It came to us one day last fall that we should say goodbye to New York and move home to Texas even though we had long intended never to do that. We were happily lapsed Texans and meant to remain that way. We’ve been here almost a year now, and I’m still trying to figure out what happened.
One reason for the move was simple. For all that we deplore about Texas, it is home. Family and oldest friends are here. (I’d reached a point where I was thinking of stashing a blue funeral suit in Austin so I wouldn’t have to keep lugging one with me on the plane.)
There were a couple of other reasons, which we sensed only vaguely, if at all, that day we called the moving van. We have been pleased to become more aware of them during the eleven months we’ve been back.
In the first place, change is afoot. (More on this down the page,)
Besides that, Texas doesn’t fit neatly in the blue state-red state paradigm. That’s too tidy. It’s not widely known, but Texas is part blue. It has libraries and museums and hospitals, a diverse population, and any number of broadminded, educated, compassionate people. Contrary to popular belief, the Enlightenment did not bypass Texas. On the other hand, its state-wide elected officials are shade-your-eyes crimson.
During my years of living outside the state, I’ve heard highly educated people express remarkable ignorance about Texas. “You’re lucky that Texas has such dry heat.” “Texas doesn’t have mountains.” “Is Shakespeare really performed down there?” “You don’t celebrate Thanksgiving there, do you – you know, with turkey and all?”
OK, so the world is full of misinformed people who believe that the stereotype is the whole story. That doesn’t bother me too much. It does bother me a lot, however, that there is some truth in the stereotype. Not only that, many Texans love it the way they do the three-thousand calorie plate of barbecue, and they do all they can to perpetuate it.
Increasingly, people are going around with side arms strapped on their belts and, one suspects, a trouble-waiting-to-happen chip on their shoulders. Opting out of childhood immunizations is on the rise. Many are deeply flummoxed about where transgender people do their business. (I myself am a champion worrier, albeit mostly about unimportant matters and easily-solved problems, but where those already-burdened people poop is not on my list.) The Texas legislature cannot call itself to disorder without having another go at a bill to require by-the-book burial of fetal remains from abortion procedures. (One imagines the state’s morticians pressed into courses on the proper technique for embalming the stain on a sanitary napkin.)
The conflict between the stereotype and contrastereotype is more than political; it’s personal. Almost the only time I spend with those who are not like me in most important ways is at family gatherings that unavoidably include someone from the other side.
I know a few people who are so secure in their beliefs that they are not discomfited by the conflict. They have a foot in both camps and manage to get along pretty well with people on the other side. I’ve always found that to be something between difficult and impossible. So, thirty years ago, when Ann and I had a chance to move to New York City, we jumped at it. Upon settling in, we made it known that we were not mythical Texans, we were lapsed Texans. Not only that, we began repudiating most everything about Texas, like Peter denying Christ.
I started lapsing in boyhood. I felt like I was the only person in my high school who preferred Stevenson to Eisenhower. I was young and not well informed – none of us were, really – but I recognized that opposition to Stevenson was based on his urbanity and intellectual prowess. He was a sissy; Ike was a real man. Such thinking was repellant. As I got older, my alienation grew.
At some point, though while living on the outside, it came to me that “lapsed Texan,” was simplistic. I kept saying it anyway; to be accurate and thorough would have been too big an undertaking. It served as a sort of elevator pitch to nonTexans who we wanted to like us. The truth was that we were lapsed from only a part of the Texas way. As for the other part – the memories, the intangible feel of the place, the sure sense of where we are when here – the question of separation or alienation could not arise; it is who we are.
Thomas Wolfe had it backward for those of us who grew up in Texas. The problem is not that you can’t go home again, it’s that you can’t leave the damned place – not really. No matter how hard you try, its pulling power is just too strong. Growing up here is like being baptized and confirmed a Roman Catholic; you are enfolded into the secular equivalent of the one true faith and so marked and signed forever and ever, no matter what reservations you may develop afterward.
It’s no wonder that leaving Texas is difficult. Throughout childhood, we are drilled Wahabi-madrasah style in the absolute truth that Texas is blessed with a history that manifests more of the indomitable human will, courage, resourcefulness, vision, love of democracy, and the basic values of western civilization than does the history of any other state. Only Texas has been an independent nation, only Texas can claim the Alamo, only Texas has defeated a foreign nation in war. Only Texas has the legal authority to divide itself into five separate states. The place is huge – bigger than Alaska even, if you don’t count the part that is still frozen and all but uninhabitable. (Global warming is making that claim problematic.) Every twelve-year-old knows that Texas has the finest pecans, the sweetest grapefruits, the biggest watermelons. Bluebonnets don’t grow anywhere else. Only Texas has so much oil. It is God’s country; we are God’s chosen people.
Then some of us get on a plane, and when we step off in New York or Des Moines or Spokane, people laugh at us. Do you really talk that way? They get all puffed up and condescending. They let us know that because we grew up where we did, we are dumb as dirt, culturally deprived, probably still believe in slavery, and are subject to sudden attacks of head lice and hookworms.
I dislike intensely Texas’ narrow-minded parochialism, its nouveau riche vulgarity, it’s severe allergic reaction to mention of the common good, its enthronement of the cowboy and the oil man as cultural icons.
But a fair amount of the negative stuff in Texas life is giving way to change. The rate of change may even be increasing. In ways large and small, we are continuing the long journey toward a more enlightened and life-giving democracy. Think demographic change (it’s about far more than growth of the Hispanic population); Beto (win or lose, he has encouraged a beneficial conversation); the banner on the lawn of the Lutheran Church up the street (“The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. …Leviticus 19:34”).
So, I’m back. Couldn’t stay away. This time is going to be different, though. When nuttiness presents itself, I’m going to call Molly Ivins to mind and laugh. I’m not going to feel like there is something wrong with me when I’m out of step with the stereotypes I’m marching beside. No sir.
I’m going to take delight in living here – overriding, deep, consuming delight. I expect that to be difficult sometimes, but as the years have passed, I’ve come up with an antidote to alienation, and I’m going to trust it to see me through to a happy, pacific life here where I was born and reared. I shall rely on forbearance. Without regular resort to forbearance, it’s almost impossible to have friends and family. Being me as a Texan has the same requirement. So forbearance it is.
Don’t misunderstand me, though. Just try me on women’s reproductive rights, climate change, capital punishment, urban sprawl, the crying need for a state income tax, immigration policy, the gig economy, or any of the other issues on which I’m by God right and the guy in the goofy-looking cowboy hat is dead wrong. As the former President who is at the top of my list of objectionable Texans once said, “bring it on.”