Friday, June 29, 2012


When I traded Chicago for Iowa, a lot of things changed but I mourned only one. Chicago has two, count them TWO, major airports. Iowa collectively can't really say that. The Chicago I left had nonstop flights, plenty of them, and often cheap, to boot. I could catch a flight for New York or DC after work on Friday and be back first thing Monday morning. I forgot what a layover even was as I visited family in Los Angeles or Oakland. Iowa, on the other hand, seemed to have the attitude that being a great place to be relieved it of any responsibility to help folks get in or out of the state. And while I've come to appreciate the tiny regional airport with its tiny regional lines and its supremely civilized free wifi, I missed the freedom of hubs.

Enter Dallas. Enter two, count them TWO, major airports. If everything else went wrong in Dallas, I figured, at least they made it easy to leave. Dallas is one of the eight places you can fly to directly from an Iowa airport like Cedar Rapids; if Dallas could do that, surely Dallas could take me anywhere. And it does. I've been to Iowa and New York and California and the Philippines, not to mention Indiana and Florida. There's usually a layover, now, and the bargain fares I remember seem to be a thing of the past. DFW is easier to love if you're riding the monorail between flights than if you are driving through the looping maze of over- and under-passes that require you to know not just the terminal of your airline but the actual number of your gate. After so many years of Southwest flights, Love Field field seems like an appropriate pilgrimage, even if they go very few places direct. Love Field does not have tiny regional lines or free wifi, but still retains the charm of a sweet old airport more or less in the middle of the city.

It occurs to me now that part of the freedom I loved in Chicago came from the swift and reliable lines of public transportation that took me out to the airport and then back home again. If you have some hours to spare, one can cobble together a public transport option to a Dallas airport. Depending on your mood, this is time enough to reconsider leaving, or one more reason to get out.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Filmed on Location

I once went to a rooftop theater in Athens, the acropolis lit up on the hill to my left, and saw the street where I learned to parallel park, a few blocks from my elementary school. In South Korea I went to a matinee and watched the Santa Barbara mountains as I sat in front of four Buddhist monks. It is, I had come to think, the birthright of Californians to travel the world and yet always have the movies ready to take them home.

This lasted until I'd lived in Chicago long enough to recognize it when it showed up on screen. There was Spider-man web-slinging from El car to El car in the Loop, Will Ferrell laid up in a hospital room in the Wrigley Building, the Dark Knight speeding through a chase scene on Lower Wacker Drive. Ferris Bueller' Day Off, it turned out, was a love letter to the city, had been the whole time though I'd never stopped to notice. 

Before I left for Iowa, I was visiting my parents, and they called three different video stores before they found one that had State Fair. This movie was what they knew about Iowa, and they had decided it was essential preparation for me. It was. And no sooner did I have an Iowa City library card than I was checking out Field of Dreams and The Bridges of Madison County.

Which brings us to Texas. A friend recently offered to watch with me every episode of Walker, Texas Ranger we can find on YouTube. It's worth noting that the Dallas Museum of Art is offering a series of movie nights this summer in the same spirit. Obviously I need to catch up with the new Dallas. Heck, I need to catch up on the old Dallasboth the 1980s television series and the 1950 Gary Cooper film. 

But before we all get our Benji-Robocop-Logan's Run on, let me thank, retroactively, the good people at Tween Studies for our recent screening of Slap Her... She's French, Kate Murphy for first introducing me to Office Space out at the farm, and Dr. Robert Archambeau's bowling film festival for including Bottle Rocket. And, especially, let me thank my parents who didn't stop my State Fair education with the 1945 version set at the Iowa State Fair, but made sure I saw some car racing before we turned off the 1962 Pat Boone/Bobby Darrin/Ann-Margaret State Fair, which of course is set, where else, in Dallas.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Drive Friendly—the Texan Way

I have a longstanding fondness for regionalisms. Even more than I enjoy the exoticness of an interstate rivalrybecause it turns out there is a difference between Texas and Oklahoma; a deep, indisputable, irreconcilable differenceI am thrilled by the hypothesis that place shapes us. Of course there must be some degree of impact, but when does it rise to the point of culture or habit or type? When do you know an Illinois driver because they will only pass you on the right, or a Los Angeles driver because they will only cut you off if you do signal to get into their lane? I had begun to think these archetypes were just stereotypes, and poorly drawn at that, when I started driving in Texas. In Texas I have learned it's not state culture that make bad drivers; bad roads make bad drivers. And we have the suicide onramps and unpainted lanes and potholes of death to prove it.

Which is to say, I think Dallas has great drivers constantly tested by challenging conditions. The conditions may in fact be so challenging it is hard to tell how great the drivers are. Which means there are no small number of snickering asides about the contradiction suggested in the frequent roadside admonition: Drive Friendlythe Texan Way.

I like the phrase. I am willing to believe that without the imperative our driving would be even worse. It's worth noting that our legislature keeps renewing Drive Friendly as an official part of the Welcome to Texas sign. We are, in fact, so friendly, so on our best company manners, that we will only remind you that George W. Bush is ours if he is actually president. In 2008 the legislature had to draft and pass a specific new bill in order to take the "Proud to be the Home of President George W. Bush" off the Welcome to Texas signs. Otherwise, I suppose, it would have remained in place until we elected a new Texas president. Even at your friendliest, you can't please everyone, so I hope George W. Bush didn't take it personally. I hope, in fact, he was at least a little delighted to realize there was a time when it hadn't occurred to Texas it would eventually have to prepare itself for someone new.

Friday, June 22, 2012

The Common Grackle

The Common Grackle stalks across my lawn. That's how they move: stalking, in plaguesthat's the technical termalways crossing by my window from the driveway side of the lawn towards the traffic side and out of my sight. They are the kind of birds that remind you birds were dinosaurs, not that dinosaurs necessarily had beady smart eyes and clawed feet lifted in purposeful steps, but something about the movement seems right. And they are all the more fearsome when they pant.

If you have never seen a bird pant, it perhaps has never occurred to you that (like dogs) they don't sweat, and the sun is hot on black feathers. The Grackles hold their beaks stiffly open, like chopsticks before the grasp, like cartoon birds looking for speech bubbles to title their chats. They don't seem distressed by the heat as they walk across the lawn with their beaks open. So naturally do they go about their business mouths agape that I wondered at first if this was part of their strategy, if they had learned one summer that worms despair in the heat and will, in suicidal ecstasy, fling themselves above the grass.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Anything You Ever Wanted to Know

Fridays on KERA, the NPR station that tells me I live in the geographical region of "North Texas," Jeff Whittington hosts a program called Anything You Ever Wanted to Know. I know, from pledge drive banter, that Jeff inherited this program from the guy who started it, and I assume, from the general tenor of Jeff's voice, that maybe it's not a show he would have made.

The format involves people calling or emailing in questions and other people calling or emailing in answers. Where can I go salt water swimming in Dallas? Are ingredients listed in descending order of weight, or volume? I remember this much of a plot of a book, does anyone know its title? It's a motley garage sale of information and opinion, and I was starting to thing of it as Anything You Ever Wanted Someone Else to Google For You when I realized it has a finer point. I've grown a fondness for the questions people ask that don't fit neatly into a search engineHey, I saw some construction off Mockingbird, does anyone know what they're building? I'm a U.S. serviceman in Japan, does anyone know where I can resurface a nonstick pan?the reminder that we are valuable to each other.

I was especially intrigued last month to discover the show goes on break and plays archived episodes, that somehow this is a thing you don't just hand over to a substitute host. It seemed a little like playing last year's news or reading the classified from six months ago. But I listened for a while, as I inevitably do, and heard my favorite question ever: How do you bake cookies on your dashboard? As I was waiting for someone to explain why this is a bad, bad idea for innumerable health code reasons, what I got was a flood of people adding their two cents. It would appear, and other local media confirm, that this is something we do in Dallas. Google suggests folks in Minnesota and Pennsylvania and Arizona do this, too, but still. We have to do something with million bajillion degree summers, and this, my friends, is our heat stroke inducing silver lining. I'm looking forward to a batch myself. Let me know how yours turn out.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Chupacabra Ice Cream

Chupacabra Ice Cream is as much a gas station as it is ice cream shop, more so, really. The mini-mart is mini indeed, but you could still wander for quite a while before realizing there really is ice cream to be had. It's a narrow case tucked in the back, and you could change your mind and order a sandwich instead, though you can't see where there's any room in this tight space to make one. There is no goat flavored ice cream, no ribbons of strawberry swirl called blood, nothing at all to link Chupacabra ice cream to the goatsuckers reported in tabloids. Which, I think we can all agree, may be just as well. But if there is no cryptozoological thrill to the ice cream itself, my scoops had the familiar summer flavor of cheap cookies and cream, it's still nice to live in a neighborhood with a little imagination. The ice cream isn't really the point in the end; the bright signs on the corner are quite enough.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Softball-sized Hail

The Storm Prediction Center is certainly a serious place. I assume this from the number of official sounding words in its parent organization: the United States Department of Commerce National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Which I mention because I want you to take seriously that our government scientists have an official table for "object-to-size conversion for assessment and translation of severe hail reports." They would really prefer a measurement, thank you very much, but because there are so many estimators running around making colorful comparisons, they have a chart to compare hail size (in inches) to "object analog reported."

I mention this because that means "softball-sized hail" is a technical term. I had always wondered why the  weather forecasts in Dallas said things like "quarter sized hail" instead of "hail of one inch diameter." It seemed so unscientific, even for meteorology. But now that we have experienced not just a hail storm, but break-the-bedroom-window-sized hail, I appreciate the standardization. Officially, then, hail comes in the following sizes: marble/moth ball, penny, nickel, quarter, half dollar, walnut/ping pong ball, golf ball, hen egg, tennis ball, baseball, tea cup, grapefruit, and softball.

It's a strange thing to be proud of, but I'm kind of excited that at softball-sized hail, 4.50 inches diameter, we topped the scale. The chart doesn't say what comes next. I assume that means there are physical/chemical properties that keep hail from getting any bigger, or that any bigger than softball-sized hail-poodle-sized hail, for instanceno one would believe your folksy comparison anyway.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Dallas is for Friends

Texas has a motto, my friends, and that motto is: Friendship.

That's it. No long statements about rights or liberties. Nothing pithy or anachronistic. No latin trying to class up the joint. No, the official state motto of Texas is "Friendship." Which means the signs along the highway that read "Drive Friendlythe Texan Way" are kind of an inside joke for fourth graders and the rest of us who keep up on official state things and wink at the curiously definitional quality of this roadside imperative. And while I find it kind of cool that our motto is in fact a translation, I can barely stand the irony that the Hasinai people gave us the Caddoan word táyshaʼ, meaning friends or allies, and in return we took the word and used it to name the land we then took from them and all their neighbors--not really a friendly thing to do at all.  

We may feel a little contrition about that. Which would explain why a place so hip that it has adopted "Don't Mess With Texas" as its official anti-littering campaign, is not so bold as to make known its otherwise enviable status as the BFF state.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Department of Public Safety

I like that one "surrenders" an out of state driver's license. You can't "exchange" or "trade" or "swap" it for an in-state equivalent. You don't use any latinate alchemy talk to express how with just some paperwork and an eye exam, poof, your perfectly good Iowa license is gone and a slick new Texas one appears in its place. No, you surrender. You admit to your lawlessness; you concede you are outgunned and you submit to Texasthough, I like to think, with the understanding that you put up a good fight first. The DMV is a strangely combative place, and I like that they have a language of appropriate hostility and domination to go with it.

There is no DMV in Texas. If you've never had a particularly positive experience at the Department of Motor Vehicles, that may sound like some kind of advance, an abolishment of note, a sort of "The Wicked Witch is dead!" event. But of course it's nothing so momentous. You can still plan on giving up half a day to stand in unfathomably long lines at a drab government waiting room hoping someone will be in the mood to give you a driver's license; in Texas, you'll just do all that at the Department of Public Safety. Everything will seem familiarly routine, except for maybe at the end, when the woman with the clip-on earrings who has just said you are this close to getting a vision restriction on your record now signs and stamps and files everything away and you ask, "Is that it?" Because it will surprise you how warmly she tells you, "Welcome to Texas," and it will startle you that, indeed, you genuinely feel welcomed.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Pegasus City

If you're one to believe a city's nickname, Texas is home to the Rose, Chile, Spinach, Turkey, Wildflower, Watermelon, Mohair, Horned Lizard, Cowboy, Cutting Horse, Goose Hunting, Fruit Cake, Leap Year, Blackeyed Pea, and Execution capitals of the world. None of these distinctions belong to Dallas.

The Big D is neither the "City of Champions" nor "Where Yee-Ha Meets Ole." We do not pretend to be the Polka or the Cheeseburger or the Dinosaur capital of Texas. Wikipedia claims "The Jingle City" and "Triple D" are nicknames of Dallas, though I've never heard them said out loud; which only underscores the fact that we have not managed a sobriquet as colorful as such fellow Texan cities as "The Town Without a Frown" and "The Town Without a Toothache."

This is inexplicable to me. Dallas, if anyone was bothering to market it to eight year old girls, would clearly be known as Pegasus City. This could have started as early as 1934, when the Magnolia Building, already Dallas' tallest skyscraper, crowned its own glory by erecting on its roof a red neon flying horse. It must have been stunning. They say you could see it for miles.

Now, the Magnolia Building is no longer the tallest skyscraper in town, just as the Magnolia Oil Company (the building's namesake) is no longer the Magnolia Oil Company. Nonetheless, the trademark of what is now Mobil Oil is also no longer just a corporate logo. Long since adopted as a civic symbol, the pegasus is used to mark bike paths and public trash cans and signs pointing motorists toward downtown attractions. You can, if you are in the mood, visit Pub Pegasus and Pegasus Bank, just as you might enroll at the Pegasus Charter School or read the Pegasus News.

But, while I am all for a collective pegasus pride, I like to think not everyone's noticed the iconic sign at the top of 108 S. Akard Street. Urban pegasus spotting is a fine hobby indeed, but ever so slightly more than I like discovering each new pegasus in my city, I like to think there are people who earnestly call up the very real businesses of Pegasus Solutions or Pegasus Logistics or Pegasus Advisors and, having no reference at all for the mythological name, imagine, just for a moment, that a pegasus will answer and all their problems will be solved.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012


We are an hour and a half outside of Dallas, nearly to the cabin where we have been invited to a birthday party, and on the right side of the road interrupting vast fields and pastureland, we pass in succession, at one mile intervals, the isolated stores Texas Boot, Texas Gun, and the tattoo parlor Texas Ink. It feels like a progression of some kind, and I ask Dustin what it all means, what ultimate Texas thing this path is leading us to. An hour later, when a party guest calls us all to the bathroom to see the scorpion twitching in the sink, I take that as my answer. It's not enough that there are snakes in the brush and children keep falling into cactus needles, there are scorpions climbing up through the plumbing.

"At least it's a small one," I remark, looking at the pale little thing, but I am corrected. It's the little ones that are the most venomous.

"You probably won't die," Ed tells me of their sting. "But you'll throw up all day." And I am thinking about this possibility as someone scoops up the apparition in a plastic cup and adds enough alcohol to drown it. Scorpions, someone remarks, are not good swimmers.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Piñata Grande

Everything, so they say, is bigger in Texas. I was hoping that applied mostly to hair, but either the heyday of massive bouffants has passed, or I'm traveling in the wrong circles. For a while, my best illustration of Texas-sized things was the Mexican restaurant where the tortilla chips were each half a tortilla. Now, however, I would like to pass the crown to the single largest piñata I have ever seen.

My mother used to fill piñatas for the last day of school, the name of every kid in her class written on a brown paper bag filled with kazoos and finger puppets. In Iowa I saw piñatas hung indoors and out, always big enough a grown person could expect to land a hit on a crepe paper side instead of swinging into the nearby television. But in Texas I met a piñata as tall as I am and wide as my wingspan, plus a foot deep. It was covered in big pink pieces of crate paper pushed into rose shapes over a big heart attached to a small rectangular base. If there was any irony that it took the diminutive Tinkerbell as its theme, I was too busy estimating how many human bodies would fit inside to notice. 

The 16-year-old birthday girl proudly announced she had filled it with five pounds of candy, and I thought why stop there? This was a piñata that didn't fit in a car. A piñata you might jump out of like a cake. Why just Ring Pops and Mexican mango suckers covered in hot chiles powder? Why not a month's worth of groceries of a lifetime supply of bikinis? It was only a question of how much weight the tree limb could support.

As the teenagers went at it with a bat and a stick and a long flat piece of fencing, an adult mentioned to me that the first piñatas were made of a thin ceramic, and I imagined how those piñatas must have been all shatter and shard, even as I watched this one thumped and smacked until its aggressors changed weapons and it was summarily slashed and stabbed. Progress was so slow there were calls to raise the piñata up to the canopy and let the teenage girls jump on and hang from its base until something tore loose. That seemed right to me, a collective savagery against this behemoth that would not die, but eventually one teenage boy brought it down, and no one seemed to have energy left to race for its spoils.