Monday, May 24, 2010

Part Three: Coming Home with Country Music

Part Three: Coming Home with Country Music

New Orleans, 1978

On a surprisingly warm winter evening in New Orleans during that rather unfortunate period of American history known as the Carter Administration, a 20-piece band composed of killer brass musicians with serious chops and a dynamite rhythm section played various songs by Blood Sweat and Tears, Chicago, Chuck Mangione, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and other popular bands of the 1970s. The party was a whirlwind of plaid brown suits, huge lapels, sideburns, and feathered, Farrah Fawcett-style hair, and was crammed with rowdy athletes, celebrities and wealthy Dallasites: Tony Dorsett, Hollywood Henderson and Ed Too Tall Jones huddled in a booth with former Miss America Phyllis George, Dandy Don Meredith, Howard Cosell and two unknown, blonde Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders—all drinking tequila, except Cosell, who drank a double Jack Daniels neat—while Clint Murchison and Tex Schramm made the rounds hugging all the hulking football players and their blonde wives and girlfriends. (If these names are not familiar, you’re probably 35 or younger and most likely you are not a Texan—never fear, Google is your friend.) The mood was beyond festive—it was downright electric. It was January 15, 1978 and the gathering was the Super Bowl XII postgame party. Roger Staubach’s beloved Cowboys—America's Team—had just defeated (former Cowboy) Craig Morton’s Broncos 27-10 to win their second super bowl of the decade. (It should have been the second of three in the 1970s—damn you, Jackie Smith, for missing that perfect spiral in the end zone during the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XIII in 1979 and breaking this eight-year-old fan’s young heart.)

The band performing at the postgame party was the Dallas Cowboys Band, and the band director was my dad. Near the end of the set in the middle of a song, most likely (Jerry Jeff Walker’s) "Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother" or (Chicago’s) "Saturday in The Park," he looked over to the table where my mom sat and noticed her chatting with two “scruffy characters”: the first was a hippy with long, braided pony-tails, a beard, and a red bandanna wrapped smartly around his head; the second gentleman had dark, shoulder-length hair, a shaggy beard, sunglasses, and a black cowboy hat. My mom was engaged in conversation with them oblivious to the fact that she was talking to two Texas legends.

Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings—the two legends in question—seemed at ease visiting with the thirtysomething piano teacher, and by all accounts they had a pleasant conversation. I don’t know what they discussed, but I’m fairly certain my mom had no clue who they were even after they performed—in spite of hearing Willie sing his Billboard chart-topping hit "Blues Eyes Crying in the Rain," which had been released just a couple years earlier. You see, my mom was a classically trained and accomplished piano teacher more familiar with Chopin, Brahms and Debussy than any contemporary music composed after 1920. Without a doubt, she was completely unfamiliar with country music, and for the most part she still is today. (She can expertly play Rachmaninoff and Chopin by ear, but wouldn’t know more than two words to Whiskey River.) My dad was only vaguely familiar with either Willie or Waylon at the time, as his favorites included John Phillip Sousa and Beethoven, and he had only passing awareness of the country western canon. (Beyond the half dozen songs the Dallas Cowboys Band played, his knowledge of country music probably wasn’t much greater than my mom’s.)

Raised on the Radio

As a child I was steeped in both the classical music tradition—thanks to mom and dad, who taught me piano and trumpet, respectively—and in 1960s and 1970s rock and roll, thanks to my older, rock ‘n roll obsessed, siblings. From my sister Debbie I learned to love Steeley Dan, E.L.O., and Paul McCartney & Wings, while my brother Billy introduced me to The Who, Kiss, Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones, Van Halen, Rush, Pink Floyd, Iron Maiden—and far too many more hard rock bands to mention—that informed my musical tastes for the next fifteen years or more. Other than the occasional Willie Nelson and Kenny Rogers song—"The Gambler" was a huge hit and every kid at school knew it by heart—I too was utterly oblivious to country music despite living deep in the heart of Texas. (Full disclosure: like most kids in suburban Dallas I owned a cowboy hat in junior high during the Urban Cowboy/Kenny Rogers Gambler era, and proudly wore it to Redbird Mall on at least two occasions, but I quickly abandoned this look in favor of parachute pants and a black AC/DC concert t-shirt from the Back in Black tour.)

In college at SMU—not exactly a bastion of country music—I discovered George Strait and Garth Brooks through friends and girlfriends, and I pretty much ignored everything else on Country radio or in the country section at the record store. Garth’s “Friends in Low Places” was a keg-party hit on most college campuses—at least campuses in the south—so it was virtually impossible not to be aware of country music in the early-1990s. On a few occasions during junior and senior year we visited Adair’s Saloon on Commerce Street in Deep Ellum to see Jack Ingram, a fellow SMU student (go class of ’93!), sing songs by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. I always liked seeing his sets, as did all the sorority girls at SMU, but I didn’t rush out and buy lots of country music. At the time, country had too much twang for my post-‘80s head-banger tastes. (Little did we know that Jack Ingram would have a couple of his own Billboard top ten hits a decade-and-a-half later.) For the most part, I continued listening to rock and roll and paid no mind to country music.

In August 1993, after graduating from SMU, I moved to Boulder, Colorado to carve out a new life for myself in the Rockies. I was thrilled to escape the late-summer Texas heat, and by September I had fallen in love with Boulder. Moreover, my love affair with the mountains, which began as a child on family vacations to Rocky Mountain National Park, grew even stronger.

Yet something was missing. I wasn’t home—not that Dallas really felt like home anymore. Still, I had a yearning for Texas that was ill defined and faint, but omnipresent. It was like a constant itch for which there was seemingly no ointment or remedy.

“Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind” – George Strait

Driving home for work one day I searched all the radio channels for something different and I stumbled upon a local country station playing “Amarillo By Morning,” a George Strait song I had heard in college. This melancholy song always reminded me of the 14 hour drive from Dallas to Boulder, along Highway 287. I always dreaded that long drive until I was actually on the road and out of Big D traffic. Each time I made it to Amarillo, at around the half-way point, I was alone with my thoughts staring out at the dry, panhandle prairie grass in the hot Texas sun under a wide open blue sky, and I felt an overwhelming sense of calm. There is something special about that landscape, about which I daydream even today, even though I haven’t been in the Texas panhandle in more than a decade. It’s the same land my great-grandfather Kelley worked as a cowboy on the famed XIT ranch, and my attachment to it is palpable, albeit manufactured since my only real panhandle experience was driving through it on family road trips. After George’s classic song finished I left the radio dial on this station and listened to song after song—and I didn’t change stations for six months. I learned all the Nashville hits of the late-1980s and early-1990s and began buying country CDs, including just about everything by George Strait and Randy Travis. Apparently, I liked the twang after all.

Then, one day listening to KBCO—the local college station that played an eclectic mix of rock, blues, hip hop, funk, classic rock, and alternative country—I discovered Lyle Lovett. Lyle, a fellow Texan, wrote songs that resonated with me in ways that most mainstream Nashville country music did not. He was not on country radio often—at least not in the Denver/Boulder market—but he was a favorite at Red Rocks Amphitheater and on KBCO. I was instantaneously a fan. And I still am. To me, Lyle’s music just sounded like home. Beyond that simplistic explanation, I couldn’t easily identify precisely why I liked him so much, I just knew that I did and that I craved more.

While he is a fabulous songwriter, Lyle’s recordings also introduced me—through his outstanding cover songs—to other great Texas songwriters such as (the late, great) Townes Van Zandt (Fort Worth), Robert Earl Keen (Houston), Steven Frohmholz (Temple), and Michael Martin Murphy (Oak Cliff/Dallas) to name but a few. Within a year, I owned every Lyle Lovett CD and had also begun collecting Townes Van Zandt, Waylon Jennings, Pat Green, Kris Kristofferson, Delbert McClinton, and Steve Earle—all artists you’re less likely to hear on mainstream country stations outside of Texas. Additionally, I began to collect more and more Willie Nelson CDs, and eventually my collection of Willie almost began to outnumber my rather large Elvis Presley library. (Don’t worry, Elvis will always be the King, but Willie is clearly royalty in his own right.)

“When I Die, I May Not Go to Heaven
I don't know if they let cowboys in
If they don't just let me go to Texas, Boy!
Texas is as close as I've been.”
--Tanya Tucker”

The longer I lived away from Texas, the more I got into country—especially Texas singers and songwriters. By the time I got to Chicago in the mid 2000s, my radio was almost always tuned to one of two stations: the local NPR station and US99.5, the only country station available in this town of nearly ten million people. (Only when my daughter is in the car and I’m forced to listen to an endless loop of Hannah Montana songs do I veer from my daily diet of country music and left-of-center national public radio stories.) I still listen to rock ‘n roll regularly, just not on the radio. (Thank God and Sam Houston for the IPod—I finally ripped all my CDs onto my Mac, which currently consists of 6,942 songs, enough music for more than 51 days. Halleluiah!)

For the longest time I didn’t analyze my evolving tastes in music. Why did I begin listening to country music after I left the DFW Metroplex, where there are at least 11 country radio stations on both AM and FM? Only after living as a Texpatriate for more than a decade did I begin to understand my newfound love of country music—especially Texas country. Through the rootsy songs of Waylon and Willie or the poetic sensibilities of Lyle Lovett and Townes Van Zandt, I was able to connect with the sounds of the homeland, even if it is a part of the homeland I didn’t really know and appreciate when I lived there. And to me, that is the irony—I ignored country music as a Texan living in Big D, but I love country music as a Texpat living in Chicago.

The very best country music—especially Texas country—has a genuine, authentic quality. Indeed, country songwriters tend to eschew cynical irony in favor of straightforward authenticity. Of course, authenticity does not preclude humor, and there are many hilarious examples of downright silly or self-deprecating cowboy humor found in songs by George Strait and Willie, among others. The more lyrical country songs—such as Lyle’s “North Dakota,” George Strait's "I Can Still Make Cheyenne,” or any song on Willie’s classic album Red Headed Stranger—are sublime elegies to a simpler, less complicated rural existence that is now mostly a memory. Much like the mythic American cowboy found in movies and literature, country music helps us reconnect with our frontier past.

Thirty-two years after the Super Bowl XII postgame party, neither of my parents is much of a country music fan in spite of seeing Willie and Waylon perform live in their prime. I’ve often asked myself the question: if I still lived in Dallas, would I listen to country music? Dallas is home to one of the best country stations in the U.S. (99.5 The Wolf), which I now listen to when I’m back home, but I doubt I would be a fan of country music had I remained in Texas. If I had stayed, I just wouldn’t have that constant itch of the Texpatriate.

Country music is one way in which I try and hold on to my Texanism, along with TexMex cuisine, Longhorn football on Saturdays, my subscription to Texas Monthly, Shiner Bock, Ranch Style Beans, my chocolate brown Lucchese boots, my faded Dallas Cowboys and Texas Rangers baseball caps, my dog-eared copy of Lonesome Dove, and the myriad Texas swag on my desk at work. If that means I had to alter my tastes to satisfy some subconscious need or deep insecurity about being away from the homeland, then so be it. At least I discovered just how good Texas country music is, even if it took moving 964 miles north to Chicago.

“Whiskey River Take My Mind/Don’t Let a Memory Talk To Me”
– Willie Nelson

Listening to Texas country music in Chicago is a sublime juxtaposition of extremes. The lazy sounds of Texas country music compared with the constant assault on the senses that is life in the big city do not obviously mix well. Country music frequently refers to wide open spaces and the slow pace of country living. Meanwhile, city life exposes one to a vertical lifestyle in tall buildings with millions upon millions of people all moving in different directions at a frenetic pace. Still, for me the two—country music and the Windy City lifestyle—are now a part of who I am, and I have somehow managed to incorporate both into my evolving identity.

Quite often, when I’m on Lake Shore Drive driving south toward the Magnificent Mile, I will slide my favorite playlist (“Lively’s Texas All Stars”) into the CD player in my Texas-sized SUV and listen to the opening guitar riffs of Willie Nelson’s Whiskey River. The song crests and Willie’s guitar solo—accompanied by a blaring harmonica—explodes throughout the car as I exit Lake Shore and merge with speeding taxis, hummers, limousines and rowdy bike messengers onto Michigan Avenue, where the cool, black John Hancock building towers over me to the east and the ornate, white Water Tower made from Joliet limestone rises to the west. As I take it all in, I acknowledge the slick, modern, urban beauty of my new home as well as the rawness of country music, and I thank God for Willie Nelson…and I thank God and Sam Houston I’m a Texan.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Part Two: Transcendent Rivalries

Part Two: Transcendent Rivalries

May 10, 2010

While riding a northbound “L” train on a hot July day, I looked up and noticed that while reading my book and ignoring the comings and goings of passengers, a herd of Cubs fans had joined us on the train at the Fullerton station and were bustling to and fro trying to squeeze into every inch of available space. The train was already packed with White Sox fans, who were present when I boarded in the Loop. All of us were headed north to the Addison stop to witness the annual “Red Line series.” Trash talking immediately ensued with Sox fans poking fun at their north side rivals, most of who were in their mid-20s and already reeked of beer and chicken wings. Of course, the Sox fans left little to desire, as they skulked around in knee-length cut-off jeans and Bobby Jenks jerseys. They too were drunk, of course, though the long train ride had begun to sober them a bit, making them surlier by each passing minute.

When the train doors opened at Addison the car emptied of baseball fans, and I realized that I was witnessing something bigger than a mere gathering of sweaty, drunk, baseball-crazed Chicagoans. In fact, I was experiencing a unique cultural phenomenon that only a few regions of the United States can fully appreciate. In my adopted city of Chicago, I discovered that a massive, densely populated city surrounded by suburban sprawl an hour or more in each direction is a city divided.

In Chicago you have to choose: Cubs or White Sox?

Chicagoland is not one, but two unique cities surrounded by Lake Michigan, suburban sprawl and miles of rust-belt decay. Indeed, the city is divided right down the middle by The Eisenhower—a massive freeway that literally divides the city in half, separating the north side from the south side. And in Chicago, you must choose: Cubs or White Sox. Everyone takes a side. Even those who find baseball an intolerable bore are quick to tell you whether they identify with either the Cubs or Sox. There is absolutely no middle ground except for those who like neither team—like transplanted Cardinals or Red Sox fans—and even they feel compelled to identify with one of the two local teams, usually as a result of geography, strong feelings regarding the designated hitter, or the obligation to side with one’s spouse or significant other.

The stereotypes for Cubs and Sox fans are, in this humble Texpatriate’s opinion, rather easy to define:

Cubs fans are rather patient (i.e. it has been 102 years since the last world championship), easy-going, happy-go-lucky drunks who could care less about baseball and are more interested in enjoying America’s largest cocktail party. They are likely to reside in Lincoln Park or the North Shore, wear faded Big Ten t-shirts and pre-ripped jeans or college-professor-plaid blazers and corduroy pants, drink Old Style and pinot noir, frequent Trader Joes and Whole Foods, and will often wax philosophical about the game of baseball quoting Yogi Berra, Michel Foucault or Norman Mailer. Cubs fans don’t often think of the White Sox except during inter-league play, and only then because they have to find their way to US Cellular Field (aka the Cell Block), which is at least 30 blocks south of their comfort zone. They’re too busy getting drunk in the bleacher seats below the hand turned scoreboard in Wrigley’s debaucherous outfield.

Meanwhile, Sox fans are proud, humorless, bitter, jealous, obnoxious fans who obsess over the Cubs being more popular. They reside in the numbered streets on the south side or Orland Park, wear black denim and profane black t-shirts, drink Budweiser and Jack Daniels, can be found in restaurants in Little Italy or taverns on Chicago’s south side, and when not watching their beloved Sox are addicted to reality TV (think Biggest Loser and Wife Swap). And they hate the Cubs and their hoards of fair-weather twenty-something fans who guarantee a sellout every game. (Full disclosure: I’m a Cubs fan thanks to WGN. Thank God and Sam Houston that cable TV came to the Metroplex in the mid-70s!)

So maybe my Cubs-centric perspective is a bit biased and unfair. In all seriousness, Cubs and Sox fans seem to occupy different worlds. The city is bifurcated not only between north side and south side, but also between those who root for the Cubs or Sox. The psychological imperative of Chicagoans to identify with one team over another transcends the game of baseball—each team represents an ethos and a sense of style with which denizens of the Windy City feel compelled to identify. While illogical, I actually understand this compelling need to identify with one team over another. In Texas, just like Chicago, everyone chooses sides.

In Texas, it’s UT vs. A&M

In Texas, we all must choose between UT and A&M. These two fine universities and the distinctive philosophies they represent provide Texans an immediate and tangible cultural marker with which to identify. Even folks who never went to college—or who, like me, attended another school (go Mustangs)—must eventually choose sides in the culture war. (My Texas Tech brethren may be the exception to this rule, as they have the ultimate inferiority complex.) For a Texpatriate whose image of the homeland is structured around a combination of memory and myth, the differences are amplified and put in stark relief.

When asked to describe the Longhorns or Aggies, most Texans will reflexively gravitate to knee-jerk stereotyping—as I did above about the Cubs and Sox—with rather simplistic comparisons, such as…

UT is a bastion of pot-smoking hippie liberals with long hair and Birkenstocks who enjoy reading Susan Sontag and biographies about Che Guevara. Longhorns are laid-back, music and culture-obsessed intellectuals (aka liberal elites) who—according to just about any Aggie—don’t deserve the football glory that they continue to enjoy each generation.

Meanwhile, Texas A&M is a right-wing military-loving ag school crammed with good ole’ boys and future Marines who enjoy reading Field and Stream and Sarah Palin’s new autobiography. Aggies are humorless, proud, hard working folks who endured a week of Fish Camp brainwashing where they learned to engage in rather silly chants at football games against Big 12 opponents they rarely beat, at least in recent years. (Full disclosure: two grandmothers and several uncles are Texas-Exes, one of my aunts is currently an associate dean at UT, and my maternal grandmother clerked for the fabled J. Frank Dobie. While not a grad, I’m clearly more Longhorn than Aggie.)

However, these stereotypes don’t really hold up too well upon closer inspection. Neither school has a monopoly on school pride, hard work. conservatism, intellectuals, or football-crazed fans, though I am willing to bet that UT is home to more students agitating to legalize marijuana. For Texpats who have esteem for both Aggies and Longhorns, the psyche of Texans is more nuanced and complex. Still, the UT-A&M rivalry is a living, breathing phenomenon and no true Texan can deny it. Indeed, the juxtaposition of UT and A&M is a dichotomy as big a Texas, and it deserves a more thorough—and perhaps a more literary—analysis.

UT vs. A&M…It’s like Gus McCrae vs. Woodrow Call

The embodiment of these two competing Texas philosophies and lifestyles may be best illustrated in Texas literature. In Larry McMurtry’s classic tome Lonesome Dove—the Texas bible to most Texans and Texpatriates—protagonists Gus McRae and Woodrow Call embody all that is good and great about the homeland. Gus is an easy-going, laid back, whiskey drinking, Latin-quoting, good-time cowboy who would rather talk cowboy philosophy and visit frontier brothels than do a lick of work. Call, on the other hand, would rather dig a ditch or break horses all day than spend half a minute talking. Yet, without Woodrow Call, Gus simply wouldn’t be Gus, and vice versa. They personify the state’s yin and yang, (or their Abbot and Costello, depending on your preferred cultural references).

However, while we may be rivals on Friday night or Saturday afternoon at the football stadium, we are all equally proud to be from the Lone Star State. We all know the heroes of the Alamo and the battle of San Jacinto and we can sing the Yellow Rose of Texas and Whiskey River in unison. Still, we are quick to judge one another using college mascot shorthand replete with silly sign language (“hook ‘em horns” and “gig ‘em Aggies”).

Indeed, like Gus and Call, Longhorns and Aggies are clearly different, and it is precisely these differences that complement one another. Using my shorthand, Gus is clearly a Longhorn and Call is quite obviously an Aggie. Any real Texan who thinks for even a moment will acknowledge that fact. Just as I root for UT on Saturdays, I desperately want to identify with Gus, my favorite literary character. However, in truth I am probably more like Call—as are most of the men in my family. There was never enough hard work to satisfy the men and women in the Lively family. I find that like Call, we’re a proud, hard-working lot uneasy in repose.

So…if I am more like Call than Gus, does this mean I’m really more Aggie than Longhorn? Um, well…that’s the kind of self-awareness I’m not quite ready to embrace. And I am definitely not about to start rooting for the White Sox.

Random Thoughts and Conclusions

Rivalries are a healthy manifestation of Texas culture borne at the genesis of Texas and reinforced at the Alamo and San Jacinto. After all, Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin couldn’t have been more different. Yet, what better founding fathers could a republic as great as ours have in these two mythic figures?

Perhaps my analysis is a bit solipsistic and self indulgent, but I am willing to bet that most Texans relate to—and most Texpatriates will no doubt find themselves pondering—such obscure and irrelevant topics as they reflect on the homeland. One thing is for certain, this Texpat obsesses over such trivialities daily, mostly because I have so few fellow Texans around me in Chicago to discuss such topics over a Shiner Bock and brisket tacos.

Part One: A Texpatriate in the Windy City

Part One: A Texpatriate in the Windy City

tex·pa·tri·ate [n. teks-pey-tree-it,]
1. somebody who has moved abroad: a citizen who has left Texas to live in another country (or state), usually for a prolonged period.

Part One: A Texpatriate…What in Sam Houston is That?

As a seventh generation Texan living in Chicago, I am frequently asked, “When are you going back home, back to Texas?” Good question. Not any time soon, though I miss the homeland every day. I’m a Texpatriate (or Texpat) living in a strange and foreign land far, far away from the nearest Whataburger or Alamo Drafthouse.

With one child in kindergarten and another due in July, a good job, a condo near Lake Michigan, and, perhaps most importantly, a wife from America’s Midwest, I am firmly planted on foreign soil in the state that famously brought us Rod Blagojevich, two Mayors Daley, Dan Rostenkowski, John Wayne Gacy, Al Capone, and REO Speedwagon. It is an impressive list of freaks, to say the least. (To be fair, Chicagoland also brought us Walter Payton, the Blues Brothers, Barak Obama, Michael Jordan, Bill Murray, Ernest Hemingway, Buddy Guy, Wilco, and Studs Terkel.) Still, Chicago is where I live and where I’m raising my family—at least for the time being.

Like any good Texan, I have all the requisite homeland swag: there’s the Texas flag in my office immediately above the map of the Republic of Texas (ca. 1836), which is adjacent to my SMU diploma, all of which hang above my desk, upon which lay the Official Texas State Seal paperweight and a photo of the old family farm in Grapeland replete with bluebonnets in the foreground. Photos with bluebonnets are de rigueur for any Texpat. A vintage SMU football helmet (ca. 1975) rests on my credenza (a relic worn by a mediocre player on a subpar mid-70s team, post-Don Meredith and pre-Eric Dickerson) and is only slightly more idiosyncratic than the Texas Quarter cuff links I’m wearing.

Why Are Texans So Damn Proud?

Texpatriates are routinely asked, “Why are you so proud of your state?” My first response is usually, “Why aren’t you proud of yours,” followed by, “Well, we are the biggest and the best. We were an independent republic for nine years, after all…and, uh…it’s a Texas thing, you wouldn’t understand.” Such arrogance and disdain for places outside the homeland are typical defense mechanisms, and are almost always poorly received. And so they should be. Nobody likes an asshole, much less a Texan asshole.

However, I can’t seem to help it. I’m proud to be a Texan, even if I don’t much sound like a native anymore—not that I ever really did. Too much TV at a young age coupled with a childhood in south Dallas ruined my chances at sounding like J.R. or George W. Bush. My accent is more Iowa or California than Texas. Still, the occasional word or letter—particularly the letter “I,” which I apparently pronounce “ah”—will give away my roots to those with discerning ears.

My obsession with being Texan extends only so far. For example, one friend placed a small jar of Texas dirt under the delivery room bed when his son was born so that he could be “born over Texas soil.” My daughter is a Chicago girl through and through, and the only things underneath the delivery room bed during her birth were ten floors of Northwestern Hospital rooms overlooking the beaches along Lake Michigan. (Full disclosure: I have briefly considered bringing Texas dirt for the birth of my second child in July, but I know that my wife would probably strangle me if she found me placing a container of unusual origin under her delivery room bed while she writhes in pain from contractions. Texpats must be ever cautious.)

There is truly no reason Texans should be any prouder than Iowans, Floridians, or Arkansans. Okay, so maybe it’s obvious why we’re prouder than folks from Arkansas—let’s be honest.

Still, the question remains: why do we Texans feel such pride simply for being born in the Lone Star state? I can think of several unflattering reasons, first and foremost: we Texans are a rather insecure lot. Texas is neither a pretty nor a sophisticated state. Texans are constantly comparing Texas with New York and California. New York and California are urbane cultural centers replete with great art—and California (ah…beautiful California) is blessed with an exquisite coastline and the staggering beauty of Yosemite. Big Bend is beautiful, but few Texans have ever visited. (At least we’re not bankrupt, like California.)

We have a unique culture, to say the least, but neither Dallas nor Houston will ever be New York City. Honestly, what city can? And who cares, for that matter? New Yorkers probably don’t think much about Texas, to be honest; meanwhile, we’re overly concerned about being accepted by the Manhattan intelligentsia, especially in Big D. It’s like a one-sided football rivalry (i.e. think Texas Tech vs. UT—only Tech fans really care about any so-called rivalry), and Texas is always the sucker. In the minds of most non-Texans, we will forever be regarded like Jet Rink, James Dean’s insolent character in Giant, who becomes fabulously wealthy after finding oil on his ranch but can’t buy class or respectability. In other words we’ll always be considered unsophisticated hicks and rubes to non-Texans (except for Mississippians, who are just discovering the wheel).

Thanks to TV and movies (Urban Cowboy excluded), and especially to rather more respectable fiction like Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, Texans uniformly embrace the myth of the old west. Every suburban father in Plano or the Woodlands envisions himself as a modern-day Gus McCrae, the quintessential Texas cowboy from McMurtry’s masterpiece. Indeed, Texans—especially men—routinely act like they were cowboys in their younger years before settling down to become accountants, lawyers, IT consultants, and convenience store clerks. However, with the introduction of barbed wire and railroads in the 1890s, the last cattle drive took place more than 100 years ago. Hank Hill, the protagonist of Mike Judge’s animated classic King of the Hill, is a more apt comparison for the typical Texan these days.

Our collective insecurity has led to the notion that everything must be “bigger in Texas.” Indeed it is, with varying results. We’re the biggest state in the lower 48 (and Alaska doesn’t really count as a state, anyway—it’s more like a protectorate inhabited by a bunch of loners and freaks and Sarah Palin). Our capitol building is actually bigger than the capitol in Washington. The Texas State Fair is the biggest of its kind in the nation. Our politicians have the biggest egos (think LBJ and W.). Cowboys Stadium is undoubtedly the biggest and best in the land. Unfortunately, Texans themselves are also bigger. Indeed, more than 60 percent of adult Texans are overweight.

To be fair, Texas pride may have some validity. After all, Texans are hardworking, entrepreneurial folks living in somewhat hard scrabble conditions. For instance, what reason is there for the city of Dallas to exist? The Trinity is a third-rate river, the climate is truly lousy, and the landscape doesn’t exactly inspire artists or naturalists. Through sheer determination and will, the folks of Dallas built a world-class city that is home to some of the most dynamic companies and individuals in the U.S. Indeed, between the Dallas Cowboys and the city’s eponymous television show, Dallas has captured and retained the imagination of the world.

Of course, I don’t live there anymore. And this is the source of much angst and contemplation as I endeavor to make a life for myself in the northern suburbs of Chicago.

Life in Chicago

Life for a Texpat in America’s Midwest can be strange for several reasons.

First: it’s cold as hell here. You know you’re not in Dallas when your nostrils and eyelids are frozen within seconds of walking outside, especially when it’s April. Good times. The summers are great, but without central air conditioning—a must back in the homeland—they can be just as torturous as winter. At least back home the AC inside is cool when the temps outside can cause the asphalt to bubble.

Second: Midwesterners don’t quite know what to make of me. They expect me to be a hick with a penchant for Karl Rove and big belt buckles. Back in Dallas—especially at conservative SMU—I was considered a radical leftist because I voted for Clinton. In (the Peoples Republic of) Boulder, Colorado, where I spent my immediate post-college years, I was viewed as a NeoCon, mostly because I had to wear a tie and dress shoes to work instead of Birkenstocks and a Grateful Dead t-shirt.

In Chicago, I’m neither liberal nor conservative—I’m some other freak of nature that doesn’t quite make sense to the ultra-partisan Democratic population. Politics is different in Chicago. There’s really only one political party in this city. Think Jessie Jackson on steroids. I don’t love Mayor Daley, I’m not pro-Union, I don’t vote straight ticket, I’m only one-quarter Irish (at best), and I tend to distrust the party in power (in Chicago it’s always the Dems, just like in Texas it’s always the GOP, at least lately). Did I mention I don’t love Daley? That view alone is sacrilege in this one-horse’s-ass town.

Third, I’m not a graduate of a Big Ten university—thank God and Sam Houston—and I could care less about Notre Dame (though I did see some great football in South Bend the past decade). Most folks see my SMU baseball cap and think I’m a grad of Southern Michigan, Southern Missouri, or Southern Mississippi. When I explain that it’s Southern Methodist, they all look curiously at me as though I’m about to handle snakes or channel Pat Robertson. God forbid one should attend a religiously affiliated school that is not Catholic. I can forgive folks for not knowing anything about SMU, but that does not minimize my annoyance with the Big Ten.

Every bar on Chicago’s north side seems to affiliate with some Big Ten school, most notably Michigan, and will be routinely packed with mountains of meathead alumni drinking Old Style beer and rooting for mediocre sports teams. (We should import more Shiner Bock to help class up these lousy Big Ten joints; if we did, maybe they’d actually improve their taste in sports as well.) Considering the Big Ten is a conference composed of eleven teams—a fact that exemplifies the type of elite education found in the Midwest—and is considering adding another (presumably) without a name change (i.e. can’t be Big 12—it’s taken), coupled with the reality that Big Ten football routinely sucks (i.e. at least the last decade) but regularly gets hyped as a top conference, I believe I can be forgiven for being rather annoyed by this group of schools and their obnoxious alumni.

Of course, most of my annoyance at the Big Ten primarily stems from the fact that I can’t watch any football games from the state of Texas on TV other than the occasional UT game (thank God and Sam Houston for the Longhorns). It doesn’t help that SMU is even worse than all but the worst Big Ten football team (thanks, Indiana), so who am I to criticize. Now if only the Bears would fold and I could start watching the Cowboys on TV again. When citizens of this city still break out the “Super Bowl Shuffle” from 1985, you know it’s a tough place to be a sports fan. At least Cubs fans know how to have fun, even if it’s been 102 years since they won a championship. Maybe that’s why Cubs games are the best sporting events in town—nobody cares if they win, just give ‘em hot dogs and beer and the world is a good place.

In general, life as a Texpat in Chicago is, uh…well, it’s just not home. Of course, neither is Texas. Not anymore. I will always consider Texas home, but in reality I will never feel again that it is home. And that makes me rather sad.

Home? Where’s that?

In fact, nowhere is truly home anymore. I am officially a man without a country. I am betwixt and between, neither here nor there. Like Elvis in Vegas, or Napoleon in Elba. Okay, so maybe I’m a bit melodramatic. Still, I miss being in Texas and quite often find myself daydreaming about the homeland.

When I think of Texas, I recall of my favorite things (Please skip to the next paragraph if you could care less about my favorite things): Willie Nelson. The Dallas Cowboys. The Hill Country. The Saltillo Plate combo dinner at the original El Fenix in Big D. Scenery along Highway 287 from Amarillo to Dumas, home of the ding dong daddies. Barbed wire. Hot coffee at sunrise at a truck stop in West along I35 on the way to Austin. Tom Landry. Tom Landry’s fedora. SMU in the fall. A field of bluebonnets along I20 near my Duncanville home. Texas Monthly. Pat Green. Waylon Jennings. Buddy Holly. Jerry Jeff Walker. Larry McMurtry. Cormac McCarthy. The sounds of crickets at dusk at the farm in Houston County. Lonesome Dove—the book and the movie. J. Frank Dobie. Stevie Ray Vaughan. Roger Staubach. The Hail Mary (the pass not the prayer). The sweat on my brow and the smell of grass after mowing the lawn at mid-day in August. Chicken Fried Steak with cream gravy and mashed potatoes. George Strait on the car radio while driving to Tyler to see brother Bill. Nolan Ryan. The Elvis statue and the complementary Elvis Presley Memorial Combo meal at Chuy’s. The limestone riverbed and mesquite bushes along the Brazos. Fletcher's corny dogs at the State Fair of Texas. Big Tex. Lucchese Boots. The men's tie rack at Neiman Marcus at Northpark. BBQ beef brisket at the Salt Lick on a hot summer day. Texas-OU weekend in Big D. Photos of great granddaddy Keeton from the Texas state legislature (classes of 1917 and 1919) in the basement of the capitol in Austin. Mom and Dad. Friday night football games at my high school. The Fightin' Texas Aggie Band playing the Aggie War Hymn. The sound of great granddaddy Lively’s voice as he walked my brother, sister and me around the piney woods on a hot summer day. The sun setting against panhandle scrub bushes near Dalhart. The wide open west Texas sky. Papaw Kelley watching golf and drinking Coors after 36 holes at Arlington municipal. Sixth Street on a Friday night. Deep Ellum on a Saturday night. Emmitt Smith, Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin. Mustang Island in the spring. Doak Walker. Don Meredith. The Pony Express. Chicken fried steak and Shiner Bock at the Grist Mill in Gruene after tubing the Guadalupe all day. Anyone playing honky tonk at Gruene Hall. The Kimball and Amon Carter Museums. Billy Bob’s. The Dallas Morning News sports pages. Oak Cliff. And did I mention Willie Nelson?

Since I don’t live in Texas, and may never live there again, the question remains: Am I still a Texan? Every year I get closer to the point where I’ve spent more years away from Texas than I did at home. Soon I’ll be upside down with respect to my Texanism. The first 22 years were in Dallas, the last 17 in Colorado and Illinois—only five more years before my years away from Texas exceed life in the homeland.

Random Thoughts and Conclusions

It is likely I will always be a Texpat as I cannot imagine a scenario where I will end up back in Texas. Nor can I imagine a time when I won’t miss home. Perhaps that is for the best, as Texas is more myth and memory than reality to me at this stage. The longer I’m away the more distant and exotic life in Texas becomes.

Nevertheless, I will endeavor to stay connected, to maintain my Texanism as long as possible—as long as the homeland will allow me without feeling like a poseur. I’ll don my Keep Austin Weird t-shirt and flash the hook ‘em horns sign to anyone with a UT cap, I’ll maintain the homeland vernacular and insert “y’all” and “fixin’ to” every chance I get (much to the dismay of my wife and grammarian mother). Like any good Texpat, I’ll stand up for Texas and show my pride.

Yet, at the end of the day, I will still be just a kid from Dallas stuck in a strange and distant land called Chicago.