Category Archives: Uncategorized

Ode to Tom Wolfe, a delayed tribute

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Another book assigned by Jack Simons.

I was 19 years old when I read “Radical Chic,” Tom Wolfe’s biting critique of New York socialites who try to capitalize on the cultural cache of the Black Panthers. The teeth of the essay have come back to bite me often. It’s incisors haunt me as I try to write about social justice in an age where “wokeness” is having a moment.

That’s not a bad thing, that haunting.

When he died in May, I thought about how Wolfe’s work in general, and “Radical Chic” in particular, brought me into journalism. Ultimately, it was less about what he wrote, and more about the fact that he wrote it.

I read “Radical Chic”…and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test…and The Painted Word…and Bonfire of the Vanities…and Hooking Up…while I was deeply mired in the corner of the Evangelical world that is skeptical of outsiders at best and anti-intellectual at worst.

Jack Simons— a singularly formative voice in my education— assigned “Radical Chic” to his intro to journalism class. Simons is a Fulbright Scholar, Baptist preacher, and Vietnam vet, and at the time he had been seemingly exiled to a tiny building on the far edge of the campus at The Masters College (now University). He also taught a class on Southern Women Writers, which he boiled down to an exploration of the fear of “sexual predation between the races.” He devoted one class per semester to the proper use of swear words in writing.

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A book recommended but not assigned by Jack Simons.

In other words, he was a smart guy in a weird world. So when he assigned Tom Wolfe, he knew what he was doing.

He also assigned what came to be all of my other favorite books.

I read those mentioned above and other works from Wolfe, and fell in love with his style, which is super fun. It’s catchy yet human, casual yet precise. It’s readable. A perfect hook for the boy crazy and distracted reader (see photo below)

Wolfe often wrote about things far from the ordinary person’s experience, but he did it in a way that felt like it was happening in your back yard. More importantly, he wrote about a world of limited access in a way that didn’t act like he was happy to be there.

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What I looked like the summer I read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and clearly took it to heart.

He was one of “them” in almost every way, except for the collective self-righteousness.

For an Evangelical kid from semi-rural Texas, Tom Wolfe was my inside man. He made me see that those people who, in every other form of writing, tended to sneer and disregard people-like-me, were just as silly and insecure as I was. They were striving and shallow at times. They were guided by the same base instincts as I was, and just as afraid of them.

With a trustworthy guide who was not trying to sell me or shame me, I was able to take a few glimpses into worlds outside my own. Wall Street, free love, radical counter cultures, and hyper-intellectualism. While my people were adding more locks to the door, I was able to cautiously peek outside. I could let down my defenses, because Wolfe was already on the offensive.

Evangelical alarmists beware, though. Wolfe made me feel “safe,” but I clearly was not. He made it appealing to think for myself. And that led to a life that is far from where things were headed when I first read “Radical Chic.” For those who knew me before, I’m a cautionary tale. If you ask me, I’m a close call. What if I had ignored the “Radical Chic” assignment, never discovered Tom Wolfe and kept fearing the Left and running harder to the Right? 

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Another Simons assignment. (Also Plutarch’s Lives was on his recommendation.)

If we want more people to fall somewhere in the middle, instead of on the far ends of ideology, we’ll always need Tom Wolfe in some form. Someone inside the camps has to be willing to critique their campiness in the most searing tone. Someone inside the pastures has to be willing to tip the sacred cows.

Writers like Tom Wolfe are good for everyone. No one has to be on the back foot when our toughest critics belong to our tribe. It opens up dialogue inside and outside, because it doesn’t equate criticism with rejection.

In the church, we call these internal outsiders “prophets” and they have long since been exiled by the greed of kings and the anxiety of priests. They are had to find in our partisan media environs and increasingly polarized academic institutions. There’s pressure to choose a side and back their play as they drift to the fringes. There’s pressure to put Team over Truth, and it’s dangerous.

But it’s a world with lots of fodder for the next Tom Wolfe.

San Antonio’s Two-handed Justice

The week after Harvey was a big week for San Antonio. We took on evacuees and sent aid to Hurricane Harvey victims with one hand, and with the other hand voted to change the name of Robert E. Lee High School, take down a Confederate monument, and obtained an eleventh-hour injunction against the State’s new “anti-sanctuary cities” law.

I’m partial, this being my hometown, but this week, San Antonio showed the world what it means to be hospitable and generous. With both hands.

Some argued that the time was not right. That one hand didn’t know what the other was doing. That both hands should have been full with Harvey. People argued that the monument and the high school renaming were “too emotional” and “a distraction.”

I disagree.

San Antonio is engaged in the both/and of social change. The one-two punch, if you will.

Pictures of Harvey rescues have gone viral. Black firefighters carrying white kids. White guys with their private boats going into Hispanic neighborhoods to run rescue operations. Young Hispanic EMTs lifting senior citizens in wheelchairs. They went viral with the comment, “We are not Charlottesville. We are Houston.” The people who posted meant this in one of (at least) two ways, as explained in their more elaborate comments.

Some meant it as inspiration. Like when you say to your kids, “You are part of this family, and in this family, we finish what we start.” It’s aspirational, a way to help them live into the identity we hope they will embrace. I’m all for America deciding that we want to be more like the heroes of Houston.

In San Antonio, our civic leaders beat that drum all week while asking for blood, diapers, blankets, cooperation, extra space and money for our friends down the freeway. They constantly reminded us of who we are: a generous, friendly, and hospitable city.

Others who posted “We are Houston,” however, meant it as a counterpoint to Charlottesville. They meant it to say, “see, at the end of the day, we don’t have a race problem.”

I would argue that we do. That while, yes, we will rescue “the Other” from a flood, we will alienate him again when the waters recede. The heroic deeds and character of individuals does not erase the injustice of institutions.

And so, with its other hand, a hand freed up by the fact that Harvey dealt us a mere glancing blow, San Antonio went to work on those institutions that marginalize or alienate. On the Tuesday after Harvey, San Antonio’s North East ISD school board voted unanimously for the name change of Robert E. Lee High School, a change led by student petition. One alumnus suggested changing the name to Harper Lee High School, to celebrate a brighter light of Southern grace.

On Wednesday a federal judge granted an injunction on the implementation of a law that was set to go into effect on Sept 1. It would have prevented cities and counties from adopting policies to keep their officers out of immigrations enforcement. It would have penalized elected officials who criticized the law. Law enforcement around the state spoke against the law, saying it would discourage cooperation with police and cause confusion among law enforcement. San Antonio and other cities in Texas joined a lawsuit to stop the law from taking effect. On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia granted an injunction stopping the most potent provisions of the law from going into effect.

On Thursday the San Antonio City Council voted 10-1 to remove a Confederate monument from one of our historic parks.

Meanwhile, we kept taking in evacuees, donating diapers, and giving blood.

San Antonio was not distracted. San Antonio was looking deeply at what it means to be hospitable and generous. It means taking in evacuees, it means sending out teams from your Fire Department and EMS department.

It also means putting flesh and blood people ahead of bronze statues. It means that black children are not sent to schools named for soldiers who fought for the right to enslave black children. It means fighting against laws that make our communities less safe and goad vigilante justice.

We have to think both short and long term. In the short term, the Harvey victims need real help, and they need it now. In the long term, we need better laws and a more equitable world. When you have two hands free, you should use them both.

The hands of justice are both open and closed. Open hands offer assistance, comfort, and aid. Closed hands hold tightly to their vulnerable neighbors, pull down monuments to injustice, and clench into fists of determination.

Obviously, our work is not done. Not in San Antonio, and not in the world. Some say the monument and memorial discussion lacks substance, that it doesn’t make life different for anyone.

Again, I disagree.

To take down a monument or change the name of the school is not to pretend it never happened. It is a public statement about what we do and do not cherish. We take down monuments because we know we have a problem, because we are Charlottesville on August 12. We also take them down because we do not want that problem to continue to corrupt our identity going forward. We want to be Houston on August 27 and the days that followed.

If we are to make good on our statements, we have to keep both hands in mind. When Harvey has passed, we must continue to take care of the poor and most vulnerable. We also must continue to confront the injustice in our institutions—be they schools, churches, businesses or City Hall. We must continue to work at being who we are.

 

 

 

 

Twig Book Challenge: Second Quarter

This year our local bookshop is conducting a reading challenge. Now that Moira goes to bed at 7:30pm, I thought, well, why not! Reading is quiet, portable, and doesn’t require me to get into a “mode” the way that writing does. As January revealed, I like a structured challenge, and I have been enjoying the Twig’s reading challenge since January 2. I’ll be reporting on my progress periodically. This quarter’s reads have reviews, last quarter’s reviews are on the previous Twig post.

AND I want your recommendations for the categories I still haven’t completed! Continue reading

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The Twig Book Challenge

This year our local bookshop is conducting a reading challenge. Now that Moira goes to bed at 7:30pm, I thought, well, why not! Reading is quiet, portable, and doesn’t require me to get into a “mode” the way that writing does. As January revealed, I like a structured challenge, and I have been enjoying the Twig’s reading challenge since January 2. I’ll be reporting on my progress periodically.

AND I want your recommendations for the categories I still haven’t completed! Continue reading

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When Life Gives you a Lemon Tree and a Carbonator…

…make carbonated, fresh-squeezed lemonade.

We have a lemon tree. It’s right outside our bedroom window, and it’s really a charming, sturdy feature of the backyard. I’ve watched our meyer lemons come back after a freeze in 2011 when we thought they were gone forever. But here they are, slowing growing ripe and orange (which is weird).

Nov 25, 2013 001 Continue reading

Poetry for the Young Realist: No One Likes A Puritan

Happy Thanksgiving. Let’s not forget why America exists in the first place…because some people are so hard to be around that you have to send them off to the “New World.”

Before I get accused of being the Thanksgiving Grinch…I’m thankful for many things. In particular this year I’m thankful for my little stowaway and her father.

No One Likes A Puritan

I. We celebrate each late November

A date we know we should remember

When persecuted pilgrims sailed

Across the ocean and prevailed

Upon these rocky shores.

Don’t think the story is completed

With tales of corn and natives greeted.

That boat contained some noble envoys

But they were joined by royal killjoys.

No one liked the Puritans.*

II. If you shun your well-dressed neighbor

And never greet or grant them favors,

If you refuse to house-or-dogsit

Your principals may justify it

But no one likes a Puritan.

No One Likes a Puritan - Gay Rabbits

III. When you say “no” to every party

Especially when the crowd is arty

It’s true you’ll never face temptation…

For fun, or mirth, or celebration.

That’s why folks hate Puritans.

No One Likes a Puritan - Snake Party

IV. Food and beverages are fun

And, yes, often overdone.

But turning down each scrumptious pleasure

Makes you seem more grim than measured.

It’s tough to be a Puritan.

No One Likes a Puritan - Turtle Wine

V. A joke can be both crass and funny

Concerning poop or sex or money.

If you don’t deign to laugh along

Insisting that it would be wrong

No one will like you, Puritan.

No One Likes a Puritan - Vermin Poker

VI. While your beliefs may be sincere,

Your values too may be held dear,

It is your right to hold them firm

And not to compromise or squirm.

But people may not like you.

So like the Pilgrims long ago

If your answer’s always “No,”

Don’t be surprised if no one sees

The beauty of your earnesty

And wishes you’d set sail.

Historical Footnote:

* We know that no one liked them, because they were persecuted. People don’t persecute people they like.

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The Fascinating Lives of Car Salesmen

This is my old car, “Karen.”

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Karen’s a/c didn’t work, so she had to be retired. We “sent her away to a farm” where she could run and play and blow hot air out of her vents in 100 degree weather all day long.

On The Fourth of July we did what JFK told us was the most patriotic thing we could do: we shopped. I don’t usually pay attention to car ads barking at me about ZERO DOWN! and ZERO PERCENT INTEREST! But I did spend enough of my formative years in front of the television to know that “Independence Day” is just the prefix for “Sale.”

Really it was Lewis’s idea, after picking me up from the gym. I would never have tried to negotiate interest rates and down payments in my sweaty gym clothes, but I have learned that when Lewis gets the wild hair to spontaneously spend money, I’d better hop right on that, regardless of how I smell.

The distinct disadvantage was that I felt like anyone liberal enough to be nice to me looking like a vagrant the way I did, deserved to make a sale. I wanted to buy a car as a way of saying, “Thank you for not laughing at me.”

The day was fairly uneventful from a car-buying standpoint. We test drove three vehicles. Purchased one. Traded in Karen for  beans (more beans than she may be worth, however). Pretty efficient day of shopping, really.

This is the gorgeous German machine we bought. We named her Marlene Dietrich.

This is the gorgeous German machine we bought. We named her Marlene Dietrich.

But along the way we heard two stories that together convinced us that car salesmen might have a more interesting job than most us.

As we were getting into the Prius V, we asked how often people wreck the cars when they take them out for a test drive.

“You’d be surprised how rarely that happens,” our 30-something salesman replied.

“Have you ever seen anyone try to steal one?”

“Not really,” he said. I was thinking that the conversation was a dud, and that we would have to make halting holiday-based conversation (“Any plans for the fourth?” “Well…we’re buying a car…you?” “I’m at work…”).

But then he continued.

“But I did have a guy try to carjack me once on a test drive.”

Suddenly I thought about it. This guy gets in the car with strangers every day. Strangers who have wandered in knowing full well that there are hundreds of brand new cars available for joyriding. All they have to do is ask.

But even if people do have honest intentions, they might be hazardous. Salesmen have to pull out onto busy access roads with grandmas behind the wheel. Or slam to a stop 2 feet from the tailgate of the giant truck when a 16 year old finally applies the brakes at a red light. Bickering couples. Distracted parents. Dudes trying to impress their girlfriends. Women who drive like Cruella de Vil.

It’s a really dangerous job.

A highlight of our return to the Volkswagen dealership to trade Karen (no, we didn’t really euthanize her) was when Lewis found a stuffed monkey under one of her seats. We then had to proceed with negotiating, discussing interest rates, credit scores, and down payments with a stuffed monkey in tow, in addition to me being smelly.

Lewis and the monkey do some tough negotiating.

Lewis and the monkey do some tough negotiating.

“Is that your good luck charm?” people kept asking.

We would laugh, assuming they were being funny. I mean, they were definitely being funny, but we assumed they knew that. Finally, when the Finance manager, Frank, looked back at us, earnestly waiting for our response, Lewis clued in.

“Do people bring good luck charms to buy cars?”

From there we got a laundry list of the good luck charms he had seen in his time in sales. It crescendoed to this story.

Frank took a man out for a test drive, and it was clear on the drive that the man was loving the car. It was everything he wanted.  The deal was so close, Frank could taste it. Suddenly, while behind the wheel, the man said, “This is it. This is the car I want. I just gotta ask my wife.”

Frank totally understood, though probably rolled his eyes a little that the man hadn’t gotten the major purchase pre-approved by the home office. He tried to keep the momentum going, should they need it to overcome whatever obstacle the wife presented. He waited for the man to pull out a cell phone, but instead, they just drove further from the dealership.

And kept driving.

Until they pulled up to a cemetery. The man parked the car and told Frank he would be right back. True to his word, the man came back shortly thereafter, a smile on his face, and good news for all.

“She’s fine with it.”

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Beer Journal: Brewery Tours

I love brewery tours. Especially in Europe.

I’ve done quite a few, but two really stand out.

First, the Heineken Brewery in Amsterdam. It’s slick, it’s corporate. But it’s got lots of fun things. Or maybe it doesn’t…I don’t really remember.

Why don’t I remember? Because I went to the Heineken Brewery with Lee, on our whirlwind tour of Europe during Holy Week while I was in grad school and Lee was working for The Alley in Houston. Amersterdam was our first stop, and we were there for 36 hours. At no time in that 36 hours was I fully aware of what I was doing. We are so so so tired in this picture.

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We’d left my London flat at 3am. By 10am we were at the Heineken Brewery, hyped up on caffeine. Thanks to the samples given at the Heineken tour, by noon we were asleep on a bench on the top floor of the Van Gough museum. At some point there was more caffeine, and this happened:

Amsterdam

After that is was around 4 o’clock, maybe a little after…

Somewhere along the line, this happened:

Girl in shoe

The other brewery tour I remember fondly was the Carlsberg brewery in Copenhagen. I went with my cousins, Matthew, Tommy, and Alex. We were on another backpack blitz of Europe, on the way to Tommy’s law school summer course in Innsbruck. Matthew and I had done a Eurail trip together before, and I think we can both agree that it was a sign of our deep familial bond that we tried it again.

Copenhagen was our second stop after visiting the family in Stockholm/Boxholm. I personally find Copenhagen a little odd, but this was a classic brewery tour. I don’t remember how, but somehow Alex and I got separated from the boys and found ourselves in the bar at the end of the tour (a standard feature). Carlsberg is more generous than most with their samples. We got two full size beers of our choice. To consume in the 30 minutes we were allowed to stay in the bar.

Carlburg

Carlsberg makes Elephant Beer. Which at the time had an ABV of 12%.

I woke up on a bench just outside the brewery. I’m not certain, but I think Alex did too.

I guess my criteria for a good brewery tour is the quality of the nap you get at the end.

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Florence’s So-Called Life

Florence, our precious little puppy, is 6 months old. She’s a pre-teen. And like all pre-teen girls, her life is really, really difficult.

When she was a baby, it was okay if she ate herself to sleep…

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But now she has to go the vet and be weighed…

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And we never let her have her way…

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Which calls for drama…

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Which is exhausting…

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And her big brother won’t play what she wants to play…

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In fact no one ever wants to play what she wants to play…

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And she still gets scared and needs me…

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But we’re constantly “smothering” her…

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Life is tough for pre-teen girls.

Trying to write a wedding toast, Part II

Part II: Itchy Hearts

I continued to think about Liz’s wedding, making plans for bridals showers, bachelorette events…and started feeling a little nostalgia for the beginning of things. A longing for something new.

It’s ironic because Liz and Jason have been together for almost twice as long as Lewis and I have, so I really can’t look at her relationship and think, “Ah…I remember being where they are…”

It’s more ironic, because I’m actually not a fan of beginnings. I’m a fan of grooving middles and bittersweet endings. So the nostalgia surprised me. The little itch in my heart for something gone by. Something I saw in movies. Or in a friend’s smile when she changed her Facebook profile picture to include her new boyfriend. Finally I figured it out, what was giving me the itchy heart.

Our first picture together. I probably nearly vomited with excitement.

Our first picture together. I probably vomited with excitement.

I’ll never fall in love again.

Sure, sure, I fall in love with Lewis every day all over again. That’s a nice sentiment, but it’s not what I’m talking about. I’m going to be really frank here, because I think it’s important. Because for a lot of people, that nostalgia for falling in love sneaks up and steals a lot of joy.

Falling in love is that nauseating, unsure, tears of excitement/relief/fear soup of suspended reality. The kind that would wreck your health if you experienced it too often. That’s what I can’t get from Lewis anymore. I also can’t get herpes, which is nice.

I dated a guy once who was fond of saying, “I’ve always wanted to do that…” after he made some sort of romantic gesture. It was sweet and lots of fun. Very rom-com. When I was later single again, I would look back on his gestures cynically and think, “That had nothing to do with me. He was just fulfilling his own dreams. I could have been anyone.”

This sort of thing still happens...but I don't stay up until 3 am thinking about what it means. It means he loves me, and it's my birthday.

This sort of thing still happens…but I don’t stay up until 3 am thinking about what it means. 

But now…I’m so thankful for his moments of cinematic grandeur. And the other fellas who wrote notes, or showed up in the rain, or sang to me in the supermarket. It didn’t need to be about me. It was about a time in life.

[Side note: There are also some destructive, unhappy dating moments that I never want to revisit. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about those giddy moments of “He likes me!” that only happen once per relationship. And they are going to happen whether you are dating, courting, hanging out, or whatever. People connect, however you define it.]

In my opinion, once married, it’s okay to look back on “He/She likes me!” fondly, even if the “he/she” involved wasn’t your spouse. Because it was a happy time. There’s a pressure to look back on all of it with disdain, but I don’t think that’s honest. Getting married doesn’t dissolve every human connection and every happy memory.

His hand was on my knee. I was probably about to have an aneurysm from excitement.

We’d been dating a couple of weeks. I was probably about to have an aneurysm of happiness, because he drove with his hand on my knee.

On the other end, I think it would be misplaced to go trying to constantly recreate “falling in love” in marriage. Rather than looking back and saying, “Awww…” a lot of people seem to take the melancholy itch as a sign that something is missing in their marriage…when it’s not at all. You can only fall in love with someone you’re not already in love with. So if I want to fall in love with Lewis again, I’d have to fall out of love with him first. And I don’t want to.

It’s also unfortunate when people try to speak that feeling back into existence, as though it is the incantation that will protect their marriage from harm. When people say that their spouse is “new to them everyday” or something like that, it terrifies me. We’ve got way to much invested in this thing to wake up and say, “Who are you?”

Married Lewis knows better than to take his eyes off his injeera when I'm around.

Boyfriend Lewis was naive. Husband Lewis knows better than to take his eyes off his injeera when I’m around. 

 

Falling in love is a fun and finite thing. Loving, sharing life, is only as good as it’s staying power. Falling in love is about potential. Marriage is about actual. And we should all know that something can be potentially wonderful, and actually horrible.  And vice versa. Like movies adapted from young adult fiction.

The fact that you didn’t marry some of the people you fell in love with is still a very happy ending! I’ll take roses from any old clown, but my gosh I dodged some bullets on getting married (and I was also the bullet myself sometimes). Yes there were tears…the way there were tears when my mom wouldn’t let me drink the whole bottle of Dimatap Cough Syrup.

When I feel nostalgia for butterflies and nausea, I’m not thinking about Lewis. I’m thinking about a feeling I had and liked. It’s a feeling I can’t get from Lewis anymore, because he’s closer than my skin. We’re one. He can be romantic, generous and sweet (which he is, almost always). He just can’t be unfamiliar and new anymore.

But that’s the best part of a sweet, sweet irony…the more I get to know him, the more I like him. I wouldn’t trade him for all the nausea in the world.