Rob Hays

Rob tries to marry the seemingly incompatible archetypes of Southern gentleman and indie rock aficionado together, which basically means listening to everything Jeff Tweedy has ever recorded. He frequently monopolizes jukeboxes while holding a craft brew or snobby bourbon and pontificating about the Astros. Rob is a recovering salesman, and his wife Michelle is a much better violinist that she would tell you. Together, they enjoy alternating in the role of sous chef for one another, and when they're tired of that, they gorge themselves at one of the many taquerias Houston has to offer.

Keeping the Feast: Robert Farrar Capon’s The Supper of the Lamb

In light of Father Capon’s passing, we decided to pull this piece out of the archives for you to read again. 

 

While others may track the seasons by the changing color of foliage or the fluctuation of temperature and precipitation, I prefer a more culinary approach.  Like the seersucker suits that suddenly appear on Easter Sunday, barbeque season is one of the surest signs that winter has passed, spring has arrived, and the dog days of summer are just around the corner.  Winter feasts are epic, heavy affairs: the outsized poultry at Thanksgiving, the elaborately trussed roasts of Christmas, and of course the endless days of leftover ham sandwiches seemingly stretching the honey-baked goodness into February.

But summer brings lighter fare, consumed that same day with pleasant company – fajitas, hot dogs, and hamburgers, hand-held meals all.  The crowd migrates from the warm winter kitchen to the sunshine around the grill, cold bottles in place of warm mugs.  These are our feasts, our secular Eucharist, less holy but no less important, no less unifying.

As new-school urbanists, locavores, and aspiring foodies grow in number, we can sometimes fall into the age-old delusion that we came to this place on our own, when in fact we’re standing on the shoulders of those who went before us.  In the late sixties, as America’s Baby Boomers were leaving homes that had raised them on the frozen, processed foods of the post-war era, Space Age wonders of food technology, there were voices in the wilderness, calling for a return to real food and real feasting.  Just outside of New York City, Robert Farrar Capon became one of the most endearing proponents of real food.

Capon was ordained in the Episcopalian Church, and brought a wry, theological bent to the burgeoning movement.  In 1967, he published The Supper of the Lamb; part cookbook, part meditation on the theology of food, The Supper of the Lamb is ostensibly about one long recipe: “Lamb For Eight Persons Four Times.” Starting with one leg of lamb, four sizable meals are prepared, but the digressions along the way are far more nourishing than even four dinners.  Capon’s rabbit trails lead him variously to recommend spending an hour addressing an onion as a fellow object of Creation, with its own surprises and beauty, and to rant against false foods and kitchen shortcuts.

The crux of Capon’s argument in favor of real food that requires a real time investment is based on that same shared Creation. He believes – and argues – that the table is where we enjoy the richness of the Creator’s design, and share in His joy at having created things that are not simply nourishing, but good.  In discussing the use of wine in braising the lamb, he goes on an extended poetic lark to prove that wine exists not simply as the result of grapes being expertly wielded by professionals, but because a divine vintner delights to have yeast growing upon the surface of the grape, the hint to earthly creators to take the next step.  “God is an eccentric,” he concludes. “He has loves, not reasons.”

The sheer unnecessity of Creation is a recurring theme throughout The Supper of the Lamb.  It is in this unnecessary joy that Capon – and we – see the Creator’s hand, as well as the uncommon fellowship that we share with each other and with Creation as a whole.  As aspiring masters of our own corners of the world, we need the reminder that we are not the original, but the reflection. It is easy to make an idol out of our newfound loves, be they our careers or a good cut of grass-fed beef; by letting things be things, and God be God, our appreciation of both soars higher than they would have otherwise.

Once Capon’s digressions are through, a rather simple meal is complete.  I’ve prepared his primary leg of lamb recipe, as well as the subsequent plan for lamb stock that follows; it is surprisingly free of extra adornment, no chimichurri or bourbon glaze, just well-seasoned, flavorful meat, standing on its own, a feast that celebrates the rancher and butcher more than the chef.

But the joy of the feast in its fullness comes not in the kitchen, but around the table.  It’s there that we reach outside ourselves, our sheltered family units, and into the world at large, beckoning others in to share our joy and appreciation for Creation.  Capon says that just as our work in the kitchen reflects God’s good work as Creator, so also our fellowship at the dinner table can stand as a reflection of his meeting us at his table.  It is no accident that the sacraments are real things, a real meal with real people, where an equally real God shows real grace.  Our dining tables, then, can serve a world hungry for more than just fine food and wine.

It’s here that we begin to see that communities of faith who reach outside their walls can be as much about the culinary and hospitable as the apologetic. According to Bill Boyd, Pastor of All Saints Presbyterian Church in Austin, these meals ought to be approached with the following winsome agenda: “God has brought me to this table, with these people, for some reason.  And so I’m eager to learn, and I’m eager to speak the truth in love if He gives the opportunity.” To move from the realm of Jack Chick to Anthony Bourdain thus is not only admirable, but of the essence. May our feasts this summer run long into the night, seasoned with the flavors of grace and appreciation for the richness of creation.  Prosit!


Yeah, but what about the recipes?
Capon was definitely a product of his time and culture, and as a result many of the recipes do come across as anachronistic to a modern palette. Rooted in traditional northern European cooking, with a reliance on anchovies and gelatin that calls to mind your grandmother’s favorite cafeteria, the recipes can be hit or miss from a “would I actually cook this” standpoint. There are more Swedish meatballs and Norwegian winter cocktails than you can shake a plate of lutefisk at, to the point where you wonder if suburban New York is closer to Minnesota than you previously thought.

But the core elements are fantastic: the leg of lamb recipe is flavorful and tender, and the recipes for stock (beef, chicken, and fish) have become my go-to’s. Also included are archaic (and thus devoid of Rachael Ray shortcuts and time-savers) recipes for fundamental sauces like hollandaise and Colbert butter. The recipes for stretching the leg of lamb into four meals are also simple, and are one of the surprisingly international sections of the cookbook: lamb fried rice may not appear on many traditional Chinese menus, but the savory lamb balances the salty rice nicely.

More than anything, Capon is a purist. He gives no quarter to kitchen tools designed to make life easier, and will not settle for water when wine or stock will do. The bread and pastry recipes are intimidating to a boy raised on Pepperidge Farm and La Madeline; a strudel is something I never imagined spending the better part of a day preparing.

Like any cookbook, you probably won’t cook every recipe in The Supper of the Lamb, but the ones worth trying, as noted above, will not disappoint or frustrate. In general, as a cookbook, it’s a pretty nice meditation on food, and it’s a pretty good cookbook for a practical theology.

With Feeling

This piece was originally published in July 2011. 

The concert had been delayed for two months, and anticipation was high.  The last time the Avett Brothers had come to town was before the Rick Rubin-produced album, before the placement in Starbucks, before the performance at the Grammys.  Last time, they’d been at the outer stage of a second-rate venue while a metal show droned away on the main stage.  When their return finally seemed imminent, there was a last second snag.  Scott Avett was whisking away to attend the birth of his son.  Our town and several others on the tour schedule would have to wait.  Until tonight.

So when the lights dimmed, and the three members of the band crowded around a single microphone for a hushed rendition of the elegiac “Murder In The City”, a proverbial hush came over the crowd.  And when Scott made his way to the line about telling his sister that he loved her, we were surprised by his improvisation:

“Tell my son I love him…”

Photo by Jess Hodge.

Lumps appeared in six hundred throats instantly, mine included.  In some other context, this might’ve been a contrived tug at the heart strings, a crass attempt to gain the audience’s good graces.  But that’s not the Avetts’ game, and the fact that Scott’s sincerity struck such a powerful nerve is indicative of what we normally expect from musicians and the culture at large.

Earnestness takes us aback.  It elicits the question, are you for real?  When the indie tastemakers at Pitchfork reviewed the Avett Brothers most recent studio album, the incredulity was palpable. “(A)fter a while, you may begin to wish they’d get angry about something, or, god forbid, crack an ironic joke,” the review pleads.  It’s okay to express sincerity, but to actually be sincere is uncomfortable.

But music, as with all other art, is designed to elicit an emotional reaction.  It can be attractive and winsome, or abrasive and repulsive, and both have a rightful place as honest expressions of human emotion.  Yet we are often loath to approach the heights of real emotion in art, so we put on a protective cloak of irony, a distancing that allows us to laugh off any real sincerity.

“You didn’t really think I meant what I said, did you?”

Irony allows us an out in our personal lives.  It also provides an armor when we explore unfamiliar or dangerous territory.  Most of all, it maintains our cool.  Hidden behind sunglasses, covered with a smirk, and swaddled in a snarky t-shirt, we cruise by unaffected and uninfected.

Artists are by no means to shy from this.  In fact, after the optimism and idealism of the mid-twentieth century wore off, glossed over with disco and Saturday Night Live, then subsequently deconstructed by “alternative” rock and Fight Club, irony and detachment provide a unified theory of culture in the past forty years.

Even though there were voices calling in the wilderness during these times, harkening back to a purer spirit of expression, even some of these artists found it necessary to slather on a slick sheen.  The earnest Weezer of the Blue Album and Pinkerton becomes a YouTube joke soundtrack, and innumerable indie darling actors and actresses “sell out” by doing a Hollywood blockbuster between small-budget films.

I think Ryan Adams alternates albums based on how “cool” he’s feeling at that time.

Does it then follow that ironic entertainment and art are inherently inferior to their sincere counterparts?  Of course not.  It would be elitist and unrealistic to think so, and there have been many excellent examples to the contrary.  Nor is this tied to any particular genre of music or art.  There is as much true emotion in some rap music and Modernist architecture as there is in the most plaintive folk musician’s discography. But if you’re inclined to pursue beauty and excellence as ends unto themselves, a certain amount of concreteness is assumed and necessary.

As anyone who has been in love can tell you, moments arise when the emotions are too strong to contain, when they boil over seemingly of their own accord. Being audience to sincere art, even when we’re feeling cold and detached, spills some of that emotion onto us, and we can’t help but feel it.  We sing along.  We pause to take in the canvas.

Our hard shell finally cracks and we weep.

Their emotion becomes our emotion. Their soul speaks to our soul, and reminds us that we have one in the first place.   It’s healthy and it’s right.  It’s art at its most human.

The tide of cool often takes us away from this emotion.  We retreat into the cocoon, and take our cues from a culture that is aggressively indifferent, oxymoronic as that might seem.  To get too invested is to invite a label: Nerd.  Fangirl.  Dork.  Parrothead.

Okay, I even made myself shudder at that last one.

This isn’t a call to revisit the Good Old Days, when songs were honest, skirts were longer, and only Kennedys wore Wayfarers.

We must play the cultural hand we’re dealt.  But just as we can’t gorge on junk food without the occasional salad, we can’t deny the importance of allowing ourselves to feel through art, directly or vicariously.  Scott Avett could no sooner ignore the impact that the birth of his son had on his identity as a musician and on his music than he could stop breathing and expect to live.  So also we can feel free to let our context and our lives flow into the art we choose and the way that we experience it.

Just remember to bring a hanky.

My Neighbor, the Thief

In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the core question being answered is “who is my neighbor?” The answer that everyone is your neighbor is revealed through the hardship that the unnamed protagonist goes through after being waylaid by thieves. While the Samaritan is revealed to be the most faithful neighbor in the scenarios that follow, very little is said about the thieves. They are more plot device than characters, existing to put the rest of the parable in motion. But what happens when your neighbor is the thief?

My wife and I moved into our first house last year, in a neighborhood that could be described as transitional. Three blocks south is the desirable, thriving (expensive) neighborhood that’s held up as the pre-war ideal of neighborhood design, at least as far as our sprawl-obsessed city is concerned. But our neighborhood, while still featuring the desirable bungalows and old trees, is populated by tire shops, taquerias, and a thriving blue collar population.

Well, blue collar with the exception of our newest neighbors. In January, the handyman and his three sons moved out from next door. The new renters were a family reputed to be electricians, but who rarely seemed to leave the house. In fact, most of their business seemed to come to them, arriving at odd hours and only staying for minutes at a time.  Either they were the most efficient electricians in the world, or they were drug dealers. Otherwise, however, they’re ideal neighbors. Quiet, friendly and always socializing on their front porch.

But in a situation where there is considerable come-and-go, not every person who occupied the house held to the same good-natured neighborliness that the primary renters did. The Mayweather-Cotto fight brought a large crowd to their house, every punch that connected drawing cheers audible across the block. But hey, that was what we knew we were getting into here, along with a close proximity to downtown, and a fine doughnut shop within walking distance.

Soon after the boxing party, on a Saturday morning around 5 am, we heard banging noises in our backyard. Peering out the windows, we could see little in the predawn gloom, and returned to bed. Almost immediately, though, we heard breaking glass.

One of the drawbacks of our little house is the lack of a garage, so we park our cars in the driveway. As I peered out our bedroom window, I could see both cars on the pebbled asphalt, and a figure crouched in the shadows next to my car.

“Call 911,” I barked as I dragged on a pair of shorts and grabbed my trusty Maglite, wishing desperately that it were something with a gauge and a pump action.

I stepped out into the driveway quietly, my bare feet feeling concrete porch, dewy grass and asphalt in short succession.  The figure turned to look at me.

“You better run, bitch!” I shouted, the previous weeks of watching The Wire overflowing into false bravado.

Surprisingly, he did.

I dashed up the driveway to find two fence posts kicked out of place, and the window of my car punched in and scattered about. Turning left to peer through the hole in the fence, I watched the thief dart across our neighbor’s back yard and over the opposite fence. Gone.

A scant three minutes later, the familiar white and blue Crown Vics of the Houston Police department arrived, a pair of them.  My wife had told the dispatcher that the thief was headed north, and they came from that direction, searchlights sweeping the alleys, but no runners were found.

Our neighbors across the street, the daycare worker, the laborer and the aspiring seminarian came out onto their front porches. The house next door remained silent, playing possum as the police cars idled outside.

The officers took statements and eventually requested that the residents next door come outside. The other neighbors and I quickly identified the culprit as the one gentleman who was sweating profusely at 5:30am. The police took him into custody.

Just a week before the break-in, we had met a tall, tanned man with an easy drawl and a gigantic white pickup truck. He’d just purchased the house next door with the intent to renovate it, while still maintaining the classic lines underneath, and sell it. The day after the break-in, I called him. I told him about the robbery, about the four bicycles that the police found in the back yard, stolen from the other neighbors, and about the three foot tall marijuana plants that the bikes were propped against.

After my snitching, the next door house was quickly unoccupied, and it’s currently undergoing its extreme makeover. The ten days that the renters remained were tense, the waves from the front porch replace with averted stares and strained silence. I don’t know if they ever knew that I was the one who’d put that particular finishing touch in motion, but I felt the sting of the implication every time I pulled into the driveway.

Today, our block is unquestionably safe– and calmer that it was before. The experience brought us closer to our neighbors, and knit us into the community even more. It’s our tiny battle scar in a not-quite-rough neighborhood.

But I’m still troubled. The renters next door were neighbors, too. They lost their place to live through the foolish actions of one member of their circle. Yet here I am, in the house that I own, swelling with pride for having gotten them evicted. Was I loving my neighbor or not?

I can certainly justify myself by pointing to the justice done, a criminal rightly punished by the proper authorities. The likely drug dealers expelled from their haven (no doubt to make another neighborhood feel the unease that we did).

I even crow about the progress, the sunny new bungalow that will soon replace the decrepit dump next door, and the attendant rise in my own property value. From all sides, it feels like I’ve done rather well. The $200 for a new car window is a small price to pay, right?

The pull inward that I feel, the guilt and confusion about how I love my neighbors even when they’re the thieves who beset me on my life’s road to Jericho is a reminder, a reminder that thieves are neighbors, too, who need grace and friendship as much as I do. Who are in community with us all. I wish I’d bandaged his wounds and helped him, but that’s not how it played out. Instead, bandaging the wounds of our whole neighborhood meant helping to eliminate a toxin from within.

My attempts to reconcile the tension between justice and grace, the personal good versus the community’s peace aren’t leading me anywhere but further down a rabbit hole, but I suppose until all our wounds are bound and salved, we’ll always live in this tension. And sometimes, next door to it.

Concerning Texploitation

They’re coming. On heels. In boots. Driving pickups and Bentleys. Descending from their manicured lawns and their havens of new money opulence, they’re coming. The Texans are coming. Fortunately, they’re only coming as far as the small screen.

In case you’re unaware, or have been occupied with partaking of more valuable forms of entertainment, Texans are taking a prominent place in a number of new television shows. Not since the post-Burt Reynolds heyday of Southern-themed schlock in the early 80’s has the Lone Star State received such a scenery-chewing starring role. In fact, it’s only fitting that Dallas, the show that stands as the gold standard of this kind of “Texploitation,” is receiving a revival.

GCB star Kristen Chenoweth sporting a cowboy hat.

The other figurehead of this dubious renaissance is GCB, a coy abbreviation for the book that inspired the ABC series: Good Christian Bitches. Well. Any thoughts that this would be a successor to the much loved Friday Night Lights are pretty much out the window already. All that’s left is a surgically-enhanced soap opera with accents of uneven quality.

Now, it’s not my intent to criticize GCB for its lack of realism with regard to Texas, nor is it necessary to take it to task for its portrayal of Christianity. Certainly others more shrill than I can take up these tasks. Entertainment must be encountered on the terms under which it presents itself. GCB ain’t art, and it barely qualifies as satire. Satire creates an outsized reality to expose a deeper truth; GCB creates an outsized reality in order to use up every cent of the set design and costuming budgets.

As with any tale of a bizarre foreign land, the protagonist of GCB is an outsider through whom we meet the denizens of a posh Dallas-area community. The reasons for which we are supposed to consider Amanda Vaughn (played by Leslie Bibb) the protagonist are vague; I guess because she’s the first woman we see in the Texas scenes is intended to suffice. Regardless, once her heels hit the pavement, the schlock amps up.

The rules of schlock are simple: everything that can be bigger should be. Houses.  Accents. Personalities. Boobs. It is here that we encounter the embodiment of the title in the form of Kristen Chenoweth’s Carlene Cockburn. Sporting skin a shade of burnt orange that only a University of Texas alum could appreciate, Carlene seethes at the return of Amanda and sets up the central drama of the series.

From here on out, everything follows beats familiar to any fan of Desperate Housewives. Which ultimately raises the question, how many portrayals of overblown domestic cattiness do we really need? But it’s not here that GCB fails; it fails because it’s not schlocky enough.

Sure, the hair is big, the sexuality is both repressed and flaunted, and the vowels are long, but the heart’s not in it. Chenoweth, beloved for her work on Broadway, obviously is trying hard as the queen bitch in a church choir robe, but it falls flat. Maybe it’s because she’s from Oklahoma. That’s just bringing a knife to a gunfight.

All the iconography of Texas is well-represented and deployed to garish effect. Western shirts have rhinestones on rhinestones, and Nieman Marcus is shown to be as central to life as Sunday School. Everyone has a ranch, with a hat and belt buckle to match. Hill Country wines and kolaches both get shout-outs.

But other attempts to paint the canvas in Lone Star shades fall flat. For starters, I can neither confirm nor deny that I shouted an expletive at the screen when a character offered Amanda a glass of sweet tea. Dallas may be the tacky aunt of Texas cities, but she’s not Atlanta. We drink our tea bitter to offset the heat of our enchiladas, you ABC cretins.

The hyper-Christianity shown doesn’t quite land right either. It’s not that there isn’t plenty of ripe material in Texas. From the unnatural hair colors at the Trinity Broadcasting Network’s studios in Irving, to the shouting legalists of any number of pulpits, the characters are there for the picking. But the Christians in the show demonstrate neither “name it and claim it” optimism or judgmental piety. They have obscure Bible verses at the ready for the most exact circumstances, showing more of a willingness to Google through the Psalms than a recognizable type of Christian, even the kinds that would make good villains.

I’m now dangerously close to the nitpicking that I promised I wouldn’t do. Ultimately, the failure of GCB isn’t that it caricatures Texas out of recognizability, it’s that it distorts a reality that doesn’t exist. It’s a parody of London with the Eiffel Tower in the background. Change the accents and a handful of geographical references, and the show could function perfectly in Miami or Beverly Hills. Go strong with the parody, or go home and change your Tony Lama’s.

GCB will never be mistaken for good television. The writing is lazy and the characters aren’t that interesting. This alone doesn’t damn it, though. Plenty of shows have the ability to rise to the level of guilty pleasure through exactly these weaknesses. But the real failure is that it doesn’t seem to be having fun in the process. By putting the viewer on the rooting side of Amanda, all the Texans are either attackers or uneasy allies. The narrative goal then becomes a decisive victory over the sanctimonious forces of evil, not the exploration of a well-conceived fictional world. Maybe the new Dallas will at least be fun.

Texploitation can be done well. The best example is the recently departed King of the Hill. Mike Judge’s animated comedy mined every corner of the Texas experience for laughs and created memorable characters along the way. But its true triumph was that, beyond the loads of humor it delivered, it was recognizably Texan. I daresay that everyone who has spent any time down here knows a Hank Hill or a Dale Gribble. The humor is more like the easy laughter that comes from looking through embarrassing old photos of yourself, and less like poking fun at the monkeys at the zoo.

So I’ll deign to forgive GCB their sweet tea transgression, if only they’ll find some fun in their Texan trappings. A cowboy hat isn’t funny because it’s a cowboy hat; it’s funny because of what’s going on in the fat head underneath it. Using regional signifiers for humor can be a strangely effective way of seeing ourselves in other people. If GCB can find that humor, they’ll at least live up to the “G” in their acronym.

 

Music from Life

We are often told that our sense of smell is the means of perception most closely associated with memory. For instance, for me, “childhood” smells like the hot vinyl upholstery of a 1980 Caprice, Ivory soap, and slightly stale Cheerios. “Fall” evokes the smell of burning leaves, and “college” smells like a particularly over-sweetened latte. You (almost literally) get the picture.

Lately, however, I’ve noticed how many of my memories have a soundtrack. Not just a soundtrack of ambient sounds, or like a montage in a film, but particular songs have the ability to transport me back to a specific time and place, and open a window into who I was at that moment.

This phenomenon came to my attention recently when I reached into the deeper recesses of my music collection for some new commuting music. My twenty minute sojourn to my office is my last slice of free mental energy before the drudgery of the workday, and the return trip is my decompression chamber before a return to real life. But as soon as I slipped the disc for the Snatch movie soundtrack into my stereo, the drive, and the route suddenly changed.

Photo by Maggie Stein

I was transported to southern California, 2006. I was now behind the wheel of a gleaming red Dodge Magnum station wagon, careening down the 101 at a speed that almost matched the highway’s number. It was nearly midnight as I returned to my hotel in Anaheim, and my adrenaline was pumping along with the glitchy, thundering techno of the soundtrack. It’s impossible to drive slowly to this music.

I’d left Santa Barbara an hour before, leaving behind my high school crush and her recently minted fiancée. She and I had shared a celebratory dinner near her college on my expense account, and she’d discussed wedding plans and how much she enjoyed his family. I couldn’t have been happier for her; time since high school had proven our fundamental incompatibility, so there were no lingering hard feelings.

My expense account had also purchased the Snatch soundtrack, which accompanied me around the greater Los Angeles area that week. At the time, I was working in sales, and when I travelled (which was often) I had a habit of driving straight from the rental car pickup location to the closest place to purchase music that I could find. Subsequently, every trip brought home a new album along with a new batch of sales.

So as I listened to Massive Attack’s “Angel”, I almost missed the exit for my office, and I could well have continued on Interstate 10 all the way back to the City of Angels. Brought back to reality, I considered the differences between my 2011 and 2006 selves.  No longer selling, no longer travelling for business, of course, but more subtle differences, too. The momentum that sent me hurtling back to my hotel in Anaheim, and bouncing like a pinball between coasts and relationships and jobs has slowed considerably, too. But the inspiration of the bass and drums still makes it difficult to maintain the speed limit.

I began to consider the other albums accumulated in my travels, too. How The Zuton’s “Who Killed The Zutons?” takes me back to the piney woods outside Jacksonville, the day after the overwhelmed north Florida burgh had hosted its only Super Bowl. I arrived to a shell-shocked crowd of morose Eagles fans and rejoicing Patriots fans (who were just approaching their zenith of obnoxiousness), had one early morning meeting, and had to waste the rest of the day until my flight departed.

I saw Jacksonville from one city limit sign to the other, with the blaring clarinet and nasal harmony of The Zutons keeping me on edge. I almost accidentally drove into Georgia as the pines grew so close together that I lost track of time. I briefly panicked, remembering the somber rental car clerk who’d asked me accusingly if I planned on driving out of state. I found the first exit I could, and high tailed it back to the airport.

Another album was acquired when I became stranded in the smallish east Texas town of Tyler. My boss and I had flown up early in the morning for a nine o’clock meeting, which had wrapped quickly enough for us to return to the airport for the morning’s only flight back to Houston. There was only one standby seat available, and I certainly couldn’t pull rank in this situation. I fished the car keys out of the return box, and made my way over to the sad little shopping mall. I overpayed for The White Stripes’ “White Blood Cells” at Sam Goody, and went bombing down backroads until my afternoon departure, Jack White’s snarling guitar and petulant voice giving expression to my frustration.

In Tampa, Outkast’s “Speakerboxx/Love Below” double CD provided the much-needed running time after I failed to realize how far apart Tampa and its sister St. Petersburg are, and how setting appointments on the same day on both sides of the bay bridge that separates them is probably not a great idea.

All these memories are relics of a time in my life typified by searching, wandering, and a lack of solid grounding. Hearing these songs now is not always pleasantly nostalgic; regret buzzes faintly in the background, too. But reminders of these times are healthy. They remind me of the grace that brought me to where I am now. They recall immaturity, but also growth and discovery, both of musical and life varieties.

So take this challenge: dig into your box of CDs, or sort your iTunes library by date added, find the oldest purchases, and reflect as you listen to them. Who were you when you bought this music? (Is it old enough that you actually got it on Napster?) What does the music itself say about you at that time? Lord knows, the percentage of my music catalog occupied by metal and emo has dropped precipitously. Where does the music take you?  Back to junior high or college? Prom or your first job? I could write a whole thesis on the impact Snoop Doggy Dogg’s “Doggystyle” had on my first high school job, but I’ll spare you, gentle reader.

A well-selected soundtrack can elevate a meager narrative, ho-hum acting, or clunky dialogue in our favorite shows and movies. Our soundtracks are more complex, and not always as flattering, but they tell a story in tones that are just as vivid.  Listen closely.

 

The Unexpected Return

Around the third hour, I’d had enough. I lurched into a seated position, and fumbled through the covers to find my phone. I brought up my wife’s number, but hesitated before calling. She was at a graduation party for an old family friend. Best not to interrupt like that. Even with this. I texted her instead.

“Come home. I think I need to go to the hospital.”

When she got home, pale and distraught, I was curled up in a ball.

“Baby, you should have called. I would’ve left sooner.”

I grunted and shuffled into the kitchen to drain one of the bottles of Gatorade she’d brought for me. Red liquid was dripping off my beard when Michelle caught my gaze.

“Is it your Crohn’s?”

I nodded. As much as I wanted to be able to answer in the negative, I knew better. Knew my body. Knew these feelings. I’d spent those three hours trying to find a rationalization that didn’t involve that dreaded  “C” word.

Under other circumstances, I would’ve elected to go to a quick emergency clinic instead. You’d get in faster, get some IV fluids, and be on your way. But this was different. Last time my guts had been in open revolt like this . . . well, I didn’t want to think about that. So to the regular ER we went, since being admitted to the full hospital was a very real possibility.

Michelle drove wildly there. Drove like me. That made me smile. She propped me up as I shambled into the ER waiting room.

Rarely are rooms so appropriately named.

I glanced around the room. Found the location of the bathroom. This would be important information.

I took stock of my fellow waiters. A teenaged boy was cradling his wrist. An older woman was in a hospital wheelchair pushed by her dutiful husband. An obese middle-aged woman was quietly moaning.

A Richard Gere movie was playing on TV. Everyone and no one was watching it. I just remember a scene where a beautiful silver classic Mercedes, piloted by Gere, crashed spectacularly, tumbling end over end. Such a waste of a great car.

The troubled look on Michelle’s face broke my heart. When she and I first met, six years ago, I was barely out of the woods from my first bout with Crohn’s Disease. I’d spent the previous three years learning about this nasty disease, an ulceration of the small intestine that brings with it stabbing abdominal pains, drastic weight loss, and crushing fatigue. But she’d never seen me like that until now.

I’d told her about it, of course. She’d been there when greasy food would trouble me, but it was never anything an antacid and some water couldn’t fix. She knew that I’d gotten my tattoo after I regained the forty pounds that Crohn’s had robbed from my already slight frame.

But those were just stories. This was pain, excruciating pain. Doubling me over in the hard chairs in the waiting room. Pain only interrupted when a sudden flash sent me scrambling to that restroom.

I was so weak. So thirsty. But not hungry. I felt like I’d never be hungry again.

When the diagnosis first came, I’d had to adjust to a New Normal. Certain aspects of my lifestyle had to change, certain symptoms became commonplace. As I slowly recovered, that Normal receded, and I was quite nearly back to the Old Normal. This pain announced the sudden return of the New Normal.

Hello, cramping, my old friend.

Michelle didn’t know the New Normal, and I’d always hoped she never would. Funny what one bad plate of paella will do to you.

I never got to finish the Richard Gere movie. I can only assume he squinted a lot, and then got either his comeuppance or redemption.

The questions about my medical history hit a hitch. My old gastroenterologist had moved his practice to Dallas, and I hadn’t seen him in five years. Then again, even if he’d still been in Houston, I wouldn’t have seen him those five years anyway. He was a nice enough guy, but I just didn’t like going to any doctor whose giveaway ballpoint pens bore the logos of pre-colonoscopy enemas.

They hooked me up to an IV. Saline to rehydrate, and an anti-spasmodic drug to calm the tremors. My back muscles had started to spasm as well; I don’t know if it was that damned uncomfortable chair in the waiting room that did it, or some sympathetic show of solidarity for my intestines, but at least it distracted from the original pain somewhat.

My father-in-law arrived, a Target bag in hand. He’d heard how cold it was in the exam room, and had brought me some tube socks.

Michelle explained that I was being a trooper, but that it still hurt a lot. I managed a wan smile to show that all was well, in spite of every evidence to the contrary. She’d coordinated the response with her usual aplomb, handling the hospital paperwork and phone calls to friends and family deftly.

Slowly, the drugs began to work. The physician’s assistant who’d been looking after me came in to announce that they wouldn’t need to keep me overnight. She took the liberty of scheduling an appointment with a new gastroenterologist for me.

Oh, goody. That only means one thing, really. Colonoscopy.

Colonoscopies are one of those medical procedures endlessly mined for cheap humor. And I won’t protest that the idea of sending a gigantic tube up your butt isn’t funny. But what those of us who’ve actually had one can tell you is that the real humor (and real discomfort) comes the night before, when you are entrusted to clean out your colon as surely and completely as possible. We’re talking squeaky clean. Like “no dust on the white gloves” clean. I’ll leave it to your imagination to figure out how this is accomplished.

Other than that, they’re a walk in the park.

They gave me my discharge papers, and we returned to the waiting room to pay. By this time, my parents had arrived, tagging in for Michelle’s folks. My dad was wearing the pained expression that he only has when my Crohn’s is active.

I must really look bad.

We drove home silently. I hate being a passenger. We ascended the stairs to our apartment, and I crawled back into the bed where I’d begun the day. I’d first thought it was just some nasty food poisoning, but by the time I’d sent Michelle that text, I knew better. She rubbed my tummy until I fell asleep.

For the next several days, I took the prescribed anti-inflammatories and ate bland food. I kept a fitful eye on the calendar.

It had been my plan to surprise Michelle with a trip to Austin to celebrate the end of her busy season at work. The hotel was booked, and so was the rental car. But the trip was now just days away, a scant six days since my hospital trip.

It’s a running joke in my family that any post-vacation discussion inevitably gravitates toward food. It’s not a vacation unless we partake in the culinary pride of the place we’re visiting. The richer, spicier, and more gravy-soaked, the better. I’d already made reservations at one of the most heralded restaurants Austin had to offer in anticipation of continuing this tradition.

Yet with four days to go before the trip, the most adventuresome food I’d tackled was chicken salad. With celery. A veritable food orgy, no doubt. Maybe we could find a food truck that specialized in bland food.

Friday, the day of our departure for Austin, I had my first appointment with my new doctor. I like him. He’s blunt and slightly sarcastic. As expected, he ordered a colonoscopy for me. He gave me a couple of prescriptions and an encouragement to listen to my body, to stay attuned to the burps and burbles along my digestive tract.

I picked up the rental car, gleaming orange with a black racing stripe and a cocky V8. The engine rumbled in a way not entirely unlike how my stomach had. We navigated westward.

As I drove, we listened to ZZ Top and I found myself considering the situation. When I was first diagnosed, my ability to have a normal life thereafter was very much up for debate. Handicapped parking tags were discussed. During several particularly intense weeks, I moved back in with my parents. I tried various diets: dairy-free, gluten-free, yeast-free, joy-free.

Michelle had never seen this part of my life. It was my most guarded secret. Because by the time we met, the thrill was back. I was able to enjoy almost any food, and my affection for beer had become the only reliable way to restore my lost weight. I didn’t like talking about it any more than I liked talking about my first bad job after college. It cut into the image I had created for myself.

Now that image was cracking, and I began to realize that everything I’d built up in the healthy years was a gift God might now be withdrawing. He’d kept the receipt, apparently.

I knew better than to finish lunch. Franklin BBQ may be considered the best barbeque in Texas, but I didn’t need to gorge myself in order to see if Bon Appetit magazine was right. A few bits of sublime brisket with a sparing dip in the espresso-vinegar sauce was all it took to render judgment. The critics were right.

As I reached into my pocket for the car keys, I found the roll of antacids instead, and popped one in my mouth. I could feel it waging war against the acid that my stomach had marshaled to take on the brisket.

The big challenge lay ahead. The sushi restaurant I’d booked in advance was known for its powerful flavors. California rolls and green tea, this wasn’t. I popped a second antacid for good measure and said a little prayer.

Austin is such a casual city. After spending an embarrassing amount of time fussing with my date night attire, we arrived to find that half the patrons were in sandals, despite the fine dining atmosphere. Oh, well.

It was during the second course that it hit me.

I was fine.

No rumbling. No burning. Just the growing fullness brought on by a good meal and good wine.

“This is amazing,” I said, gesturing at my plate.

“I know!” Michelle gushed. “The hamachi is so light and perfect.”

“No, this.”

I reached for her hand.

“I feel fine. Better than fine. I feel great.”

I could feel my eyes welling up.

“This is grace.”

Her eyes began to shine in the candlelight, too.

“I don’t deserve this.”

“Yes, you do.”

“No, I don’t. And that’s what’s so amazing. I’m so glad that you’re part of this, and not what it could have been.”

Before May, when I was still trying to forget that the brokenness of this world had a special little place right where my small and large intestines meet, I would’ve enjoyed that hamachi quite a bit. But as that brokenness was being repaired, I was reminded that my whole life is an ache being soothed. I can’t hide that ache from my wife any more than I could have hoped to hide the effects of my illness from her for the next sixty years. There is grace for all kinds of broke-down things, even (and especially) graces that restore to us our joys when we least expect it.

 

photo by:

Front Porch, Back Porch

We proved our thesis quite by accident.  After a long day of hunting for our first house, we decided to drive by a couple of the homes we’d seen earlier in the day for another look.  As we drove up to the red house, I slowed the car to a crawl as my wife and I discussed the pros and cons, and renovations both possible and necessary.   That’s when we saw them.  I daresay they saw us first.  The owners of the house were on their front porch, viewing us suspiciously as we criticized their home from inside my car.  Our eyes met for a brief moment.  There came to my face a sudden blush, self-conscious for no particular reason.  Well, maybe not no reason: their house had been filthy inside.  I sped away as we continued our conversation.

As idyllic as the Real Simple-ready front porches may seem, they can become messy places, bringing our private lives into public view.

We’ve been searching for a house for a couple of months now.  Our geographical preferences and financial limits have focused our search to two primary neighborhoods.  The difference between the two neighborhoods is striking, though the houses in both are of similar size and luxury.  But the neighborhood in which we currently rent and would most like to stay has one feature that makes it more desirable to us: front porches.

The front porches of the Houston Heights are the key to its character as a neighborhood.  In a sprawling metropolis like Houston, which grew primarily in the latter half of the 20th century, pre-war neighborhoods like The Heights are a rarity.  They harken back to the grubby, tough city that grew up around a muddy bayou and a convenient port, before Houston made the leap from oil-rich to oil-wealthy.  These homes date to between 1910 and the early 1940’s, when air conditioning was advertised instead of expected, and their primary social spaces are those front porches.

It is here that I must admit that far more articulate, academically respectable examinations of the social language of front porches have already been made, most notably by Richard H. Thomas.  There even exists a conservative/libertarian blog based on a longing for lost porch culture called Front Porch Republic.  But I’m not trying to write a doctoral thesis or start a political movement.  I just want a house that my wife and I can call a home.

Certainly we could find a home in Oak Forest.  This post-war neighborhood is separated from the Heights by that most post-war of all talismans, an interstate highway.  The houses are adorable little ranches that lend themselves well to a funky Mid-Century Modern decorating language, and they sit on expansive lots.  More accurately, though, they sit further back on those lots.  And the front porches are small or non-existent, lost in favor of covered patios attached to the back of the house.

It’s here that we find ourselves with a decision to make.  The houses in the mid-century neighborhood are more affordable, and generally larger, making it possible for us to stay in our first house for longer.  The neighborhood itself has been a steady middle class enclave for its whole fifty-plus years of existence, and is only getting more valuable as time progresses and people retreat back from the suburbs to central neighborhoods.  Buying there would be a safe, smart decision.

However, our desire for a front porch is threatening to overrule safe, smart thinking.  We want to see our neighbors, and be seen by them.  Urban life can easily become isolating, and even the most close-knit communities rely on the active participation of their members.  So we want to consciously be part of the neighborhood in which we live, and work for its peace and prosperity.  In the parts of the Heights that we can afford, that might mean putting up with guys across the street who have a minivan bench seat on their front porch, and more than putting up with them: befriending them, being their neighbors.

As idyllic as the Real Simple-ready front porches may seem, they can become messy places, bringing our private lives into public view.  Many of these pre-war houses have a blessing of street-facing windows, and smaller front yards that put the living room uncomfortably close to the sidewalk.  Are we willing to be vulnerable like that?

In the post-war neighborhood, our neighbors would have to employ a telescope to peer into our dining room.  In fact, many of the living areas themselves migrate with the porch to the rear of the house.   These were homes built not only for the comfort of air conditioning, but for the entertainment of the television, yet another inward-facing social innovation.  When the neighbors are invited over, we congregate around the ‘tube or the back patio, taking in the grandeur of the back fence.

It’s also been pointed out that the post-war housing boom was automobile-centric, typified by suburbs within a reasonable driving distance of the business centers of town.  This, too, is reflected in our decision making: right now, I’m sitting at a coffee shop a scant two and a half blocks from our home, from which I can walk home.  The front porch houses we are looking at are also walking-friendly, with pubs, taquerias, and a particularly heavenly doughnut shop all within a comfortable distance.

Which isn’t to say that there aren’t fun, local places near the other neighborhood, but they’d all require hopping in the car and winding past blocks of houses to get to the main drag where they’re found.  The other infrastructure and amenities are considerably better, though: the grocery stores are newer and nicer, the bank branch more convenient, and so on.  The front porch neighborhood is decidedly lacking in these luxuries.

What would you do?   Follow your heart or your checkbook?  God willing, this will be the house to which we bring home our first child at some point.   It’s where we’ll entertain friends and neighbors.  Many meals will be cooked, shared, and enjoyed there.  But we don’t want to pay such a steep premium that those meals mostly consist of pork and beans.  And we have several friends who live in the post-war neighborhood and love it.  It’s quiet and kid-friendly, they tell us.

But we want the front porch.  We want to see what’s happening on our street. We want to welcome our neighbors to join us on the porch for a pitcher of margaritas or a cup of hot tea.  We want to hear the gossip, the nattering pulse of the community.  We want to recognize the kids who ride their bikes down the street after school.  We want to pay the premium for this, if the right house comes around.  And we want to see the grey Mini Cooper that’s rolling by with two quizzical heads eyeing our house.  Then we’ll wave.

In Defense of Easter Suits

The US Senate holds a Seersucker Thursday in June, where the participants dress in traditionally Southern clothing.

These are dark days, friends.  The mercury screams past 80 degrees, cackling as it goes, and we are without respite.   How long, oh Lord, must we leave our lightweight fabrics in the closet?

I’ve been thinking a lot about the article that Stephanie Gehring wrote here about dressing for Lent.  It was challenging to examine my pride and ego, and consider what it would mean to pare down my wardrobe to a few essentials during the Lenten season.  But it also reminded me that, like any other Lenten fast, it comes to a celebratory end on Easter Sunday.  What then?  If the purpose of the “clothing fast” was to focus on God’s provision, on living simply and humbly, what is the proper Easter response?

I grew up in Texas, which is a Southern state and not at the same time.  The Deep South is as different from Houston as it is from Philadelphia in a lot of ways.  The genteel aspects, in particular, are lost on us.  But by association with Southern transplants to Houston, I’ve come to respect and enjoy the tradition of seasonal dressing rules, and I think that it’s one tradition that can be easily bent to serve a liturgical purpose.

Briefly, the rule states that light colors like white and airy fabrics like seersucker are only to be worn between Easter and Labor Day.  There are exceptions and blatant rulebreakers enough to complicate the rule and make this into an Emily Post, er, post, but for the sake of this argument, let’s focus on the application to Easter.

Winter and fall clothes are heavy by necessity and darker in hue by tradition. So when the oceans of grays and browns give way to the sudden sea of light blue striped seersucker, pastel ties, white shoes and linen dresses on Easter Sunday, it’s like the coming of Spring itself, celebrating new life with a vibrant and (yes) ostentatious display.

Christians believe that the Lord provides his people with the clothes on their back, and that He clothed Himself in humility, but also adorned the fields with beauty.  When the spring flowers burst forth from the dark of winter, it’s a chorus of creation repeating the resurrection once again.  If one can wear his resurrection literally on his sleeves, not for pride or peacocking, for one Sunday or several, he can be a pale comparison of those spring fields.

Now if Easter would just get here a little sooner, because I’m burning up here, and my seersucker suit is looking mighty appealing.

Big Laughs, Cheap Grace

The family gathers at the home of the patriarch.  Bitterness is in the air.  The son-in-law is wounded.  He’s suffered another in a series of emotional and physical assaults from the patriarch.  The patriarch is firm; the assault was simply the younger man’s fault, he insists.  His daughter finally coaxes an eye-rolling apology from him.  The peace is uneasy, and will be broken again soon.  Probably next week at 9pm Eastern/8pm Central.

I really wanted to like Modern Family.  The humor was right in my wheelhouse.  The acting and writing were top notch, justly deserving of the awards presented them.  I guffawed and cringed as the Pritchett family collided with one another, but after about six or seven episodes, I was feeling something missing.  Something wasn’t satisfying about the show.

The cast of Modern Family.

It wasn’t the humor.  The setups and payoffs and the jokes in between had far more hits than misses, especially when compared to your average comedy that isn’t on NBC’s Thursday schedule.  It wasn’t the content.  I realized that the inclusion of issues of race, class, and sexuality were designed to push the conservative limits of what a family comedy could be, and yet the show steadfastly avoided sensationalism.

During a walk to our local coffee shop, my wife and I worked to unpack our dissatisfaction.  We thought about the other comedies we loved, and found they were so closely aligned with Modern Family that they show up in the recommended shows navigation bar on Hulu.  We moved on to the dramas that we loved, too.  And then we began to talk about stories as a whole.  That’s when we found it.

It was the conclusions; at the end of each episode, the family would overcome the hijinks that came before to affirm that they were, after all, one big family.  Heartwarming, right?  But as we thought more about it, we realized that these codas came without any sacrifice.  If a character, like the patriarch Jay in the episode described above, had wronged another character, the reconciliation was cheap.  Unwilling to change or compromise after semi-deliberately flying a model airplane into his son-in-law’s face, it’s only when he’s backed into a corner by the rest of the family that he apologizes.

If this were real life, this wouldn’t be quite so funny.  And before this comes off as moralistic finger-waving, I’ll be the first to admit that it was funny as hell.  But it’s weak.  It’s empty.  And it’s symptomatic of a deeper contrast in the narrative goals we see around us.

Comedy is about resolving conflict, just as drama is.  The roads that each genre takes are well-worn, but they want to end up in the same place, with resolution.  Whether it’s the Bluth family trying to find money in the banana stand or Andy escaping Shawshank, the narrative is only resolved when the problem is solved.

Both comedy and drama are drawn to flawed heroes, who essentially stack the deck against the viewer, making us sometimes wonder how we’re rooting for this messed up individual to triumph.  An unmarred protagonist is boring, too predictable.  Of course Batman is going to beat the mugger: he’s freaking Batman.  It’s only when he’s a tortured hero faced with a villain moving like a force of nature that the narrative really grabs us.

So as the narrative moves toward the conclusion, the resolution we crave must come at a cost.  A character must change or die (or at least continue to suffer perpetual comic indignities), and ultimately, everything comes to a head.  Jack Donaghy humiliates himself on Liz Lemon’s behalf.  The couple in every romantic comedy ever overcomes their confusion and turns to one another, confessing their previous wrong-headedness.  In a word: redemption.

There it was.  We were missing the redemption.  Reconciliation without change isn’t peace, it’s a truce.  We crave narratives that center around redemption, particularly if we ourselves have been redeemed.  It wasn’t about the gay couple or the meanness without consequence.  It was that no one felt the need to change, to sacrifice for one another.  And the narrative let them have their cake and eat it too.

Narratives need not reach a point of conversion to exhibit a redemptive-driven narrative.  Consider The Wire: this chronicle of both sides of the drug trade in urban Baltimore was relentless, almost cruelly dark.  Beloved characters died, seemingly without reason.  There was no happy ending.  Yet the very bleakness was the message: this was creation, groaning for redemption and not getting it.

Nor do the characters need to be motivated by admirable motives.  Michael Bluth, the only competent member of the selfish, dunderheaded Bluth family, kept the family together primarily so that he could eventually jettison them all collectively and move on with his life without them.  Yet he (and the other Bluths) made many sacrifices for one another and for the good of the family.

Ultimately, the central narrative that replaces redemption on Modern Family is a sort of wan acceptance, where everyone is happiest when no one has to change, but can still bear to be around each other anyway.  It’s going along to get along, elevated to an ethos.  But tolerance as a narrative driver fails.  It’s great for a serialized narrative like a tv show precisely because its resolution is short-lived, allowing the conflict that had simmered to boil again just seven days later, but it’s not real or relatable.  The characters may be familiar, but real people strive for real compromise or at least resort to real abandonment.

I gave up watching after that conversation with my wife.  We don’t know any families like that. Even the most messed-up families we know, the ones torn apart and yet inexplicably together, don’t wound each other deeply, genuinely dislike one another, and still think that they can be a happy family without having to change any of these behaviors or attitudes, except for the briefest of moments.

Stories are engaging because we see ourselves in them.  We love office comedies because we work with those people.  We watch white-knuckle cop thrillers because we hope our own police force were that sharp (and good-looking).  But a family who is spiteful and bitter for twenty-nine minutes and unified for thirty seconds isn’t anything we’ve ever seen.

The fact that the fictional family of Modern Family does get along is admirable.  They are definitely committed to each other.  The individual family units and couples do love each other, and that is commendable.  But there is no inter-family love to go along with the intra-family love.  Just as love without commitment could rightly be classified as infatuation or less, commitment without love is as emotionally compelling as a cell phone contract.  Commitment and love together provide stories that reach our souls, not just our funny bones.

The Last Show

The last show ended with the band literally dismantling the stage, and standing on each other’s shoulders.  The drum kit was in its component pieces, passed around the stage, through numerous sweaty hands.  The noise was thunderous.  The crowd was cacophonous.  And then the whole thing was over.  The show.  The band.  The dream.

There were only a few hundred people at that final show, played on the sprawling back patio of a slightly hippie coffee shop in a Texas college town.  The band had played bigger shows, but their headlining gigs usually topped out around that number.  Among the less conservative students at the university, they were a phenomenon, a slice of Austin in their Baptist burg, a real live rock band with professional CDs and everything.

The local shows were better attended than any others.  The fans sang the harmonies while the singer flailed and the guitars shrieked.  They knew these songs so well, were so tight by the eighth year of their existence, that they could’ve played them in their sleep.  The song with the hooky, guitar-driven chorus was getting long in the tooth in the band’s mind, and they rarely played it any more, but it drew the biggest crowd reaction when they did.

You don’t know what band I’m talking about, but you’ve heard this band.  Well, maybe not this band, but one like it.  Maybe they were from your hometown.  Maybe you got into them in college.  Perhaps they provided the soundtrack for your first untethered years. They had meaning to you, this gem you’d discovered.  And then it was over.  Real life intervened, for them and for you.

For every rock n’ roll glory story, there are hundreds more like this one.  The local band made almost good.  Those who saw and heard them knew, knew that they were destined for greater things, but those Greater Things found other suitors instead.

The band I loved, whose last show I attended a couple years ago, I’m convinced were victims of timing.  Their sound wasn’t right for the moment.  I saw their second show ever in 2002, and innumerable ones thereafter until late 2008.  During that window of music history, they didn’t have a place.  In the late 90’s and earlier 00’s they would’ve been hailed alongside The Dismemberment Plan and Swervedriver, but a few short years later they were swamped by bedroom folk and Joy Division revivalists.  They were post-Seattle and pre-Williamsburg, and so found their home where they started, in central Texas.

They were always hard to classify.  Not spacey enough to be prog rock, too nice to be punk.  The songs were too free form to be pop, but formal and fast to be post-rock.  They were too out there to be emo, but much too sincere not to be.  Like so many bands after “OK Computer,” they could easily have worn the label of Radiohead wannabes.  They just rocked, and felt, and most of all, performed.

Their songs would soar and sweep in a way built for arenas, but that rattled and practically deafened in the coffee shops and tiny punk clubs that they normally played.  All the band members but the bassist played violently, as though exorcising each note or beat from their own bodies, by way of the instruments. (The sedate bassist was the band’s press spokesman, naturally.)  The live shows built their reputation, but they struggled to harness that energy in the studio.  The first album is flat and echo-y, and only the knowledge of how it works live provides the key to unlock its promise.  The second album did better, but only the post-mortem EP really got the essence right.

But it was too late.  Real life caught up.  The members married, had kids, started careers.  The little college band that could didn’t survive in the post-college world.  The positive mentions in Relevant and Alternative Press weren’t enough to secure a record deal, and $8 shows don’t put food on the table or pay off the student loans.  The choice had to be made between toil and stability, and the rent won out.

So it goes across the country.  As many bands as there are at this moment, struggling to find their place in the spotlight, the avenues for making the leap are still limited.  The kingmakers may have changed – a positive Pitchfork review carries the same weight a Rolling Stone rave once did – but the money spent by the public on music is tighter, and they just don’t really make stadium bands anymore.

It doesn’t rob any of the joy from these bands.  The best among them know their ceiling.  Every night, they play their greatest hits, getting a crowd reaction that touring bands who travel halfway across the country to play in front of a bored barroom would kill for.  It’s not a hollow dream; those of us without any musical talent would love to have even five minutes of a crowd eating out of our hand like that.  Even if it’s not on stage, we would love to have that many people recognize that we’re good at something.

Even after they moved on, they couldn’t resist.  They played a reunion show last year, and this year released an EP of final studio recordings.  The pull was too strong.  Once you’re a rock star, even in a small way, your regular job kind of pales, doesn’t it? The bar for success is set wherever you like, and they didn’t need to be a blog band phenomenon or a hipster champion to make a limited-time-only comeback.

I’m disconnected now from the close-knit little music scene that fostered several bands I fell in love with in the years after I graduated from college and moved back to my hometown.  I found this band by showing up to a show at a soon-defunct dive bar in a shady part of town, but now I find out about bands through blogs and Twitter.

It’s not worthwhile to play the futures market with the commodity of Cool; it’s for us to proselytize for them, hoping that by sheer force of will we can put them over the hump to stardom.  It’s for you to drag friends to that shady dive to see them play, then buy a t-shirt and chat with the band afterward.  Many artists can survive in obscurity, but few can live without the encouragement that comes from knowing they’ve been seen and heard.

Bands like this are still out there.  Music is an arbiter of cool, but sometimes it’s more important to listen to the music that needs listeners than the music that everyone listens to.  It’s not about snobbery, or who heard them first, it’s about being the crowd that encourages; any night could be their last show.  The men and women in the band on stage could end up playing packed arenas or being your kids’ favorite teacher.  Invest in those moments, and let music be the uniter of crowds and expression of the soul that it was designed to be.

The Blues Boy

Narratives aren’t just for fiction and history buffs; they help define and classify our friends, acquaintances and public figures.  Overlay a known character arc, and you’ve taken all the difficulty out of truly getting to know someone. She’s a know-it-all. He’s a player. It’s reductionist and ugly, but we all do it from time to time. The antidote often comes when the subject flips the script; the know-it-all shows humility, and the player finally settles down.

This dynamic is magnified when it comes to celebrities.  Since we don’t know them personally, we’re forced to rely on the information that comes from the press, whether in a controlled, PR-sterilized environment, or in a torrent when a public misstep becomes front page news. Especially once the celebrity has passed out of the public eye, the reputation that they’ve built is usually the one that will follow them into the history books. But one famous musician has the opportunity to alter a persona sixty years in the making.

On the set of the Mother's Best radio show.

Hank Williams was the template, not just for the modern conception of the rock star as heroic flame-out, but for the merging of disparate strands of American music into one.   His combination of musical genius and premature death has been repeated time after time in the years since his death in 1953. It would be quite easy to leave the story there, to be content to recognize his influence and the music he left behind, but his daughter and a new collection of his music are forcing a revaluation of that narrative.

Jett Williams never knew her famous father personally. She was born just days after he died of heart failure in Oak Hill, West Virginia, and she fought a protracted legal battle to be recognized as his daughter. On the majority of his records, Hank was recorded in-studio, and his one surviving live record did little to capture the essence of a live performer who played almost five hundred shows a year. Fortunately, hundreds of those shows were preserved and re-mastered, providing Jett with a lively connection to her father.

The Hank Williams: The Complete Mother’s Best Recordings… Plus! recordings encompass fifteen discs worth of previously unheard recordings, re-mastered and probably sounding better than they did when they were sent out to the radios of post-war America. Long thought to be lost to history, the tracks on this set were caught in legal limbo for decades before Jett and her brother Hank Jr. (the all-my-rowdy-friends one) were determined to be the proper heirs of Hank Sr.’s estate.

Listening to these new tracks, culled from Williams’s regular hosting gig on a radio show sponsored by Mother’s Best flour, it’s hard to think of him as the drug-addled hell-raiser. Even on a show that aired, usually live, at 7:15 AM, he’s lively and cheerful, clearly in his element behind a microphone.  He cracks on his bandmates, hoots when his fiddle player nails a solo, and dutifully plugs the product. And his voice. Oh his voice. This isn’t just the nasal croon familiar from “Your Cheating Heart”; his instrument floats effortlessly from gospel hymns to soaring torch songs, darting between genres in ways that modern musical chameleons wish they could.

At the outset of each radio show, he’s introduced as “that lovesick blues boy, Hank Williams,” followed by a snippet of “Lovesick Blues”. Upon the many repetitions of this refrain, combined with the country and folk standards he sang for the show, you begin to hear the way that Hank represented the coalescing of so many disparate kinds of American roots music. Mississippi blues meets mountain music, and together they swing and even rock, almost a full decade before that last category earned its name. The other half of the “rock star dead in his/her prime” narrative is a clearly recognized musical genius, and these new recordings only serve to bolster this part of the story.

Though it’s unlikely that you or I will change the course of musical history, this aspect of Hank’s story holds some appeal for us, in the sense that we all want to be seen and remembered for our achievements rather than our weaknesses and failures. But in situations where our reputation precedes us, we don’t have the luxury of introducing ourselves on our own terms. The unwanted labels resurface. Now you’re fighting uphill against not just your reputation, but every other person with that same label. I’m not like them, you see.

The terrible irony is that overcoming an entrenched perception of yourself is hardest with the people you’re closest to; they’re the ones who’ve been the victims of (or accomplices to) your sins, and the ones who have to forgive most often. Fortunately, they’re also the ones who see high points most clearly.

Grace is not to forget that the hurts and mistakes of the past don’t exist, but to deliberately choose to see the goodness and truth instead. We can’t demand grace; by definition it must be given freely. Our reputations and labels don’t disappear by cutting off the tags. Instead, we must live in the hope of grace, and with a mind to make our strengths at least as memorable as our weaknesses.

Hank Williams never got the chance to receive that grace in his lifetime. And while history has no doubt been kind in its recognition of his accomplishments, the long shadow of his early death has colored every mention of his name. So for Jett Williams, the salve of these new recordings doesn’t remove the sting of growing up without her father, but it serves as a reminder that her father’s fans miss him too. “Sixty years later, hearts still break,” she reminds me. They surely do. Thankfully, the redemption of a fallen hero is a story even older than the blues.

Around the Block

I’m sitting in a comfortable place right now.  One of the most comfortable in my life, in fact.  Iced coffee, sweating in the midsummer heat in my left hand, beautiful wife to my right, reading a book and occasionally brushing my arm.  Some faint indie pop of a Stereolab-esque strain pipes unobtrusively through the speakers of the coffee shop.  I’m completely relaxed.  So why can’t I write?

The reason this idyll is disturbed is because I’m trying to write fiction.  And when I stare at the blank page, hoping to will completely-formed characters to appear out of the ether, the anxiety builds in me to something close to anaphylactic shock.  Nostrils flare.  No three-act plot coalesces. I harshly pound the gentle mid-century coffee table, threatening to upend my icy drink.  No detached narrator’s voice is heard.  I glance pleadingly at my copy of the collected short stories of Graham Greene.  The world-weary Brit blows me off.  Crap.  The fey French pop is now getting on my nerves, and I’m reaching for my headphones and pulling up Motörhead on iTunes.

What’s the big deal?  It’s not supposed to be this hard, is it?  I mean, you just think of a cool story, sit down, and write until you’ve reached the pre-determined conclusion that you already know is coming, right?  The fact is, of course, that it’s far more complex than that.  If it were that easy, every piece of Twilight fan fiction would get its own book deal.  But that’s a question of skill and copyright law; for me in particular, it’s a quite different issue.

The first time I tried to write fiction was in college, around the same time that I wrote some truly regrettable poetry.  (It was embarrassingly bad stuff; the fact that I was listening to a lot of Dashboard Confessional at the time should explain the tone and timbre pretty concisely.)  The fiction that I attempted to write was, at its heart, fantasy.  Not swords and Sauron fantasy, more “what would it take for me to get the attention of this girl I like?” fantasy.  It was an awful experience, trying to make a protagonist who was simultaneously completely me and completely unrecognizable (like that’s possible).  I was living out a hopped-up scenario where I rescued her from a pushy lothario at a drunken party, only to arouse the wrath of his buddies.  Truth, justice, and the American way versus popularity, charm, and other evil things.

I never finished the story.  It was too uncomfortable to face that greedy, grasping side of my personality.  Supporting characters were versions of my friends, as thinly-veiled as my protagonist.  My temptation to air my grievances toward them through prose made my skin crawl.  Surely they’d see themselves and hate me for the way that I portrayed them.  I deleted the file and immediately selected “Empty Recycle Bin.”  Fiction went to sleep.

I swore off fiction like a young child declaring an opposition to vegetables.  I did anything but write fiction.  I could bang out a thousand-word essay about the Houston Astros’ minor league system in my sleep, or pontificate about my theory of U2 as three separate bands spread across three decades.  Meanwhile, Fiction lurked.

After college, it took a couple years before I could enjoy reading fiction for its own sake again.  The analytical part of my brain finally shut down, so that I read like I enjoyed it, not like I was preparing for a paper.  I discovered novelists and storytellers whose ability to craft words were like sculpture.  Somewhere in the back of my brain, Fiction began to scratch.

I started to realize that my excuses for avoiding Fiction were pretty weak, almost as weak as my original story ideas had been.  My life was too mundane to be exciting, too free of angst to be tortured, and to manufacture conflict within that context would ring hollow. But even though I’d tossed off the shackles of thinking that writing had to be drawn from personal experience, I still didn’t have anything that grabbed me and compelled me write.

Then the hurricane hit.  My hometown was swamped by Hurricane Ike in 2008, pitting natural disaster against a scrappy populace who maintained a sense of humor even as the winds howled and the lights didn’t come on for two weeks.  The seed was planted.  I know my city, and I saw how it reacted in a time of crisis, so I could still write from experience, without being autobiographical. Fiction was pounding on the door, demanding to come in.

Since the idea of a novel still, to this very moment, scares the crap out of me, I decided to do a series of short stories, set in Houston during a hurricane, with characters from different stories intersecting at odd angles, like the movie Crash.  I had a couple of the characters already thought up when the idea first appeared.  All that was left to do was to sit down and write it.

Uh oh.  Here we go again.

The blank page mocked me, but I wasn’t going to be bested, not this time.  I knew where the first story was going, and even had the last line ready to go.  I just had to get there.  The first sentence came out.  I hated it.  Boom! Destroyed with a firm hold of the delete key. Wait!  That wasn’t that bad!  I hastily retyped it.  Almost instantaneously, I thought of a better opening.

The original opening got moved down so that I could keep rolling with the second one.  Phrases became sentences.  Sentences became paragraphs, dialogue bloomed (and occasionally rotted, as when I forgot which character was speaking), and scenes changed.

This felt . . . good?  Yeah, it actually felt good.

The characters started to think on their own, and I found myself surprised at what they were saying and doing.  Details came into being that weren’t part of my original plan. I figured out mid-stream how this story would connect to two others.  Memories of the real storm created more details.  It was like riding a bike without training wheels for the first time: After your parent lets go, so subtly, so sneakily, you pedal for several feet before realizing that there isn’t a hand on the banana seat anymore.  I’m riding!  I’m writing!

That analogy continues to hold, in that when I learned to ride a bike, the realization that I was officially solo caused a near-instant wipeout. I had several pages before I realized my mistake.  I thought I’d built a passable villain, or if not a villain, someone the reader would root against.  But it just wasn’t there.  His comeuppance would seem cruel and gratuitous instead of the just desserts of hubris. I can’t kill the guy just for yelling at his wife on the phone.  I thought I was writing a two-act story, but I realize I have to add another set piece to tilt the character in the right direction.

So here I am at the coffee shop again.  I’ve been browsing Wikipedia looking for inspiration, a real-life analogue to my half-built character.

I glance at my phone, where I’ve created an ever-expanding set of notes about the stories.  I’ve got the premises for two more stories in there.  I open up a new document, to start on a new story until the first one starts making sense.  But I’m not breathing into a paper bag — I’m putting on headphones and getting ready to climb back on the bike.

On Fandum & Faithfulness

Conversations with children can be like a time machine; in their words and attitudes, we often see ourselves backwards through the tunnel of time. We get to see our optimism and hope, ignorance and immaturity all in one under-sized package. Though we never get that oft wished-for chance impart crucial wisdom to our young selves, we can occasionally influence children down the path we wish we’d chosen.

Naturally, for me, this all comes back to baseball. Our hometown nine, several years distant from our lone World Series appearance, has fallen on hard times of late. Aging stars are falling, and few new ones are rising from the minor leagues. Through the influence of local sports talk radio and the indifference of the national sports media, the city has developed a rather dark view of the team, the owner, and the future. Worst of all, the kids have started to believe that it’s not worth it to be a fan.

Recently, a young man I know expressed this sentiment, and compounded his heresy by suggesting that he might transfer his fandom to another team, a hated rival of our hometown team. The socially agreed-upon conventions of adult-child relationships prevented me from correcting him physically, so I had to fall back on a verbal reprimand.

Perhaps disproportionate to the hype and tax revenue directed their way, sports teams are still a huge part of our community identity. Teams take on their town’s personality, and vice versa. This axiom holds, broadly speaking, from the first organized teams of youth all the way to the professionals playing in corporately named stadiums. So at the core, I wanted to encourage him to be a part of his community.

Our team in particular has had dark days before, flirting with success only long enough to build our collective hopes that the inevitable collapse wouldn’t come this time. Living through these times fortified those of us who soldiered through without giving in to sports bigamy or divorce, made us stronger fans and more ardent defenders of our city as a whole. Since that portion of the team’s history predates this young man’s conception, I told him of losing seasons past, and the fruit that they bear, both in a fan’s character and in the team’s subsequent success. The rejoicing is more triumphant when it follows despair.

Passing virtues on to the next generation is both a responsibility and a joy. As the young man and I walked from the stadium after watching our team scrape out a win against an in-division rival, I asked him if he was still a fan. When he replied in the affirmative, it was a sound as sweet as any sure-thing home run. The kids are alright.

A Curveball from the Hold Steady

Guest blog by Curator contributor Rob Hays.

From time to time, out of the blue, you tune in to a favorite tv show, only to be surprised by a curveball: the Very Special Episode.  What was once a light-hearted sitcom has elected to take on an important issue like addiction or abuse, and rather than the half-hour of chuckles that you expected, you instead endure earnest over-acting and an out-of-character lecture from the stars after the credits roll.

Other shows wouldn’t dare stoop to pander like the Very Specials, but they do send curveballs at their audiences, too.  This takes the form of the episodes where main characters are unexpectedly transplanted to a very different context (Star Trek: The Next Generation created the holodeck just to allow for such puffery), or main characters are ignored altogether so that peripheral players can have some time in the spotlight.  These episodes can sometimes be entertaining, but particularly when they take place on shows that feature an ongoing, season-long arc, they can feel like an interruption or distraction.

The Hold Steady, born in Minnesota and raised in Gotham, have sent their audience a similar curveball on their most recent release, Heaven Is Whenever.  Across their first four albums, songwriter Craig Finn and the band created a detailed culture, documenting the fall and redemption of characters on the fringe of Midwestern society, drawn together by a shared allegiance to the underground music scene.  The characters are starkly drawn, growing and developing across the first four albums: there’s Holly, the former “hoodrat” and junkie who clings to a strong Catholic faith; Charlemagne, a schluby small-time dealer who gets in way over his head; and Gideon, a violent skinhead whose braggadocio outpaces his actual street cred.

The action is seen through the eyes of Finn’s narrator, sometimes omniscient, sometimes hopelessly enmeshed in the story himself.  As their fourth album, Stay Positive, drew to a close, the band took a self-aware look at their history in songs like the title track and “Slapped Actress”, in which they imagine the characters’ leap to the big screen.  Throughout this penultimate album, there is a distinct feeling that the band had arrived, and were basking (to a certain extent) in a level of fame that they’d only hoped for in St. Paul.

In light of that benediction at the end of Stay Positive, it makes more sense that they would leave the familiar characters behind on Heaven Is Whenever.  Having sent them off to the lands of closure and stability, Finn is ready to explore a new generation.  While previous albums had featured him getting high and almost killed in pursuit of a unified scene, his narrator strikes more of an older brother/mentor pose on Heaven Is Whenever.  Speaking to arrivistes, he demands, “Where were you when the blood spilled?” before counseling them that “no one wins at violent shows.”  He’s there to maintain the hard-earned peace.

Amid the party stories and Catholic imagery, an over-arching theme of salvation through a sanctified, unified scene has weighed heavily on The Hold Steady’s music.  From the first track on their first album until now, they’ve put forth the view that music, love and unity are a path to salvation.  Their characters strove for this vision in some way or another, and having arrived there in Stay Positive, they can be assumed to be enjoying their eternal reward as Heaven Is Whenever kicks off.

Beyond the songwriting, The Hold Steady has evolved musically as well; keyboardist Franz Nicolay and his waxed mustache left to pursue a solo career, forcing the band to lean heavier on a guitar-driven sound.  Their music still tilts heavily toward grandiose bar rock, but the reduced personnel has allowed other member of the band to assert themselves.  I’ve never particularly noticed the drumming on one of their albums before, but Heaven Is Whenever is easily their most rhythmic album, bringing some less-than-traditional time signatures into the mix.  Having ascended to a larger, more popular stage of their career, the music has soared to reach the backs of the arenas that they now tour.

The more I’ve listened to the new album, the more it feels like a logical next step forward, rather than a sidestep or distraction.  Just as other artists like Johnny Cash and the Coen Brothers evolved as they aged, leaving behind the madcap tendencies but never forgetting them completely, The Hold Steady’s recurring characters may have been phased out for good, but they’ll live on under the surface of everything that comes next.  It’s not just a Very Special Episode, it’s a whole new series.

photo by:

The Heart of Dillon

The cast of characters populating the most successful and ground-breaking television shows of the past ten years or so is rather motley at best: Jersey mobsters, Western brothel owners, a self-centered California embezzler’s misfit family, and Baltimore drug dealers and the corrupt city around them all spring to mind.

Apart from the midst of the grime and grit, far away from the depressing ghettos and mysterious islands, lies little Dillon, Texas, smack in the middle of fly-over country but still struggling with problems of a very concrete, cosmopolitan nature.  As depicted on NBC/DirecTV’s Friday Night Lights, Dillon contains some of the most compelling characters on television; chief among them, at the very thematic and moral core of the show, are Coach Eric Taylor and his wife Tami.

Together, Eric and Tami are Dillon, a canvas upon which the creators of the show paint the town’s values and struggles. Football is central to the show and the town, which lives and dies with the gridiron fate of the Dillon High Panthers. Sports-centered shows are notoriously difficult to get right, and one of the reasons that Friday Night Lights succeeds is because football is used as a jumping-off point for larger discussions, and often as the deus ex machina that sets everything to rights. Thus, an episode about abortion defies the usual “on a very special episode of…” dynamic which puts all the focus on the issue at hand, instead using the football plot to parallel and intersect the abortion plot in very relatable ways.

In the midst of these maelstroms lie the Taylors. While Eric coaches the football team through its ups and downs, Tami works as a school counselor and principal, and their respective professional responsibilities often collide as a result. It is here that the show begins to truly shine, because the Taylors share the single most realistic marriage on modern television. Instead of being a bumbling oaf of a husband whose pratfalls are a source of consternation for his long-suffering spouse, Eric is a man of high personal integrity and consistency, sometimes to a fault and his own professional detriment.  And Tami is no shrewish killjoy to a happy-go-lucky dude unfortunately shackled by the bonds of matrimony; she is thoughtful and considerate, sensitive to (though sometimes bemused by) Eric’s unique place in Dillon’s ecosystem.

Before we proceed any further, an ample tip of the cap must be made to the actors who infuse these roles with detail and vibrant life. Kyle Chandler’s Eric is a man of few drawled words, capable of locker room eloquence when necessary, but often preferring to communicate sparsely and directly. The beauty of the character is his eyes; Chandler’s dark brows and thousand yard stare show his inner dialogue better than any voice-over could hope to express. When Tami makes a surprising revelation at the end of season one, those furrowed brows leap up in amazement while the eyes suddenly flash; it is only a moment later that the last domino falls and his smile breaks out, but his face is already grinning.

Likewise, Connie Britton as Tami is as outspoken as Eric is stoic, talking with her hands, raising her voice to her children before calming to apologize. One of the amazing aspects of these two characters’ interactions is that their marriage is one of real affection – marked by neither constant sheet-shaking passion nor perfunctory pecks on the cheek, but the sort of care that, you know, real people have. After the birth of their second daughter, Eric is beside himself in waiting for the resumption of marital intimacy, but Tami is still not ready; these scenes are hilariously played, and given true resonance by Britton’s previously-established affection for Coach. It’s not that she doesn’t love him anymore – it just ain’t time yet.

In that same episode, Eric attempts to woo his wife back into bed by suggesting a night out with her girlfriends and a bottle of her favorite wine.  He’s obviously transparent when he thinks he’s being subtle, but the crucial thing about this plot is that he’s trying.  Anyone who has been in a serious relationship, married or otherwise, knows that its success or failure depends on shared effort. Instead of showing the Taylors as having a healthy marriage by default simply because they’re the protagonists of the show, great pains are taken to show them being proactive, taking nights out together when life gets harried, creating a united front for their daughters, and backing each other’s town-affecting decisions.

Later in the series, the spectre of a wedge is slowly raised in the Taylors’ relationship. As the town’s dynamics shift dramatically, robbing Eric of his built-in advantage as the only game in town and placing Tami on thin ice with the school board, you begin to feel the stress and dread that these events might finally shatter their connection. Eric lingers for drinks with a booster in a situation which usually saw him retreating to Tami for refuge, and Tami draws close to a colleague at work. Ultimately, a margarita-fueled mistake becomes a joke instead of a melodrama, and the Taylors emerged, not unscathed but together nonetheless.

Had this been The Wire, Tami would’ve betrayed her marriage, and Eric probably would’ve killed one of his players while driving drunk.  But Friday Night Lights’ decision not to go in this direction isn’t a cop-out or concession to the need for a happy ending.  One of the fundamental truths of the show is that intact families are a blessing in their very existence, and a blessing to those around them.  If Eric and Tami were destroyed, so would Dillon be.  The tenacity of their relationship thus reflects the tenacity of the town, the degree to which they care about a high school game, and the struggles they go through just to be in the stands cheering each week.

A temptation arises when we are presented with characters and a show of this caliber. When recognizing something beautiful and true with which we identify, we want to champion its cause under the umbrella of our own worldview, somehow sanctifying its excellence with our endorsement. This temptation is particularly acute in the case of a show that is critically beloved, but almost unseen from a ratings standpoint. If this show is such a showcase for family values and marriage as it is, whither the watchdogs of evangelical America?  Should they not be rallying to its cause?  Naturally, the fact that coach says “ass” in his pre-game speeches and a true-to-life amount of underage canoodling and consumption stands in the way of their wholehearted advocacy.

But does this lack of recognition even matter?  Should we appreciate an entertainment whose character would be excellent and laudable if it had played out in real life as just an entertaining hour, or hold it up as the balm in Gilead, that if only more would watch it, marriages would be healed? Certainly a middle ground exists between these poles.

In my life, I’ve found both entertainment and encouragement from Friday Night Lights; in fact, the two are co-dependent, as the encouraging aspects of the show make it more entertaining.   The truth of the matter is that no matter what your worldview or where you reside, Dillon, Texas is a place you recognize and that draws you into its big-hearted world.  It’s a winner, because as Coach Taylor often tells his team, “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.”

Baseball Breaks Your Heart

As pitchers and catchers report in Arizona and Florida, a uniquely American season begins anew. The beauty of the sport of baseball has never been more poetically elegized than by former commissioner Bart Giamatti (you may know his son, Paul) in this essay, “The Green Fields of the Mind.” Play ball!

It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone.

Holy Fiction: No Category, No Problem

Guest blog by Curator contributor Rob Hays.

As music fans, we’re often asked to make comparisons and assign labels, often with the purpose of more narrowly defining our tastes and the attendant level of coolness we extract from them. Alterna-folk or lo-fi? Indie-noise or Art school punk? Too much like U2 or not enough like Arcade Fire? Blur or Pulp? It helps make party conversation with strangers flow more easily, and provides fodder for late-night arguments with lifelong friends. But sometimes, even with the hyper-specialized world of post-MTV music, you just can’t put your finger on what a band is.

Houston’s Holy Fiction has been that sort of band for me. From the first time that I heard their demos online, I knew without any prevarication that I liked them, and I even knew why, in large part. A listen through their upcoming eight song EP, Hours From It, showed me all their talents: the direct, catchy melodies, the falsetto heights and grumbling depths of lead singer Evan Lecker’s voice, and the lyrics at once heart-rendingly honest and confoundingly obscure.

But what are they? There’s a dash of the 80’s auteur pop of Peter Gabriel and Sting here, a wall of shoegaze fuzz and feedback there; a splash careful strings that add depth without earning the moniker “orchestral” mix with a smattering of hooks that disguise a dearth of actual choruses. After a week of spinning through the eight tracks, the primary word that can effectively tie a bow around Holy Fiction is rock. How anti-climactic.

Ultimately, the beauty of music is found perfectly in this seeming lack of closure. As infinitely diverse as language is, the reason that music was created was to transcend language, fill in the gaps of feeling that even the most passionate words could not corral. Even though the current popular musical ecosystem has more niches and sub-niches than one could possibly count, every band worth its salt finds a new differentiation on an old theme and makes it their own. Holy Fiction isn’t a groundbreaking, original band; they’re talented and passionate and they have moments when they make the hair on the back of your neck stand on end. Sometimes, that’s all you need.


Holy Fiction’s debut release, Hours From It, is available starting on Feb. 23rd on iTunes.

Listen to Holy Fiction’s song, “Exit.”

My Favorite Tree In Houston

 

Less than a football field from the esteemed Menil stands my tree. It’s a post oak, a hardy variety common to south Texas, known for a cheerful willingness to endure our tropical summers without complaint. Its lowest branches are quite low indeed, giving it a posture that beckons to be climbed.

It was in connecting with my inner seven-year-old and taking up the tree on its offer that it became my favorite. I know the routes by heart: take one generous step to the crevice formed by the separation of three huge trunks, and from there choose your path: further up to the solitude of a Y-shaped nook perfect for reading or writing, or out to the left, to one of the long, low branches, perfectly designed as a lover’s perch, just sturdy enough for two.

Houston is a city quite literally built upon a swamp, growing out of a trading post on the banks of a muddy tributary that only wishes it was a river. However, along with the mosquitoes, humidity, and hurricanes worthy of a swamp comes a blessing of beautiful trees, like this one. It first caught my eye three years ago when I was living nearby and frequently walking to a coffee shop down the road to escape the cabin fever of working at home; one pleasant day demanded that I finish my hazelnut cinnamon coffee with haste rather than linger, and my outdoor excursion brought me to the foot of the post oak.

A few months later, on a sticky summer night at the same coffee shop, a young lady unwittingly set the bait for a pursuit in which the tree would be an even more unwitting accomplice. As I became more smitten with this young lady, I would escape to the tree more frequently, writing letters, listening to loads of Brit pop rock on my iPod, and wishing that she hadn’t just moved twelve hundred miles away.

Circumstance led me to leave the tree’s neighborhood, but fate always drew me back. As a kid, I wasn’t much of a tree climber, owing to an embarrassing fear of heights, but having found in adulthood a tree low-slung enough to climb with ease, I wasn’t about to abandon it. So I would hop in my car at my new apartment and drive over for periodic visits, to clear my head or rendezvous with the girl whose heart was beginning to warm to me.

It was on these latter visits (usually with to-go cups of coffee in hand) that we discovered the inviting proportions of the lowest branch. I also discovered that when it comes to climbing trees, she’s as adept as a lemur, which makes me look slightly more skilled than a manatee. This perch turned out to be a great vantage point for people-watching, allowing us to gawk at other couples in various states of woo and listen to the occasional impromptu banjo-led jam sessions.

My trips to the tree became less frequent as busyness took over and priorities shifted. Houston’s summer has a way of discouraging even the most incidental trips outside as people huddle inside in the cool before dashing to their oven-like cars, desperately praying that the a/c will become cold before the water that composes sixty percent of our bodies evaporates. The idea of going outside for the purpose of contemplation and relaxation is not unlike attending a Sigur Ros concert with the intent to crowd surf.

The Houston summer isn’t all bad, though: it also encourages visitors and residents alike to explore the cultural richness that surrounds them, from world-class art museums to the array of restaurants combining the diverse cultures that surround the Texas Gulf Coast: Cajun, Mexican, Vietnamese, German, Greek, and, of course, the crown jewel of Texan cuisine, barbeque. With these distractions and others, the second summer of writing love notes in tree branches went by the wayside. Not that I really noticed; I was far too occupied in trying to secure a ring and screw up the confidence to propose. It was a perfect storm of neglect for my place of refuge.

Soon after that proposal was accepted, a much more literal storm was brewing. Absent earthquakes or volcanoes and located in the armpit of Gulf of Mexico, Houston is a prime target for hurricanes. Fortunately, we’d been spared a direct hit for more than twenty years, the previous major hurricane having made landfall just weeks after my younger brother (now a father himself) was born. But Ike was coming, and unlike past storms, it neither weakened or changed course. Having learned the lessons of Katrina, people either evacuated or hunkered; I chose to hunker, though not at my vulnerable-to-flooding apartment, but at my parents’ house in the suburbs.

In a city blessed with a wealth of trees, one of the most immediate things you notice in the aftermath of a hurricane are leaves – everywhere, in the streets, on the lawns, and, of course, attached to the downed branches that sever power lines, turn driveways into junkyards, and shut down thoroughfares more surely than rush hour. Watching a city of three million souls retreat, shut down, re-emerge and return, and begin to rebuild is like a passion play performed en masse, cycling through despair and darkness to hope and light, with a fantastic work of regeneration at its core.

The city lost a lot of old trees in the storm, but my oak held fast. It’s a little more sparse, like a head of gently thinning hair; fortunately, this hair will regrow. The city returned to normal, and my life did as well. The stress of planning a wedding replaced the stress of planning an engagement, but before the meetings with caterers and shopping for that perfect black tie could begin in earnest, it was time to return to the scene of the crime.

With the sky a brilliant autumn blue and the weather the kind of seventy-degree perfection that comes paired with the appreciation that it won’t be hot again this year, she and I posed and cavorted around the park next to the Menil for a set of engagement photos. As the light began to retreat, the photographers asked if we had any other places we’d like to include.

We looked at each other, smiled, and walked to the tree.