Friday, June 25, 2010

Part Six: Where I’m From

Part Six: Where I’m From

Several years ago, while relaxing with my wife on a bench outside a beautiful old stone church in Vail, Colorado awaiting the wedding ceremony for a friend of mine from business school, a nice older couple in their early 70s sat beside us and began making small talk. Our conversation was the typical banal banter between strangers who don’t expect to speak to one another again: “Isn’t this weather beautiful? Are you related to the bride or groom? Have you visited Vail before? It sure is beautiful here, isn’t it?” Etcetera, etcetera.

The husband’s east Texas twang was particularly thick, and it was refreshing to hear a voice that sounded like home while sitting on a bench in glamorous, highbrow Vail, of all places. The groom whose wedding we were attending grew up in Dallas—Highland Park, to be precise—and I expected to run into fellow Texans at the wedding. However, I didn’t expect what happened next.

After a few minutes of chitchat I asked the couple where in Texas they were from, and the wife said, “Oh, we live in a tiny town in East Texas.”

“Whereabouts?” I asked. “I was born and raised in Texas.”

“Oh I’m sure you’ve never heard it…we’re pretty close to a town called Palestine [pronounced PAL-es-teen]. Are you familiar with Palestine?” she inquired.

“Sure,” I responded, “I’ve driven through Palestine many times on the way to my great grandparents’ house. What town do y’all live in?” (Don’t you just love how smoothly the word “y’all” flows off the tongue when visiting with fellow Texans.)

At this point the husband jumps in: “I guarantee you’ve never heard of it…it’s a little place called Grapeland and it ain’t much bigger than a main street and a feed store.”

“Well sir, I know Grapeland. In fact, I’ve been there many times.” I explained, as they nodded in disbelief. “It’s just off Highway 287 about 30 minutes southeast of Palestine, right? My great grandparents—Will and Rubie Mae Lively—lived in Grapeland and I used to go there several times a year when I was growing up in Dallas.” Just for kicks, I added, “Don’t you just love the piney woods of East Texas?”

The couple sat speechless and stunned on the cold stone bench beneath the warm Colorado sun. My wife was also mute. It was a classic Texpatriate moment. It truly is a small world, especially when you’re a multigenerational Texan.

“My God, that’s something.” The husband remarked, raising his eyebrows and digesting this surprising bit of information. He then paused for what felt like a full minute before inquiring, “Are you related to J.B. Lively? He used to be the sheriff of Grapeland back in the 60s.”

“Yes,” I replied, rather surprised and quite pleased to make such a connection. “I believe he was my grandfather's cousin.”

There was another exceedingly long pause as though we were characters in a Harold Pinter play. After what seemed like an eternity he responded, “J.B. Lively was the meanest son-of-a-bitch I ever met. I'm tellin' you, he was downright mean. Scared the hell out of me back in the day.”

Yep—that's my family. Or at least that’s one distant cousin who shares my last name and bloodline. In addition to J.B., I have several ancestors with questionable—if not downright ignominious—pedigrees: one rode with Jesse James, several owned slaves, another worked as an evangelical tent preacher (in spite of being a lousy, mean drunk), several fought as loyalists during the Revolutionary War against George Washington and the Continental Army. Only God and Sam Houston know what other disreputable relatives I have among the various branches of my family tree. (In fairness, the vast majority of my ancestors would make most folks proud, but it’s the colorful ones we like to remember.)

To be honest, I can’t quite remember how I responded to this septuagenarian’s frank remark, other than to agree with his assessment (i.e. I had heard the same thing about good ole’ J.B., to be honest), congratulate him on his nephew’s nuptials, and wish them both a good evening.

Lone Star Connections

Family is a complicated and beautiful thing. I owe everything I am to my family—all my unique personal characteristics, from the positive and irritating to the downright embarrassing. It is to my four grandparents and their ancestors that I ultimately owe my life and my good fortune. And it is they who helped shaped the culture of my family—and in their own small, unique way they helped to shape the culture of Texas, my home.

My grandparents were all born and raised in Texas, and on my mother's side I can trace family in the Lone Star State back to the 1840s (and possibly earlier), in Austin. The relative whose residency in Texas dates back the farthest—at least that I can verify at the present—was Ephraim Hanaway, an old Mexican War veteran (N.B.: it’s now referred to as the Mexican American War). Hanaway is my third great grandfather (i.e. for those who care, he is my mother’s, mother’s, father’s, mother’s father). When he died, in Austin at the beginning of the 20th century, he was the “oldest Mexican war pensioner” per the faded obituary from an Austin newspaper found in my cousin Helen’s family bible.

Good ole’ Ephriam had three daughters and no sons. His daughter Mamie, born in 1867, married Frank Pfaefflin, the son of a German immigrant. Incidentally, Frank’s brother, H. Pfaefflin, was the key government witness against William Sydney Porter, also known as O. Henry, who embezzled money from the American National Bank, Austin, where they both worked in 1898. For all you short story connoisseurs, O. Henry—for whom the most prestigious short story writing award is named—published his first stories while serving time in an Ohio prison following great uncle Pfaefflin’s testimony and Porter’s subsequent conviction. I’d like to think my ancestor is at least partially responsible for helping to launch the career of America’s most storied short story writer—is that a stretch? (If you haven't seen the O. Henry house, which is now a museum, on 4th street in Austin, check it out.)

Frank Pfaefflin’s granddaughter Anna May, my maternal grandmother, also had unique ties to a Texas literary icon. Apparently, while studying at the University of Texas (or sometime thereafter) in the early-1930s, Anna May Pfaefflin worked as a clerk for Professor J. Frank Dobie, an American folklorist known as “Mr. Texas.” Dobie was the first serious Texas intellectual and he is widely considered the father of Texas literature. How and why my grandmother found a job clerking for him at UT is a mystery. But ain't it cool?

Anna May Pfaefflin was barely five feet tall, but at times her personality made her seem more like an NBA Center. She was a firecracker with a quick temper, a sharp tongue, and very few kind words—at least in public—for Royal Kelley, her husband of more than 60 years, whom we called Papaw Kelley. (This is not to be confused with Papaw Lively, my other grandfather; apparently there’s not much creativity in my family when it comes to selecting family nicknames). However, Nanny, as we called her, was a wonderful grandmother who spent countless hours babysitting each of her six grandchildren. Such are the paradoxes of family. She was smart as a whip, and she was tougher than a sidewinder rattlesnake. From Nanny we inherited toughness, true grit and a wry sense of humor. Nanny could stare down and verbally outmaneuver the toughest characters.

Cowboys and Bandits in the Family Tree

Anna May Pfaefflin married Royal Hobart Kelley. Kelley, as Nanny always called him, was just about the strongest yet gentlest human being I have ever known. To understand Papaw Kelley, one must first understand his background. Papaw was the great nephew of Otho Offutt, a member of the notorious Confederate rangers known as Quantrill’s Raiders. William Clarke Quantrill and his Quantrill’s Raiders, whose ranks included Frank and Jesse James as well as Cole and Jim Younger, were infamous for robbing and killing northerners. Their most notorious operation was the Lawrence Massacre—in Lawrence, Kansas, in August 1863—when Quantrill and his gang looted the banks and stores, burned nearly all the town’s building, and killed approximately 200 men and boys. I think Papaw explained it best in one of the many stories he told over and over: “They burned the houses, spared the women and furniture, and killed all the men.” Following the raid Quantrill led his men to Texas, behind Confederate lines. (The James and Younger gangs kept on looting and killing long after the Civil War using tactics learned while riding with Quantrill.) Needless to say, Papaw Kelley’s great uncle Otho was a tough son of a bitch.

Papaw’s father Otho Kelley wasn’t much nicer. As a young man, the younger Otho—who was named after his tough as nails uncle, Otho Offutt—worked as a cowboy at the famed XIT Ranch, which at one time comprised more than 3 million acres across the Texas panhandle. The XIT was the biggest private ranch in the world. After breaking both of his legs in a hay bale crane accident, where he fell more than 30 feet to the ground, he quit cowboying and became a tent preacher. From my 21st century perspective, this was a dubious profession for such a mean son of a bitch but times were different and Texas at the turn of the 20th century was still the edge of the frontier—and fire-and-brimstone preachers had to be a tough bunch to save any souls. Eventually, Otho Kelley settled in a rough section of Wichita Falls where he ran a rundown general store. Mostly, however, he was just a mean SOB who liked to drink whiskey and beat his son.

As a young teen of thirteen of fourteen—at the heart of the Great Depression—Royal Kelley had endured enough violence from his abusive father and, following his mother’s untimely death, decided to leave Wichita Falls for something better. As a teenaged hobo he hid underneath train cars and road the railroads alone all the way to California, where he stayed with distant cousins whose dispositions were kinder than his father’s.

Ultimately, this skinny kid from Wichita Falls with Gary Cooper-looks joined the Marines followed by the FBI Academy, and he eventually served as a policeman and a highway patrolman across Texas in Uvalde (where he lived next door to then Vice President John Nance Garner, who served under FDR), Austin, Amarillo and Abilene. For the last 27 years of his career he served as chief of security for LTV. In retirement he played golf nearly every day, it not twice a day. (Once he told me he played from sunrise to sunset, and he never used a golf cart.)

As a kid, Papaw Kelley was always my favorite grandparent. I know kids aren’t supposed to choose a favorite, but Papaw was like a huge teddy bear who would pick me up and give me a hug and a kiss every time I saw him. The countless stories he told about his life—such as growing up beside a Hooverville (i.e. a depression-era shantytown) during the Great Depression, running away from home in his teens and traveling on freight trains to California, lying about his age and joining the Marines at 17, attending the FBI Academy under J. Edgar Hoover, winning awards as an expert marksman, and riding motorcycles as a Texas State Highway Patrolman—were the stuff of legend, and they excited me to no end. These were adventures about which a young grandson dreams.

Now, as an adult, his stories and experiences have taken on new meaning for me—a poignancy that I did not fully appreciate as a child. Despite losing his mother as a young boy, enduring an abusive father, and having few role models in the callous depression-era Wichita Falls in which he matured, Papaw was among the kindest, gentlest and most caring individuals I’ve ever known. Indeed, it was his kind, gentle spirit in the face of hardship and cruelty that made me appreciate him so much more—and which still makes me appreciate what is important in my own life today.

Papaw Kelley was without a doubt the strongest man I’ve ever known. His intensity and strength were palpable to all who knew him. In his 70s and 80s, Papaw played 18 holes of golf almost every day, without a cart, and could still hit the ball farther than most 30-year-olds. Even in his last years, with cancer eating away at his body, Papaw would walk laps around Presbyterian Village, where he lived in South Oak Cliff, to maintain his endurance and strength. Simply put, he was a survivor.

It was these dual qualities—kindness and strength—that made Papaw Kelley unique. This duality formed the core of his amazing character, for which he was known and loved by family and friends. And I am thankful to him for passing along even just a small part of himself to me.

Hook ‘em Horns

My paternal grandmother came from educated, serious North Texas stock. Mary Alice Keeton, whom we grandkids knew as Memaw, was the daughter of William Fount Keeton of Bonham, Texas. Granddaddy Keeton, as he was known by my dad and his brothers, was a serious man who represented Fannin County in the Texas House of Representatives in 1927 and again in 1929. His daughter Mary Alice was a serious woman. She was introduced to the University of Texas as a young girl while living in Austin during her father’s years in the Texas legislature. After graduating high school she eventually matriculated at UT and was graduated four years later. Henceforth, Memaw became a devoted Longhorn who—even in old age with extremely poor eyesight—would grab her binoculars and turn on the tube to watch UT play Oklahoma or A&M, or whoever would be defeated by her beloved Longhorns that day.

Memaw was a loving grandmother, but like her father she was a serious person. She did not joke nor did she appreciate tomfoolery of any sort. (Her four sons definitely tested her patience.) Her husband Henry (Papaw Lively) had a monopoly on humor and wit in their marriage, and he almost always had a smile on his face. But it was Mary Alice who insisted on a first class education for her sons and her grandchildren. She would often count the number of undergraduate and graduate degrees attained by every child and grandchild in her family, and she wore that accomplishment like a badge of honor—sharing with anyone who cared to listen. Except for her Presbyterian devotion to God and her devotion to family, education was primary to Memaw.

While my father had a closer bond with his own dad, he and his brothers inherited Mary Alice’s serious demeanor, devotion to God, and commitment to education. From Memaw, I inherited a deep seriousness of purpose and a belief in the primacy of education. Indeed, her devotion to education has clearly influenced my own career, and I share many traits with Memaw, including some about which I am proud and some—such as being too serious (or humorless, as my wife would likely suggest) too often—that I wish I did not.

Lively: Is it A) an Adjective, B) an Adverb, C) a Last Name, or D) All of the Above?

My last name, Lively, is an English surname—or at least it’s a derivative of an old English surname. It’s both an adjective and an adverb, providing countless bad jokes for kids and adults alike. It’s an uncommon name in Chicago, and adults here typically crack the same kind of insipid jokes I heard as a youth. (You don’t need me to repeat ‘em as I’m sure you can think of several obvious moronic Lively-as-last-name jokes on your own.)

At some point in the late-1600s, John Lyfolly, of Oxfordshire, England, was imprisoned for a crime—likely petty theft—and sent to prison in Barbardos (an overflow prison for British criminals and miscreants since the infamous Newgate Prison was apparently overbooked). Somehow, this 17th century ne’er-do-well left the Caribbean prison and made his way to South Carolina where he joined other Lyfollys making a living in the colonies. Within a generation or two the name Lyfolly would became Lively. During the Revolutionary War the Lively clan made the unfortunate decision to fight as loyalists on the side of King George.

So to recap, my forefathers with whom I proudly share a last name were basically criminals who fought against the founding of the world’s greatest living democracy. At least the Livelys got one thing right: they eventually moved west to Texas.

By the mid-1800s several members of the Lively clan moved to Houston County, the oldest county in Texas, where they tenant farmed and tried to avoid getting scalped or robbed and killed by gunslingers. Once, as a young boy Will Lively—my great grandfather—was in school when the teacher made all the kids crouch beneath their desks as Jesse James was riding through town. (It’s possible Otho Offut was with the infamous outlaw when he rode through Grapeland, making this the first near encounter between two sides of my family.)

By the mid-1900s Will and Rubie Mae (Herrington) Lively were able to purchase their own land. Their two sons, Henry and Carl Lively, left Grapeland for college and eventually both moved away to start families in other towns—Carl in nearby Lufkin and Henry in Dallas. Henry, whom we knew as Papaw Lively, was a hard-working man who spent his years selling life insurance, serving Oak Cliff Presbyterian Church, raising four kids, and playing golf with his many friends. What he was known for, however, was his personality. Henry never met a stranger, and his smile could warm even the coldest of hearts. Like his wife, Henry was a serious character, as his sons can confirm, but he also found great joy in life, in the company of good friends and family—and especially in the beauty of the majestic Colorado Rockies.

After attaining a college degree from Sam Houston State Teachers College (now Sam Houston State University) and completing officer candidate school in New Haven, CT during the Second World War, Papaw built a hugely successful career in Dallas selling life insurance. He and Mary Alice raised four sons—each of whom attained graduate degrees and made substantive contributions to the communities in which they live. His sons all spent magical summers on the farm in Grapeland with their favorite grandfather, whom everyone in town called “Uncle Will,” that would help to shape their character and their lives. But Papaw preferred looking forward not backward. He was conflicted about his childhood and the culture of Grapeland in which he was raised.

Papaw’s grandchildren—myself included—grew up yearning for days spent on the farm shooting BB guns at tin cans and watermelons, listening to Great Granddaddy Lively’s stories, and walking through piney woods with Papaw Lively. Every Christmas and every summer—usually during extreme cold or brutal summer heat—we visited Grapeland. All the grandkids loved the farm. We loved its simple pleasures: Great Grandmother’s pies and fried chicken and time spent on the porch swing listening to great grandparents and grandparents and aunts and uncles and near cousins and distant cousins tell stories about the old days. I can hear the conversations in my head as I write this: I can hear the thick east Texas twang and the slow, deliberate voices of Great Granddaddy and Great Grandmother and Papaw and (his brother) Carl reliving childhood moments before they had electricity or cars or money; I can hear my uncles Bob and Jim telling stories about the old days that made their brother John laugh until he cried; I can hear the ringing of Great Grandmother’s hearing aid and the sound of the old gas heater on the floor in the den and the sound of the porch swing swaying back and forth as folks sat out front drinking coffee after lunch and several helpings of home-made pie. There was something manifestly romantic about days spent on the farm. Even the drive back home to Dallas was usually memorable: Uncle Bob would tell Wendigo (i.e. ghost) stories to a car full of scared nieces and nephews ready to scream at every twist and turn.

For Papaw, however, his childhood memories were quite different. I remember my dad once explaining to me in secret that he believed Papaw was embarrassed about his humble upbringing. As a teenager, I just didn’t—or couldn’t—understand that emotion about such a magical place. We loved the farm. We were proud to have a grandfather who was raised on a farm—it was exotic, especially to kids in suburban Dallas. I remember telling Papaw, sometime after my dad shared this secret with me, just how much I loved visiting his childhood home hoping he would agree with me. He didn’t really respond to my declaration and it was clear Papaw had complicated feelings about his childhood in Grapeland. In reality, growing up on the farm involved long, grueling days of endless toil. The culture of Grapeland and the daily grind of life on a farm was not the romanticized version of farm-life that his sons and grandchildren perceived it to be. Yet it was on the farm—through the enduring love of his parents and the lessons of hard work coupled with the extraordinary gift of an education—that Papaw learned to possess a quiet grace that I only now fully appreciate as a father who has been given much in life from his family.

And it is from Papaw that I learned to find joy in nature—especially in the Rocky Mountains—and for that I will be forever grateful. If only I could sit with him underneath his favorite ponderosa pine in Estes Park and see his smile and hear his laughter once more.

Prodigal Son

How this kid from Dallas with roots that lie deep in the heart of Texas got to Chicago is a long and not very interesting story. But, here I am. The prodigal son. A Texpatriate in Chicago.

I think everyone expects me to return home eventually. That remains to be seen. However, what I can promise, regardless where I live—whether it's Chicago or Grapeland or Dallas—I will always be a Texan at heart. And I will continue to be the amalgam of complicated, conflicting, rich personalities inherited by good people (along with a few shady characters) who were shaped by—and who in turn helped to shape—the unique culture of Texas.

...And hopefully, many years from now, when a distant relative or grandchild of mine meets someone who knew me back in my prime—which presumably is now—I hope I fare better than ole' J.B. Lively, the mean old son of a bitch.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Part Five: The Bush Library at my Alma Mater…That’s Great, I Guess?

Part Five: The Bush Library at my Alma Mater…That’s Great, I Guess?

As a Texan living in Chicago—a Democratic stronghold—I am frequently asked the question, “What do you think of President George W. Bush?" This is, of course, a loaded question for a Texpatriate in these parts.

Most Chicagoans are decidedly anti-Bush and there is no question what folks here think of our 43rd president. They simply hate him—even now, 18 months after leaving office. Moreover, just as Chicagoans are most likely to be Democrats, at least statistically, most Texans are Republicans. Thus, when Windy City yokels ask me what I think of W., they automatically assume I’m a Republican and must be a fan.

I should first mention that Chicagoans are usually startled to learn that I’m a Texan since I don’t much sound like one. When they learn that I’m a 7th generation Texan they’re even more surprised that I left the homeland at all. (So are most of my friends and family; even my wife of 10 years is continually surprised.) But finding out that I didn’t vote for President Bush simply shocks the hell out of them.

To Chicagoans I am a paradox: I’m a multigenerational Texan living in Chicago who sounds vaguely like an Iowan (i.e. I am told I have almost no Texas accent whatsoever) and I’m not a raging conservative. Folks here assume that since I’m not a Republican I must hail from Austin. To non-Texans, Austin is perceived as the only place where one can find that unique species known as a Liberatus Texana (i.e. Texas liberal). Moreover, Austin is the one city that most non-Texans find appealing—not that most Chicagoans have ever visited Texas, much less its capital. But everyone outside of Texas has heard about Austin’s reputation for laid-back attitudes, great music, beautiful landscape, and hip culture. (All these stereotypes are at least partially true and Austin is indeed a great town, but it's certainly not the only great place in Texas.) Of course, I’m not really a raging liberal, either—at least not by Chicago standards—as I don’t vote straight ticket for the local Dems. To do so would mean voting for likely felons and narcissistic ne’er-do-wells.

Ultimately, Chicagoans don’t know what the hell to make of me. I think it bothers some folks here that I don't fit neatly into their stereotypical view of Texans. On too many occasions to count I have been present when a friend or colleague openly criticizes Texas for one reason or another—usually to condemn Pres. Bush, Gov. Rick "Tea Party" Perry, the “greedy oil industry,” the Texas State Board of Education and its ignoble decisions regarding the content of history textbooks, or some loony secessionist with a gun. They usually remember I’m a Texan midsentence and sheepishly proclaim, "oh…but you're different, Dave." (Most of the time, I simply want to respond: “Yeah…and you’re an asshole from the bland, Godforsaken Midwest.”)

To Chicagoans—or to just about anyone outside of Texas, other than the big cluster of red southern states reaching from Oklahoma to Florida—Texas is a gun-loving, Bible-thumping, oil-obsessed, evolution-in-schools-banning, redneck-sounding, uneducated, unsophisticated, Republican-dominated, unmitigated hell hole.
Moreover, most non-Texans tend to assume Texans are stereotypical one-dimensional caricatures in cowboy hats wearing six shooters and quoting Ronald Reagan and John Wayne. (Okay, to be completely fair, there are certainly plenty of folks who fit that description.) But Texas is much more complex and diverse than most outsiders would believe. In fact, non-Texans tend to think of Texans much the way Europeans think of Americans: simply put, they think we’re a bunch of rubes.

My Pet Goat

I voted against President Bush twice and both times my candidate lost. With respect to political choices and voting history, I’m generally quite familiar with defeat. I was hugely disappointed in many of Bush’s decisions, especially the ill-conceived invasion of Iraq. I found his leadership style and his glib manner disappointing and unbecoming of a president. Yet, I had—and have—difficulty hating him, unlike most of my fellow Chicagoans. After all, hate is a pretty strong emotion. Furthermore, I tend to assume that all presidents have thousands of challenging decisions to make and they genuinely try their best to make the so-called "right" decision based on the facts available to them. Perhaps that’s naïve, but I honestly believe that anyone behind the desk in the oval office—regardless of what the liberal or conservative pundits would have you believe—aims to make decisions that are in the best interest of our country and its citizens. What is “best” is, of course, up for debate. In reality, the conservatives and liberals in the U.S. are not really that far apart, relatively speaking. (Seriously—it’s not like we’re stuck having to vote for Kim Jong il, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, or Adolph Hitler, regardless of what you might be instructed to believe on Fox News or MSNBC.)

I did hate many of W's decisions, but I tend to reserve most of my hatred for more important things, such as: the Washington Redskins, the Philadelphia Eagles, all Florida football teams (both college and professional), the Big Ten, the White Sox, the Bears, the BCS, bland Mexican food in the Midwest, drivers who don't use turn signals, green relish or ketchup on hot dogs, brown gravy (vs. cream gravy) on chicken fried steak, sour cream on anything, “happy talk” anchors on the local news, reality TV shows, Orlando—or anywhere in Florida—in August, window-unit air conditioning, and music of just about any boy band (and that means you, New Kids on the Bloc, ‘N Sync, Hanson, Jonas Brothers, and Backstreet Boys, to name a few). To be fair, I also hate the simplistic vitriol of Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, caustic far right- and left-wing pundits, and the 24-hour news cycle that contributes to the perpetual political stalemate we find ourselves in lately.

In this Texpat’s humble opinion, hate is an emotion best employed to express simplistic responses requiring little depth or nuance. Politics (and politicians), government service, wars, and other truly nuanced, weighty issues simply deserve more thoughtful, subtle emotions than hate. Anger, frustration and disgust are perfectly reasonable, but hate is something altogether different. For issues and matters of true seriousness and importance, hate is intellectually lazy. The world is far too complex and abstruse to reduce the work of our government and its leaders to simplistic emotions such as hate. Silly sports rivalries, lousy cuisine, bad drivers, and other daily annoyances in life—as well as the shrill music of boy bands (and I know you agree with me)—are more appropriate outlets for our hatred. (Florida college football teams are especially appropriate.)

I don’t have blind faith in the decisions or abilities of our political leaders, I am just keenly aware that U.S. presidents and political leaders in congress must make difficult decisions that may not be popular—and which may turn out to be flat wrong with hindsight. (And, in my opinion, Bush’s decisions were dreadful quite regularly.) But I think it’s far too easy to play armchair quarterback with each and every decision after the fact.

I do wish George W. had cleared less brush on his ranch in Crawford and spent more time focusing on things that matter. (After all, I never much enjoyed hours of yard-work in August and have difficulty understanding why the leader of the free world should enjoy it quite so much.) Bush clearly made errors in judgment with respect to selecting a Vice President, appointing key cabinet members (Rumsfeld and Rice, to name a few), and executing important initiatives, from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to his response to Hurricane Katrina. But not everything he did was bad, despite what many of my friends may think (e.g. aid to African). Similarly, President Obama is criticized for every decision from the right. The endless partisan blame game is both exhausting and disgusting.

So when I learned that Bush was creating his presidential library and think tank at SMU, my alma mater, I was rather conflicted. As a history major and one who understands and appreciates the value of the archives that will eventually be accessible to scholars at SMU from this critical period in American history, I am thrilled. Moreover, it’s very hard to know how the Bush legacy will be perceived and understood in fifty years or more. I know enough about history to comprehend that historians of different epochs tend to view the past differently than prior generations—especially contemporaneous generations in history.

On the other hand, I have to endure the indignity of explaining to folks in my adopted city of Chicago that: A) SMU, my alma mater, is not a radical religious college run by the likes of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, or other right-wing religious nut jobs whose sole aim is to burnish the Bush reputation, and B) yes, President Bush’s library will contain more books and archives than a single copy of “My Pet Goat” (i.e. the book Bush was reading on 9/11 when the Twin Towers were felled by al-Qaeda). In this context, it often feels as though SMU won the booby prize of presidential libraries. Well, if we can endure the NCAA death penalty in football, I guess we can endure the short-lived ridicule associated with the Bush Library.

Of course, my Chicago friends have very little to be proud of with respect to politics other than Presidents Obama and Lincoln.

Politics in Chicago vs. Texas

Today in Chicago my former governor, Rod “helmet head” Blagojevich, entered a courtroom in the Dirksen Federal Building—two blocks from my office—to commence his corruption trial. Blago was indicted 18 months ago on 24 counts of fraud, conspiracy, bribery, and racketeering. His shock and awe corruption campaign included a failed attempt to sell President Obama’s vacated senate seat to the highest bidder. (Who wouldn’t? After all, “it’s bleeping golden!”) Amazingly, Blago campaigned for governor as a reformer in the wake of scandals involving George Ryan, our prior governor, who is currently serving a six-year sentence in Terra Haute, Indiana for a corruption conviction. (Instead of a prison in Terra Haute, the authorities should have made him live in a typical Gary, Indiana neighborhood—I guarantee prison is safer and preferable to Gary.)

Illinois has a long, proud history of political corruption. Indeed, six Illinois governors have been charged with crimes, either during or after their administrations. Otto Kerner, Jr., Daniel Walker, and George Ryan all served time in prison. Two others—Lennington Small and William G. Stratton—were acquitted. (They must have had friendly Chicago juries.) Blago is the sixth to be indicted, and jury selection for his trial began today.

Just in the city of Chicago, Blago’s hometown—and my adopted home—29 aldermen have been convicted during the last four decades. That has to be a record for any American city. (For context, we only have 50 wards in Chicago. Given how corrupt politics is here, I’m frankly surprised the number of convictions isn’t higher.)

I don’t know precisely how Chicago’s corruption compares with other American cities, but I’m willing to bet that it’s at or near the top (i.e. the top being the worst). An FBI friend here corroborates my assumption about Chicago being the most corrupt big city in America. (I’m so proud—at least the Second City is number one in something!) In the City of the Big Shoulders, shoulder pads are required as politics is a full contact sport, and the referees tend to get bought off to ignore most violations. To put it bluntly: this place reeks of corruption and everybody knows it.

So when friends ridicule Texas politicians—as lousy as many of them may be—they don’t hold a candle to the likes of Blago and his fellow Chicago politicians who make Rick Perry actually look good by comparison (as hard as that is to admit).

The Library…Last Thoughts

I am actually eager to visit the Bush Library, once it’s completed. Having visited the LBJ Library at the University of Texas, which houses a fascinating museum and a historical treasure trove of documents and memorabilia, I genuinely appreciate the value of these unique places. Johnson was arguably even less popular than Bush when his library was created in the late-60s thanks to the escalation of the Vietnam War during his tenure. Yet today, the library is an invaluable archive for historians and political scientists.

So, at the end of the day, I’m actually rather excited about the Bush Library. Perhaps I’ll even check out a copy of My Pet Goat, just for kicks…

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Part Four: Everything is Bigger in Texas

Part Four: Everything is Bigger in Texas

Size Matters

It’s springtime and I’m driving north on Interstate 45 toward the Woodlands. I’m in Texas on a work trip, but unfortunately I’m visiting Houston instead of Dallas, my hometown. It's only April but it’s already hot and humid. And it's ugly. And it’s boring. It’s Houston.

As a Dallas native, I’ve never been all that fond of Houston. To put it more bluntly, I’ve always hated Houston. It’s a hot, muggy, disjointed, sprawling swamp with little character. Absent zoning laws in this anything-goes town, you’re likely to have a gas station next to your two-bedroom ranch house on one side and a high-rise luxury apartment building on the other, followed by a strip club, an Applebees, another modest two bedroom ranch, and a Baptist church on the corner, across from Home Depot. This eclectic mix would be fine if you lived in a dense urban environment. But Houston is decidedly suburban—and it is utterly devoid of style.

Houston’s tiny downtown is particularly boring. With its underground pedestrian tunnels, even at midday Houston makes sleepy downtown Dallas look like a bustling metropolis. Except for NASA, the Rothko Chapel and Rice University—and the obvious fact that it’s named for the first president of The Republic of Texas—I can find very few redeeming qualities about Houston. Just think about it: they have to root for the Astros, a lousy National League team we grew up calling “the Lastros,” and the Texans, a second-rate AFC expansion team. (Last I checked, the real “Texans” moved to Kansas City and became the Chiefs.)

Of course, Houston is in Texas—and I now live in Chicago—so it is at least part of the Lone Star Nation, which means that it may be a dump, but it’s still better than most other dumps outside the homeland. (Like most Texans, it’s perfectly okay for me to ridicule second-rate Texas cities, but not for non-Texans to do so—even if they’re making fun of lowly Houston. This kind of logic is obviously flawed, but it’s perfectly reasonable to this Texpatriate.)

While driving north past an endless series of strip malls, each with its own Chili's, Dollar Store, Outback Steakhouse and Red Lobster, I look up and happen to notice one of the thousands of gaudy billboards that line this ugly stretch of highway. Tacky billboards are more prevalent than fire ants along I45 between Houston and The Woodlands. This particular sign reads, “Lots as Big as Football Fields.” Below the headline is an image of a football field replete with yard lines and goal posts. (Presumably the goal posts are sold separately.) The fine print—which at two-feet high technically isn’t all that fine—explains, “New three- and four-bedroom homes: each and every lot is at least 100 yards long,” and home “prices start at $299,999.”

My mind immediately turns to Chicago real estate prices. For $299,999—the price of a three- to four-bedroom home with a100-yard lot in the northern suburbs of Houston—you can buy a two-bedroom vintage condo with approximately 1,500 square feet in a relatively good neighborhood. (A good neighborhood means no gangs and only minor graffiti—apparently those rather modest qualifications justify $200 or more per square foot.) No parking or deck or green space—and certainly not enough space to field a football team, much less a bocce tournament—just enough room to live in a 75-year old building with 35-year old radiators, window unit air conditioning and worn hard wood floors.

For a measly $500,000, one can purchase a single-family home in a Chicago neighborhood that doesn’t require two-inch bars on the windows. And for a nice, new home with more than two bedrooms and a yard, prices start at $750,000 and up (way up if you're near Lake Michigan). For homes within a three-iron of Lake Michigan (depending on how good a golfer you are), prices start at $1 million plus. Otherwise, you have to go pretty far outside the city to get space—like Wisconsin. (Seriously—I actually know folks who live in Hammond, Indiana or Kenosha, Wisconsin and commute to downtown Chicago.)

Okay, so maybe Houston isn’t so bad after all. (Except during the oppressive heat of August, when it’s even worse.)

Vertical Living

In Chicago, we don’t have much space. At least not space enough for homes with football field-sized lawns like those available to the fine folks in Houston. In the City of the Big Shoulders (but small lot lines) we don’t buy homes with lawns “as big as a football field”—we buy condos big enough to stage a four-person air hockey tournament. Our two-bedroom condo in Evanston is just big enough for my family—at least until July, when we will add another baby girl—and not quite big enough for the in-laws to stay while visiting. Naturally, it’s on the market. (Know anyone interested in a fabulous two-bedroom condo four blocks from Lake Michigan and one block from the train?)

Places close to the lake and/or proximate to downtown will cost you much more. Additionally, in most high-rise buildings, the higher you go, and the better the view—at least in the most desirable neighborhoods—the more you pay. Unlike Houston—or Texas generally—people in the Windy City think of space differently. Instead of spreading out, we expand upwards. What we lack in space we make up for in crowds, crime, traffic, congestion, pollution, and general overcrowded misery. Chicago is a cacophony of car horns, sirens, traffic, cell phones, noisy elevated trains, violent winds, and random effluvia. Oh, we also have great culture, delectable deep-dish pizza, exquisite architecture, ethnic food of virtually every variety, beautiful parks and beaches, and Wrigley Field. Ultimately, it’s a fair trade-off, I guess.

Indeed, Chicago is crowded, but it’s nothing compared with New York City, thank God and Sam Houston. However, it feels downright huge compared with Dallas or Houston. Chicago is crammed with people living a vertical existence who spend huge amounts of time walking to and from crowded, smelly L trains and city buses.

As for driving: it’s fine, unless you mind sitting in traffic for hours at a time pounding your head against the steering wheel, screaming at everyone around you and fantasizing about going postal like Michael Douglas’s character in the movie Falling Down. At rush hour, traffic is merely terrible. On a beautiful Saturday afternoon during the summer, the traffic in Lincoln Park digresses into something truly disastrous. It can take 20 minutes to go two blocks—and that is on a good day. Octogenarians with cataracts ambulating with the aid of aluminum walkers can make better time than a Porsche on Fullerton Avenue at noon on a Saturday during the summer. (And that is no hyperbole—I’ve seen it happen!)


So after my appointment in the Woodlands I roam the streets of suburban Houston prowling for football field-sized lots. I can’t seem to find the development advertised on the billboard, but I do drive past home after home replete with massive lawns and huge, new, two-story McMansions built to look like the authentic, stately, older homes in Chicago’s North Shore. Everything is expertly manicured and the homes are big and beautiful, albeit a bit sterile and artificial. The neighborhood appears completely manufactured—as if Stepford wives are making dinner inside each six-bedroom monstrosity for their oil executive husbands.

Still, I have to admit: it must be nice to have that much space and be in a new home with central air, new floors and windows, and a backyard big enough to play touch football (with the entire Houston Texans football team). I could never buy a home this large in my North Shore town on my current salary unless I won the Lotto. The property taxes alone in Cook County on such a home would exceed my monthly take-home pay. (In Cook County, where the sales tax alone is a whopping 10.75%, property taxes and real estate transfer taxes are fat enough to choke a pig.) Of course, there are no homes in my town—or anywhere in the North Shore—with quite this much land.

Wide Open Spaces

Space is different in Texas. Denizens of the Lone Star State routinely drive long distances across the homeland. Consider this: an intrastate drive from Texarkana to El Paso is 813 miles, whereas it’s only 791 miles from Texarkana to Chicago. (A drive from Dalhart in the panhandle to Harlingen near the southern tip of Texas is even longer at 848 miles.) Let’s face it—Texas is huge!

The scale is simply different in Texas, and distances can be deceiving. The wide-open sky that stretches out against the arid prairie grasses and scrub brush in places like Marfa or Dumas provides breathtaking views for hundreds of miles. A lightning storm more than 100 miles away provides enough color and grandeur to captivate motorists along Highway 287 for hours. One can see the earth’s curvature in these unique places, and the heat emanating from the landscape in mid-August creates constant mirages along the lonely Texas highway. The pace of life is slower in these parts, and I am convinced it is because folks who live beneath these massive Texas skies need more time to soak in the awe-inspiring vastness of the landscape. Indeed, space here is decidedly different.

In the semi-urban and suburban oases of Dallas and Houston, land is plentiful and driving long distances is routine. Quite frankly, space here is taken for granted. Perhaps that’s why there are so many hulking SUVs in Texas. Even a trip to the grocery store or the barbershop can be considered a road trip.

While Chicago is a sprawling city replete with suburbs and exurbs for fifty miles in every direction (except east into Lake Michigan, of course), the volume of people living in the city proper creates a dense, congested environment where residents must conform to life in smaller quarters. While there are plenty of Texas-sized SUVs in Chicago, parallel parking—a must in the city, especially in Lincoln Park, the Gold Coast, and Lakeview—makes large vehicles a liability.

There are certainly plenty of wide-open spaces downstate or in neighboring Wisconsin and Indiana, but life in Illinois—or in the Midwest generally, for that matter—tends to be Chicago-centric. Chicago is the hub of the entire Midwest. Sometimes it seems that every college graduate from Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Missouri is required to spend at least three years living in a crowded Lincoln Park apartment before moving back home (and all are required to wear their college sweatshirts at least once a week to show off pride for the state they have recently abandoned). As such, all roads lead to Chicago, and very few lead away—with one notable exception: Route 66, the mother of all American roads.

Get Your Kicks on Route 66

One hundred paces due east from the front door of my office building—at the corner of Jackson Blvd and Michigan Ave, in downtown Chicago—there is a historic marker identifying the starting point of Route 66. This historic road, which links Chicago and Los Angeles, meanders southwest out of Chicago toward the Texas Panhandle. After reaching Amarillo, the route heads nearly straight west for miles and miles until it reaches western Arizona, where it curves and winds until finally ending in the City of Angels.

Ironically, Route 66 begins and ends in dense, urban jungles (i.e. Chicago is dense and urban; Los Angeles is merely a jungle), but the rest of the road passes through moderately sized cities (e.g. St. Louis, Tulsa, Albuquerque, etc.), hundreds of small towns, and miles of open space. In fact, it’s as though the road is squeezed out of downtown Chicago by congestion and the sheer lack of space through a dense maze of skyscrapers and drawbridges until it reaches the outer suburbs, where it is forced out into the open prairie following the line of least resistance toward the western United States.

After the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Route 66 is decidedly Western in orientation—and one’s sense of space begins to change hereafter. Indeed, Route 66 is a tour through America’s wide-open Western spaces. Though I’ve only driven sections of the famous road, I know much of the route west of Amarillo rather well. On at least three occasions in my 20s, I drove sections of it through Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California and there are few landscapes as beautiful or as wild. In the west—particularly in Texas—space is different. We cherish it. We need it. Wide-open space of the West gives us room to move and grow and expand.

As historian Frederick Jackson Turner explained in his “Frontier Thesis,” which he delivered in 1893 at the World’s Columbian Exposition in my adopted city of Chicago, the open spaces of the western frontier helped create the unique American character that we cherish so. (When Turner delivered his famed paper, Chicago was considered the northwestern frontier.) According to Turner, the aggressive and innovative American style of democracy—indeed, the American character itself—was embodied by the expansive American frontier of the 19th century. The harsh, arid, boundless landscape that my great-grandfather’s great-grandfather made his home in the mid-19th century challenged citizens of Texas and other western states to adapt and thrive. The cumulative and successive effect of adaptations by generations moving west was itself, according to Turner, the process of Americanization. The further west one ventured into the vast, untamed landscape beyond the Mississippi River, the more uniquely American the community.

Perhaps Turner’s thesis was accurate. Many contemporary historians find fault with his analysis, but I think he was on to something. Of course, when he delivered his paper in Chicago 117 years ago, the frontier was already closing. Yet, the western concept of space was—and still is—decidedly different than that of the East or even the Midwest. There is simply more space in the west. (At least there is more space now—people sure are moving there in a damn hurry, so who knows how long that will last.) Moreover, the west is different. To put it simply: it’s wild—or at least much of it is. An abundance of wild, wide-open space changes the way people live and interact with one another. And it changes one’s values and the manner in which one consumes.

One thing is certain: the abundance of space in Texas allows its citizens to expand their collective footprint to gargantuan proportions. Taken to extremes, land in places such as the northern suburbs of Houston is so abundant that every homeowner can field a regulation Pop Warner football game in his front yard every Saturday morning. Apparently, that’s progress. (Sounds good, I guess, as long as I don’t have to mow the whole damn 100-yard lawn in August!)

Sweet Home Chicago

Back in Chicago, in the land of vertical living and $200-$500 per square foot, our condo is for sale and we hope to purchase a single-family home complete with back yard and attached garage. (Once more: know anyone looking for a lovely vintage condo in Evanston? It’s a steal! Did I mention the wood-burning fireplace?) I don’t expect to own a home with a football field-sized lot. In fact, I’d settle for a backyard the size of regulation badminton court so long as the home is: 1) free of toxic mold, lead paint and asbestos, 2) has central air, and 3) the local schools don’t double as penitentiaries-in-waiting.

Is that really too much to ask? This Texpat doesn’t think so…