Part Fifteen: A Texpatriate Turns 40, or Life at Middle Age in the Middle West
"It's a Bloody Mary Morning" -- Willie Nelson
Sitting in my cramped airplane seat—which was engineered to fit teenaged girls, jockeys, humans born before the 20th century, third world dictators suffering Napoleonic complexes, and all other passengers shorter than six feet tall—on the American Airlines Super 80 bound for DFW, I begin to sense the typical melancholy I seem to experience every time I return home. My mood is not sadness per se; rather, it is an overwhelming sense of ambivalence about returning home.
To counter this uneasy feeling I order a Bloody Mary from the flight attendant shortly after takeoff and select the Willie Nelson playlist on my IPod to lift my spirits. A little Willie each morning is better than Zanax to lift one's spirits. Appropriately I locate Bloody Mary Morning on my playlist and kick back (as much as possible given the fact that my seat seems tailor-made for a 13-year old girl instead of a six-foot two-inch, forty year-old man with persistent lower-back pain) and try my best to enjoy the flight. (I know, I know...I'm a whiner.)
As I write this, I realize it's the first time I can verbally acknowledged the fact that I am now officially middle-aged. My birthday earlier this month, which I celebrated along with Elvis who turned 76, marked 40 years on the planet—22 of which were spent in the Lone Star State and the remainder in colorful Colorado and gritty, cold Chicago. And this revelation reminds me that each day I grow closer to the point where my years abroad exceed my 22 years in Big D.
The Texas that I left behind—the technicolor Texas of my childhood—no longer exists except as a figment of my imagination, and the harder I try to hold onto this patchwork quilt of fading memories the more fragmented and distorted they become. If I were to move back home today I would scarcely recognize the Dallas that resides in my grey matter. My Dallas was torn down and rebuilt many times since the summer of 1993 when I loaded up my UHaul full of records, tapes, and CDs; lots and lots of books; a clunky old bike; a closet full of T-shirts and jeans; more books; and the last few relics of my suburban Texas childhood worth salvaging, including my dogeared paperback copy of Lonesome Dove and an old 1970s-era SMU football helmet.
As the spicy concoction of Mrs T's tomato juice and vodka begins to dull my senses just a bit, I can settle into my flight and ponder the existential questions of a middle-aged Texpatriate, such as: what is the meaning of life and does it involve Tex-Mex cuisine (as I always imagined); did Oswald act alone; how the hell did I end up living in the Midwest; what exactly is a Hoosier and why in the hell would one want to be one; who invented fabric softener sheets; do you think they'll ever make a Baywatch movie (and will David Hasselhoff get to star in it in spite of his age...okay, silly question—of course he will!); and how on earth did Rick Perry get reelected as governor of Texas (and what's the matter with my fellow Texans)? You know, it's great to have the time to contemplate and cogitate on the really important, difficult questions I'm sure we all ponder from time to time.
Of course, the big question that continually comes to my mind is slightly more profound than Hoosiers or Baywatch or Rick Perry or Tex-Mex (okay, nothing is more profound than Tex-Mex): if I live in Chicago, raise my children there, and build a life in America's Midwest, will I ever live in Texas again?
You Can't Go Home Again -- Thomas Wolfe (or was it the Jonas Brothers?)
They say you can't go home again. I never really understood the profundity of this quote until I had lived away from Texas for about a decade. The Texas I knew as a child no longer exists. It imploded along with Texas Stadium, Reunion Arena, (pre-improved) Central Expressway, and countless cultural mileposts and assorted detritus from my now fading memory.
As Steinbeck once observed (in his classic book Travels With Charlie), "Texas is more than a state, it's a state of mind." True enough. I've been in a Texas state of mind my whole life. Except now my remembrance of Texas is more myth than reality. In fact, I've worked hard to create an epic, mythic image of home to soothe my wandering soul these last 18 years. For example, I never had much interest in country western music beyond Willie Nelson until shortly after I moved to Boulder, Colorado in 1993. Similarly, I bought my first pair of lizard skin cowboy boots a month before I left Texas that summer so I could try and retain my heritage, even if I never really embraced this aspect of Texas culture until it was effectively too late. Everyone would know I'm a Texan even if I lived in Boulder or Chicago.
Now, as this prodigal son returns for my semiannual Texas sojourn—this time as a middle-aged man—my current image of home is informed more by Texas music, literature and film than by present reality. Believing the myth is a dangerous thing as it distorts the truth and creates and intensifies a longing to return home that is built on an artificial premise. And I begin to wonder: is my present view of Texas no more accurate than the typical non-Texan who daydreams of herding cattle at a dude ranch, BBQ-ing at South Fork with Bobby and J.R., or riding a mechanical bull at a Billy Bob's or Gilley's?
Unlike non-Texans, not to mention most current Texans, I have (at least) six generations of forefathers (and don't forget the foremothers) who preceded me in the Lone Star State, so I'm not exactly a poseur. One could argue—and I will—that Texas is in my genes just as much as it is my (boots and blue) jeans, if you will. Even my six-year old daughter wants to claim Texas in spite of being born in Chicago. Of course, I'm sure my ceaseless Texas boosterism she and her mother endure on a regular basis probably contributed to her fondness for the state, to be fair. Still, it makes her daddy very proud.
More Texpatriate Than Texan
Looking back, I can remember my father turning forty, and I remember just how old that seemed at the time. It was 1984 and I was 13, and I couldn't possibly have imagined that 27 years later I'd be living in Chicago with a beautiful midwestern wife and two gorgeous young daughters. Then again, I'm not sure that today I would recognize that awkward, skinny little 13 year-old Dallas kid with the Roger Staubach jersey and 1980's heavy metal haircut anyway. I can't remember my dreams and hopes and fears from that period any more than I can predict where I'll be 40 years from now. Apart from being an old man with persistent lower back pain, I can't imagine what my life will be like in 2051. Hopefully by then, through the magic of stem cell research, cloning, improved palliative drugs, yoga, or some other medical miracle, my lower back problem along with all other anticipated ailments will be cured, or at least minimized. At least I'm not losing my hair, thank God and Sam Houston.
Chances are good I'll never return to live in Texas. I resigned myself to this fact in my 20s and haven't really identified a scenario that would bring me back home except for the occasional visit to see my siblings. This means that in 2051 I'll likely be enjoying semi-retirement (i.e. nobody in my family actually retires due to a persistent workaholic gene) in Chicago, Denver, Washington D.C., Sant Barbara, or some other (hopefully magnificent) city outside Texas. By that time, my obsession with my Texanism will manifest into a full-blown western wardrobe replete with cowboy boots and hat, rodeo belt buckles and a bolo tie, even if I'm living in Chicago's north shore or Dupont Circle. I'm sure my wife, not to mention the neighbors, will appreciate the Slim Pickens look.
Strangely, I feel more certain about the likelihood of not returning to Texas than I do about staying in Chicago. I don't know where I'll end up, but somehow I feel confident it won't be Texas. In short, my home will probably never be back Home. And while this decision is at least partly mine—i.e. as much as any decision in a marriage is really up to a husband—I somehow feel like moving home isn't really an option. Living in Texas would ruin my memory of the place I love so much, and I fear I would suffer an existential crisis.
You see, my identity is directly tied to my notion of being a Texan living abroad. In short, I'm now more Texpatriate than Texan. And that is a downright weird place to be emotionally. Think about it: I identify more with where I'm not than where I am. As I acknowledge this I realize I have just fallen into the rabbit hole of silly logic inhabited by the likes of Foucault, Derrida, Glenn Beck, and the Kardashian sisters. And that ain't no place to be.
It's definitely time for another Bloody Mary and, more important, straightforward subjects to ponder, like Tex-Mex or Baywatch!
Following my liquid breakfast I begin to doze off. In my dream I'm a kid again and I'm standing in a field of bluebonnets and Indian paintbrush with my brother Bill and great granddaddy Lively on the family farm in East Texas. My vodka-inspired vision is fragmented and static with saturated hues like a stained glass window illuminated by the rising sun at daybreak. This quintessential image from my Texas childhood is heartbreakingly beautiful.
I awake as the plane touches down on Texas soil and I say a little prayer—and I thank God and Sam Houston I'm a Texan, even if now I'm really just a Texpatriate.