Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Tuesday Bluesday

Thank goodness. The jackhammering outside my door has stopped. For the time being, anyway.

Some days, some times, just...suck. I can't put my finger on the exact time when things got so dull, so gray as the skies outside today. Perhaps it was our move here. My son's continuing adjustment to his new school, maybe. My spouse's dissatisfaction with his new job, or my dissatisfaction with my new part-time job. The fact that we can complain all we want to each other about our situations, but nothing will change them at the moment. Or maybe it's all the caution barrels, the jackhammering, and the excavating of the street directly in front of my house. Dumbassed small actions like buying lactose-free milk instead of regular milk only put a wobbly exclamation point on such tedium.

I listened to all of Serial last week, took in a few parodies of it, and listened to Sarah Koenig on Fresh Air about the podcast. Initially, I was kind of perturbed that she was perturbed about the parodies. (Once you've listened to the podcast to about the sixth episode and seen the SNL parody, any mention of "the Nisha call" could well induce a giggling fit.) I think Serial is an incredible example of what it takes to dig and dig and dig some more in investigative reporting, but the truth of its format is that it is derived heavily from This American Life, down to the hip yet portentious incidental music and the vocal cadences of its host. Serial aurally brings to mind every detail of Hae Min Lee's murder, the trial and conviction of Adnan Syed, and what reasonable doubts are all about, catching up even good friends of mine in its investigation and perhaps putting too much emphasis on the "whodunit?" aspect despite constant assurances from so many professional quarters that the case was a hot mess (Listen to the frustration in Koenig's voice when she talks to Syed in the final episode; I think something in her really wanted to blow the case open.). It's hard not to poke fun at Serial's presentation and the earnestness of its host. It also shows the difference between being a producer of hard news and being a show host: it's a producer's job to fret the small stuff, and a host's job to just be a good parent, put it out there, and let it go. I think of how immersed Koenig was in the case, though, and can see how tough and surprising it must have been for her to see the parodies and wonder how anyone could laugh at something as serious as a murder case.

Truth is, though, sometimes we need to laugh.

Last week's shootings and hostage situations in Paris make it difficult, though. Listening to reports from the Marais on the closure of Jewish-run businesses & synagogues brings back shades of 1930's Europe to the 21st century. And then, atop it all, there's Netanyahu being the benevolent yet overbearing parent telling diaspora Jewry they can stop this silly wandering Jews thing and come back to mind the Holy Land. I pooh-pooh such baldly paternalistic talk and then I consider the horrifying year French Jews have had and an anti-Muslim march in Germany happens. "There are stun grenades?" my son asked when we listened to the latter story on the radio on the way to school. "I didn't know you could set grenades to 'stun.'"

When it comes to brutality, we're learning all sorts of things these days. Thank goodness for satire, which has the imperfect capacity to be a universe all its own, with the best examples being the ones that instruct even as they present a repellent point of view. It is, after all, "designed to be misunderstood"...though the results should never prove to be fatal as they were for much of the staff of Charlie Hebdo. I'm heartened, that, though I cannot jump on the "Je Suis Charlie" bandwagon myself, its remaining staff members will continue to fart in our general direction.

Perhaps a breaking wind is, in the end, the only way to cut these blues.

Monday, January 05, 2015


Between raking and mowing the front and back yards so that the Swanky Haciendaland homeowners' association doesn't fine our lowly renters' asses, ferrying the kiddo back and forth to school, and teaching some religious school classes on the weekends, I've been doing a great deal of reading and contemplation of how in hell I ended up in Texas again.

These days, the Houston Chronicle is running a series of articles on "accidental Houstonians," people who have moved here for work 99.99 44/100% of the time and have discovered that the Lone Star State - and Houston in particular - is not what they thought. I recently finished Don Graham's Lone Star Literature anthology and found that the essay in there that resonated with me the most (after Molly Ivins' spot-on and still horrifically relevant "Texas Women: True Grit And All The Rest") was Stephen Harrigan's take on his Texas upbringing. I am an accidental Houstonian twice over, but I only now get what a strange burden Texas mythology was and is. I have no yearnings for my childhood, because it was a painful one, and I have no real clue of what the Native American-roaming-to-cattle driving-to-oil booming days were like as that was all long before my time and was mostly the subject of commemoratory exercises such as Houston's Livestock Show and Rodeo and the rah-rah "look at all the oil drilling wildcatting, technology, and corporate largesse that made modern Houston possible" halls of the Houston Museum of Natural Science (many of which have been redone in the past thirty years or so, thank goodness). To get the perspective of one such as myself into a Texas anthology of any sort is to acknowledge to a very great extent that the mythology on which Texas stands is a chimera, as worthless in many ways as the grass for which General Fannin fought (more on this in a minute). What's apparent in many literary circles is that tales of modern, urban Texas have been left by the wayside in the face of the myths.

My personal experience of these myths? Two anecdotes:

Although I attended a couple of Jewish day schools in Houston, we still took Texas history when I was in fourth grade and again in my seventh grade year, getting a great deal of the reasons why our streets were named for certain people, why six different flags were flown over this territory at one time or another in the past three hundred years or so, and why we were living in the largest of the continental U.S.s' states poured into our brains. For me, it was mostly in one ear and out the other except for a tale of one General Fannin, who inspired his troops to attack a group of helpless Mexicans by pointing out the packs on the Mexicans' burros and telling the soldiers to do it for the gold in the packs. Once the dust cleared and the Texans were triumphant, they opened the packs to find that the gold was green thanks to chlorophyll and fit only for the burros to nibble on as they made their way over the arid, occasionally grassless plains.

Way to go, Fannin.

(I wonder if our "keep your lawn raked and mowed or else" homeowner's association has heard of this battle?)


There exists, within my parents' family photos, a picture of one of the two times I dressed as a cowgirl.

The time in which I'm pictured finds me at ten with hair to my waist, jeans, a gingham shirt, a vest, and a ten-gallon hat and boots borrowed from my dad. No, we didn't share hat or shoe sizes; I had to continually readjust the hat the whole time it was on my head, and I stuffed socks into the toes of the boots so that I could wear them. I don't remember how the hat looked, but I do remember the boots. They were tan and brown, nicely tooled but very worn in and dusty, made to look like some serious shitkickers that would distinguish my New Yorker dad from all the other Texas expats. Yeah, my dad was a rancher all right: he trekked in and out of his laboratory at the Texas Medical Center each day, heading a pharmacology lab that farmed loads of running gels, possibly only picking up dust from the parking lot. He bought far more readily into the myths of Texas than I did. The funny thing was, I know I rode more horses than he ever had, at the Jewish summer camp run by the local JCC...

Once my costumed cowgirl day was done, the hat and the boots went back to my dad. I didn't want ones fitted for me. Hell, I didn't even want any hats. The shoes I wanted were usually fashionable sneakers - first KangaROOs, then Lottos, then Kaepas, then Reeboks (it really is no wonder there's a sneaker convention held in Houston each year) - and, one year, a pair of white ice skates to don at the Sharpstown and Galleria indoor rinks (my grandparents bought me white, mostly hardened plastic hockey skates, not the smooth, supple figure skating ones Dorothy Hamill wore - oh, well). The jeans to wear in junior high were made by Guess, not Wrangler or Levi's; the epitomy of denim fashion was a Guess jean jacket (I still have mine from eighth grade). And Western-style shirts? Please. Not in Houston.

And yet, I'd visit my grandparents on Long Island, be introduced as their granddaughter from Texas, be asked by nice friends and relatives in their Nu Yawk tawk if I had a Texas accent, say, "I don't have an accent" and get squeals and, "Oooh, DERE IT IS!"

Clearly, something about merely being in the Lone Star State had marked me.

Dan tells me when he thought of Houston, it was related to space travel and to AstroWorld. Regrettably, the latter is gone, its only relation to space travel at all that I can recall being the shuttle ride that could spin you upside down once it got enough momentum. The older, possibly more famous facility was Johnson Space Center, which I recall as being one of the more boring field trips ever in my grade school days. Before its visitor center finally had a much-needed makeover, it was a dusty museum of space suits through some recent ages and a lunar lander. I didn't gain access to Mission Control and to any astronaut training areas until middle school, when I got a special award from NASA at the citywide science fair. JSC made space travel seem like something that had happened ages ago and was unlikely to happen again in as spectacular a manner as the Apollo program, which may have been a consequence of Cold War policies that were not to be fully dismantled until well after my family and I had moved out of town. Whatever excitement there was about going into space really wasn't fully transmitted to me until well after my school days.

In other words, Houston in so many ways, is like anyplace else in America. And after having spent 25 years away, most of them in places that were not like most places in this country, here I am, trying to figure this city - indeed, the state of Texas - out again.

And not without prejudice.