soundtracks and road trips

My doctoral robes, 2003

The first time I left Texas for New York was April 2003. I had a job in Rochester, New York, with my new PhD. I’d fly back to defend my dissertation, a necessary formality, but I was finished. Graduate school was behind me, and a professional job waited for me in a place I’d never imagined. My first real professional job. I was 44 at the time, Katie was in college at the University of Texas, Marnie was at Smith College, and Will was living with his dad. I left on a really beautiful spring morning, very early, and how filled I was with hope and excitement. I had done this very hard thing, earned a doctorate, unfathomable, and everything waited for me. I’d made a CD full of songs I really loved, and as I headed up IH-35, and at the exact moment I drove past the apartment complex where my beloved Katie lived, Billy Joel’s song “New York State of Mind” came on. I started laugh-sobbing.

I remember such intense feelings, in two irreconcilable directions, one pulling me to stop, to stay, and the other urging me forward: almost unbearable pain at driving away and leaving my Katie behind, there in her little apartment and without me in town, and almost unbearable joy. NEW YORK. Never mind that it was Rochester; little old me, from where I was from, I had a PhD and I was moving to New York.

I think I pulled my cheek muscles on that long road trip from grinning. My favorite Spice Girls song came up and I started laughing almost hysterically. I think I called one of the girls, laughing like a maniac. I remember laughing out loud again and again, just out of the audacity of my life. My car had a bumper sticker “Bush is a Punk-Ass Chump” which I didn’t really think about, until I crossed into Ohio and more than once was threatened by a scary guy in a pick-up with a gun rack, trying to run me off the road, and red-faced screaming as he shook his fist at me. I should’ve thought about it, since upon crossing into that state the highways were lined with flags, and they hung on every overpass. (What? I wondered. This is the north, they aren’t ignorant here!)

Riverside Park, MY park. You can have Central, I’ll take Riverside

Flash forward 14 years, and here I am about to make almost the same trip, from Austin to Big Indian instead of Rochester. This time, I also have an apartment on the Upper West Side, the most unimaginable thing ever ever ever. This time, I’m not leaving my beloved Katie alone in a small apartment; I’m leaving her behind with her husband and two precious children in their own sweet home. She is a wonderful, solid, loving mama and wife. This time, she heads a family. This time, when I listen to “New York State of Mind,” I have intimate knowledge of the things he references — the Hudson River Line, the NYT, the Daily News, Chinatown where Marc buys good food for us and where we eat at Nha Trang II (not I, II is better), Riverside, my beloved, beloved Riverside. It’s not just a song anymore. This time, a whole new ‘everything’ waits for me, urging me forward.

And so my mind turns toward the soundtrack for my upcoming road trip. Of course Spice Girls will be on it, and Donna Summer, and Light & Day, and some John Prine and some Nina Simone, and KC & the Sunshine Band OF COURSE, and local goodies like Jerry Jeff Walker and Bob Schneider, but I think the song I’ll play as I’m pulling the truck away from the house will be an old Texas song, since I’ve been busy touching the old version of Texas I used to know, that used to exist. The old Texas dirt that my very bones are made of. The old Texas swing that pushes my blood along through my veins. I think I’ll pull out of town to Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys singing “Deep in the Heart of Texas.” It will be after midnight, so I will indeed see the big, bright stars in the sky, deep in the heart of Texas.

That high wailed a-ha! that he does is SO FAMILIAR. It’s as familiar as the grim old hymns we sang at the Loving Highway Church of Christ. Might need some Patsy Cline too, now that I think about it. And a whole bunch of bluegrass. And some yodeling, just for fun. It’s a 27+ hour drive, after all, so I can load up as many of the songs that have played on the soundtrack of my years as my phone will hold.

Now and then I want to get a map and just draw a line of my 82 moves, and see what it looks like, a God’s eye view of me moving around on the face of the earth. Sometimes when I’m driving on a long road trip, I kind of imagine that, I imagine God watching me toodling along on the face of his earth (so funny for me to be talking this way, I don’t even really believe it but still I kind of do), knowing that I feel grateful and happy.


the origin story of the Pillbug Queen

If you haven’t read Roger Ebert’s beautiful memoir, Life Itself, I recommend it with a full heart. I read it April, 2013, and there is one quote I keep coming back to over and over again:

I may appear to suffer from some sort of compulsive repetition syndrome, but these rituals are important to me. I have many places where I sit and think, “I have been here before, I am here now, and I will be here again.” Sometimes, lost in reverie, I remember myself approaching across the same green, or down the same footpath, in 1962 or 1983, or many other times. Sometimes Chaz comes along on my rituals, but just as often I go alone. Sometimes Chaz will say she’s going shopping, or visiting a friend, or just staying in the room and reading in bed. “Why don’t you go and touch your bases?” she’ll ask me. I know she sympathizes. These secret visits are a way for me to measure the wheel of the years and my passage through life.

I sympathize, too. I have the same need for that compulsive ritual — to touch the old places, to pause, to return and witness, and remember. As I’m getting ready to leave Austin I wanted to see the house I lived in back in early elementary school, when I first found myself as the benevolent queen of the pillbugs.

Just on the other side of the highway from where I live now, across the railroad tracks that give the highway its name — Mopac, for the Missouri Pacific — is a little house, number 3304, on a little street, Whiteway.

When I lived in this house in 1964, when I was 5, the front door was turquoise/aqua and we had a carport instead of an enclosed garage. The subdivision was brand new, then, so there weren’t big trees, although we had a lovely weeping willow in the back yard.

That window to the left of the front door is over the kitchen sink, and the window on the right side was my bedroom. My parents’ bedroom was at the back, with a sliding glass door into the back yard; I remember birds used to fly into the glass door and die. I remember watching my mother watch The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show and scream and pull on her face. I remember watching her dance around that house, doing the watusi and the twist and watching herself in every reflective surface, even the tiny chrome strip above the oven. I remember feeling bored of the house, bored by being 5 and 6 and 7. I remember reading until my eyes hurt, under the covers of my bed after dark. I remember how long the summer days were.

If you turn right out of our driveway, the railroad tracks are just three houses away, and across the street. We heard the trains every night, as I hear them here, where I live — same trains, same lonesome sound, and now when I hear them I remember Big Daddy, who came with my grandmother to Austin a couple of times when we lived on Whiteway. They would leave Graham very early, make the 5-hour drive, Big Daddy would walk to the railroad tracks and watch for trains, then he’d go back to the house for a cup of coffee and he and my grandmother would drive back to Graham. Of course I would walk with him, holding his hand and hoping it would be a very long time until a train would come.

And that train track….my little brother Sam was almost feral, completely ignored by our parents and acidly unwanted by our mother. The slogan for 7-UP back then was “Wet and Wild” and they called Sam 7-UP for that reason. One day, around lunch, we got a phone call that some people several streets away, down the railroad track, had found Sam wandering along the tracks in his soggy diaper, dragging a giant purple Kotex box he was filling with bugs. Mother was enraged and sent me to get him. I remember that walk home; Sam was too little to be scared of Mother yet, but I sure was.

Whiteway Drive; our house was at the very end of the street, on the right.

But of course there weren’t all those trees, back then, and so there wasn’t any shade to scurry toward on the hot afternoons walking home from school. I remember that Marika, the crazy Greek woman and her unhappy husband lived over there, on the left; and Keith lived on the right — he kicked off the lawn mowing Saturday mornings, because after he started his, all the fathers emerged from their houses to mow their own yards too in a kind of synchronized dance; and the family two doors up from us who had an akita dog with the palest blue eyes I’ve ever seen, and they freaked me out; and Grace and Lyndon Jacquet who lived across the street, and Grace died of uterine or cervical cancer (or maybe ovarian, they didn’t talk about those things back then) because she didn’t like to go to the doctor, ever. And my grandfather killed himself while we lived in that house, my father’s father, and I remember neighbors gathering on our back patio, must have been after the funeral, talking to my father who looked devastated and my mother was laughing at him. I overheard them talking and they changed the subject when I got close. Kids hear and understand. And remember.

Every afternoon, walking very slowly home from school because I didn’t want to get to my scary house, I would keep my eyes peeled on the scorching, melty hot asphalt of the street, looking for pillbugs. The story is on the About page, and if you’ve been around the blog for long you’ve probably heard it. I looked so intently for pillbugs and I rescued them and put them in the slightly cooler grass. It could be hard to collect them because they’d roll up into tight little balls, and I’d have to try to pinch them up from the hot street, but I was saving them for sure death, I thought. I am not sure exactly when it happened, I know I was in kindergarten but I don’t remember the moment, but I do remember imagining that I heard them talking to each other, knowing that I was coming, saying, “Here she comes, our benevolent queen!” In my imagination they had tiny little high squeaky voices. Pitch your voice very high and put a lot of excitement in it…..pillbug voice. It’s funny that I knew the word benevolent when I was five, and I’m glad I saw myself that way. I think I so desperately wanted to be saved, so I saved something weaker than myself. I imagined the street must bounce, to them, as giant me approached. I imagined how my giant hand must look as it approached them. I thought about walking down the old street today, for old time’s sake, but the trees make it too different and I am too different. I’m not scared to go home anymore.

And as I drove through the neighborhood to find my old elementary school and passed through the streets, everyone came back—Cynthia Fox, who lived on Stardust; Katie Davis, who lived on Silverleaf and who was murdered her first year of college; a pair of twins who lived on Skylark. Various boys whose names I no longer remember, but I do remember falling into step in our small groups as we all walked to school.

When I attended Lucy B Read, it was a regular neighborhood elementary school. They’ve since turned it into a “resource center,” not sure what that means exactly, but I can still see the school I went to.

That metal roof over the top wasn’t there, but the classrooms are the same otherwise. That room (#3) was my third grade classroom, my teacher Mrs. Worley, and I will always remember her. The picnic tables weren’t there back then either. I’m not sure why they erected that structure over top of the school, except maybe to shade the sidewalk. Perhaps the classrooms aren’t air conditioned (I know they weren’t back then) and so the super structure helps keep the classrooms a little cooler in the summer heat.

Hello, classroom, it’s still me. I’m still that girl in so many ways. I still love pillbugs, and trilobytes. I remember every single map I colored in that room, especially India and Japan. I remember learning about weather systems and learning how to write in cursive. I remember making shoebox dioramas, and a construction paper Iroquois longhouse. I remember leaving the class every day for special time with the principal, reading whatever I wanted to him — I especially remember reading a book about salamanders. They didn’t have gifted programs back then but they had to do something with me, so that’s what they came up with. I remember coming back to that classroom with a mouth full of braces, and the kids laughing at me. I remember running out this very door, crying, and Mrs. Worley coming after me. She knelt by me and put her arms around me, comforting me, and then she walked me back into the class and told everyone to apologize to me. I remember that so clearly. I remember being SO PROUD when my very young mother came to pick me up; she was one of the youngest mothers, only 24 when I was 6, and she was so stylish: hot pants, fishnet hose and boots, miniskirts, big giant 1960s hair and that great make-up. She was vicious and cruel, but she was stylish and beautiful and put on such a great show for other people. I remember casually asking other kids how old their mothers were, and then bragging about how young mine was. I’m not sure why that felt like such a big thing, except as I write I imagine it must be that it was a big thing TO HER, a thing she talked and bragged about all the time, and so I thought it was that, too.

That school was erected in 1962, when I was four, and I started kindergarten in 1963 so my memory of it as being shiny and new must be right. And it was so stylish then, the newest style of architecture.

“These secret visits are a way for me to measure the wheel of the years and my passage through life,” Ebert said, and my own visits are that for me. I make so much of my small touchstones, and they are so very alive for me. Other people don’t do that, I’ve noticed — it’s too ordinary or uneventful or something. Or maybe they just don’t need to remark on it. I’m not sure why it is all so remarkable for me, except it’s that measuring of my life, marking my passage on the wheel. I’ve moved so many times and had so many different lives, but in finding these old places and touching them, I find my continuity. Ah, I’ve been here before, I’m here now, I may be here again. If I go with Marc to Highland Park, Illinois, he doesn’t feel a need to go see, or to show me, where he went to elementary school. Why would he, he wonders. (Though I would love to see.) This is MY MAP of the world. This is the life I’ve had, these are the years I’ve spent, this is what they represent (thank you Annie Lennox), and I’m grateful for every blessed moment of this entire life, even the frightening ones, the hard ones, the scorched ones, the bleak ones, the transformational ones. All of them.


bones and roots

My trip to Graham was even better than I could have imagined, although it was so chilly and windy that my lips got terribly chapped and the drive was difficult. I didn’t want to linger outside the car too much, so I took quick snaps of things I would have otherwise taken time with. But the reason for my trip was completely fulfilled.

After waking at 4, unable to get back to sleep I went ahead and made a pot of coffee and thermosed it and hit the road. I was taking smaller highways (183 and then 281), so I was expecting the pleasures of open fields, little traffic, and big skies — and boy did I find that. That feels like my Texas. A big weather system had come through the night before, spawning some deadly tornadoes, so the sky was especially dramatic as the sun came up.

The sky in Lampasas took my breath away
I pulled over to catch the sun streaming through the hole in the cloud blanket

I’d planned to stop to get donuts in Lampasas at a little spot called the Donut Palace (didn’t really expect it to be much of a palace, and it wasn’t), but when I walked in, there were four old men sitting at a table — their table, I’d wager — just talking about nothing, and my heart caught in my throat. Every morning, when I’d stay with Mom and Big Daddy for a week in the summer, Big Daddy would get up at 4 to “go to town.” He and I slept out on the screened sleeping porch, and I always wanted to go with him, so he’d wake me up and off we’d go, in the dark. We had two stops: the donut shop, and the gas station where he’d buy some milk out of a freezer case outside. When we got to the donut shop, he always told me to wait in the car. I remember sitting on the front seat, leaning forward with my elbows on the front dash and my chin in my hands, gazing at Big Daddy as he sat at a table with three old men, drinking coffee. It’s easy to imagine the view he would’ve had, if he’d looked my way: a smiling granddaughter, eager for a glance. I was too little to have a reliable sense of time — it seemed like he was in there forever — but when he’d finish his coffee, he’d buy a donut for me and then off we’d go to the gas station to finish our morning errands.

And so, I bought my donuts, smiled at the old men at the Donut Palace and off I went to finish my drive.

my standard view
Indian blankets (Gaillardia pulchella), one of our standard Texas wildflowers. They made the fields and sides of the road a brilliant orange.

Driving to Graham, I was surprised to see how much is completely unchanged. The Hico Hill Inn is still in business in Hico, the sign completely unchanged even if the rest has been updated; just outside of Hico, the RV Park and Horse Motel — adjoining lots, one for RVs and the other for horse trailers (I’m not kidding); signs in Mineral Wells saying “Keep Mineral Wells Crazy” which must be their attempt to follow Austin’s “Keep Austin Weird” slogan but I don’t think it really works. The same dive bars, the same drive-in restaurants, the same of so many things it felt like I was driving backwards, somehow.

And then I crossed into Young County (Graham is the county seat). I’d noticed, as I was driving, that the accent of my thoughts was thickening; the north Texas accent is its own thing, with very flat vowels and dragging rhythms. Oil, for instance, is awl. Lisle, an old family name in Graham, is Lahl. I could feel it happening in my thoughts, and even as I write this morning, my voice is still thick with that accent.

The moment you cross into Young County, you start seeing all the pumpjacks
I love them, even though I used to think they looked creepy, like praying mantises
I thought this was a skyscraper when I was a kid.

My plan was to drive to the cemetery, then to Big Daddy’s house, which was a few blocks down the same road, then over to the park, and then to eat at K&N. I didn’t know where he was buried in Pioneer Cemetery, and when I drove in, I was thinking that I hadn’t been at his funeral so I thought I had absolutely no idea where he might be. I ruled out a couple of sections that were too new (he died in 1971), but there was still a good bit of ground to cover, and the wind was whipping so hard and fast it nearly blew me over. So I picked a section and started walking the rows, looking. It was so uncomfortable with the wind, I said, halfheartedly and unbelieving, “Come on, Big Daddy, tell me where you are.” My arms were crossed, hands tucked under my armpits and my shoulders scrunched up by my ears, resisting the wind. I thought, I think he’s over there. I glanced at the section and decided I’d better stick with my systematic walking — if I just abandoned the section and went over there, I might have to start all over.

So up and down I walked, and again I said, “Call out to me, Big Daddy, where are you?” and again I thought, I think he’s over there. Finally, I got to the end of a row, took a photo of the headstones so I wouldn’t lose my place, and I went to that other section. I walked one row, turned around to come up the next, and there he was.

My Big Daddy
No friends or relatives around, for some reason

Standing there, I realized that I had been to his funeral. I remember seeing the deep, dark hole in the ground and feeling such a terrible panic that my Big Daddy was going to have to be left in that hole. I had completely forgotten that.

I hadn’t planned anything. I hadn’t planned to think a particular thing, or say a particular thing. My plan was simply to see where he was buried. But I stood there and felt that old pain in my chest, the one I can still touch if I think about him, the one that felt unbearable for so many years after he died. I told him a few things, what he had meant to me then, what he has meant to my life, what I’ve done that he never got the chance to do, that I loved him so dearly.

As I walked through the cemetery, it was the strangest feeling. I saw one familiar family name after another, and would say out loud, “Aw, there are the Thigpens — and there are the Lisles — aw, the Orrs, old Bobby –and there’s Hugh Ribble.” Those names, those families, like the dirt I was made from, somehow. I wondered why this place was so deeply home to me; I lived there 3 months at birth, 3 months around Big Daddy’s death when I was 12, and a couple of months in 1987. That’s all. It was never really my home. I never really knew any of the Thigpens, or the Lisles, or the Orrs.

Finally the wind blew me to my car, and I headed a few blocks down the road to Big Daddy’s house.

Big Daddy’s house was yellow, when I was a child.

There wasn’t a carport when I was a kid, and there was a giant swamp cooler hanging out of the leftmost window, which is the living room. There were two tall, nasty juniper trees on either side of the mailbox, filled with writhing bagworms. The screened porch on the back has been turned into a regular part of the house, and they fenced the back yard so I couldn’t see the back very well. How I know that house. There were those little gas burners in each room, set in a stone “fireplace” kind of, and that’s what heated the house. They were always scary to me, bright blue flames at floor level, and not much to keep clothing from catching fire — and in fact, that happened in the bathroom once, so scary.

This is one of my precious objects — it’s a heavy doorstop that was always in Big Daddy’s house.

It was an old way of living — no air conditioning, doors and windows open to catch whatever breeze there might be, the swamp cooler to add a bit of cool moisture to the dry air. Very cold in the winter, with piles of old quilts, and very hot in the summer, with cold watermelon and waiting for the sound of the snowcone man. I remember all that in my bones.

Nothing you do for a child is ever wasted. Don’t forget that. 

I have a dress buried in this back yard. There used to be a trampoline here.

This house is next door, and they used to let me jump on their trampoline, which I would do with giddy joy, shouting, “Big Daddy! Watch me! Big Daddy, look at me!” Of course he didn’t, but I lived on the edge of that hope that maybe this time he would. A terrible thing happened to me on the day of Big Daddy’s funeral, and my dress was covered with blood — which would have infuriated my mother, that I ruined a dress — so I crawled out of Big Daddy’s house and buried the dress under the trampoline….which is very interesting, if you think about it. I could’ve buried it in Big Daddy’s yard, but I buried it underneath the trampoline. (Maybe it was as simple as not wanting my mother to see a dug-up spot in the yard.) I wonder if that dress is still there, probably not. It was a little cotton dress, peach and white, and that was 46 years ago.

I knew the street my great-grandmother had lived on — Blewett — but hadn’t planned to find her house….until I was driving down Big Daddy’s street and crossed Blewett! I always thought she lived far away, but it was just down the street. So I turned onto Blewett, and there it was.

My great-grandmother’s house.

There used to be a gorgeous, big mimosa tree in the front yard, covered in pink blossoms, but it’s gone now. I know every square inch inside that house, the smell of the rooms, the kitchen. She always saved a jar of pickled beets for me, because she knew I loved them, so I would run in the front door and go straight back to the kitchen. She had a cloth calendar of the whole year, with little sequin stars glued on for each of the family birthdays (all clumped up in November… February in Young County, Texas is cold and bleak so….well…..). I remember her bed, her chenille bedspread, the cut glass lamps, the creaky wood floor with gaps between the boards so you could see the dirt underneath. But to see it now, to see what it really is, left me feeling a depth to the understanding of where I came from.

Then it was time to see the park where Big Daddy took me fishing. He’d make me collect bait — a coffee can that I had to fill with grasshoppers and crickets. I hated touching them, but I wanted to do anything with Big Daddy so I’d gather them as fast as I could, slap on the plastic lid, and off we would go with our little fishing poles. In my memory, we sat by a muddy river with a wild bank, and I do remember a time he saw a water moccasin and jumped up and ran, hollering at me to run, too. And granted, perhaps they have fixed up the park since I was a little kid, but it wasn’t a muddy river, it was a small pond, and the wild bank was just a grassy slope.

Firemen’s Park, I used to think it was grand and wild.
Sitting in the exact spot Big Daddy and I used to sit, to fish.

That picture I have of him, sitting at a concrete picnic table, was taken in Firemen’s Park. I sat on the ground where we used to sit and held him in my thoughts, and remembered how excited I used to feel, scared that I might actually catch a fish and have to touch it. I don’t remember that either of us ever did — I think the point was just to get away from my grandmother, and to have something to do.

I’d been looking forward to having a hamburger and a root beer at K&N, but like almost all the restaurants and drive-ins, it was closed because it was Sunday. On Sundays, people in Graham go to church and then go home to have a big Sunday supper. Then they rest, or watch football if it’s that time of year, or read, or talk, and then they go back to church in the evening. They don’t go to K&N. I was disappointed.

K&N was closed but it’s *exactly* the same, exactly.
They still sell a tiny root beer! And they have a typo in the hot chocolate. Not that I would’ve mentioned it.

As I drove around town, waves of memory passed through me, indistinct but familiar. That large house up on the side of the hill, I’ve been inside it, I remember the furniture and how the house felt — so much of my memories were of how it felt to be there — but I can’t remember whose house it was. The square, around the courthouse, looked exactly the same as when I was a kid. So many of the same stores and businesses, and a few new ones.

When I was a kid, going to Boaz Department Store was such a huge thing — and I thought it was the biggest store I’d ever seen.

I remember my mother bitterly complaining one day, when we were at Boaz. She said you can’t buy new underwear in Graham without everyone knowing your business and talking about it. (Boaz was the only place to shop back then.) I think she chafed at the small town she grew up in; she had bigger dreams, she wanted a fancier place in the world, and she couldn’t really find it. She dropped out of high school and ran off with my father, also a high school dropout, and was instantly pregnant with me.

Cattle and oil are the reason for Graham’s existence, captured in this large mural on the side of a building downtown

On my way out of town, I swung by the Loving Highway Church of Christ. We were there every time the doors opened — Sunday mornings, Sunday evenings, and Wednesday evenings, plus summer revival meetings. I was baptized there by Tommy Thompson, and there were dead scorpions floating in the cold water….not part of the deal, just too unremarkable to worry about. I remember the smell of the hymnals, the hardness of the wooden pews (no cushions, that’s not mentioned in the Bible! No stained glass, also not mentioned, nor musical instruments (which were mentioned, come on you hard people), the sign up front that listed the hymns we’d be singing. My favorites, Softly and Tenderly, This World is Not My Home, Amazing Grace, Rock of Ages, The Old Rugged Cross.

The Loving Highway Church of Christ. I was baptized here.

Then it was time to leave. I’d seen everything, I found my Big Daddy, I touched all the old places and saw them with grown-up eyes, saw how small they were, how close. It was surprising, and surprisingly moving. It was an emotional trip, but only in the very best ways. I cried a lot, but only in the most personal ways — this was my home because Big Daddy lived there. That simple, quiet man, and his small, difficult life, made home for me because he loved me.

I was so lucky to get to see Dixie and Karl, there is never enough time with them no matter how much I get. We talked and talked and talked, laughed and caught up, shared our fury and disbelief over politics, ate a wonderful dinner together, drank some red wine, and then after breakfast and a walk together, I hit the road. I cherish every single second I had with them, and I’m so grateful they are in my heart. So grateful. Dixie is the sister I never really had. How lucky I am to have gotten her. (She is the cousin of my first husband, Jerry, and her precious mother Oopie was truly an angel walking on this earth — and Oopie loved me, too, for some reason that must have had to do with her more than me.)

Darling, darling Dixie, my deep sister.

I’d planned to drive straight home, but traffic on IH35 was a complete nightmare, so in Waco I rerouted to the east. I hadn’t even really realized that by going east I’d be going toward Taylor, where my father is buried, and in fact it wasn’t even until I passed the sign to Throckmorton that it hit me. Throckmorton! My dad grew up there….oh! So with no plan, no forethought, I thought I’d just swing by the cemetery to see his grave. Unlike Big Daddy’s, I knew where his was even though I’d only been there twice since he was buried in 1982 — once in 1999, when I planned to kill myself on his grave to “show” him, and once in 2012, with Katie, when I went to “show” him in a different way, to have my triumph over him 30 years after his death. That time, I instead ended up just kicking the headstone over and over, and grinding dirt into it, and collapsing in tears into Katie’s arms. I felt like I said goodbye to him then.

So with no more plan than to see his grave, I parked my car under the lone tree and walked toward his headstone. The headstones were covered with dead grass clippings so I had to sweep them away to see his name.

Unadorned, unkept, untended except by the groundskeeper.

It was a strange experience, touching his headstone. It was warm from the sun, and I hadn’t been that close to it, ever. It surprised me to feel any kind of connection. So I swept it clean and knelt there, thinking about him. And then, without even thinking about it, I stood on his headstone and said, “I win, Dad. I win.” And I stepped off, walked to my car, and drove away.

I win, Dad. I win.

I had such a strange mixture of feelings, because they were all there: anger, sorrow, acceptance, distance, empathy for him, sympathy for little me. It’s like the whole thing came to a kind of balance, and I didn’t have to leave any of them out of the story for it to be OK. It’s OK. He beat me and tried to kill me and touched me and shamed me and belittled me and said horrible and horribly inappropriate things to me and blamed me for his suicide and was in so much pain he couldn’t bear it and felt shame and just wanted to die and just wanted to hurt everyone who came close and wanted us all to hurt as much as he did. It’s all true. I understand and don’t understand, and it’s all in balance in some way.

Taylor has a great BBQ joint, Louie Mueller, so I left the cemetery and headed over for a chopped beef sandwich. They use a LOT of black pepper in the rub, so it’s right up my alley. And somehow, having BBQ after leaving my dad’s grave felt a bit like winning, too. I was OK. I wasn’t torn up, I wasn’t devastated, I just said goodbye.

Louie Mueller BBQ, in Taylor, TX
Traditional, in every way.

It was a magnificent trip, and I’m so glad I went. I felt like I was saying goodbye to Texas, in some way — to my old Texas, the landscape I’m made of, the dirt and sky and hardship I came from, and I have a place for it all in my heart, in its proper place and size.

Big Daddy’s Gim

One of the rare nice stories my mother ever told about me was this: When I was a very little girl, we would drive from Austin to Graham to visit my grandparents, Mom and Big Daddy. (My mother and grandmother would sit at the kitchen table all night, talking and smoking and drinking endless Dr. Peppers, which is a fond memory of mine.) The drive took five hours, and apparently when we came up over a slight rise and saw the lights of tiny little Graham, Texas, I would start jumping up and down on the back seat saying, “Big Daddy’s Gim! Big Daddy’s Gim!” Which means I was so young I couldn’t even say the word Graham properly. When I was born there, Graham had 7,477 people; as of the 2010 census, it had 8,903 people so it’s holding steady.

My letter to my mother, when I was 6. I asked about my brother but not my sister. 🙂

A couple of summers I spent a week there in Graham, all by myself with Mom and Big Daddy. It was so wonderful — just me, the pleasure of being the oldest kid in the family getting to do such a thing, leaving the siblings behind. During the day, my grandmother watched soap operas all day and she and I ate watermelon. Once a week, when Big Daddy came home from his job as janitor at the hospital, we three would get in the car and go to the K&N Root Beer Stand. It was the kind of place where they prop a tray on the driver’s rolled-down window.

The mugs didn’t have the logo on them back then.

We’d get hamburgers and root beer, which came in super thick, SUPER frosty mugs. They had several sizes, from one that was so big you absolutely had to hold it with both hands, to a tiny little one for toddlers. I always wanted a bigger one than I got, because I loved their root beer so much. Big Daddy always ate his hamburger so fast, before Mom and I even got ours unwrapped; he would then start the car and leave it idling while we ate as fast as we could, because he was ready to get back home, to sit in his vinyl recliner and watch wrestling. Which he insisted was real. And he’d ask me to rub stinky green liniment on his aching feet, which I did with a great thrill, because I was getting to touch Big Daddy, who was otherwise a kind of silent guy who didn’t interact. He’d let me put fingernail polish on him, and I could dust Mom’s face powder on his bald head — he’d tolerate that silently, with an occasional grunt, but I think the attention made him happy, too. He’d finally get enough, and say, “Here, Pete. That’s enough.” But “here” was more like a harumph, like hnyah.

Sunday I’m driving to Graham. I haven’t been there since January 1987, so 30 years. I don’t know that I have ever been to Big Daddy’s grave, and I don’t think I was allowed to go to his funeral. My uncle, Big Daddy’s son, inherited the little yellow house, but it’s since been sold to someone else and the yard is quite different. So my plan is to go to his grave, then drive by his house, and then — imagine my shock to learn it’s still there, and in business! — to go get lunch at K&N Root Beer Stand.

I’ll probably cry a lot.

I remember one time Mom and Big Daddy and I were having lunch at K&N, and it was the day of the week when the Graham Leader came out, the local newspaper. The big headline was something about a local man catching a giant crappie at nearby Possum Kingdom Lake. In case you don’t know — as I didn’t, back then — the word is pronounced like crop-ee. But you know, I was a very little kid. So I asked why a man would catch a crap-ee and my grandmother threatened to wash out my mouth with soap. I was scared and confused, until I noticed a little smile around the edges of Big Daddy’s mouth. Mom was serious, but Big Daddy just thought it was funny, so I got to think it was maybe a little bit funny, too. I don’t think she washed out my mouth, but it was no idle threat with her.

There’s my Big Daddy at a picnic in Fireman’s Park, in Graham, the year before he died.

I imagine it will be a very emotional trip for me. I imagine I’ll cry a good bit, and maybe do some of that laugh-crying when I’m at K&N. I only have two pictures of Big Daddy, and this is the only one where I can make out his face. His arms and hands still feel so familiar to me — he was actually my mother’s uncle, so even though she was adopted, she was adopted by family and her arms are like his. I wish I had a picture where his face wasn’t in shadow; in the other picture, I’m standing next to him peeling a banana, but his head is down and his hat hides his face completely.

After my Big Daddy tour in Graham, I’ll drive over to Dixie’s house, a couple of hours away, and spend the night and the next day with her and Karl, so all in all I’m looking forward to Sunday and Monday with a full heart and deep anticipation.

politics and facebook


I mostly love facebook. I’ve made friends through facebook, keep up with my friends and family, and it’s my online news source.  When the Boston marathon bombers were still on the loose I was flying to New York, and the moment I landed I went to facebook to see if they’d been caught because it’s my best news aggregator from a whole bunch of sources. At a glance I could see the headlines from a dozen news sources I tend to trust. I love hearing from friends, seeing the things that make them happy or angry, laughing at funny things they share, it’s just great. Kind of addictive — constantly changing, something new! something new! something new! — but I’m mostly pro-facebook.

The majority of my friends have a similar political sensibility, but not all. And in fact, a few of my friends have such a dramatically different political viewpoint from me, it can be a ‘thing.’ So perhaps we talk about everything but politics because we care enough about each other to set it aside. Or perhaps we just kind of nod at each other and change the subject. Because one thing that’s increasingly true in our country is that we’re so polarized and our opinions are fixed in cement. Mine certainly are! I feel pretty sure I’ve heard every single argument supporting all-guns-all-the-time and I am entirely unswayed. I feel pretty sure I’ve heard the Tea Party positions, the Republican positions, and whoo boy, nope. Unswayed, and dramatically so. DraMAtically so. I have problems with a lot of things Obama has done, and certainly do not think the Democratic Party is exempt from cronyism and lobbyists, nor are they exempt from gamesmanship. Politics is a big money game, across the board.

Since we do not listen to each other, nor are we going to convince each other across the divide, I’ve thought about why we post political things on facebook — why post political things. And I know why I do: I post, and like my friends’ posts, so I don’t feel quite so much despair. Ah, she feels the same way. Ah, here are a whole bunch of people who see things the same way. Especially in such a red state that feels regressive and ignorant and cruel (politically), I just need to know that there are other people who see what I see. And so I post and share and comment for support, and that’s that. When there is a political action going on, or there’s some way we can mobilize, I always share that so my similar-minded friends will see it and help, if they can.

People on the other side of the divide just look at very different aspects of the issues, or interpret data so very differently I can make absolutely no sense of their positions. None. And I assume they feel the same way about me and my positions! One of my facebook friends will post political comments about “King Obama” and guns and various things that are just so far away from anything that makes even the slightest sense to me, and so I never comment on those posts. First of all, I have nothing to say because I can’t accept any of the premises, nor do the arguments make sense. But second, what would be the point or purpose? Simply inflaming an argument is of no use and I hate that kind of interaction. And so I let them slip past, unliked or commented upon. And that’s just fine with me! I also tend not to like or comment on posts about Metallica, for instance. 🙂

When someone from the other side writes a comment on something I’ve posted, if it has an openness to it, or some humor (which is lacking on all sides these days), I’m happy to respond in kind. One sweet woman I know feels very differently from me about guns, and left a couple of comments stating her position clearly but without hostility or rancor. Later in the thread she apologized if she’d offended me and said how she felt about me — but she hadn’t offended me at all! It was her way of engaging the issue that made the difference. I disagree completely with her position, but she didn’t offend me in the slightest. But so often the comments have a mean and harsh edge, and that’s what offends me. Commenters sometimes get personal, attack, belittle, and those I’ve decided to completely ignore. If other commenters respond and a difficult dialogue fills up the thread, I don’t even look at it. Politics today fills me with such despair, and in fact when I hear the Republicans talk about anything — and especially when a Tea Party Republican speaks — I just sink and feel so terrible it’s hard to bear. It all sounds so mean, and it’s so not the country I want. I end up pulling an ostrich and just hiding myself away.

I have been having a very hard time lately living in Texas because most of the Texas politicians humiliate me, and their stances feel so mean and nasty. Ted Cruz, Louie Gohmert, that moron who berated and tried to shame the Parks Dept employee in front of a crowd, Texas politicians. Humiliating. Of course we also have Wendy Davis, and Leticia Van de Putte, and Senfronia Calpernia Thompson (boy do I love her name), Texas politicians I am so proud of (and coincidentally, women, or maybe it’s not a coincidence). But they have a hard row to hoe, and the chances they’ll succeed in making the changes I long for are slim. The Affordable Care Act doesn’t do me much good here because of my idiotic governor and his cronies, who have successfully kept much of it away from Texans. Again and again I am denied the things that people elsewhere in the country can get, because I live in Texas. I despair. I live in a place where someone can be fired from their job for being gay. Seeing that my facebook friends feel similarly doesn’t change anything, but it does help me feel less alone, and that helps me.

I ‘like’ this post.

exhausted by the meanness

There is an exhaustion that comes from fighting, at least for me. Some people seem able to persist, and thank heavens for them. Thank heavens for Wendy Davis, Senfronia Thompson, Kirk Watson, Leticia Van de Putte; thank heavens for the orange-clad people who just keep returning and fighting for women. Thanks heavens for bold young women like this one, who makes me so so proud:

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meanI cannot watch that video without getting choked up and feeling so proud of her, of us all, for fighting so hard. I am so tired of having to fight the meanness of the Republican party, which just seems to hate everything and everyone, maybe most especially poor people. Or, wait: gay people. Wait, maybe women. Poor women, double trouble. The same Texas Republican politician (a woman) who ignorantly said that ER rape kits are for “cleaning women out” after a rape, who is pushing this anti-abortion bill that will effectively end health care for so many women who rely on local clinics that also happen to perform abortions, this Republican woman also wants to severely cut prenatal health care to poor women because “the babies are not born yet.” Women cannot have abortions because that’s a person in there . . . but hey, no help for you, impoverished woman who cannot afford to have a child, because that person isn’t born yet. (Not that you’ll get a lick of help after it’s born, either.) The lack of logic there is depressing, and only really explained by the characteristic meanness of people in her party. NO you have no rights to your own life because you got pregnant (and we’re not going to educate you about it, even though Texas has the 4th highest teenage pregnancy rate in the country)(and we’re going to cut off options for free or inexpensive birth control)(and if you get pregnant, you’re entirely on your own)(and no we’re not at all interested in helping ensure that you will get fair pay, by the way)(but at least you’re straight so you can get married). I am exhausted by the nasty mean attitudes, by the “I got mine” attitude, by the vicious judgment, by the “King Obama” name-calling, by the attitude that people who don’t agree are “brainwashed.” That one really gets me; whatever else you might say, brainwashed is particularly mean and discounts the possible that other people actually think and might even (gasp!) disagree for legitimate reasons. I do not assume that they are brainwashed; I assume that they have reasons for their beliefs, even if those reasons make no sense to me. But to discount those assumptions and beliefs as being “brainwashed” is to discount them as thinking people.

I have read plenty of nasty comments by liberal Democrats too (of course, so obvious it hardly needs to be stated), name-calling the anti-abortion protesters, so it’s not as if any side is holy. It’s not like that at all. We are all so frustrated, and then we’re kind of left with our frustration and lashing-out because — I think — none of us sees how it can change. And it’s not as if any of this applies to 100% of people in either category, of course. I can think of exceptions right and left. But the lock-jawed, mean, cruel, harsh Republican voice is wearing me down and breaking my heart. My heart does bleed, I do think we should take care of people who need help even though there will always be cheaters who game the system, I do think the government should stay out of our personal business (and my body!). I do think that gay people ought to have all the same rights as straight people and it’s mind-blowing to me that this is even a question. I am exhausted by religious people thinking their beliefs ought to be the law, that their judgment should apply to everyone. I am exhausted by it all. I am exhausted by white people who think it’s all been magically fixed, but who don’t do even the slightest bit of research to see that no, gay people are not safe; no, voting isn’t as simple as all that for everyone; no, racism isn’t over; no, women aren’t equal citizens. I can see a lot to change about liberals, but I do not typically find them to be such cold and mean people. And it’s the cold and meanness that are so exhausting me.

Right now I am editing a memoir of a dominatrix, and I’m not a prude but I am being exhausted by the cruelty and terrible things people do to each other, by the harsh and hateful things people want done — and some are willing to do them. There was a chapter I read earlier this week that was just so terrible, I did not want to keep living in a world where people do these things. (Just a feeling!! I definitely want to keep living!!) I don’t know when or why the world became so cruel and mean, so “fuck you.” I don’t know why it’s so bad to have a world where we get help when we’re in trouble, where we help others in trouble (a sentiment so many vocal Republican ‘Christians’ seem to ignore), where we just let each other be, but I’m not stupid and naive; that is not the world we live in, at least for now in this country. I can pull away from mean people, but I am currently stuck in the political consequences of such meanness and it breaks my heart and exhausts me. I am exhausted by the meanness of George Zimmerman’s comment that “they” always get away, as he allegedly pursues Trayvon Martin and kills him. “They.”

We cannot and do not talk to each other — and that is as true of ME as anyone. I find most Republicans’ attitudes incomprehensible and reprehensible. I generally find their lack of reason and logic troubling to say the least. My opinions are very well thought-through — no “brainwashing” here — and no, they’re not going to convince me to change my opinions on the anti-abortion bill. They’re not going to convince me to change my opinions about gun ownership, or gay rights, or women’s rights, or pay equity, or voter’s rights. They’re just not. I haven’t yet heard an argument that made one damn bit of sense to me. And so I own up to that: no, I see no point in talking to them, or listening to them. I see no way things can change with that attitude, but then again I don’t think their opinions are open to change either. I’m glad I’m not in charge of the world because I don’t know how to fix it. My late-night daydreaming involves shipping them all to a mean island where they can be cruel to each other to their heart’s content, but that’s impractical. 🙂 I have the same thought about smokers. I am a small and petty person.

Two nights ago I watched the news and saw young women shouting when the gavel fell and the anti-abortion bill passed in the Texas House. I saw state troopers dragging them out, and still they yelled. And it just made me feel so so tired. As Dee says, we can do better. And we just have to. And then there is this:

hell yeah.
hell yeah.

I am foolish. I want to live in a world characterized by kindness, and that is rarely our world. Except when it is. When complete strangers run into a bomb blast, not knowing if there would be more, to save complete strangers. For example. Fewer bombs please, less meanness, more helping strangers. Please.

it seems so simple to me

This is a serious post, political, in the same way a glass of water is a political issue. And just like a glass of water, it’s clear and obvious (to me, anyway!). If you do not believe in gay marriage, do not marry someone of your own sex. If you are against abortion, do not get an abortion. That would seem to end the discussion, wouldn’t it?

So often, the people who want to enact these stances into LAW forbidding anyone from doing them are Republicans (especially but certainly not exclusively Republican men) who think — otherwise — that government should stay out of their lives. And of course none of this is monolithic. Some people who consider themselves Democrats want these to be laws. Some Republicans do not. Of course. And the abortion issue is complicated, especially since it is framed as “the abortion issue.” Another euphemism: this is about “women’s health.”

For the past week, I’ve been so focused on the issue of women’s choice for self-determination. I was overjoyed that DOMA was overturned and realize there are so many states — including my own — where the fight is not at all over. But especially here in Texas, after Wendy Davis’s incredible 13-hour filibuster, the pink-sneakered issue of women’s rights has been loud. It’s an issue of having the right to decide your own life. The right to your own body. I have the right to my own body, unless people with certain religious beliefs make the laws forcing me to live their religious beliefs.

thousands of us there
thousands of us there

I have been so ashamed of Texas politics, but so incredibly proud of some Texas politicians, including Senator Wendy Davis of Fort Worth and Kirk Watson, of Austin. I have been so incredibly proud of the hundreds, maybe thousands of people who stormed the capitol last week when Wendy was filibustering, and took the filibuster the rest of the way. It is so right that it was the people who stopped that bill from becoming law. That was so right, and I was disappointed not to be there in the gallery, or in the rotunda. So I went to the enormous demonstration yesterday and it was so good, seeing the thousands of people who came. Here is the transcript of Wendy Davis’s remarks on the capitol steps. I hope she keeps on talking and standing up. I hope she runs for governor.

humor helps, right?
humor helps, right?

Our mistake is in ever debating the rightness/morality of abortion because it’s not the point. Facing the question of an abortion is surely every woman’s last wish. It’s a nightmare, it’s the longest, darkest night. It’s hard, any decision is surely easier. You struggle in the dark, in the night, and while I do know some women who go into it lightly, they are certainly a minority. If you believe abortion is murder, if you believe you will burn in hell if you have one, that is YOUR price to pay, and your nightmarish choice to make. No one can make it for you or pay the price you’ll pay, but you ought to have the right to struggle with that because you will pay all the prices, whatever decision you make. Have the child, a lifetime of prices. End the pregnancy, a lifetime of knowing that. No legislator is in that dark room with you, no legislator holds your hand, helps pay the bills, carries the load, does one damn thing to make the choice — whatever it is — easier.

Instead, the real issue is whether we have a right to decide for ourselves what will happen to our lives. That’s the essence of it. I find it so hard to fathom, and in fact it makes me nauseated, that half of us don’t have that simple right. I mean, we should, Roe v Wade made it possible, but states get to pull this bullshit that Texas is pulling. Whatever percentage of women would make that choice is irrelevant; a friend tried to argue the question of half by pointing out the large number of Catholics, religious women of other faiths, etc., who would never consider having an abortion. But that’s not the point at all. They would never make that choice as if it were a choice to be made. For them, I suppose it is a choice of sorts, although it’s an empty choice because there is no alternative.

My heart breaks over the issue of abortion. It’s horrible, and I find it hard to talk about. But the question of whether any woman has the right to make whatever decision she feels she needs to make for her own life is not at all hard to talk about. Some states are making it harder to get birth control and next to impossible to get an abortion, effectively converting their female population to baby factories. And in the real irony of it, these are the same states that damn and condemn women for having more babies than they can care for, the same states that cut all kinds of funding that affects women and children. Why do we accept this?

Why do we allow our lives to be taken away from us — and this is a question being asked by people all over the world, now and all at once, it seems. Marnie posted this link from The Atlantic, an article depicting the protests from all over the world by people who cannot just sit by any longer. Being in the crowd at the capitol yesterday, and looking through all the images in the linked article, I feel hope. Ah, look at all of us! But I know it’s misleading, because here we all are, shouting and being gassed and assaulted and in some cases, being killed (or killing ourselves in protest), but the men in power keep going. Until they don’t. And I hope and pray we all get loud enough, and don’t stop, and keep coming back no matter what kind of shady crap they pull, as they are pulling at this moment in Texas. I hope and pray we just keep coming back, over and over. And when they stall us, I hope we get some more friends and come back even louder. And we keep coming back until it’s done. It’s a war of wearing-down. Our illustrious Lt Gov Dewhurst said with a smirk, describing the 2-week period of the next special session, “No human being can talk for two weeks.” His glee and delight at that made me want to vomit. He has no interest in having the law shaped by what the people of Texas want — evidenced, obviously, by his actions during and in the wake of the filibuster — and he  doesn’t even mind saying publicly that he’ll win by setting up the game so he’ll win.

There is a growing movement to turn Texas blue again, and it’s not an idle dream. Texas was historically a hard-core Democratic state — yellow dog Democrats, which you know means that we’d vote for a yellow dog before we’d vote for a Republican. That’s who we always were, until the mid 80s. We had a brief revisiting of our roots when Ann Richards was our governor, but we sank right back into the Republicans’ and Tea Partier’s slick hands. The demographic shift is coming, as our state moves to a Hispanic majority, but there are still an awful lot of us Democrats here, and the irony is that all this disgusting crap the Republicans are pulling — illegal tactics, they’re caught red-handed — is mobilizing us in a way they surely never intended.

If you are against abortion for any reason, you have a right to that belief! And it’s probably a religious-based belief, so recognize that you are being guaranteed the right to your religious belief! If you feel so strongly about it, then help women you know when they are facing that decision, offer them help and your thoughts, maybe, and your love and care. That’s about the limit of your rights as far as I am concerned.

There were two big reasons I did not think I could ever move back to Texas after living in New York. One reason had to do with my real pleasure at living in New York, having all that available to me, all that richness and culture and possibility. But the bigger reason had to do with Texas politics, and my shame and disgust over them. Last week, though, watching Wendy Davis filibuster, watching other senators supporting her, watching the hundreds or thousands of people — mostly women, but lots of men, and people of all ages — in the gallery and in the rotunda, I realized my mistake. There is a lot of work to do here. This is the place to be, and I am so glad to be here. I will be back at the capitol when the session is reconvened, and if I am arrested, as others are, I’m grateful to have family and friends who will make my bail. There is so much work to be done here, and in other states. There is so much work to be done around the world, and if we all stood up, it would really help.