Saturday, March 18, 2017

That's Right (You're Not From Texas)

Note: As I write this, we're just now coming out of a cold snap in the Missouri Ozarks, where the forecast high temperatures have been in the thirties. Meanwhile, in the Texas Hill Country, the highs have been a comfortable 75° to 80°. What follows is part observation, part salutation, and certainly part lamentation. - bs

One of the first major purchases that I made when I was setting up my commercial photo studio in the late 1980s was a capable stereo system and enough speakers to irritate the neighbors. At first, I used a six-pack-loader for CDs, and eventually changed over to 3 300-disc jukeboxes. They sat right next to the twin Mr. Coffees. You see, commercial advertising photo studios run on coffee and music.  It takes most clients several hours to go through the music catalog of 21,000+ titles and select what they want to hear as they work. By then, the project had legs and we were on our way to actually accomplishing something before they could interfere. When I first dropped Lyle Lovett's 1996 album "The Road To Ensenada" into the "A" jukebox, I thought "That's Right (You're Not From Texas)" was a catchy uptempo swing tune, perfect for keeping projects moving and clients distracted and out of my thinning hair. I had no idea that it contained immutable truths about the 28th state.

Now, after spending most of late fall and early winter in Texas, my level of understanding of that song and of the state of Texas has been, let's say, elevated.

Perspective: I grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, although I was born across the state line in Kansas City, Kansas. Explaining the importance of that invisible, but rock-solid boundary takes more time and energy than I have right now. My home town and the region around it has an ingrown inferiority complex. The city sits at the confluence of the meandering and shallow Kansas River and the muddy "too thin to plow, too thick to drink" Missouri River. Except for the cave-riddled limestone bluffs that the city sits on, that is the entire extent of the city's physical distinctions. No mountains, no oceans or large lakes, no beaches. Kansas Citians, always aware of their city's Cowtown identity, constantly compare themselves to the coasts. The cosmopolitan atmosphere of New York is thought as way too rarified, and Californians are often seen as belonging to a shallow, inch-deep. mile-wide subculture that no level-headed Midwesterner would ever want to emulate. I confess, I at times fell into both traps. My short-lived newspaper column was called "The Flyover".

Culturally, Kansas City was mentioned in the musical, "Oklahoma" and proclaimed it to be "up to date". Wilbert Harrison and everyone from The Grateful Dead and Sammy Davis Jr. to the Beatles sang of the crazy little women in Kansas City, though I'm not sure Wilbert ever went to Kansas City. My own exposure to crazy little women in Kansas City has left me with deep emotional scars and a less-than-pleasant set of bachelor memories. KC has BBQ, and might I add, damned good BBQ. It hosts the World Series of BBQ every year. The town hides under a thick, year-round pall of oak and hickory smoke. The area also gave birth to a particular flavor of jazz and blues, and in spite of the largest stockyards and packing plant district this side of Chicago, never fully embraced any kind of western heritage. Non-chain Western stores are few and far between, and after I moved back to the area after some years in Colorado, I never bothered to replace my last couple of pairs of Tony Llamas that were essential to my work uniform as a carpenter. Did I mention my boot-cut square-butt Wranglers and pointy-toed galoshes?

Meanwhile:

"They're OK in Oklahoma,
Up in Arkansas they're fair,
But those old folks in Missouri,
They don't even know you're there."

It's rare to see western dress anywhere outside the American Royal Horse Show and Rodeo, and locals look at someone wearing a good pair of boots - or God forbid, a cowboy hat - as expressing drugstore cowboy affectations.

Farther down I-70, graduates of the University of Missouri, many of them photographers and journalists of the highest caliber, can be lured out into the light by shouting out "M-I-Z!". Their Pavlovian response is always "Z-O-U!" Otherwise, it's pretty quiet on the long, pothole-infested stretch of I-70 between Kansas City and St. Louis.

Thus does the inferiority complex silently manifest itself in "The Flyover".

"Texas wants you anyway"

Texas is different. From the moment we crossed from New Mexico into West El Paso, the Lone Star symbolism is in constant evidence. We picked up our "Don't Mess With Texas" litter bags and stickers at the welcome center, grabbed a couple of maps, and was surprised when the young woman who was working at the welcome center actually welcomed us. She gave us directions to the Mission Trail, suggestions on where to eat, and generally made us feel at home.

It didn't sink in right away, but the thing that seems to set Texas apart from most anywhere else I've been is pride. Texans are proud to be Texans, proud of Texas, and proud to show you around. The Lone Star emblem is everywhere you look - on stickers on cars and trucks, flying outside private homes, and every other available flagpole. Texans know where they come from, and how the State of Texas came to be. I am told that Texas kids recite two pledges every morning - one to the flag of the United State, one to the flag of Texas. Their roots go back generations, and some I've met live on family spreads that have been in their families since before the railroads first came through. Maybe I envy this close affinity to one another because my own family was so scattered and uninvolved. There is no inferiority complex in Texas.

Exposed to this level of pride, regardless of what your license plate says, when you spend any amount of time in Texas, you slowly. . . very slowly, start to become part Texan. It gets in your blood. You want to belong to something that's bigger than you are? That is the precise definition of Texas.

If you broke it down by geographic features and micro-climates, Texas would make seven tidy separate states. The Panhandle, Piney Woods, Southern Plains, the Prairies and Lakes, West Texas and Big Bend, and the Hill Country are all as different from one another as Texas is different from Iowa.

It's big. It's a two-Kansas-wide 880 mile drive from El Paso to Beaumont, the same from the Panhandle to Brownsville, and the highways are smooth as glass, with speed limits that challenge you to keep up. You have far to go, you might as well get there quickly.

I ran into an long, tall, octogenarian at a grocery store in Johnson City, Texas, and after the requisite "Howdy!", we stood in the vegetable aisle and talked at length about the Hill Country, where to eat in Blanco County, and how he knew LBJ and how he once eavesdropped on a phone call between his sister and the 36th president on the details of his inauguration. A firm handshake and he went on about his business, an ambassador without portfolio. We had talked to one another as though we were family.

The full conversion takes years, or so I'm told. It takes a while to absorb the pronunciation of place names. Lord help me, I may never get this worked out. They apply sounds to letters that don't exist, and drop letters randomly, based on local custom. You just have to pick a name, stick your neck out and let them have a good laugh at your expense. The state park we volunteered at - Pedernales - is pronounced Pardenells, or some other variation, because, we're told, LBJ couldn't parse out all the syllables in the spanish pronunciation. You also have to figure out what their particular regional flavor of BBQ is, and how to use "y'all" effectively. (The answer is, if you can't do it without thinking about it, don't do it. You'll sound like a cartoon character.) Just don't, y'all.

There are also regional loyalties to be respected, many of which revolve around football. The Texas Longhorns, The Texas A&M Aggies, and the Texas Tech Red Raiders  - not necessarily in that order, thank you, very much - lead the list of tradition-bound pigskin and school loyalties. I bought a sale-priced shirt at a New Mexico WalMart that for all intents and purposes, is Texas Orange. I still would have bought it if it was green or blue. I'm never sure whether to wear it or not outside of Austin. Even in poor light, it doesn't pass for TAMU Aggie Maroon. Loyalties are strong and demonstrative. Small town Texas on Friday night is about the local high school team. The high school stadium in Kerrville looks like Lambeau Field in Green Bay. Do not expect to get waited on in a restaurant until the game is over. An ambulance might come load you up if your ticker fails, but I wouldn't bank on it. This is serious stuff.

Texas is more than a nation-state, and much more than the sum of its parts. Mesquite to sagebrush, prairies and cotton fields to beaches, mountains and oil fields, Texas is a state of mind, a reminder that it only takes one star to make an emblem, a flag and a state. There is a cowboy culture here, and the difference between Texas and everywhere else is that the culture is honest and real. I saw a young man at the H.E.B with spurs on his boots and a thin layer of Texas dirt on his Wranglers. It's a way of life, not a style statement.

I'm a believer. We're coming back. We left a lot unseen here, and many people unmet and thus, unphotographed. We were able to see and meet many wonderful people in Texas. Galveston saw us in the company of my dear friend Pamela, her spouse Jamie, and the amazing Peternelle van Arsdale. Turn around, and we're standing backstage at the Grand 1894 Opera House in the gracious company of the aforementioned Lyle Lovett, April Kimble, most of his Lyle's family, and Robert Earl Keen. In Austin, we were the guests of Carrlyn and Lee Miller at Texas Traditions Boots where we marveled at the amazing art and craft of the custom boot maker.

We got to meet Twitter pals Tim Walker, Audrey Coulthurst, and Paula Garner at a book event, and with more time to spend, we could have met quite a few more. Even though we travel a lot, our time at the State Park had us spending more than 150 hours a month at work. Subtract time for necessary errands and shopping, and time just got away from us. A fresh compass-rose tattoo at a South Congress shop in Austin put an exclamation point on our stay, and off we went.

"So won't you let me help you, mister,
Just pull your hat down the way I do.
And buy your pants just a little bit longer, 
And next time somebody laughs at you,
You just tell 'em, You're not from Texas,
That's right, you're not from Texas
That's right, you're not from Texas
But Texas wants you, anyway."

Texas, the feeling is reciprocal. We'll see you again soon. Thanks, Lyle.

2 comments:

  1. Enjoyed your post, Bud. We'd always heard about Texas pride but you're right - when we made our first trip there in late Sept '16, we saw that yes, it's real. You can see "Go Ags!" Virtually anywhere - even underneath the TAMU textbook publishing unit's imprint on the back of books! To think we might have crossed paths on the SoCo strip. @foundpoem1

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  2. Couldn't have missed you by much. We crossed the state to get to Galveston by November 1, then doubled back for our volunteer assignment near Austin. Maybe next time.

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