I will be leading some sessions at Alamo Bay Writer’s Workshop in Austin, Texas, from July 19th to 21st. This is going to be a really good and worthwhile--and fun--event.
The other instructors are National Book Award-winning novelist Larry Heinemann, environmental activist/memoirist Diane Wilson, and award-winning poet Lee Meitzen Grue. Dr. Hazel Ward will moderate afternoon discussion sessions.
The workshop will be devoted to sparking writerly creativity—how to find ideas, how to get writing started, how to stay focused, how to get finished. Every participant will have a chance to work with each workshop leader, exposing the participants to a variety of ideas and techniques.
The venue will be Rio Far Niente, located on 36 acres just east of Austin, overlooking the Colorado River, pecan groves, and the downtown Austin skyline. Instructor readings and music by Claudia Voyles and Lee Edwards will kick off the weekend Friday evening. Cello music by Randall Warren will accompany Saturday night entertainment. Our own Austin favorite bookstore, Bookwoman, will be selling books. The cost is $325 per workshop participant….
You all need to atten
d!Alamo Bay Writers' Workshop, Austin 2013
I have a few new publications to list and brag about….
“Baby Never Grew,” a short story at Chagrin River Review. It’s a story that was written for my West Virginia book-in-progress, and then got cut. Maybe I’ll put it back in—it’s worth reading!
“Something Else Finally Happened,” a short story at Amarillo Bay. A story about a writing class—yes, I’ve been in a few of those over the years….
“Beset by Demons,” is in the anthology/journal Tales from the Concrete Highway, published by Workers Write! A cab-driving story, with some bad behavior in it….
I also have a West Virginia story, “Guernsey Cows,” that has been accepted by Kestrel. It won’t come out until the fall, though, and so I’ll hold off bragging about it until then….
My first copy of Gatsby...
I just finished going through The Great Gatsby with my “Craft of Fiction” class, and I’ve come to the conclusion—hey, call me a rebel, call me crazy—that it is the most perfectly punctuated book of all time. A few examples that I discussed in class yesterday….
“…They’re nice to have—a dog.” (27)
A bit of dialogue spoken by Myrtle Wilson. The em-dash there is heartbreaking, an indication of Myrtle’s selfishness and shallowness. The singular “dog” and plural “they’re” also give us a lot of information about Myrtle….
“I thought you inherited your money.”
“I did, old sport,” he said automatically, “but I lost most of it in the big panic—the panic of the war” (90)
Dialogue between Nick and Gatsby. The comma in “…did, old sport…” is perfect. But most of my students will not notice that. Very odd—students have tremendous difficulty punctuating dialogue, especially the comma after an introductory clause. Also the lovely “old sport,” which of course is totally pompous and condescending to whomever is being addressed.
“All this ‘old sport’ business. Where’d you pick that up?”
“Now see here, Tom,” said Daisy, turning around from the mirror, “if you’re going to make personal remarks I won’t stay here a minute. Call up and order some ice for the mint julep.” (127)
Tom is addressing Gatsby, but Daisy intervenes. I suppose you could italicize the “old sport” here, but the single quotes work too and bring out an air of contempt in Tom’s question. Italics would have indicated greater contempt, more sneering, and might have been too much.
Nice comma before Tom, too. And Daisy’s use of “Tom” is interesting in itself. How many times do people actually use names when they address one another? Not too often, in my experience. Names in conversation are used to get the addressee’s attention and, sometimes, to assert control. That’s what’s happening here….
“Still—I was married in the middle of June,” Daisy remembered, “Louisville in June! Somebody fainted. Who was it fainted, Tom?” (127)
Nice use of the em-dash—a little lurch of speech. Then calling out Tom again….
“I know I’m not very popular. I don’t give big parties. I suppose you’ve got to make your house into a pigsty in order to have any friends—in the modern world.”
Angry as I was, as we all were, I was tempted to laugh whenever he opened his mouth. The transition from libertine to prig was so complete.
“I’ve got something to tell you, old sport——” began Gatsby. But Daisy guessed at his intention.
“Please don’t!” she interrupted helplessly. “Please let’s all go home. Why don’t we all go home?” (130)
Tom, Nick, Gatsby. Daisy. Again the lurching em-dash in “friends—in the modern world.” Tom sounds confused and stressed. Grasping at priggish straws.
Then Gatsby speaks with an unusual double em-dash! “...old sport——“ Really helps show Daisy’s interruption—Gatsby is left gasping. Then, Daisy’s “Please don’t” should logically be “Please, don’t” but the missing comma imposes a feeling of urgency to her words. “Please, let’s all go home” is a gentle plea. “Please let’s all go home” is a desperate plea. And, I try to convince the students, it is a deliberate missing comma, not a missing comma of ignorance….
“I’m going to drain the pool to-day, Mr. Gatsby. Leaves’ll start falling pretty soon, and then there’s always trouble with the pipes.” (153)
Perhaps I obsess over properly-placed commas. But—I’ve read so many stories by beginning writers that I have become acutely aware of how hard it can be to see these things, how hard it is to read like a writer.
“Don’t do it to-day,” Gatsby answered. He turned to me apologetically. “You know, old sport, I’ve never used that pool all summer?” (153)
The “old sport” thing again. But creating that last sentence in the form of a question? Changes everything.
“Have you got a church you go to sometimes, George? Maybe even if you haven’t been there for a long time? Maybe I could call up the church and get a priest to come over and he could talk to you, see?”
“Don’t belong to any.”
“You ought to have a church, George, for times like this. You must have gone to church once. Didn’t you get married in a church? Listen, George, listen to me. Didn’t you get married in a church?”
“That was a long time ago.” (157)
Michaelis is talking with George. No dialogue tags in this passage—we know who is speaking, and there’s no need for Fitzgerald to assert extra pacing. The constant use of “George” is there as Michaelis tries to get George’s attention is also very cool…..
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning—— (180)
A non-dialogue passage—a very famous passage, justly famous. But look look LOOK at that amazing double em-dash that leaves us dangling at the end of the book, setting us up for the beautiful last sentence! An ellipsis wouldn’t be as effective, nor a single em-dash. Doubling helps make this memorable and moving….
At AWP we had a wonderful panel discussing the 21st century relevance of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Below is my presentation....
The goal of this panel is to offer new, personal readings of Emerson’s work, pointing toward ways in which these works are relevant to writers, readers, and teachers in the 21st century. I’m joined up here by three other fine scholars and writers….
§ Lindsay Illich holds a Ph.D. in English from Texas A&M University and is an Assistant Professor of English at Curry College in Milton, MA. Her work has appeared in Gulf Coast, Rio Grande Review, Buddhist Poetry Review, and most recently, Improbable Worlds: An Anthology of Texas and Louisiana Poets.
§ John Domini’s books include the novels A Tomb on the Periphery and Earthquake I.D. In 2009 Tomb was listed with "the best of international publishing" at the London Book Festival, and Earthquake, in Italian translation, was runner-up for the Rea Prize. Other awards include an NEA grant. A selection of essays, The Sea-God’s Herb, will be published in 2014. John will also be appearing tomorrow on a Hawthorne panel—9:00 am—nine in the morning?—in room 303—everyone should go!
§ Amber Foster is a doctoral candidate in English with a creative writing emphasis at Texas A&M University. Her creative work has appeared in a variety of print and online journals, and two of her short stories will appear later this year in Echo Ink Review and the University of Texas Press' Beat Anthology. She is currently working on a novel about a traveling scuba diving instructor.
§ I’m an Assistant Professor of English at Pittsburg State, in Kansas. I’m the author of two books, Long Time Ago Good, a story collection, and That Demon Life, a novel, and I’ll have another novel coming out later this year….
I kind of came up with the idea for this panel last year, when I was teaching an American lit survey course, Colonial through Civil War. One of things I often do in a lit class is ask students to add a question about the text to their reading response. Ideally this gives me a place to start discussion in class. But what I got a lot of last year were questions like “What would Melville think of our modern world?” “What would Poe think of our modern world?” “What would Thoreau think of our modern world?” “What would Phyllis Wheatley think of our modern world?” “What would Emerson think of our modern world?”
This wasn’t a whole lot of help to discussion. I couldn’t get past the image of recently reanimated Thoreau totally freaking out about not being safely dead…while Poe would be interested in the reanimation process….
I felt there was a sense of entitlement and arrogance to these questions—an implication that our modern world is the pinnacle of creation and progress. It seemed like the students were asking, Wouldn’t these long-dead writers be stunned at how cool we all are?
So, late in the semester, in an attempt to turn this idea around on the students, I gave the class an essay prompt: Are Emerson’s ideas relevant to the 21st century? By that time we had read quite a bit of Emerson—Nature, Self-Reliance, The Poet, and parts of his very political essay, Fate of the Republic. I was hoping that the students would reflect on our modern world and what it means, and ponder whether a voice from the deep past, from a time of increasingly cutthroat capitalism and post-Jacksonian white supremacy, had anything relevant to say to us.
One of my students, MK, writes:
Emerson would view our conformed society as blind for we do not see the endless opportunities and freedom that we have been offered in this world. We are limiting ourselves from the unique and creative contributions we could be giving back to our society by conforming “to large societies and dead institutions” (535). Not only would he be thoroughly frustrated with the way our society has turned out, I personally feel that he would feel helpless and overwhelmed by the amount of potential and capabilities that have been restricted to each individual. This issue of conformity relates back to his main idea of perspective. The more perspective we allow ourselves to have, less blind we will be to our society that is constantly progressing.
Student CR writes:
…The current school system talks like Emerson with motivational posters and the occasional motivational speaker, as well as teams of teachers to pat you on the back the whole way and say “You can do it!” Yet, sadly, it walks very different from its talk. When a single failure in High School made by a budding young man, who is still trying to figure out who he is, will very likely exclude him the top colleges of his choice, there’s no way to get back up to where you were. When a similar young man, in a similar stage of life, has a single failure he is likely to be excluded from many law schools and medical schools, because it’s just so difficult to resuscitate a GPA after a hit like that. If the same mistake is made in law school or medical school and you manage to stay in school your chances to get a good job may have just disappeared.
You’ll notice that these are not really answers to the question of the relevance of Emerson’s ideas—they’re really kind of expansions on the reaction of re-animated Emerson to our modern world. But they’re rather dark answers, as well, and filled with a surprising level of anxiety. These students—and the essays of these two students were typical of that class—seem to take a view that society is powerful and irresistible, that our wonders of technology are not everything we might think they are.
MK, I think, tries to empathize with what she imagines as the feelings of the reanimated Emerson. He might well think us blind for not seizing the opportunities open to us. But would he really feel “helpless and overwhelmed by the amount of potential and capabilities that have been restricted to each individual”? Maybe not. Emerson felt that each self-reliant person, each non-conformist, created a ripple that could cross and dislocate the pond of society. There are some dark Transcendentalists, like Melville or Poe, who posit a more chaotic world where individuals are often helpless before the forces of nature, but Emerson wasn’t one of them, and he believed in the agency of individuals.
CR worries about the effect—the power—that institutions have over the future of the noncomformist. Emerson anticipated that worry: “For nonconformity the world whips you with its displeasure. And therefore a man must know how to estimate a sour face. The by-standers look askance on him in the public street or in the friend's parlour…[but] when the unintelligent brute force that lies at the bottom of society is made to growl and mow, it needs the habit of magnanimity and religion to treat it godlike as a trifle of no concernment.”
But I find that anticipation lacking a little bit. Will the “habit of magnanimity” really overcome the power of an institution to screw up someone’s life? Probably not. I think you also have to reject the authority of the institution, and brave the disappointment of family and friends, and live with the consequences.
So, grading these papers, while roughly at the same time putting together this panel proposal, I started thinking that understanding self-reliance and achieving it are perhaps two different things.
I have a book coming out this summer titled Last Educations. It’s an academic satire. The first section is called “Fate,” and, as you might pick up on, given this panel, the title is a reference to Emerson’s essay of the same title.. The focal character in “Fate” – my “Fate,” not Emerson’s essay—is Tom Holt, a post-doc at a big university in Austin, Texas. Tom has problems with his life—with his circumstance, with his character—with his ex-girlfriend, with his students, with the administration, with Nature—with the world. The epigraph is taken from Emerson’s “Fate”: “A man’s power is hooped in by a necessity, which, by many experiments, he touches on every side, until he learns its arc.”
I’ll read a couple of short passages….
At the end of the semester, the week after a cheerless and lonely Thanksgiving, on a dreary, rainy day, I was trudging along with mobs of students through Parlin Hall, the English building, when someone called my name. I looked around. Damp, dripping students were coming and going in the hallway, many chattering chatting texting on cell phones, some hooked up to iPods, alone, jostling along with backpacks and books. Then I saw Dr. Camille Braddock, a professor I’d had in graduate school.
“Tom!” she said. “What luck—I was just thinking about you.”
I felt a sudden wave of guilt and anxiety. She had no reason to be thinking about me. I asked, “What?”
Dr. Braddock stepped between a pair of giggling girls and came over. She was dry—had probably been teaching in one of the classrooms upstairs—and trim and cheerful, carrying an armload of multicolored folders. Student work, probably: even professors had to grade, sometimes, a little.
“Absolutely,” Dr. Braddock said. “I was thinking about you—wondering if you might be able to do me a favor.”
A favor. I looked away, down the hall to the retreating girls—still giggling, and it briefly occurred to me to wonder just what the hell they were so happy about—and I then looked back at Dr. Braddock. It was one of those day-to-day moments that everyone has at times, I think, and seem to happen to me fairly regularly, moments that open up into an eternity, an endless unfillable void where a person can instantly pause to consider just how screwed-up a life can become. A favor. I was already doing too much, and following through on too little. I was a post-doc, a lecturer, an adjunct—a serf. I was teaching two sections of Intro to Literature and a section of Composition and Rhetoric at the university, and three sections of comp at the community college. I was tending bar three nights a week to get enough extra money to at least make payments on my loans. I was scrambling around trying to find a tenure-track job. And Dr. Braddock, who should have known or at least sensed my status and situation, wanted to ask me for a favor.
“A favor?” I asked. I was starting to come up out of the void, and I was pissed, and depressed. A fucking favor.
They go back to Braddock’s office and she asks him to take care of her cats while she goes out of town.
The void opened up again. Despair seeped out. I do too much, I don’t follow through enough. It was the end of the semester: in a few days I would have 150 or so papers to grade and a job search to organize. A life to lead. Despair seeped out of the void, enveloped me. I was going to say Yes, of course I was—I couldn’t say No, ever. My parents raised me to be nice, to be agreeable, to be helpful, and I am. It’s a quality that has never served me well. When friends need help moving, I move. When students think their grade is too low, I raise the grade. Dentists and doctors schedule my appointments at weirdly inconvenient times. Butchers sell me bad meat. I paid too much for my car, and pay mechanics too much for not fixing it. I can’t say No. If I was a girl, I’d be pregnant all the goddamn time, with a half-dozen or so brats from previous favors—previous Yeses—squalling around unfed in dirty diapers. It’s just the way I am. When I look in the mirror I see a very weak man.
“Yeah, I guess,” I said. The void closed. The despair, I knew, would linger. “I mean—sure. I don’t have any plans or anything. I like cats.”
So, Tom takes care of the cats, and, of course, it doesn’t turn out well—it turns out disastrously—all sorts of absurd and ridiculous things happen. (Though I will point out that the cats survive!) What’s important here is Tom’s awareness of the arc of his power—or, his lack of power. He is a weak man who hides behind his weakness, behind what he sees as his fate of character. He gets the last line in the section: “People can’t escape who they are.”
Emerson says, “Tis weak and vicious people who cast the blame on Fate. The right use of Fate is to bring up our conduct to the loftiness of nature. Rude and invincible except by themselves are the elements…Let him hold his purpose as with the tug of gravitation. No power, no persuasion, no bribe shall make him give up his point. A man ought to compare advantageously with a river, an oak, or a mountain. He shall have not less the flow, the expansion, and the resistance of these.”
Emerson argues that this Fate is only half of what goes on in a human life, that people have the power to change their fates, and that fate and power are locked in a symbiotic embrace that functions in all our lives. Emerson says, “We have two things,—the circumstance, and the life. Once we thought, positive power was all. Now we learn, that negative power, or circumstance, is half.”
But—it’s only half. Circumstance, Fate, is not all
Right now, in America, we are facing one of the great crises of our history. Political stalemate and the forces of anti-rationalism are dismantling the governmental, educational, and social institutions which have served this nation well for the past 80 or so years. It is our fate to live in this unfortunate and dismal time. Yet—if you were to go outside right now you’d see clouds scudding overhead, birds flopping around, cars and buses on the streets—you’d see life going on, people bustling from one place to another, writers talking about poems or stories they’re writing while at the same time fantasizing about hooking up with someone at the bar tonight--
This is our world, our fate. But it’s not everything.
Some of the people at this conference—in this room—are go-getters, hard-workers, while others of us are lazy. Some of us are exuberant and outgoing, while others are quiet and introverted.
This is the fate of our characters. But our characters are not everything.
Emerson says, “…though Fate is immense, so is power, which is the other fact in the dual world, immense. If Fate follows and limits power, power attends and antagonizes Fate. We must respect Fate as natural history, but there is more than natural history.”
We are fated to live in this time, this place. We are fated to be who we are. But we’re not limited by our fates—we have power, we have authority, we have agency. And I think this is one of Emerson’s main lessons for us as he speaks to us through the deeps of time—that we can act in opposition to our fate, that we can defy our time, that through power—through perseverance—through self-reliance we can rebuild our institutions, we can act for social justice, we can create art, we can create our own lives….
In my Craft of Fiction class last week we were discussing the prescriptivism of textbooks in general, and of our textbook in particular, and what the implications of prescriptivism are for us as learners and writers. And I thought back to Robert Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
What you’re supposed to do in most freshman-rhetoric courses is to read a little essay or short story, discuss how the writer has done certain little things to achieve certain little effects, and then have the students write an imitative little essay or short story to see if they can do the same little things. He tried this over and over again but it never jelled. The students seldom achieved anything, as a result of this calculated mimicry, that was remotely close to the model he’d given them. More often their writing got worse. It seemed as if every rule he honestly tried to discover with them was so full of exceptions and contradictions and qualifications and confusions that he wished he’d never come across the rule in the first place…A student would always ask how the rule would apply in a certain special circumstance. Phaedrus would then have the choice of trying to fake through a made-up explanation of how it worked, or follow the selfless route and say what he really thought. And what he really thought was that the rule was pasted on to work the writing was all done. It was post hoc, after the fact, instead of prior to the fact. And he became convinced that all the writers the students were supposed to mimic wrote without rules, putting down whatever sounded right, then going back to see if it sounded right, and changing it if it didn’t. There were some who apparently wrote with calculation, because that the way their product looked. But that seemed to him to be a very poor way to look. It had certain syrup, as Gertrude Stein once said, but it didn’t pour. But how’re you supposed to teach something that’s not premeditated? It was a seemingly impossible requirement. He just took the text and commented on it in an unpremeditated way and hoped the students would get something from that. It wasn’t satisfactory (156).
Another thing that depressed him was prescriptive rhetoric, which had supposedly been done away with but was still around. This was the old slap-on-the-fingers-if your-modifiers-were-caught-dangling stuff. Correct spelling, correct punctuation, correct grammar. Hundreds of itsy-bitsy rules for itsy-bitsy people. No one could remember all that stuff and concentrate on what he was trying to write about. It was all table manners, not derived from any sense of kindness or decency or humanity, but originally from an egotistic desire to look like gentlemen and ladies…In Montana, however, it didn’t have this effect at all. It identified one, instead, as a stuck-up Eastern ass (162).
How do you avoid being a “stuck-up Eastern ass” and still be coherent? How do you “teach something that’s not premeditated?” I think we’ll be discussing this more as the course progresses….
Hunter Thompson’s most overlooked book is Hell's Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga—a reportage based on riding around with the Hell’s Angels in the mid-1960s. It’s a more-or-less pre-gonzo Thompson we find in this book, though his base/basic attitudes do come through in places, particularly toward the end of the book when he writes about the attraction of—danger. The Edge.
“The Edge…There is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over. The others—the living—are those who pushed their luck as far as they felt they could handle it, and then pulled back, or slowed down, or did whatever they had to when it came time to choose between Now and Later.”
This quote—well, part of this quote—is the epigraph for my novella “The Incomplete,” which will be published later this year as part of my novel, Last Educations. The narrator of “The Incomplete” is a college student named Travis Smithson. Earlier in the book, one of his teachers says of him:
“Travis was one of these kids who discover Hunter Thompson or Jack Kerouac and go suddenly crazy. I had them every semester, impressionable kids who read crazy books and take the worst possible messages from them, coming up with cornball cockamamie existentialist philosophies and allegedly gonzo ways of looking at the world. Travis’s papers were full of never-ending endless continuous sentences marked with dashes and ellipses and Tom Wolfe-inspired running full colons and weird hyperbolic statements—most of which, really, I found kind of stupid. But if his writing was derivative, at least none of it was stolen.”
I suppose I was one of those kids who went suddenly crazy. But I pulled back and slowed down, etc. Though “The Incomplete” ends with Travis triumphant, he will probably slow down and pull back, too....
Anyway, I'm now working on final revisions to the novel, or I'm supposed to be, and I've been thinking about Edginess, and while piddling around on the internet I came across the wonderful website Brain Pickings, and they had a post on Thompson and the Edge, and a link to an interesting video based on the passage from Hell's Angels. All worth looking at....
On the first day of class, I had the Young Scholars give me written questions—about the class, about writing, about literature.
One student asked, “When we were working in small groups, you were looking out the window. What were you looking at?”
A good question! Our classroom is on the third floor of Grubbs Hall, at the back of the building, looking out over a parking lot. And I was indeed looking out the window while the students worked.
- I noticed that in the cool shadow of the building there was still a lot of ice and snow. Over in the sunny parts of the parking lot, all the snow and ice had melted.
- I watched a young man go skidding sliding across the ice on his heels. I remembered doing similar sliding in the days of my more-energetic youth.
- I saw Dr. M. crossing the parking lot. I wondered where he was going.
- I saw Dr. W. get out of her car and head toward the building. She was carrying something red in her hand. It looked plastic. A spaghetti strainer? A hat? I wondered what she was carrying.
- I watched a big pickup truck trying to park next to my car. I thought, You’d better not hit me!
It’s a big world out there! You can see a lot of things if you look out the right window….
I was looking for something on the wonderful National Archives website—now I forget what—when I came across these photos of child laborers.
I’ve written before of my interest in archival photographs, and about my fascination with forgotten people, people who have lived and died and are now—lost to history.
And here at the National Archives, a whole trove of forgotten children.
The photos were taken for the National Child Labor Committee between 1908 and 1912 by Lewis Hine. They are just amazing—pictures of a lost world, filled with lost people.
What scary photos! these poor kids, doing hard work that would kill me if I even tried to do it. The moments of interrupted narrative that are captured here—what is going on? Who are these people? What happened to them? I'll never know: the people are gone, though their images live on to haunt me....
National Child Labor Committee photographs
National Child Labor Committee
Lewis Wickes Hine
Spinners in a textile mill
The original scary bridge....
I hate crossing bridges—this may be a metaphorical problem as well as a literal, physical one, but since I’m not feeling particularly introspective right now let’s just say that bridges suck….
The bridge that scared me most as a kid was the old suspension bridge that ran between Belpre, Ohio, and Parkersburg, West Virginia. I would always force my parents to stop at the Sohio station on the Belpre side to get Lifesavers candy—I was a kid, somehow I thought the candy would keep the big scary bridge from collapsing. And maybe it did—it never collapsed while I was crossing it. That’s it pictured on the above and to the left—it was torn down in 1980 and replaced with another scary bridge. So much for progress.
On my recent trip to New Orleans I crossed that damn Mississippi River Bridge at Baton Rouge not once but twice—an enervating experience. After the second crossing, my friend JR said “See? You can do it!”
But that’s not the point. Of course I can do it! I just don’t like doing it….
This thing is....
Back in 2004 I was co-editor of the journal Big Tex[t], and we published the following essay by C. McKenzie. With today’s immolation of the Big Tex statue at the State Fair of Texas, I thought I might re-publish it here.
The State Fair O’Texas: (A) Political Essay
By C. McKenzie
He had been Santa Claus at first, benevolent perhaps, but bizarre-looking with hyperthyroid eyes bulging out of a paper mach head, and with a spraypainted beard made out shredded rope. His arm is upraised, his eyes glazed: He seems sort of manic like he will meet and greet everybody in the world if he has to because that is his job and the only thing he knows how to do.
Made out of salvaged oil derrick parts—drilling casing mostly—Big Santa was born in Kerens, Texas in 1948 and got to be about fifty feet tall pretty damned quick which is probably too big for a Santa to be, even a Big Santa from Texas. Santas lose their humanity at about ten feet tall, I’d guess. Any Santa bigger than that is just plain freaky and just seems wrong. The people of Kerens got tired of Big Santa pretty quick too. Many local residents said that they could not tolerate the giant’s sneer. In fact, some of the locals called Big Santa, “The Lip.” He didn’t talk at first, so he couldn’t convince the people of Kerens to keep him on. He couldn’t really do anything, the good people of Kerens complained, except wave his hand at you. He was not good at business and terrible at school, so he was pretty useless in general. He was sort of like an inept politician who stood outside the grocery store shaking hands and kissing babies because he wasn’t smart enough to go inside and get a real job stacking bananas or cutting steaks or sacking can goods or mopping up spilt milk.
In 1951 Big Santa was bought by a Dallas Big Money Man, a banker named R..L Thornton who might have been in Klan #66, the Dallas Chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920’s and who did form the Citizen’s Council that has more or less run Big D for about the last seventy years or thereabouts. I think R.L. Thornton the Third is still in Big D. I don’t know if he is running things like his granddaddy did, but you never know. I don’t think there’s much of anybody in the Klan these days; but you never know that either. Back in the 20’s half of Dallas was under the thumb of Klansmen and they looked just like regular bankers, politicians, and policeman--white ones at least.
The year I am thinking of was probably 1972, in early October. I am not sure at all of the dates, but the day I am certain of since Tuesdays were my daddy’s day off and we always went to the Texas State Fair on a Tuesday. My sister and I just skipped school. If we had been black kids and skipped school to go the State Fair or anyplace, we would have been penalized; but we were white and middle class so the school let my sister and I go with our parents to the State Fair O’ Texas as an “educational trip.” One year my daddy took us out of school for a couple of weeks, to go to Hawai’i, I think. I don’t think even we could claim that as an educational trip, though, of course it was because what trip isn’t? The principal in my middle school threatened to hold me back for a grade because he thought me missing that much school to go on vacation was just plain old egregious. My daddy said, “Fine then, do it. Hold him back a year.” Daddy didn’t ask me how I felt about that, though I am sure he consulted my mother about the decision. I didn’t get held back; of course, I didn’t. But I wonder what would have happened to me had I been. Likely nothing much.
Probably the best time of all to be at the State Fair O’ Texas was the early 1970’s. It was a good time if you were me anyway—old enough then to be able to play games of skill and chance and buy crappy baubles with personal folding money, young enough to have avoided the Draft, but not yet driving a car and so not responsible to more than myself, not dangerous to society, a good kid who still thought finger rings made out of silver spoons were wearable art, protected from if not entirely unmindful of larger social issues, relatively well off financially, white, good-looking, and athletic, with a jawline like Meredith and an arm like Staubach. Actually, the year I am thinking of I was wearing number 14 on my amateur’s version of the professional home team’s blue-on-white jersey so Dandy Don and Roger the Dodger, the handsome scoundrel and the righteous scrambler, the prodigal son and the good stay-at-home son, Number 17 and Number 12 were both sidelined. Craig Morton, a nice looking and entirely competent but wholly uninspiring quarterback was ramrod of the Cowboys that day.
Well, Landry was the big ramrod of the Cowboys then and persists as ”Coach” in Dallas to a lot of native Texans in the same way that the father and the father’s concerns remain at the center of the bible story about the prodigal son. Everything in Dallas Cowboy’s football is, and always will be for a lot of fans, relative to Landry and the Landry Legacy. Jerry J. whines on within the Legacy but he is not now and never will be the Big Daddy of Dallas Cowboy Football, because it is the grand father that is the originary center of all men’s stories as it is Big Tex that is the center of the State Fair O’ Texas. Tom Landry--inscrutable, jacket-tie-hat--is the real Father, the Zeus of the Big System of the Cowboys, for better and for worse. Even the possible San Antonio defection can’t kill him. Even death can’t kill him. Various Achilles will rise and shine and die during their days in the sun--as did Chuck Howley when he won the MVP award even though his Cowboy team lost the Super Bowl (he got a station wagon for that); but Zeus is the sun and so will live on, grumpy on Olympus perhaps but there forever, stirred on occasion but never shaken because he is the foundation of all, all the good and all the bad. And so the shadow Landry cast over the Cowboys remains and ever will remain, much as the shadow of Big Tex remains--spread long and permanent over the state fairgrounds, over Dallas, over Texas and Texans, over me, there to cover and cloud memory.
The Cowboys still played in the Cotton Bowl in those days and there was still a Southwest Conference. The important rivalry in regional college football was Arkansas versus Texas. My people were from Arkansas but my sister and I were born Texas, though there is some contestation of my actual origins since I was conceived in North Carolina during my dad’s medical residency in Greensboro. It is debatable which is more important in determining what place you are most from—the place you became you as only an egg meeting up with some sperm or the place you were born into breathing air and screaming against that invasion into your lungs and proclaiming your invasion of the world or the place you were raised up in causing trouble. Where you choose as your place of becoming says a lot about how you see history. I had advantages going all directions, the way I evaluated my history. Having been of Arkansans but conceived in North Carolina and born and raised in Texas, I was, and continue to be, a multiple threat. When I played front yard football with my friend down the road, Todd would be a Longhorn and I would be a Hog. But I could be a Longhorn too, while Todd could never be a Hog. His brother played somewhat for North Texas State where my uncle was a professor in Educational Psychology, whatever that is. The day I heard my uncle Harold had died—of cancer from smoking cigarettes—I bought a carton of Pall Malls, smoked, drank a case of Pabst Blue Ribbon, and cried. I was going to college in Arkansas then. My uncle Harold was a good fellow who played poker and told jokes about the privileges of tenure and was a proudly intellectual liberal when nobody else I knew was. My father was a Nixon Man. I miss Uncle Harold now that I am looking for a tenure track job: I could use his wise advice on how to be collegial which is a lesson I didn’t get in graduate school. I have missed Harold Sunderman on occasion, but his family have missed him every day since he died and nobody was happy when he checked out early. Nobody being happy or relieved when I am dead is not an endorsement I can be sure of, but it is an ambition for us all.
The family of my neighborhood friend owned a lucky local diner called the Shamrock, which was also something of a dive because it served beer and had a juke box. In the den above the garage of Todd’s house there was a pool table and another juke box. We listened to the Cowsills and the Osmonds mostly, though there were some Beatles around and some C&W of course. His mother kept Jolly Rancher candy in bowl on the living room table and that seemed excessive and somehow exotic. His room was a shrine to Texas football. Todd still lives in that house and he still has Longhorn paraphernalia in his yard. Seasonally he and I played football in our youths, in my front yard. Todd did not have much of a front yard. There was some dirt and a few scrub oak trees, but no space for football. My front yard was peculiar because there was some small flat space between the chain link fence and where the big trees started, but it was a narrow swath of Bermuda and the chain link was tough on your skin if you veered toward the tar road, West Lake Drive, that connected our suburb to town. I used to practice my passing by throwing the football against that fence and that old Rawlings was flayed from the contact with that barbed fence wire like a tortured saint flagellated for the sake of the forward pass. My dad built me a goal post on the road side of the fence to practice my extra point kicking, but he never taught me to kick a ball. He also made me a stand-in guard for my basketball court, a big X made out of cedar wood that I could move around from spot to spot—I pretended the cedarwood X man was someone trying to block my shots. Dad built me things to stand in for him, but I have never minded being by myself and learning to do things on my own.
Todd and I played a lot of football against that chain link fence, with the sweet gum on one end of our short field and the big oak on the other as out-of-bounds. I don’t remember who won those games. Maybe we didn’t keep score. I hope we didn’t.
One-on-one football is strange game, more psychological than physical or else just physical, depending on what style of play suits your talents. In ways, one-on-one football is more like tai chi than it is like professional wrestling; or else it is just like professional wrestling without the dramatics. In one case, a single good feint resulted in a touchdown. In the other case it was just pushing forward and resisting the pushing forward. It was a game, principally, of deception and/or of mere brute strength. It was a running game, that was a given: You couldn’t pass to yourself very often so the finesse and skill of the air game was gone. Plays were not complicated. You had to say, “Hike!” but after that anything could happen and little ever did. It was mostly push and shove going one direction for four downs, unless there was a punt, and then push and shove from the other direction for four downs. As I remember, you could tee up the ball on fourth down and go for a field goal. Nobody tried to block field goals, mainly because nobody wanted a face full of football. Jan Stenerud was just starting to kick sidestyle (soccer style) for Kansas City then and Todd was a sidewinder. I was a George Blanda straight-ahead kicker. Neither one of us could make a field goal anyway so we mostly ran on fourth down. Running hard was the key to one-on-one football because there was no whistle to end a play so the play was ongoing as long as the runner was standing. We usually scored our touchdowns when a grip was loosened. But all that three-yards-and-a cloud-of-dust seemed natural back then as everybody in the Southwest Conference was running the option out of the wishbone. Passing was for sissies. Passing was undependable. Passing was for Hail Mary time, for the fourth quarter when you were way down. There were three things that could happen to a forward pass and two of them were bad. The West Coast Offense was unheard of. My good arm was wasted on front yard one-on-one football. In one-on-one football you either ran over your opponent--usually dragging him along on the abused lawn grass as he clung to your leg-- or you faked him out and walked past the mimosa tree stumps and into the end zone virtually untouched. These were the options—power or deception.
These are the lessons we learn playing one-on-one front yard football. Kids, fortunately, can make a game out of damned near anything so Todd and I weren’t bored by the lack of options our offenses had. Todd was stronger than I was. I was more deceptive. Our games lasted days. I remember one day when there was a mostly clear sky, but it was raining. We played through the freakish rain storm, but when it stopped raining we stopped playing as if a whistle had finally blown.
My father had his own battle going on against the mimosa trees in the front yard and that was a battle royale, Man Against Nature. The mimosa, as is well known, is one of the jewels of the Southern botanical world, but these feathery flexible trees are also a royal pain in the ass mainly because they shed pods constantly and resist killing. My daddy sawed the mimosa trees down, but they came back. He cross-cut the stumps festooned with new growth and they flourished. He doused the living stumps with gasoline and burned them, but they survived and kept on growing new limbs like an indefatigable lizard will grow new tails. He dug up and pulled out the persistently alive stumps of those mimosas but from the root buried all over the yard more new limbs came. He pulled up all those roots and then burned them and burned all the pods they were spread and cast salt over all the earth around them and, finally, the mimosa trees died and their potential progeny died and all was right, finally, in my father’s front yard world.
If you do enough damage to a thing it will die; that’s the lesson I learned from the battle between the mimosas and my daddy.
I am guessing this memorable fair day at sometime in September of 1972. My family strolled the grounds of the State Fair O’ Texas for most of the day and then in the late afternoon watched the Cowboys play the Giants. I played some games myself that day at the Fair; shot some baskets and threw a couple of footballs at a hole in a tire. I mostly lost my money because like most people my best game is in my head. The Cowboys, however, beat the Giants; of course they did. We saw the whole game from the forty-five yard line from behind a steel pillar. It was an exciting game we all agreed, and so everybody was in high spirits by the end of our adventure. We had driven two hours to get to the State Fair and we had had a good time whether we wanted to or not. Above us Big Tex smiled liked a maniac as a recorded voice twanged “Howdy folks! Welcome to the State Fair O’ Texas!” There were exclamation points all around that day because there had to be. We were skewered on this excess of fun like a corn dog is skewered on a stick. We were superlatives ourselves. We were glad to be there. If the world was not our oyster it was a corn dog and we were there to consume it whether it nauseated us or not. We were Texans in Texas at the great State Fair O’ Texas. The Dallas Cowboys were our home team before they were America’s team. The Cowboys slayed the Giants as David killed Goliath. Bullet Bob Hayes was the fastest man on earth and we were not far behind him.
The real giant of the State Fair though was Big Tex who watched over us all like a god overseeing the progress of his pilgrims as we migrated from exhibition to exhibition, ate our mana--corn dogs--made ourselves sick in the Indian Summer heat, pitched and pined for prizes, those huge stuffed animals always somehow just past the reach of our skills. We were not alone at the State Fair. There were lines for everything. There were even lines for taking a pee. But Big Tex wore the largest pair of Levis ever made and a denim shirt as big as a football field and a hat large enough to swim in so everything was okay. That day I was wearing brown faux suede pants with white piping and my faux Dallas Cowboys home jersey. The Cowboys, the ultimate home team, couldn’t lose if they were wearing their white home jerseys and nor could I or my home team ever lose. My family were a team back then and we would win as a team. Nothing could ever break us apart and nothing could defeat us. My mother was young then and beautiful, as young and beautiful as the way Bullet Bob Hayes could run, though she couldn’t walk into the livestock halls because the animal dander gave her an asthma attack. My father, back then about my age now, was Tom Landry. He was a successful small town doctor and handsome in an Arkansas way, with deep set eyes and a widow’s peak and dark prescription CIA sunglasses he wore even inside: those Ray Bans were his trademark as much as Landry’s hat was his. Daddy had hopes I would follow in his footsteps and take over his medical practice eventually--as Landry thought Staubach would mature into a leadership role for the Cowboys--though my daddy claimed and continues to claim that my happiness was the most important thing to him. I believed him them, but do no longer. My sister was just losing her baby fat at twelve, not yet sexy, just a pretty kid who did good in school because she worked hard. She never really played sports because she was not only slow she was small and Title Nine was not in place so girls did other things than sports. Sis was a cheerleader from about age three until now. I was a quarterback who also did good in school, though I didn’t have to work at it, or at anything. I kept my eye on the ball back then. My sis and I were good, white kids and we came from a good, white family. I read books and Sis didn’t and that’s been the main difference between us. My parents loved each other and were faithful to their pledges. My father stuck to his guns. My family was a good, white team; indeed if not in fact, we were America’s team.
Sis still lives very near where we were born and reared and her boys are starting now to play football and aiming at playing on Friday Nights and she goes to a church that won’t let women preach and votes Republican because she and her husband are relatively rich. She didn’t become a doctor, but she did marry one. I left small town Texas and eventually became a liberal who thinks writing is important and good writers are the smartest people in the world and doctors are mostly just glorified mechanics and football coaches are mostly idiots. That’s all.
Memory is reconstructive though. A lot of important theorists and philosophers and writers have said this, but it is still some matter of contention and disbelief amongst most of us that this is so: That the fact of the matter is, there are no real facts of the matter. We make up history, based loosely on what actually happened; that’s the truth of the matter. What actually happened is never known, can never be known because any report of what happened comes from a very particular and peculiar place, because it comes from a person and persons are notoriously peculiar and particular, in fact, unique. For instance, if there is a car wreck and there are seventeen eyewitnesses on the scene then there will be seventeen first person accounts, but all will be different somewhat. Whether you focus on the similarities in accounts or the differences determines how history is constructed, what it represents for you. Cops and politicians look for similarities; that’s the problem with cops and politicians. Writers, good ones at least, look for differences and that’s why writers are better people than cops and politicians and more valuable, in the long run, for civilization if such a thing as civilization exists. Most people prefer to focus on the ways we are the same because they fear cops and trust politicians. This, to my mind, is foolish. I tend to focus on how every one is different from everybody and so my histories are different and my philosophy encourages resistance to groups and shies away from anything much that gets people coordinated into big groups to do collective stuff like kill eight million Jews for one instance. It is the group to fear, the collective action, as far as I am concerned. It is the man that sticks to his guns. The Nazis were very much a community working in harmony for collective action and Hitler stuck to his guns. The Nazis even had neat uniforms. Let there be a little chaos. Let there be no more uniforms.
Let there be no Big Brother or Big Tex overseeing all.
But then I have ever been a maverick. Being part of the herd has its advantages and we all know that: You can’t play football by yourself. The advantages of being out there free-ranging on your own, however, are less obvious, but, to me, more valuable: Who in their right mind actually wants to play football anyway? Nobody but sadists and masochists. Football is just a good way to get hurt and hurt others, on purpose.
Being a maverick is actually what makes me different from my clan, from fellow Texans, indeed from the whole rest of the world. I focus on differences and how I am different and that’s what makes me a person in my own right. If I focused on how I was like other people then I would not be a person in my own right: I would be like you, and I ain’t, so, therefore, I am. Some ancient Greek should have said it like this—I am not you, or anybody else, so I am. It is our differences, and our different constructions of history—our own and the world’s—that make us what we are, that make us individuals.
The big thing during that trip to the State Fair was to win something by throwing a football through a tire. I was still in love with football back then. It was the sport you played if you were small town Texas and I was small town Texas, for some of my life anyway. I grew out of that pretty quick, relatively speaking. I grew out of football when a sadistic little bastard ninth grade coach broke my leg. Well, physics broke my leg, weight and mass broke me down. But I didn’t cry. There are a lot of things you can resist in life, but gravity ain’t one of them. You can cry or not, as far as I am concerned, and either way you are not more or less broken when gravity kicks your ass.
The game was called Bull In the Ring. The team circled up on the field and then one person was forced to get in the center of the circle and then names or numbers were called and the names or numbers called were supposed to run at the boy, the bull, in the middle of the circle, the ring and try to knock the shit out of him. Usually the coach (sadistic little bastard who wound up joining the Texas Highway Patrol years later, which was his great ambition and that tells it all) would call one or two numbers to hit the bull in the ring. But I was a special case--for reasons you might understand if you are resistant yourself to sadistic little bastards-- and so deserved special treatment, and so the coach just kept calling numbers. I took the first couple of hits and stayed on my feet until the Coach called Van Townsend’s number.
I went to schools where you pretty much knew everybody from Day One. We had about seventy kids in my class in kindergarten and the same seventy when we were in high school, and Van was the biggest kid in our class by far, close to six feet in grade school. By ninth grade he was something of a monster. He played fullback for our junior high team and also played Defense, position undetermined. He played where he wanted to, in other words, and hit anything that moved with the intention of killing it. He was also a friend of mine. We had gone to basketball camp together. His mother sewed his practice outfits for his trip to camp, his shorts at least. We both wore white Fruit-of-the-Loom T-shirts and we both wore canvas sneakers. Back then everybody wore white T-shirts and canvas sneakers. This is how things were back then: If you were poor, your mother made your clothes, even your basketball gear and everybody wore white T-shirts and canvas sneakers. Working class people lived close to the vest and didn’t have credit cards. They bought what they could afford and made the rest from scratch or did without. Van only had one eye. His dad accidentally put out his other eye in a welding accident. That’s the kind of place I come from. His senior year Van hit a halfback from Gilmer, Texas so hard Van knocked his own glass eye out of his face and the football game was stopped for a while to look for Van’s blue and white eye. You’d think an eyeball would be pretty noticeable, but the referees and players on the field couldn’t find the eye, so the game went on that night.
I imagine the East Texas autumn air was cool in the empty eye socket in his head, but Van ignored the absence in his face and focused on the present and made umpteen tackles that Friday night for the Gladewater Bears, per usual. He was a scary force that Friday night as you can well imagine. Saturday morning his mother was on her hands and knees in the muddy middle of that churned up football field looking for that glass eye. She found it and put it back in her son’s head.
During Bull In the Ring Van knocked me loopy and I staggered and hit the turf as I heard other numbers, rapidly and in sequence, being called by the sadistic little bastard coach. The next thing I knew I was on the bottom of a big pile of ninth graders all in full football gear. For some of them the gear weighed more than they did but it added up and I got crushed. My leg was twisted underneath me. I could feel my ankle bone bending. I actually felt it bend like a mimosa tree branch bending. It was pretty flexible, but only to a point. I tried to scream, but the weight on me took my breath away. The weight of those eleven kids, a whole football team, crushed my voice. When the ankle bone broke it was loud as a pistol shot. The kids piled off of me slower than they had piled on. The sadistic little bastard coach made me spend the rest of practice, an hour, on the sidelines, standing up, and then he made me walk the quarter mile back to the locker rooms after practice was over. When our waterboy offered me an arm to lean on the coach pushed him away and told the congregation that all the brave men, all the real Texas football players got themselves off the field without help. We all make mistakes, but the coach is never really and fully accountable for his—he always has a reason for a loss that does not include his own stupidity. We were soldiers in a cause, the sadistic little bastard told us kids, and that cause was Texas High School Football. If we had to get maimed for the cause, that was okay because the cause was just and right. That was the Texas High School Football Mentality back then and it is still the Texas High School Football Mentality.
That was the last day I ever played organized football. Fuck football. Fuck Friday Nights Texas High School Football. Fuck the Texas High School Football Mentality.
Schopenhauer said that even when environmental circumstances are very similar between us, we each still live in a world of our own. This is a good thing to know. For instance, when my sister and I talk about our father we agree that we are not talking about the same thing. While Ben McKenzie is a stable biological referent, “Daddy” is what we each make him, and we make daddy differently because he has been different to us: Though Sis and I were both sired by Ben McKenzie of Smackover, Arkansas, Sis and I have different “daddies.” This agreement about difference saves us a lot of grief when it comes to discussing the family.
Like any Big Daddy, Big Tex still extends his arm over the State Fair O’ Texas and he still casts the shadow under which a lot of Texans live, but those lives are all different, or should be at least, and so we each ought to look at Big Tex through our own eyes and decide about the big fellow for ourselves. Big Tex seems big, in other words, but Big Tex is really only in his own little world too, just like you are in your own little world. That I am in my own little world goes without saying. If you can see that—that we are each and every one of us in our own little worlds and that’s okay--then you can see the Big Picture which is that there is no big picture. It is all spin really and perception, and everybody is spinning and perceiving only from their own spot. You can only see of the world what you can see from your particular and peculiar spot in it, so you can never see the Big Picture. This separation and these very different perspectives on every conceivable thing are not the problem from my perspective. The problem is when we start thinking collectively, like, for instance, that the World of Big Tex is our world too, that the coach’s world or your daddy’s is yours. It’s not: It’s just his world. Resist it. We should make our own worlds. That’s all.
I was in an art museum recently with a bunch of students I work for and we were analyzing a painting that portrayed George W. straddling the Great State O’ Texas. I told them about Big Tex straddling the State Fair O’ Texas. “His Levis,” I said, “are the biggest Levis in the world.” The students were not very impressed with the size of Big Tex’s pants. They wanted to know what was in them. “Not much of nothing,” I said. “That’s all.”
In the painting in the art museum a mushroom cloud billows around W and Evil reigns in a circular pattern that seems to have no end. In this painting there is no escape from the Evil; the frame holds it all in and the Evil feeds on itself and makes itself rich. I am not here to say that W is the devil. He’s not. He’s just living in his daddy’s world when he should have made his own. He should have made his own fortune. He should have lived his own life. That’s why I can’t stand W. He is just keeping his daddy, and Big Tex, in the middle of everything so that everything is still relative to Big Tex. Big Tex ought only to be relevant to Big Tex. His reach should not be extended. His Levis should not be stretched to cover the whole world. W should have tried to make his own world better by making it different. Lisa Marie Presley shouldn’t be singing either. Muhammad Ali’s daughter shouldn’t be fighting. I shouldn’t be a small town Texas doctor. When we can see that different is good then we can start making a difference. When we can stop living our parents’ lives then we can make a difference. How can we change the world when we just continue to do what our people have always done?
Big Tex is just Big Tex—that’s the bottom line. He is only big relatively speaking and he should mean nothing special to anybody but himself. He wears the biggest Levis in the known world. His shirt is as big as a football field and his hat is so big you can swim in it. Good for Big Tex. And fuck Big Tex. He is not worth the trouble of even writing about, because all he can do, really, is say “Howdy!”