Friday, November 30, 2012

Q & A

I just want y'all to know that Anything You Ever Wanted to Know is having a particularly good day today. I have learned there is no penalty for violating flag codes. There's less cake mix in the cake mix box than there used to be. Ketchup with a K is a trademark of Heinz. But mostly I've learned that there are people using the radio to find answers. It doesn't even bother me that it's a common myth that the Texas flag may be flown at the same height as the U.S. flag, because I have learned that the questions are better than the answers. The people ask the radio:
What is the china pattern in the opening credits of Downton Abbey?
Why is green the dominate color in nature?
Where can I have my pecans shelled?
Who decides what patterns go on the Reunion Tower ball?
Why, when someone dies under suspicious circumstances, does it take so long to get the results of the toxicology report?
Does Dallas have a Top Secret Mannequin Salvage Yard?

Last Meals

I read today that, as of 2011, the state of Texas stopped serving a last meal to its death row prisoners. They still get to eat; they are welcome to whatever the prison was serving anyhow. I'd say more, but Caitlyn Christensen says it so well. Go read her essay, Last Meals, in Defunct.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Neiman Marcus Christmas Book

Just the catalog, the Neiman Marcus Christmas Book, costs $15. It's been issued since 1939, but what's charming is that in 1952, Edward R. Murrow asked Stanley Marcus if there was anything of interest to his radio listeners to be found in the Christmas Book, and Marcus responded to the journalist's question by making things up. I like to imagine the scene in the office when the memo came down the whole catalog would be reprinted because some off-the-cuff remark now meant consumers had the opportunity to purchase a Black Angus bull with accompanying sterling silver barbecue cart. The so-called "fantasy gifts" have been tradition ever since.

Picking from the fantasy gifts, you might spend $5 on "candy pebbles in a jar" or $12 million on learjets. You might install a backyard waterpark or a Dale Chichully pool installation. Over the years you might have collected all the his-and-hers options: the para-sails, thunderbirds, hot air balloons, photo booths, mummy cases, robots, and dancing fountains a couple could ask for. This year you can get a jetpack or a walk-on role on Broadway's Annie, but you will long for the years you might have had a $15,000 edible gingerbread playhouse or $35 bronze spearheads from the Persian Wars.

Certainly the list has a knowing wink about its extravagancehow else to explain the "24 kt. Gold plated throne" (read: toilet) or the "Freeway Fortress" ("combination car and tank") or the "privacy egg" (no explanation)? And the book is at its best, most playfully ridiculous in the details; in 1974, for instance, Neiman-Marcus offered to fill your nickel-plated penguin ice bucket with "custom-chipped Antarctic ice, hand carried from the South Pole." But is it not sweet and innocent and utterly un-cynical to offer simply "a dirigible," or a mermaid suit complete with swimming lessons? Remember, you actually can order these things. Is there not something sublime in the possibility of delivering, to someone, "a truckload of pink air"?

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Larry Hagman

Before I lived in Dallas, obviously I lived in other places, and naturally in all of them, people have asked me where I was from. Ojai, I often say, is a town with four stoplights and a one-screen movie theater and a bunch of ex-hippies making beautiful ceramics and a bunch of wealthy conservatives supporting them. Sometimes, when I am in a mood, I mention my old high school friends coaching Scott Bakula's kids in tennis or serving Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen at Boccali's. Hardly anyone remembered June Alison by time I'd left home, but I'd bring up Larry Hagman, who had a house up in the hills and wrote editorials in the local paper. Hagman started building his Ojai house in the 1980s and in the early '90s moved in, just like my parents did with their Ojai house. It's curious that we've overlapped in two cities, Hagman and I. It's coincidence I was born the day J.R. was shot. But even if I'm not a real Texan, and hence can't claim this man born in Fort Worth and dead in Dallas, he's been a bit of my story long enough that I take notice, and his passing seems that much more sad.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Thanks-Giving Square

I've chosen to believe it's charming. Labyrinthine is a nice word, suggests meditation in a way you may not imagine if I say Downtown Dallas is rather a maze. There's the warp and weft of non-alternating one-way streets, the streets that are predictably bi-directional until some intersection where they become one-way, or the streets that stop altogether, should bisect the block in front of you but without warning simply pick up again on the other side. It's too much to memorize, much less which streets you can park on and which ones not. And it's all the more curious because there are moments of order that throw the idiosyncrasy into high relief. Dallas is built on something close to a grid, but then there's a seam right through the middle where one grid's been smashed up against another competing grid at an angle. Which is actually nice because it creates a series of wedge blocks, odd bits of land with a sharp taper, and what is one to do with acute triangle lots?

Since the U.S. bicentennial, one of those odd lots has been Thanks-Giving Square, complete with Thanks-Giving Garden and Thanks-Giving Chapel and Thanks-Giving Museum. It's a place worth visiting. There is a water feature that's like a creek with brick creek bed. The Chapel has a lovely spiraling set of stained-glass windows set in the spiraling ceiling. The museum is a place that emphasizes prayer and uses such quaint phrasing as "woman editor," but in it I think about all the turkeys drawn by tracing a child's hand and the pilgrims' buckled hats cut from construction paper and really all the time spent in my youth on the "first thanksgiving" without a mention that, in colonial America, days of fast and thanksgiving were proclaimed variously to mark times of crisis and joy.

The First Thanksgiving of the United States, according to the museum, actually dates to a congressional proclamation in 1777. In October the battle at Saratoga signaled the turning point of the war, and in gratitude Samuel Adams wrote this coordination of the states, more than 360 words but just one single sentence, suggesting they all set aside Thursday the 18th of December as a day of thanks. I like this notion, that Thanksgiving is a thing we choose to do, not just a thing we have always donethat the point is not to give thanks but to give thanks as one. Washington gave the first presidential proclamation of Thanksgiving, an tradition which lasted only through Adams and Madison. When Buchanan issued days of fasting and prayers, they were the first in 44 years. Lincoln declared 3 years of fasting and prayer before he saw fit to name one of thanksgiving, in 1863, the first in 48 years. Of course since then every president since has issued a thanksgiving proclamation every year"at least" one a year, the museum text says. I stand in the garden thinking about how very many things I have to be thankful for, and leave feeling calm and content and grateful. Then I go home, and I wonder if we might do well to mark a few more days of sorrow, as well.

Monday, November 19, 2012

City Lights

A week ago, Dustin and I went to The Angelica to see a matinee. We came out of the movie to the dark of night and hydraulic sigh of machine and wrist-flick of men in a cherry-picker flinging cords of Christmas lights into branches, branches, branches. And it seemed a little early, still observing Veterans' Day and all, but yet so welcome to see the colorful strands, so cheerful, the leafless trees like candy. And by Saturday Dallas had officially moved on to other holidays, lighting the big downtown Christmas tree and welcoming Santa and screening It's a Wonderful Life and everything. I'm sad to say we weren't there at City Lights, but we've made a pact to catch it next year. And, this is a consolation: if we hadn't been on the way to the airport Saturday afternoon, we might have missed the mega-church by the freeway, we wouldn't have known they've wasted no time and already have tied in place the giant banner reading, "Happy Birthday, Jesus!" The season's gifts begin.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Naming Rights

I would like to mention here my longtime love of station names. If I'd been paying attention in Dallas, I should already have an affection for such comely monikers as "Mockingbird" and "Lovers Lane," but public transportation is not so dear to me here as it is in other cities and so indeed I haven't been paying attention, and now I'll have to be quick if I am to care enough to take umbrage when they start changing them.

Indeed, if I'd been paying attention I'd know this is actually a common scheme: big cities like Boston, Philadelphia, DC all experimenting with revenue generation through naming rights to public transportation. Dallas isn't actually selling anything yet, and the experience of other cities suggests it shouldn't bother. But I try to keep an open mind. True: every time I pass the exit for the center it strikes me as an unfortunate revision and an ungainly mouthful. But if corporate interests can't be trusted, we may be just the kind of place to name things for individuals.

T. Boone Pickens is already ubixitous in my life; I can't pick up my boyfriend from his office building or go by the YMCA without re-reading his name. And however influential and supremely powerful the man, his name positively curls and winks with whimsy. I love the high "ee" of T dropping into the long swooping bass of "oon" undercut by the staccato attack of "icken." In the right context I'm sure it's formidable, but encountered unexpectedly on very serious buildings it just seems Seussian, charming, one of the great brands of Dallas, and hardly unwelcome on a light rail line.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Falling Down

I always fall on the right. In high school the asphalt sheared enough skin from my right shoulder and elbow  that three miles later I finished the race still bloody. In a college race I got through a muddy turn with some technicolor bruising and an impressive scrape high on my right thigh. Last year in the home stretch of a run, I clipped an uneven bit of pavement and went down, curling, with abrasions wrapping from palm around to knuckles scabbed over for weeks. But this evening, dusk falling faster than I might have anticipated, I smacked the sidewalk and got up with nothing worse than stinging palms to show for it. I like to think I'm getting better at this, that my body is learning with every fall. More likely I just run slower, have less acceleration to add to the crash. But perhaps this fall is only different because when I got up, picked up my splayed keys and finished walking to the end of the block, there was a woman waiting there in a big black truck watching the whole thing framed through the passenger window, asking if I was okay. It's such a nice thing to ask. Maybe I should have told her, told her that in fact I'm better at falling all the time, that in my falling career this is maybe a personal best. But I was still feeling a little shaken and I said I was fine, and as soon as I cleared her back bumper I ran the rest of the way home.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Notes from Portugal: Dallas

It was not entirely unexpected. Last summer I'd come across the Dallas Snack Bar off a little square in downtown Reykjavik, so it was not entirely without precedent when I discovered the Dallas Restaurante on my way to see petroglyphs in Foz Coa. But if it wasn't unexpected, it was still inexplicable. And two days later a Dallas Cafe went whipping past the rental car window. These are not, as a group, inviting establishments. Functional, sure, but past their prime, if indeed they were ever all that charming. My new Portuguese friend, Carlos, says none of this would be possible if not for the TV show, which was terribly popular back in the 1980s. 

It reminds me how the opening salvo of Suzy Banks' 2003 feature article "25 Things I Love About Dallas" is about how well received she was as a Texan while traveling in Europe back during the era of Dallas the show. Which reminds me of how a Zimbabwean friend of mine was well regarded by the folks back home when he moved to California, mostly because they knew the city of Santa Barbara from a soap opera of the same name. So it all seems possible, I guess, but where's the Grey's Anatomy convenience store? The All in the Family Cafe? Why have I never seen another television show memorialized like this, when apparently Dallas is at least a two-country phenomenon?

I believe Carlos when he tells me about the Portuguese king keeping fried chicken in his pockets and the noblewoman catapulting the town's last cow at a besieging army to demonstrate their bounty (and that bluff ending the siege!). I appreciate that when I discover the matchbox museum is defunct that he consoles me with legal history about lighter permits and students wearing pieces of tile on their heads to skirt the law. I admire that Carlos goes home to fact check whether it is Saint Antonio or the Virgin Mary or both that draw a salary on the military payroll. Which is to say, I have pegged Carlos as not just good company but as a reliable source, and so I find I must believe, too, this story about Dallas, though it strikes me as the oddest one of all.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Notes from Portugal: Texas

In Lisbon, Andrea takes me to paint traditional Portuguese tiles. She is disappointed that we will only be painting the blue on white designs, which seems like a good place to start, but they're actually very late in azulejo history, and the earlier blue and yellow ones are so very fine. The room is windowless. There are two other students in her class, one who is also named Andrea and one who has brought a box of a pastries in for his birthday. All questions addressed to me are addressed to my Andrea, and my Andrea says later that although we are not invited much into conversation, that the conversation is very much about me, the one day visitor. I know this only because the things Andrea says have something to do with me. "California" and the question is where am I from. "Texas" and the question is where do I live. The former ballerina who is teaching the class just nods at California. At Texas she repeats the magic word and says, "Texas!"as she flips her hands held as gun fingers from each hip and pretends to shoot up the class.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Notes from a Red State

A friend asks over drinks if we're registered to vote. Of course we are.

"In a state where it matters?" she continues.

She isn't counting Texas, so the answer is no. I think about this two days later as I go down the races the very first morning of early voting, as I make my picks in races fielding three candidates and not a Democrat among them (or for that matter, a woman). I think about it two weeks later as the results are reported.

Watching the election map fill out Tuesday night, Texas goes a flat plain red. We are the biggest state Romney will win, and that victory is so decided the website map doesn't even bother to color code the counties. It is only by mousing over that we pull up the numbers, realize that Dallas is in fact a blue county, even if it is an island in counties taking Romney three-to-one Romney. This morning in the post-election analysis, someone suggests that Texas is in fact bluer all the time. He says the demographic projections suggest that in just 25 years we'll be an honest-to-goodness blue-wins-it state. And I imagine trying to explain how it was to some young person. How when I came to Dallas I heard a caller on the radio admitting she would never tell her friends she votes Democratic. How my liberal Texas friends thought their votes didn't matter. How we all went to the polling places anyway, tapped away at touch screens in sad little church rooms, left without "I Voted" stickers and pins because they were never there, and let our little blue votes add up.

Monday, November 5, 2012

I Go Walking, Before Midnight

The men hanging out on the second floor landing call down to me, one of them sings. Their tone changes as I walk past without acknowledging them, but no matter, even behind me I hear no sound of anyone coming down the stairs. I take a quiet mile up the wide tree-lined street of old mansions, turn two corners and come back past the little block of restaurants and bars mostly closed or close to it. A car of young men with the windows down idles at the stoplight, revs, the passenger asks in a stage voice, "Why so serious?" The questions trail behind me as I cross the street. These things never happen when I take Dustin on my evening walk. When I walk with Dustin, maybe a dog walker looks up and says, "Hello." I am rounding the final blocks home when a woman overhears me talking on the phone and crosses the street from the liquor store to ask what I wanted. I explain the mistake and she smiles, waves as she continues on her way, and it seems for a moment a shame that I don't have more to say. On the other side of the street I am still talking on the phone and a man crossing in my direction changes his path so he can ask if I'm okay. "On the phone," I say, pointing to the bluetooth lost in my hair. "Oh, okay," he says. "I thought you were on those magic sandwiches." I don't ask, but I want to know more about magic sandwiches, about why they would have facilitated a conversation but without them we have nothing to say.

Friday, November 2, 2012


The leaves don't change much here, are more likely to fall out waxy and green than dry and bright. There's a scattering of desiccated three-pointed leaves, brown and curling in the grass, but not enough worth raking. But because Dallas has an annual pick-up of bulky waste each autumn, what we have instead of leaf piles are high mounds of brush and pruned limbs stacked on the curb, temporary wall-high thickets of dead plants, death conveniently organized and isolated and put on display lest we forget, with the ivy still growing and the trees still green with leaves, that this is a time to let things go.