, and on January 15, 1991, a pretty chilly morning, some ten thousand people showed up on the bridge to march with Ann. I got to help carry the huge banner at the head of the march, which read, "The People of Texas Are Back!" On one side of me was the late, great Pat Cole, on the other side a man with AIDS, scattering his lover's ashes along the march route. Very surreal.

The bridge dedication ceremony, rescheduled due to torrential rains in May, took place on a typical September Friday in Austin -- 95 degrees in the shade and humidity that had to be somewhere north of 90%. Literal bullets of sweat were shooting out from my shaved dome like something in a cartoon.

"Brad's sweating all over me," cried the person sitting directly behind me at the ceremony.

"I forgot my towel," I deadpanned, as I turned to see that it was Chula Reynolds, the relentlessly cool and hilarious investor, philanthropist, activist, member of the King Ranch dynasty, one of the major players of the modern feminist movement in Texas, and close personal friend of Lily Tomlin (need I say more?). On the historic night that Ann won the governor's race (November 6, 1990), Chula sent me over to Ann's house with a big white box of white chocolate chip/macadamia nut cookies wrapped in a big white bow. After hosting her traditional election day bridge game, Ann was all alone in the house and being very pragmatic about what might happen in a few hours.

"They say the exit polls look really good," I chirped.

"Oh, that's just what they say," she sighed. "But you've been so great, Brad…"

Just one of the countless special moments from those thrilling years with Ann…

Also on the bridge Friday were my old boss Bill Cryer, who was Ann's press secretary, speechwriter Suzanne Coleman, former State Representative Glen Maxey (the first openly gay legislator elected in Texas and one of very few in the country), Ann's longtime assistant Barbara Chapman, and old campaign war buddies like John Donisi, Mark Strama (the best-looking member of the Texas House, this guy may be president one of these days!), Joene Grissom, Lucy Cooper Oglesby, Roxanne Elder and Leticia Vasquez. Many had read my blog, had nice things to say about it, and were mostly just shocked to see that I had made the journey all the way from Eureka Springs.

"I just couldn't stay away," I told them. "Who knows when another Ann Richards reunion will come around?"

Three of Ann's four children and a number of grandchildren were on hand. Ann's oldest, Cecile, lives in New York now, where she is the national head of Planned Parenthood, and didn't make the trip. Cecile inherited a lot of her mother's presence and talent for public speaking, she's great on TV, and I hope very much that she decides to run for office one of these days, though she probably has more power where she is now.

Of course Cecile's daughter, Ann's "nearly perfect grandbaby" Lily Adams, who is now a student activist at Brandeis and has gotten to intern at ABC's "Nightline," is destined to be president. After her magnificent eulogy of her grandmother at the memorial last year, someone in the crowd chanted, "Hillary and Lily in '08!"

Clark Richards, the only child who didn't work full-time on the 1990 campaign, has become one of the family's most eloquent voices. When he spoke at Ann's private burial last year at the State Cemetery in Austin, he began his remarks with a priceless line: "When we were little, our mother told us that she was a witch and that she could cure warts." Always start with a laugh, Ann often advised.

Clark became emotional speaking on the bridge and proudly used the word "leftist" when describing his mother. Indeed it is important that we remember how passionate Ann was about her populist ideals and how radical it really was for this "leftist" woman to be elected Governor of Texas in 1990.

I got to talk to Ellen Richards, the youngest child and the one closest to me in age. Ellen is a social worker, married and with a young daughter, and has been raising money for the exciting new Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders, which just opened a few weeks ago in Austin. In her wonderful memoir about food ("Dishing"), Ann's friend Liz Smith, the legendary gossip columnist and Texas native, wrote about how Ellen made her wedding reception a big hit by serving pie instead of cake. Ellen had seen my blog and told me, endearingly, "You're crazy."

Dan Richards explained to me that Ann's monument for the State Cemetery is being designed and that a huge slab of granite is slowly making its way, on a "wagon" (?), slow as Christmas, from somewhere far off. He said it may be 2008 before the monument is erected.

And I got to see Cathy Bonner, who I call "Wonder Woman." Cathy was one of Ann's top aides, a major entrepreneur and public relations genius, she brought Hollywood films to Texas as head of the Department of Commerce, founded the national Women's Museum in Dallas, wrote a self-help book ("What I Want Next: 30 Minutes to Reveal Your Future"), runs "mini-triathlons" in her spare time, and now, in the aftermath of Ann's death from esophageal cancer, is vowing to "find a cure for cancer within our lifetime." She single-handedly got the legislation through the Texas House and Senate, and I was there with Cathy and Lance Armstrong when Rick Perry ("Governor Hairdo," as Molly Ivins called him) signed it this summer at M.D. Anderson in Houston. Now Texas voters will decide in November on a $3 billion allocation for cancer research in Texas. With all the cancer in my family, I was hoping to help Cathy with fundraising in Houston, but then, out of left field, the writers' colony presented itself.

I got back to Eureka Springs Sunday in time to see the finals of the U.S. Open on TV at our respectable Tex-Mex restaurant La Familia (another great spot, The Oasis, calls its cuisine "Ark-Mex"). Professional tennis is one of the many things I write about, and I had to email my old friend Martina Navratilova at Wimbledon this summer and tell her that for the first time since 1976, when I was eight years old, I would be neither at Wimbledon (I've been three times) nor glued to a TV for the whole two weeks of the tournament.

The Rainbow Gathering was a technology-free zone, and the locale so remote you couldn't even get a cell phone signal, so I was completely oblivious to what was going on for most of Wimbledon. I did see Roger Federer win the final, matching Borg's record five consecutive Wimbledon titles, from my room at the Matterhorn Towers Motel in Eureka Springs, where we had decamped to recuperate from the Rainbow Gathering.

With no TV at the writers' colony, I kept up with the Open as best I could on the Internet, but didn't get to watch much of it. Federer, who I covered a few years ago when he was in Houston for the year-end "Master's Cup," already has my vote as he greatest ever, and he's a really sweet guy. When he plays, I never pull for the underdog.

And I'm actually playing tennis myself, for the first time in many moons, here in the Ozarks. Amazingly, Eureka doesn't have one decent tennis court, which must make it the only "resort town" in the world without one. There's one lousy court at the Best Western on the highway and four lousy courts at nearby Holiday Island, a development originally built as a retirement community. With this terrain, part of the problem is lack of flat spaces.

My new tennis buddy Bryan and I have to drive ten miles to Berryville, where there are two excellent public courts. Carroll County has two county seats, Eureka Springs and Berryville, because back in the day there was no bridge linking the two towns! Carroll County was actually called Lovely County back then, and the impressive, somewhat edgy local weekly is called the Lovely County Citizen.

In my last blog, I forgot to mention the most fascinating factoid about the Eureka Springs compound devoted to all things Jesus, with the 67-foot "Christ of the Ozarks" statue, the Passion Play, and the new creationism museum. Turns out these attractions were the work of one of Eureka's most notorious figures, Gerald L.K. Smith. It seems ol' Ger, a white supremacist, had been the founder of the pro-Hitler, pro-Mussolini "Christian Nationalist Crusade."

Ger and his wife are buried near the foot (feet?) of 67-foot Jesus (I better make clear that it is 67 feet, as I have been mistakenly saying 62 feet!), which sadly altered the gorgeous Ozark landscape in the year of our lard, 1966. They had a big to-do "Happy Birthday, Jesus" celebration when he turned 40 last year. Sorry I missed that. Ol' Ger must be spinning in his grave over all these fags and dykes invading Eureka Springs, and especially that new "Atheist in the Ozarks." ;p

Another bad guy in Eureka's extremely colorful history was "Dr." Norman Baker, a flamboyant businessman from Muscatine, Iowa, who arrived in 1937 and purchased the landmark Crescent Hotel, converting it to Baker's Cancer Curing Hospital. Baker's stay in Eureka was cut short when he was found guilty in 1940 on seven counts of fraud. He was sentenced to four years in the pen in Leavenworth, Kansas and fined $4,000. He never returned to Eureka, dying in Miami in 1957 at 75, reportedly of cancer. He never had one day of medical training.

The above information, a warts-and-all glimpse at the ugly side of the town's history, is cheerily displayed on the tables at Dr. Baker's Lounge, the roof-top bar at the Crescent, where I will be having my birthday toast tomorrow night. Visible in the distance will be, you guessed it, 67-foot Jesus, all lit up. As one local says, when the light strikes the statue in a certain way, he resembles Willie Nelson in a dress.

Willie happens to be coming to town October 26, and tickets for the intimate old Auditorium are going for $116.50. I already know "Captain" Don McGuire, who is bringing Willie, but Don is a good promoter so there are NO free tickets for the media or even Don's closest friends. Don doesn't generally care for reporters, but he's considering talking to this one on the record. Originally from Mansfield, Texas, Don has known Willie since 1961, back when Willie had short hair and was years away from becoming a household name. Don can spin a yarn with the best of them, and I hope he lets me help him tell at least some of his wild Willie stories. As I told Don, "If you don't get your stories down, they die with you."

Of course I met Willie, along with people like Nelson Mandela and the Queen of England, through working for Ann. Ann and Willie (dare I call them the two all-time greatest icons of Texas?) were born just four months apart, north of Waco, Willie in Abbott and Ann just 20 minutes down the road in Lakeview, where there was no lake to view.

One of the best stories, I say, from Ann's incredible send-off a year ago was that on the evening news and in the papers the following morning, Ann's funeral and Willie's arrest the same day in Louisiana, for vast quantities of weed and hallucinogenic mushrooms, vied for the top story! Ironically, Willie had been asked to sing at the memorial but couldn't make it back from the road. Sobriety spokesperson though she was, Ann's sense of the absurd would've won out on this one, and she would've loved it!

At the bottom of my birthday invite, I wrote, "Fabulous gifts, cards, cash, checks and Willie Nelson tickets encouraged." I've tried this kind of humor before with predictably little success, but I won't be surprised at all if, in the alternate universe that is Eureka Springs, I manage to be there in the flesh to hear Willie sing "Crazy."

So Happy Birthday to me! ;p And Ann, we ALL wish you were here…