Monday, May 10, 2010

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.


  1. Nice to read your writing again Dave. You and Charlie/Chuck/Charles need to write a book. I'd buy it. -Steve

  2. "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."

    Yes. This is true. No dirt under the freakin' bed, dude. LDog will go all Exorcist on your ass. Loved reading made me miss you. Both. A lot. --meghan