Friday, December 15, 2017

Bill Crider: A Man and His Blog

(Editor’s note: This piece is submitted as part of today’s celebration of Texas author and blogger Bill Crider, hosted by Patti Abbott. Find additional such tributes by clicking here.)

(Above) Bill Crider takes a selfie with “VBK” Gilligan.

In the piece that may, unfortunately, turn out to be the final entry in what he’s called his “peculiar blog,” 76-year-old Bill Crider—who, as I understand it, is currently in home hospice care with “very aggressive” prostate cancer—lamented having to cease activity on the Web site to which he’s been posting for more than a decade and a half:
The blog has been a tremendous source of pleasure to me over the years, and I’ve made a lot of friends here. My only regret is that I have several unreviewed books, including Lawrence Block’s fine new anthology, Alive in Shape and Color, and Max Allan Collins’ latest collaboration with Mickey Spillane, The Last Stand, which is a collection of two novellas, “A Bullet for Satisfaction,” an early Spillane manuscript with an interesting history, and “The Last Stand,” the last thing that Spillane completed. It saddens me to think of all the great books by many writers that I’ll never read. But I’ve had a great life, and my readers have been a big part of it. Much love to you all.
I don’t remember exactly when I began reading Bill Crider’s Pop Culture Magazine, this Alvin, Texas, writer’s much-loved blog, but it certainly wasn’t as far back as 2002, at the time he commenced amassing its contents. Few people are likely to remember this, but his blog was very different at its birth than it has become. No less humorous and occasionally homespun, but not as concerned with the interests of its audience—which was then probably pretty minuscule. In his first post, dated Sunday, July 28, 2002, Crider explained:
I’m starting this blog on my 61st birthday, and about one month before I retire. I have no idea what’s going to be here, but for now I’ll just use it as a diary.

For my birthday, we made peach ice cream, the first time
we’ve done that in years. We used the old wooden freezer that has a hand crank. You have to earn your ice cream around here. [I] had to root around in the attic for quite a while before I found the freezer, but it was in great shape. The ice cream was as good as I remembered. My mother’s recipe. My wife, Judy, fixed lasagna, and our daughter, Angela, came over. Our son, Allen, lives in Austin and couldn’t be here, but we talked to him on the phone.
Any readers he could claim during his initial year of irregular blogging would certainly have benefited from knowing the outline of Crider’s history, just to give his postings some context. As he points out on his author Web site, “I was born and brought up in Mexia (that’s pronounced Muh-HAY-uh by the natives), Texas. The town’s most famous former citizen is [model, actress, and former Playboy Playmate] Anna Nicole Smith, whom my brother taught in biology class when she was in the ninth grade. I’ve always lived in small Texas towns, unless you count Austin as a large town. It wasn’t so large when I lived there, though. I attended the University of Texas at Austin for many, many years. My wife (the lovely Judy) says that I would never have left grad school if she hadn’t forced me to get out and get a real job. I eventually earned my Ph.D. there, writing a dissertation on the hard-boiled detective novel, and thereby putting my mystery-reading habit to good use. Before that, I’d gotten my M.A. at the University of North Texas (in Denton), and afterward I taught English at Howard Payne University for 12 years. Then I moved to scenic Alvin, Texas, where until 2002 I was the Chair of the Division of English and Fine Arts [at Alvin Community College]. I retired in August 2002 to become either a full-time writer or a part-time bum. Take your pick.”

Although the topics of Crider’s earliest posts ranged from his opinions on yard work (“Except for a few years when I was in college and later when I lived in apartments, I’ve been mowing the yard. Probably 40 years of yard-mowing all told. No wonder I hate it.”) to his book-buying addiction and his daughter’s occasional car troubles, many of them had to do with the process and prospects of retirement. “I’m looking forward to the free time,” he asserted at the end of July 2002, “but I’m not looking forward to poverty, which is what I may experience if the stock market doesn’t turn around soon. I’m hoping to make a few book sales over the next few years, but that’s not going to help immediately.” (Crider had published a wide variety of fiction—both novels and short stories—prior to his departing Alvin Community College, but there were many more to come once he was un-tethered from academia.) His transition into the non-work world had its bumps. “When I went to the college mail room this morning,” he recalled in late August of that same year, “I discovered that my mailbox had been moved from the regular faculty line-up to the Old Guy’s area. It must be that my retirement is official. I still haven’t finished cleaning out the office, though. That may take a while.” He followed that up three days later with this: “OK, it’s official. Any way you look at it, I’m retired. Yesterday was the last day of the summer semester, and registration for the fall begins on Monday. I was employed through the end of the summer. So now it’s over. After going to school every fall since 1947, I’ll be staying at home on Monday. As the ’60s saying went, today is the first day of the rest of my life.”

The latest banner atop Bill Crider’s Pop Culture Magazine.

Crider was obviously concerned that his retirement would leave him without sufficient material about which to blog (“Writing this stuff down and reading over my earlier comments makes me realize what a dull life I lead. Eating Mexican food for dinner will be the highlight of my day.”). Yet he carried on … and on. Bill Crider’s Pop Culture Magazine filled up with comments about movies, music, Hollywood stars, and of course, books—new and especially old; his own and others’. He refrained for the most part from potentially controversial subjects such as politics, but got digs in every once in a while. (“I’m completely at a loss to explain George W. Bush’s appeal,” he remarked at the end of December 2002. “He can’t speak English, he’s a doofus most of the time, and yet people love him.”) The habitually thin Crider was a jogger; as he related on his Web site, “I run five or six days a week. I used to run in the afternoons, but now that I’m retired, I run in the early mornings. In scenic Alvin, Texas, it doesn’t make much difference. It’s always hot.” So, naturally, his exercise routine became a subject for his blog. As did his high school reunions, his love of the Kingston Trio, TV shows, his various technological challenges, and his visits to writing conventions (Bouchercon and the science-fiction gathering ArmadilloCon, in Austin, appear to have been his favorites). Oh, and then there was his marriage to the former Judy Laverne Stutts, about which he wrote with unflagging enthusiasm. “Today,” reads his post of June 4, 2003, “is my 38th wedding anniversary. Judy and I got married in Thornton, Texas, and honeymooned in Colorado Springs. It was the first time that I’d ever been out of the state, if you don’t count a day trip across the border into Mexico when I was a kid. These days, most kids have traveled more than that by the time they’re out of kindergarten. Anyway, we had a wonderful time, so it was a good start to the marriage. Now that we’ve lasted this long, maybe we’ll make it for a few more years.”

Perhaps because he took up blogging in the wake of a teaching career, rather than embarking on this enterprise after working in the news business (as so many of us have), Crider didn’t even bother to give his posts headlines until July 2004. Before that, they’d been text-only, a reflection—intentional or not—of his original view that he was composing a diary of sorts, rather than a publication to be widely followed by others. Yet his blog was followed, and he started receiving suggested post topics from a list of friends and colleagues that included “Cap’n Bob” Napier, Art Scott, and Steve Stilwell. Crider never seemed terribly concerned whether his site came off as a “professional product” (he periodically made posts out of press releases, without making that clear, and some of his entries appeared in different typefaces than others). But what he may have lacked in journalistic standards, Bill Crider more than made up for with the humor and nostalgic warmth found in so many of his posts. “I do wish that Bill [Clinton] wrote mysteries,” he said after the former president released his memoir, My Life. “If he did, his books would be shelved right next to mine, and maybe someone would buy my books by mistake.” And I remember a longish piece he put together two years ago, about his first car (a 1963 Ford Galaxie), that I have hit on a few times while reading his blog, and always find amusing. Crider’s annual posts commemorating Father’s Day and Mother’s Day, in which he honored his parents’ memories, were no less wistful.

Over the years, Crider developed several regular varieties of posts, including those showcasing vintage paperback covers, crocodiles, baseball players, and folks who had by some means stumbled across great wealth (Bill was never so lucky). He put in his two cents on periodic slights committed against Anna Nicole Smith, Paris Hilton, and Nicolas Cage; embedded “Song of the Day” videos in his blog, as well as out-of-date advertisements; marked the deaths of celebrities and other notables; updated followers on the status of his three rescued felines, the mischievous “VBKs” (or Very Bad Kittens); and under the heading “I Miss the Old Days,” provided links to photos and stories recalling historic roller skaters, classic women’s swimming attire (OK, we’re talking bikinis here), and products from years gone by that would be a whole lot more valuable now, had you hung onto them. As I mentioned earlier, Crider liked films, so he’d write weekly about overlooked big-screen features—some of which deserved to have been ignored. And from the beginning of Patti Abbott’s popular Web-wide “forgotten books” series, back in 2008, Crider was a regular contributor, commenting on dusty works (crime fiction, science fiction, Westerns, and more) by authors on the order of Harry Whittington, Donald E. Westlake, Robert Bloch, Marvin H. Albert, and W.P. Kinsella. Abbott mentioned recently that “Bill Crider was the first person I asked to write a review [nine] years ago when I began FFB. I expected him to write one for the first week. Instead, he has written over 500 reviews of books, never missing one that I remember.”

Judy and Bill Crider at Bouchercon 2005 in Chicago.

Unlike many bloggers (yours truly included), Crider wasn’t afraid of sentimentality or exposing himself in print. Some of his best blog work, in fact, was the most heart-felt. It took awhile after his wife, Judy, died on November 27, 2014—the victim of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma—before he could write much about their life together and what they’d gone through during her last years. When he finally approached the subject at any length, though, it was with remarkable love and candor. This comes from a post of June 4, 2015, which would have been their 50th anniversary:
I haven’t written much about her illness here because she didn’t want me to. She was a private person and stoic in facing her illness. She was steel. One day a few months before she died, we were talking about what might happen, and my voice cracked. I probably had tears in my eyes. Judy said, “Don’t be maudlin. If I die, I die, and that’s it. We’ve done all we can.” Steel? Titanium is more like it. Never once did I see her cry or weaken. It must have been tough, because she went through a lot. Some of the chemo treatments were brutal, though I’m the only one who ever knew because to everyone else, she was relentlessly cheerful and polite. Whenever anyone asked how she was doing, she’d always say, “Fine.” Nobody was ever going to hear her complain, except me, and that was the way it was. I may have mentioned before that one of the nurses called me and said this about Judy: “That Mrs. Crider was always a lady, always dressed so nice, she never complained, not once.”

The last week that she was in the hospital, I asked if she wanted to watch
The Young and the Restless, and she said she didn’t. “But it’s your favorite soap,” I said. “Bill,” she said, “you just don’t know how bad I feel.” That's a close as she ever came to complaining.
That write-up seemed to provide some sort of release for Crider, because after that he penned a number of additional, wonderful posts about Judy, whom many readers of his blog knew from their joint appearances at various Bouchercons. Look for those pieces here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

I don’t know what will happen to either the delightful VBKs or Bill Crider’s Pop Culture Magazine if the Alvin author doesn’t recover soon. I imagine the cats (Keanu, Ginger Tom, and Gilligan) will have no trouble finding new accommodations, darn cute as they are. I hope Crider’s children will be protective, too, of their father’s blog—if only by leaving it alone and keeping it available to browsers. Over the course of 15-plus years, the man born Allen Billy Crider let readers into his family, into his world, and into his heart by way of what would once have been called his “Weblog.” He found a welcome in many of our homes and offices on a daily basis. No one who hasn’t tried to maintain a blog knows the commitment necessary to keep such a thing lively and interesting. People who haven’t been reading Bill Crider’s Pop Culture Magazine for years deserve a chance to go back and see what the author was able to do with it. Crider’s books and stories offer insights into his character, priorities, and enthusiasms, but his blog really reveals the beating heart behind his byline.


Todd Mason said...

As happily as such things get, he's in hospice at home...his adult children, and his young adult feline companions, there with him.

And thanks for a fine survey of his blog...I'm still looking for the goofy little jape I wrote about the time he found a Lot of Gold Medal paperbacks in a Corpus Christie Half Price Books store, and managed to lay claim to some large number of them over the overruled mild objections of Joe Lansdale, Scott Cupp and other friends attending the Word Fantasy Convention with Bill that year.

And I never have asked him why his parents named him and his brother in such a slight eccentric fashion.

Lesa said...

Thank you. That's a beautiful, heartfelt tribute to Bill. I cried, just as I do every time I think of him. Like you, I hope his blog continues to stand someplace. His humor and heart made him the man that so many of us are talking about today.

Todd Mason said...

Or even slightly...

Charles Gramlich said...

I always enjoyed his blog, though was never able to keep up with all of his posts. He often had very cool links to things as well.

Lee Goldberg said...

Great post!


Kathy said...

Wonderful post for a wonderful man. Thank you.

David Cranmer said...

Thank you for this retrospective on a great man.

K. A. Laity said...

A lovely remembrance.