"Dallas" vs Dallas

"Dallas" was a hit tv show in the late 70's and is experiencing a second 15 minutes of fame in the latest iteration, a summer replacement series (which should be your first hint that this is not serious drama). It was originally billed as the first nightime soap opera, a description that seems to be forgotten whenever I talk to people who are not from Dallas about what it is truly like to live or be from here. People seem to be able to watch "Days of Our Lives", "All My Children" , "Dynasty" or "Falcon's Crest" for years and realize that few people in real life experience the travails of Erica Kane or Crystal Carrington (and not be committed to an insane asylum as a result); yet otherwise intelligent folk from both East and West Coasts and places abroad for some reason take every aspect of "Dallas" to heart in some oil well-owning, pickup truck driving while fur coat wearing family-scheming Texas fantasy of what life is like in this seemingly glitzy modern city. I'm here to set you straight.

Growing up as a child in Dallas in the 1960's, my hometown was forever burdened with the moniker "the city that killed JFK". This was a colossal shame, but as a child, I was mostly only vaguely aware of the implications. All I knew was that it was hellishly hot in the summer, cold and windy in the winter, there were miles and miles of sprawling suburbs with very few trees, lots of churches, and our cultural experiences were very milk-toasty. Segregation ruled schools, movie theaters, courthouses and many public places until the 1970's. Movies that opened locally typically went up one degree of restricted rating: PG's went to PG-13 or R, R's went to X, etc. due entirely to the local movie rating board which pretty much did whatever it wanted. We had "blue laws" that forbade retail sales on Sundays, and liquor laws that forbade the selling of alcohol (either in stores or by the drink) in all but a few small areas (which were havens of iniquity) tucked away in "bad" parts of town. (Of course, this sort of zoning made it easier and more desirable for us to frequent these areas, as teenagers!) Our restaurant choices were pretty much limited to Tex-Mex and southern- there were no other sorts of ethnic eateries. Fresh seafood was unheard of until the late 1970's- after the building of DFW airport opened this city to the world. The only really fashionable, world-class tasteful thing we had going for us was the brilliant retail vision of Stanley Marcus and the luxury store his family ran, Neiman -Marcus. Dallas was, and still is, pretty much in the middle of nowhere and has little, naturally, to recommend it. Founded as a trading post on a largely unnavigable Trinity River (what other climes would call a creek), Dallas grew initially as a banking, finance, and retail center, and was a very conservative culture as a direct result. (In contrast to Houston, founded on a bay estuary and home to the oil industry/NASA/the Medical Center, which draws people from South America and the Middle East into a diverse cosmopolitan stew.) The added fact that for some reason, Dallas is the buckle on the Bible Belt, home of more Baptists per square mile than anywhere else on this planet, only adds to the overall conservative tone. (Classic joke: The Jews don't recognize Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. Protestants don't recognize the Pope as the spiritual head of their faith. And two Baptist in a liquor store don't "recognize" each other.) My childhood friend Monica was sent home the first day of elementary school for wearing pants. Her mother was from Germany and never heard of such a thing; we girls weren't allowed to wear pants to school until the early 1970's, around the time I was in the 5th grade.

The building of the DFW "International" airport in 1972 really opened up this city to the world, and nowadays Dallas (and Ft Worth, all surrounding suburbs, and most Texas cities) function pretty much like any major city in America- but more like L.A. than NYC. DFW is now the fourth largest metropolitan area in the USA, according to the latest census information. (link at bottom of this post). It is a young city, only really growing since the invention of air conditioning post WWII. With unlimited land and a hot year round climate, it is more like Dubai than Chicago or Atlanta. Buildings are cement and glass or brick- we have too much rain/hailstorms/tornadoes for that charming stucco and red tile look found in other southwestern cities.

I have lived in suburban and urban areas in New York, Washington DC, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Houston, and can tell you the key similarities/differences: Commuter traffic is pretty much hideous everywhere, (but Washington is the worst). Nowadays we have the same chain stores and restaurants in Texas as anywhere else- boring! But we do have our own southwestern cultural flavor that shapes our music, food, arts, and way of life. Housing and the general cost of living is so cheap in Texas in general, compared to cities on the east and west coasts, that people live in much larger homes on much larger lots. We have more disposable income, as a result of our low cost of living, so we do shop more (there is very little else to do, esp when the hot weather sets in), eat out more, go to movies/arts/take vacations more, remodel our homes more, have maids and gardeners, etc (due to our inexpensive labor sources, mostly Mexican, and unlike Arizona, we don't complain about it), and drive more expensive/newer cars. This tends to foster a consumerist culture that is vapid and superficial, unfortunately. (That's why there are so many "blondes" with perfect teeth and boobs here, too!)

We do have many museums, theaters, and a great flourishing of the arts in general. LGBT individuals and PFLAGG members are welcome, unlike when I was a kid and diversity of any kind was kept hidden. We are still overly Baptisty but other religions have started a toe-hold. A tremendous influx of Asians from a variety of nations in the 1980's greatly enhanced our local culture, arts, restaurants, and are driving up the educational expectations in local schools, which remain fairly low compared to national norms.Texas remains at least mythically in thrall to "Friday Night Lights" football and a sort of generalized "good old boyism"-just look at the stellar performance our governor gave in the 2012 Republican debates for a shining example of what the Texas educational system can produce- that precludes the advancement of the intellectual in our local public schools. Great disconnect exists between the needs of our growing semi-conductor and other high tech industries and the educated manpower these same industries will need to draw from the local public.

There are a few trees now, mostly ones that were planted by people like my parents, 40-50 years ago. Don't expect forests or mountains like you find in Ca or NY/Pa/Va/NC- it's pretty much flat for 1000 miles in any direction. The weather is still hideous, hot six months of the year, and we tend to leave town as often as possible to get away from it. The land in north Texas is flat and ugly, and spreads forever in endless suburbs, many of which look exactly like each other. (Parts of east and south Texas actually are rolling and do have trees, if one is fortunate to live there.) One's neighbors in any urban or suburban neighborhood are just as likely to be from California, Illinois, Michigan, New York, China, or England as from Texas. The diversity of folk has brought in a wide array of restaurants and grocery stores, just like shopping (what used to be) the lower east side in Manhattan or San Francisco. People in Dallas have jobs in banking, IT, semi-conductors, finance, personnel, computers, education, health sciences, and work at a diverse array of corporations from Peterbilt to American Airlines to Sally Beauty Products to ExxonMobil to Texas Instruments- just like they do in all the other major U.S. cities. Pretty much no one owns an oil well or a ranch, drives a pickup truck while wearing a mink coat and cowboy boots. (Oil industry jobs tend to be centered in Houston.)

What have I missed the most, when I lived away from Dallas? The classic Tex-Mex enchilada plate, available at so many Dallas and Ft Worth area restaurants. Even living in Houston (home to a fajita-centric Tex-Mex variational cuisine) didn't satisfy that need and I had to come back and visit several times a year just to get my fill. It sounds silly, I know, but think of the word "home" and you will often think of special dishes that are meaningful to you. This lure pulls several childhood friends of mine, who live now far away, into this forgotten wasteland known as north Texas, just to eat our favorite, special foods. Did I move back to Texas, from points east, just so I could eat Mexican food? No, I did not. I moved here to have a life my husband and I could afford, so we could raise our kids in a middle class way on the pitifully low salaries we make as educators. But knowing that plentiful Tex-Mex would be available, sure sharpened the trade-off. I do miss the culture, the seasons, the many other beautiful parts of this country I have lived in. But I missed Texas cuisine, more, when I lived away.

Do I hang out with people like the ones in the the "Dallas" tv show? I can categorically and honestly state that I have never, in all my life, known anyone like the characters on that show. Being a sixth generation Texan, I do know some true characters. Some have owned oil wells, some have been wealthy, many have been eccentric in one way or antoher. Where does "Dallas" get all it's family-fighting drama? There really is nothing new under the sun: these are just old plot episodes resurrected from Shakespearean plays. "Hamlet", "King Lear", "Othello", "Coriolanus" , "All's Well That Ends Well" anyone?

Census data:



The Best Thing About Summer

The best thing about summer is fresh fruit. I know many people who live in cold climes think the best thing about summer is not having to wear 5 layers of clothes or shovel snow every day. When you live in a hot country, those aren't issues and summer can be as oppressive as winter in Vermont.(See my blog posting on that very topic. under "humor"). We have a vast agricultural region in Texas and all my favorite fruits, save one, can be found locally at farmer's markets and roadside stands. Friends and family grow them in their own back yards.

Fresh cherries, however, are my absolute favorite fruit, and they have to be imported from Colorado or Oregon or someplace. Their season is short -June only-and I simply cannot get enough. I know they are tres expensive and many cannot afford them- I am shocked each summer to see how the price goes up. When I was a kid eating them, there were often children around me who had never, in their lives, tasted one. (Of course, I shared!) But compared to many indulgences in life, this is still a relatively inexpensive one, and better for you than booze, cigarettes, fast food, or gambling.

I like the yellowish Rainier cherries best, but will eat the (more commonly found in supermarkets) dark red-purple ones, too. My bff who lives sometimes in Beynes, France, a tiny town just past Versailles on the commuter line, has a giant cherry tree that is just outside his garden wall, which backs up to the town's civic park. Last time I visited, the cherries where in full throttle- covering the tree, dropping on the ground over the garden wall. "Let's pick and eat as many as we can!" I said enthusiastically. "We can't," my friend intoned. "They do not belong to us". I was heart-broken, and secretly ate the windfalls when he wasn't looking.

I am also crazy about berries- mostly raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries, although I've been known to delve into the exotic: loganberries, cassis especially. (Love Kir Royales and cassis jelly/jam!). I'll eat a strawberry now and then- mostly in strawberry shortcake or trifle-but from some reason they often make me break out in hives. Strawberry jam makes me gag- I think it's the lumps. Lately I've been making mixed berry pies (easy to do: buy pre-made, rolled up pie crust dough, wash and prep fruit, lay out pie crust, dump in a pyrex pie pan, add 1.25 cups sugar, dash cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger, a little brown sugar if you like, 2/3 stick of butter sliced thin, cover w another pie crust- and bake for 1 hour! That's all you do ! Super easy, super delish!) I will eat raspberries in any form, raw or cooked, jelly, trifle, pastry, or drink. Blackberries, too, and often mix them with peaches to make a peach pie.Something in that combo is magical: it cuts the too sweetness of the peach, and the too tartness of the berry. Perfect!

Peaches are grown locally and are also one of my favorite things to eat raw, cooked, pie/pastry, jelly/jam, peach tea, Bellinis, you name it! While you can find berries growing by the side of the road or manage to grow some in your own backyard, peaches generally require an orchard and we have many of them around. They don't really come in to season till July, so I am eagerly anticipating them. As the peach season starts to fade, the nectarine season begins, and they are almost as good.

Many of these fruits are cliches associated with Southern culture, but there is a reason why. Watermelons are enjoyed by white folk and black folk and are so versatile. Mexicans make "agua fresca", a fresh natural fruit drink with them. College kids drill a hole into the melon, fill the watermelon with vodka, let it sit awhile (plug the hole back) and then enjoy the buzz. It's no wonder the flavor of watermelon has permeated candy, margaritas, you name it. Watermelons are cheap, ubiquitous, easy to transport to a picnic or backyard party. Every street corner and farmer's market sells them. My mother always used to say, "never eat a watermelon before the 4th of July. It won't be sweet and ripe." It's true we have watermelon for sale in grocery stores around here year-long, even in the winter. I guess they come from South Texas or South America. But mom was right about the locally grown ones; they just haven't ripened up/sweetened up till the first week of July.

In Texas we call these cantaloupes. I've heard them referred to as muskmelons, and in the south of France they are called cavaillon melons. Nearly a year-round staple for us, they get kind of tasteless in the winter but are wonderfully sweet in the summer. I don't know why more candies/margaritas etc are not made with their flavor; perhaps they aren't as widely eaten as watermelons. Their cousin, the honeydew, tastes bland and boring to me- can't stand them. I see a lot of honeydews in grocery stores up north; not as many cantaloupes. But the cantaloupe is the best; you can eat them raw, or made into a cold gazpacho type soup.


Bucket List

                                                               Dubrovnik, Croatia
I recently asked my friends "What's on your bucket list?" The replies were varied: some answered me earnestly, some ridiculously or with great fancy/fantasy, some with ridicule. I know this is a cliche from a movie, (Isn't the point of the movie to get out of your rut and try new things? How can that be all bad? Don't we celebrate the adventure quest in most of our great stories? Doesn't the on character in the film grow from an embittered old coot who has given up into an empathetic, loving member of the human race , as a result of his experiences? isn't that what we all want?) and maybe at this point folks are tired of thinking in those terms or calling it  "Bucket List". OK, let's call it something else. What's on your "To Do " list? What are your goals to be highly effective? A positive self-actualizer? Life goals? 5 Year Plan?

In my young adulthood I had life goals, most of which I have since achieved: 1) get accepted into a prestigious, academically rigorous university (check), 2)graduate from that prestigious university (check),  3)travel and see as much of the world as possible (check-in progress), 4) get a professional corporate American job right out of college (check-hated it-soon left), 5) find a career that is meaningful to me, where I feel I am contributing to the world, not taking from it ( check), 6) get married (check), 7) have kids (check), 8) own/live in a nice home (check), 9) own/drive a luxury car ( no check), 10) earn enough money to stop worrying about money (no check), 11) have a rich life full of family and friends (check), 12) earn a graduate degree (check), 13) teach at a university (check), 14) write a published novel (still working on that one). I am now at what is called "mid-life" and re-evaluating it all - although let's be real: given the health and longevity of my parents, I'm 2/3 or 3/4 done. Do the last last few years in a vegetative state really count? What do you plan to do with the rest of your life, when you have accomplished really pretty much all you set out to do ?

Having taken care of aging sick parents for the past several years, I have realized I may not have that many good years left. In spite of statistics that tell us that our life span ( in western nations) is expanding, many of those added years are not good years- full of mental health, with painless mobility, free from disease, full of loved ones, adventure, financial security, happiness. I fear that when I retire I won't have the money or the zest to do all the things I want to do, and maybe I need to try to find a way to fit them in, NOW.

I think I need to take a page from my m-i-law (yes, the very one I complain about so frequently), who spent the decade of her 50's taking painting classes, traveling to Europe every summer, driving fancy cars, and generally living life to the fullest. Good thing she did bc she is now incapacitated with rheumatoid arthritis and can barely walk. Her traveling days are over. My mom didn't know she would have a series of strokes in her 70's that would render her incapable of functioning independently. She put away several hundred thousand dollars for her old age- and will never be able to enjoy the funds. She is under medical care and will end up in a nursing home soon that is paid for with her social security benefits.

If you knew you had 10 years left, or 5 years left, what would you do with them? I was having this conversation with a gf the other day, and she decided there is no point saving money for some future disaster- she might as well put that pool in now, when she can enjoy it. Once I'm old, poor, senile, and enfeebled- all hospital beds look the same ! It won't matter if it's a "nice" one or not! (Note to my relatives: please just bring me some luxury sheets! That's all I ask!) I know I don't want to jump out of a plane, sing karaoke, learn to fly, perform at Carnegie Hall, meet anyone famous, scuba dive, or hike Mt Everest. I've already swum with the dolphins (and sharks and barracudas and sting rays) in the coral reefs on the Red Sea, have ridden a camel to the pyramids (It was hot, windy, and I was thirsty.The camel smelled bad and I was worried it would bite me with its giant gnarled yellow teeth. Riding a camel is not a smooth process- they rock and sway, and it rubs you raw. Still, it was a gas!), traveled to most major European locations and seen the sun come up over (fill in the blank...............Paris, Rome, Athens, London, Jerusalem.....) I am fortunate in that regard. I did most of these things as a young person, and my advice to anyone young is to go for it ! You will never have more available income to travel than when you think you are your poorest. The minute you get a "real" job, settle down, buy a house, have kids- the joke is over. You now have to pay for multiple people to travel, not just yourself, and you will never have the time to get away. My advice to all young people is to bum around and travel as much as you can, while you can, before you settle down.

So what is on my bucket list? I take stabs at the small tasks- painting, yoga, redoing various parts of my house, volunteering for causes I believe in- each summer.  Someday, when the time is right for my sons, I'd like to have grand kids. I hope to keep finding causes and activities that interest me, make me feel like I am contributing the the planet in some small way. I'd like to (in the words of Scarlet O'Hara) "be able to tell every old fat cat I've ever despised to 'go to hell' if I felt like it". I'd like to own one nice car in my lifetime. I wish I had a swimming pool too! (But probably never will.) I am grateful for the many blessings of my life: a wonderful husband, smart funny delightful sons, good friends old and new, a pleasant home . And yet I'd really like to be able to travel to a few more places before I have to stop, altogether. Many of the places I've been to before, I'd like to go back to again - especially Venice, Sicily, Greece, France ( Paris, Provence), London. There are also some new places I'd like to visit :

Dubrovnik (picture at top)
A UNESCO world heritage site, Dubrovnik was an ancient Greek colony along the Adriatic Coast (former Yugoslavia, now Croatia) and has been continuously inhabited for 1000's of years.  It has a unique mixture of Mediterranean and Slavic cultures. Hubster was slated to go to a conference there, last spring, which put it on my radar screen. Then the conference was cancelled, but my desire to go there was not.

Machu Picchu and the Galapagos islands.
When I was a kid, my bff and I co-wrote a series of comic book/kid stories called "The Gosharootie Gang", about a bunch of kids whose various escapades took them to foreign countries. It was kind of like Scooby Doo meets Captain Underpants, and we did a lot of research for each story we wrote through books and encyclopedias in our local library. I only recently realized that some of my wanderlust was formed by the places we wrote about in those stories. One of my favorites was the book set in Hawaii, and last summer that's where I took my kids. It just came bubbling up, out of the deep recesses, this desire that had lain dormant all these years. I didn't even know I wanted to go there, but once I realized it, the urge was powerful. Same with Machu Picchu, and the Nazca Plains. I think that came from reading Chariots of the Gods as a kid. I've also always wanted to see Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro. Some of this interest was sparked by that childhood friend, whose mother had family in those places and who visited frequently, bringing back souvenirs and tales of sites.
I'd love to tour all of southeast Asia: Thailand, Cambodia, Viet Nam, and various parts of Indonesia. There are places from the evening news of my childhood, places from novels and dreams, places of interest from my Buddhist leanings.Many folk from these nations have settled in Texas, sharing their culture, food, music, art, religion and literature. It is interesting to me and I'd love to learn and experience more.
St Petersberg
Russia is the one major European nation I've never been to, and I've long been an aficionado of Russian literature, music, food, culture and art. I'd love to do one of those cruises that goes from Denmark to various ports o' call through Scandinavia, ending in Russia.


Africa- Tanzania , or Kenya
I'd love to go on one of those "no kill" safaris where you get to drive through the wild game park and see the flora and fauna. I might even consent to ride in a small plane to do this....I'd have to think about it (and pack a xanax!) Yes, I know I can do a facsimile of this experience at Fossil Ridge, just south of Dallas, but I'd like to see Mt Kilimanjaro, too. Just experience Africa one more time.

What's on your bucket list? Why?

Great Greek Adventure

                            View along the road from Thessaloniki to Ouranopolis
Hubster is off in Greece this week- I did not get to join him this trip. Several reasons: 1)We are saving money to pay for son #1's college tuition, 2)No one is around to supervise the boys ( back at home, who have jobs, and can't leave) if both parents are gone.It's that rough stage in our lives where the grandparents are too old/feeble/or dead to supervise them any more, and no one else can really stand to be around them for long- for love or money. So hubster, who hates to travel, is off exploring the world; while I, who love to travel, am stuck at home. Don't cry for me, Argentina : there's always another summer/ another trip!

                                                                     Ouranopolis beach
Hubster, who has never been to Greece before, is at a conference in Ouranopolis - a remote Club Med style beach resort in the far northeast section of the country. Undeniably beautiful, this place is so remote there is no plane/train or easy way to get there. He had to fly in to Thessaloniki, then rent a car and drive there. If I were along, you know I'd make him stay extra days, and see whatever was around nearby to see. I'd be at the beach during the day and the tavernas at night. Opa! Hubster, in typical fashion, went straight there, delivered his talk, and is planning to turn around and leave. He is not even going to the famous Mt. Athos Monastery, nearby. Pray for him , my friends. Life is too short to miss cool things.

                                                                Mt Athos Monastery

Map of Greece...Ouranopolis is on the third peninsula on the far right, under the word Khalkhidiki (Halkidiki). Top right section of Greece. Here is some info on the region:

Reading Roundup -Mystery Novels

It's not ALL scholarly tomes around my house; I read for pleasure, too ! One of my favorite things to read for pure escapism is mystery novels. Not sure where to start ? There is a fabulous indie bookstore in Houston that specializes in mystery fiction (as well as horror, Gothic, espionage, and related topics, modern and contemporary) called Murder By the Book that stocks an extensive selection in these areas. Their knowledgeable staff are on hand to rec titles and authors to anyone who asks- online, by phone, or in person.

Here are a few of my favorite authors/series:

Sue Grafton, "A" is for Alibi, "B" is for Burglar, "C" is for Corpse, etc. Spunky female detective Kinsey Millhone  is a detective who runs her own little detective agency, lives in Santa Barbara, (fictionalized as Santa Theresa) Ca, and often winds up in compromising situations where she must use her intuition and pluck to escape. Kinsey is folksy, warm, wry, and lovably quirky, moral without being preachy, full of human foibles, supported by a cast of realistically drawn adorable friends and co-workers. This all sounds like cliched truisms, but Kinsey grows throughout the series, confronts many demons from her past, and she is never perfect. The pacing of these novels is just right (not too frantic, not too slow) and Grafton's writing style has sharpened over the years. Kinsey's ruminations are often profoundly quotable meditations on life, love, guilt, death, human relationships. Grafton's voice is heavily influenced by her own personal background and values. What separates her novels from imitators (Janet Evanovich's One for the Money, Two for the Show, etc series) is that in Evanovich's books, after you've read about three of them, you realize the plots are all the same and the characters never change or grow. The pacing is so frantic as to leave me with a headache as I realize my chest is pounding bc I have forgotten to breathe. Most importantly, I get to the point where I start to shout "Don't do it ! " or "You idiot!" as I am reading Evanovich's work, and have to stop. Grafton's books I can read over and over again; they are like zen meditations on whatever the topic of the story is. Beautifully crafted, I never get tired of them. Grafton says she will finish the alphabet...we are already at "V"....what will we do when we reach "Z"?

Tony Hillerman's novels, set on the Navajo Indian Reservation which straddles the Arizona/New Mexico border, feature two main detectives. He started writing about the adventures of Joe Leaphorn, a traditional older Navajo policeman, then after a few books, Hillerman switched to a new detective, the younger more modern police officer, Jim Chee. Throughout theses stories of death and mayhem that happen on "the rez", Leaphorn struggles with the death of his wife/meaning of his life, and Chee with trying to combine his spiritual heritage with modern ways in the quest for his own unique identity. The last few books often combine the two detectives each applying their individual perspectives to a case. Hillerman's research on his topics (Navajo culture, history, art, religious beliefs) earned him a special award as "friend to the Navajo People". A delightfully extreme example of "local color" style of American literature, you will long to travel there and see these places and people for yourself. Sadly, Hillerman died a few years back and no more new novels are forthcoming. But I never get tired of re-reading the ones he wrote. The earlier ones in the series are my favorites.

Elizabeth Peters and Barbara Michaels are the pen names of Barbara Mertz, who has a degree in ancient history from the University of Chicago. Her novels are filled with archaeological exploits and historical situations, are well-researched, and are a delightful, fun-filled romp that combines charming characters involved in historical or supernatural situations. Pure mind-candy of the best kind, well written and can't-put-down.
 Josephine Tey is the pen name for Elizabeth Mcintosh, a Scottish author of the 1930's, 1940's. Under this name, she only wrote six novels.  Tey has beautiful prose, character and place descriptions and is the master of psychological motivation/analysis. Two of  her books are my absolute favorites: Brat Farrar and The Daughter of Time. Brat Farrar tells the story of a long lost heir and a cold case mystery with a truly surprising twist at the end. The Daughter of Time analyzes a real life historical mystery, presented in a frame story of a detective doing some research while in the hospital. You will never read Shakespeare the same way, again.

Nevada Barr sets each story in a different national park. Her detective Anna Pigeon, is a park ranger who must investigate a variety of crimes unique to each locale. Well-written, well-researched, interesting and informative, you will learn cool interesting facts about a wide variety of our national parks. Barr picks parks that are not the "Top 10" (Grand Canyon, etc) so I truly enjoyed learning about these beautiful places I previously knew nothing about. I even managed to get hubster, not a reader in general, interested in this series.

Texas for Travelers

                                          The Alamo

To my devoted readers out there, stateside, who are wondering why I am including all this stuff the natives already know about, and why I've put a lot more "Texas" content on this blog- the simple fact is, I've been looking at my stats. I have readers from all over the globe- imagine that! and my most popular blog entries involve topics particular to Texas, especially geography, travel, culture, cuisine, and stuff like that. I think people are reading this blog not just bc of my title, but maybe to help them plan a trip here. To that end, I am going to offer my opinion and advice as to where you should go and what you should do if you are visiting this strange foreign country. Note: I don't get endorsements from anyone, and I took the ad feature off this blog bc it was just cluttering things up and a waste of time.This is a general overview, only...I have specific bog postings, with more details, on individual locales/topics.

First off, if you are visiting Texas for the first time, you need to be forewarned about the vast distances in this state- larger than France-and how to get around from place to place. Just remember: "Public" transportation in this state generally means airports/airplanes to fly you from one city to another. A few cities (San Antonio, Houston, Dallas only) have limited rail systems for commuters, but hey! this isn't Europe. Don't expect to hop on a train, go someplace, get off, walk around, see the sites, then hop back on a train and go somewhere else. You will have to rent a car to visit any place that is not in a major city- and probably most urban places even if you stick to major cities. Our infant public transportation systems are designed to move folk from the suburbs to the central core downtown area, and back, during work day hours, only. Many rail stops are not linked to tourist sites, and do not run on weekends or at convenient late night hours. I just experienced this with a dear friend visiting from New York, who wanted to stay with me in Denton, but be able to use the local rail public transportation to go back and froth to Dallas and Ft Worth, and be able to stay out late and eat dinner, then return "home" in the evening. While we are all darn excited to have a train at all that comes out this far, it did not run after the typical commuter rush hour, and does not go to Ft. Worth. So be prepared and plan to rent a car, unless you have friends who live here and will loan you one of theirs or drive you around.

The next most important topic for planning a visit to Texas is : when ? Our summers are harsh and last 6+ months of the year. I cannot emphasize this enough. It is typical and normal for daily temps to be in the high 90's from March through October, the 100's -110's from June through September, in most of the state. I liken it to Provence or Rome in August if you have ever been to those places. If you have never lived in this sort of climate, you cannot be mentally prepared for what it is like, even if you think summers are "hot" wherever you are from. My sister-in-law (who lives in the Mid-Atlantic East Coast) came to visit us the first time with a suitcase of what she considered to be summer weight turtlenecks and pants. We had to take her shopping to buy more suitable clothes. She about fainted when we took her to the local public pool to cool down on a day it was 112 degrees. The water in the pool was 99 degrees and there was no shade. A few years back I was driving through the old historic downtown square in Denton and saw a German family - mom, dad, two little kids- standing in a dazed and confused manner, on the sidewalk at about 3 in the afternoon. I figured they were lost and pulled over, rolled down my car window and asked if I could help. Turns out they were on the verge of heatstroke and needed me to guide them to a place with air conditioning and cool drinks. They were so prostrate they couldn't think what to do or where to go next. So my first advice is : come in the winter, spring, or fall. Our fall and spring are what passes for summer in most places of the northern hemisphere. Our winters are like Florida or California- mild.

If you must visit in the summer, June is better than July and August. Pack thin, sheer, lightweight light-colored cotton or linen clothing. Shirts, shorts, dresses, swimsuits. All indoor (and some outdoor!) spaces will be air conditioned (much stronger/colder than what passes for a/c in Europe) and can be chilly if you are not used to it - so bring a thin sheer lightweight sweater or jacket. If you are not used to this weather, pretend you are going on a safari in Africa- you will need a hat to block the sun, sunscreen, a bottle for water, good walking shoes, etc. I have been to touristy spots such as NASA or the Alamo and seen folk from all over the world sweltering and sick from the heat. If you are used to carrying a fan, do so. Be prudent : Go to outdoor places (the Alamo, Sea World) in the early morning or late at night. Go to indoor places (museums, etc) during the mid-day or late afternoon.

If you plan to visit Texas as a first -timer, or for a short time only, I would start with San Antonio/ Austin in the spring time. (Of course it all depends on what you want to see and do, and what your interests are. I will break down each region by typical and not-so-typical things to do.) One note: all Texas schools, both public/private lower (elementary, high) schools and colleges/universities, take a  week long "spring break" sometime in March. During these weeks (often "rolling", in the sense that a million people/schools will be off one week, and a different million people /schools off the next), typically beaches and resorts in the southern half of the state will be jam-packed. Book hotels before Christmas to get a room. It will not be hot enough to swim at that time, but will be a pleasant temp to walk around. Texans also typically take time off/holidays at Christmas and in the summer, but often flee the state. In the winter, we go skiing in Colorado-New Mexico, and in the summer to anywhere on the globe that is cooler than Texas!

San Antonio

See the Alamo, an old Spanish mission which Texans consider their most sacred site. Sure it's indoors, but the line to get in is outdoors, and can be long at peak times. Dress for the outdoor weather. It is within walking distance to the River walk ( pictured below), a pretty area with restaurants and hotels. All in walking distance of each other. San Antonio is also home to Sea World and Six Flags, a zoo and an old home historic district; you will need a car to get to these places on the other side of town. Day trips from S.A. are : Mission Tours ( historic old Spanish churches), Texas Hill Country (beautiful rolling hills with wild flowers in the spring), some local caves, grottos, San Marcos (See Road trips: Schlitterbahn on this website), Johnson City, Luckenbach, Blanco State Park- Places with historic ranches, presidential homes open to the public, scenic outdoor locales. You will need a car for all this. I have blog postings on this topic that include hotel and restaurant recs.


An hour north from S.A. by car  is Austin, the capitol of Texas and home to UT. This is an old-new city with a modern semi-conductor industry and a fabulous music counter-culture. The SXSW (pronounced "south by southwest") indie music fest is in March, and tickets sell out before Christmas. The Texas capitol building is historically interesting, (taller than the US capitol) and there is a Texas History Museum you can tour. Guadalupe Street is "the drag" where a few old hippies still hang out from the 60's. Sixth Street is a vibrant bar and restaurant scene.Road trips include; more hill country towns, looking at bluebonnets ( in March-April), Lake Travis (great restaurant: The Oasis on Lake Travis- incredible views), Bastrop. I have a specific blog posting on these topics.

                                         San Antonio River walk

South Texas
This is only for the true Texas enthusiast, and I would not rec it for a short trip. You must have a car to get to/see these places: 1)The King ranch -one of the oldest, largest, and most famous ranches, still in existence as a working ranch, and they do have tours, 2)Goliad - this is where Texas history really begins. Fabulous mission and presidio. Beautiful countryside. Nearby towns on the way ( Gonzales, etc) great for antiquing. 3)"The Valley" large agricultural region that flows south of S.A. to Mexico border. When I was a kid, people used to go to Mexican border towns and shop (furniture, silver, ceramics, veggies, booze, crafts) but with drug cartels encroaching, I wouldn't do that these days unless I were a native and could blend in. 4)Corpus Christi - Pretty little coastal city with a great aquarium and nice beaches. However, the best beaches are at 5)South Padre Island- entrance near the Mexican border, at southern tip. Beautiful beaches, but in recent years, over-built with condos and touristy restaurants. Avoid during March unless you enjoy being surrounded by millions of drunken semi-nekkid college kids.6)Lockhart- several restaurants here claim to be home to Texas BBQ. You can sample them all and decide for yourself. 7)Brenham/College Station- home to that other great Texas University, Texas A &M. A charming little downtown with B&B, and the Antique Rose Emporium nearby.


Houston would be my second choice for the out-of-town traveler with only a short amount of time to spend in Texas. You can see all that is modern in Texas (NASA space center, the oil industry, world class medical center, a fabulous museum district) and much that is old and charming in Texas ( historic homes, great restaurants, lovely parks and gardens, a zoo, some world class universities.) Spring comes early to this coastal town, and most things are blooming by late February.The humidity is always 100%, but that means the temp is rarely over low 90's, so you chose your poison. Hurricanes a common feature, generally in Aug-Sept. Road trips from Houston: Galveston (has a historic old section, and great Christmas and Mardi Gras festivals). Coastal regions nearby are world class for winter bird watching. Big Thicket - dense piney woods in east Texas.


                                          NASA Space Center

But where are the cowboys? The wild wild west you ask? Well, the real versions of that stuff exist on real people's farms and ranches, way out in the middle of nowhere, sprinkled throughout the state and are not generally open to the public. I am unaware of any theme park that is configured like the wild, wild west or some one's ranch....You can shoot exotic game on special big game ranches - I'm not endorsing any particular provider, just providing info so you can search the internet for yourself. If you really must have an old west experience for the kiddies, then I rec Ft. Worth.

Ft Worth

This city, "where the west begins" has an old-timey part of downtown with some log cabin looking stores and a herd of long horns that walk up and down the street each day. This is a good place to go for those sort of photo opps. This little city is a gem, home to a great zoo,  a fabulous museum district, and a world class opera festival that hosts both traditional and cutting edge performances each May.


Although I call it home, I would not call it interesting to the outsider. I see it as hot and flat and ugly, with wind that blows year round. Maybe there is some appeal that I just don't get. Lots of folk come here to see the grassy knoll and the Sixth Floor Museum that tells about the day JFK was shot. We have great sports teams: the Dallas Cowboys, the Texas Rangers, the Mavericks. Like all Texas cities, we have lots of shiny glass sky-scrapers and lots of miserable crawling freeways with too much traffic. Six Flags, museums, parks, flower fests, music fests, a zoo - like anywhere else. Personally, what I like about Dallas is this: it has some of the best fashion and house wares/furniture shopping outside of NYC and LA (due to the fashion mart, a wholesale source for the fashion industry) located here. Retail is king ! I prefer the variety of Tex-Mex food in DFW, (enchilada based, versus the fajita base of Houston) but that may be bc I grew up with it so it tastes like home to me. I think, overall, Houston has better restaurants, clubs, and an overall more interesting urban vibe. Day trips from Dallas: east Texas, a heavily forested region that is known locally for dairies, produce, small towns, and lakes. People often have their summer homes here. Historic towns include Tyler, Nacadoches, Caddo Lake. Shreveport or Oklahoma border towns if you like gambling.

West Texas

This region is not for the casual traveler. It is far flung, remote, desert-like, sparse in terms of towns and people. Many counties may have only one small town, if any at all, in them. You can drive ( at 70-80-90+ mph) for hours and never find a roadside gas station, restaurant, hotel/motel, or store. It will require research and planning on your part to figure out, in advance, where you will stay/eat/buy gas each leg of your trip through this area.  If you want to drive across America, and swing through some spots of local interest, I rec: Cadillac Ranch ( photo below) outside Amarillo; Palo Duro Canyon (similar to the Grand Canyon) outside Lubbock; Marfa ( famous for its "lights", an unexplained astral phenomenon), the Guadalupe Mtns and Big Bend National Park ( really, in south west Texas). Just keep driving and you can add White Sands, Carlsbad Caverns, and other famous sites in New Mexico to your tour.

                                          Cadillac Ranch

Friends out there reading my blog: Please add your own suggestions to this posting under comments. I don't claim to have a lock on Texas tourism.

Cowboy Boots for the Uninitiated

Continuing my quest to explain various aspects of Texas to furriners, Yankees, and the clue-less city folk out there living in Plano (often recently relocated from California, Ohio, Illinois, China, India, Vietnam, or  shudder ! New York City ! (to which the only acceptable response is always "get a rope!"- taken from an old commercial for Pace Picante sauce- see my post on salsa vs pico de gallo), I will now attempt to explain cowboy boots to those who have no idea how and when to wear them, and what kind to wear, and when, and where to buy them. Caveat: I am not a cowgirl ! I'm just a sixth generation Texan who has friends and family who own ranches, spent considerable time in my youth riding horses (western style), but I do not claim to be a rancher myself. I've always been a city gal, but I am quite observant and have lots of folk around me making various fashion statements that I can use to help you steer clear of embarrassing (and expensive) fashion faux pas.

First: Any native Texan can tell you that cowboy boots evolved back in the wild wild west as a practical form of footwear for riding the range. They had a tall, thick leather shaft (the part that goes up your leg) to protect your ankles and lower legs, when riding horses, from mesquite trees (which have thorns) and various other brush out there on the range with stickers and scraggly branches. (English riding boots do the same but are not as tough or thick.) Riders know that horses love to try to brush the inexperienced rider off by gliding through a thorn bush and hoping it makes the rider miserable or throws him off completely. Old cowboy boots are more utilitarian than decorative, and only came in two colors: dark brown or black. Even today, no self respecting man would ever be caught dead in any other color. Both girls and guys have every day/utilitarian models, and dress models. Girls can get away with wild colors for dress boots, but men need to stick to dark brown or black. (I made hubster, a Yankee, get rid of a pair some well-meaning but clueless family member bought him when he moved here because they were a light brown, almost beige color. Embarrassingly ugly! That's why you truly want to steer clear of anything you find on a "sale" rack......that just means no one else wanted them. There's a reason! Notice the shaft is fairly wide, to accommodate muscled legs to fit in to them.

You can do a search on the internet for old cowboy photos, the history of cowboys, etc and turn up a variety of pictures from this era, some with the boots worn inside/under the pants leg, some worn with the pants leg tucked in. (To tuck or not to tuck the pants material into the boot is a matter of personal preference, and often depends on circumstance. Sometimes you are protecting the fabric of your pants, sometimes you are protecting the boot. Depends on what you are doing. Generally speaking, it is OK to tuck the pants fabric into the boot while riding the range, but an affectation to do so in town. People will laugh at you if you are a man and walk around in the city with your pants leg tucked in to your boot like a Cossack or in the style of English riding boots. There's a reason cowboy jeans are flared! To fit over your boots! Girls can sometimes get away with it if they are cute, and their whole ensemble is "cowboy chic".) Because these boots evolved initially for riding horses, they had a pointy toe (easier to get into the stirrup in a hurry) and a 2-3 inch heel that was slanted or cantilevered under (helped you hook your heel, and keep it, into the stirrup, and did not bruise your horse's ribs). An old pair of boots, well worn and loved, will show wear marks on the toes and the heels, from actual use as originally intended. Thick leather soles could be replaced if that part of the boot wore out before the top did. The loops and holes at the top are designed for you to put your fingers in and pull them on. Utilitarian, all around.

A new pair of cowboy boots, like many kinds of boots, will be stiff when you first put them on but mold to your feet and soften up some as you wear them. They should be comfortable, however, from the beginning, because if they don't fit you just right, they never will. The best thing to do is to try on different pairs/brands, and find one that works for the shape of your foot. (I have an unusually high arch, and have to select shoes/boots that accommodate it. Hubster has wide feet, like a hobbit.) You don't want them to pinch , rub, or for your heel to slip while trying them on in a store.You definitely wear socks, crew or knee-high, with boots.

Looking at archives of old cowboy photos, you can tell a lot about the person in the photo from the boots on his /her feet. Dusty banged-up boots reveal someone who truly worked in them, and maybe could not afford a second pair. Fancy showy boots, with the pants leg hiked up so you can see them, reveal a dandy. In many old photos, I noticed, the cowboy has on a soft moccasin type boot with fringe around the top of the shaft, which brings me to my next point: wearing cowboy boots, as they were originally styled, all day in the city on concrete and other hard surfaces, isn't really that comfortable. Wearing them indoors with spurs attached was a no-no. That's why cowboy boots evolved into what are called ropers. (Originally after the brand that invented them, but now applied to all items in that category, much as Southerners call any soda pop or soft drink "coke".)

As the twentieth century progressed, people rode around their ranches less on horseback and shifted to using trucks to oversee the cattle. There arose a need for a still tough and practical cowboy boot that was comfortable to walk around in . Ropers keep the original features of a riding boot- the tough leather shaft and a vestigial heel, pull-on tabs at the top, but replaced the hard leather sole with a still tough but softer on your feet rubber sole. The toe is rounded for comfort. The heel is barely there. Originally purely practical, ropers were often simple, without all that fancy stitching (which, back in the day of a hand-made boot, held all the layers together, and was a maker's way of expressing his own unique brand.). Today you can buy a simple, working man's (or gal's) roper (often in tough thick suede, I don't know why), or a fancy one in various leathers/styles/colors. The shafts are not as tall as on original cowboy boots, because these are not used when riding horses. Wide shafts to fit real people. I myself have a pair in ostrich leather, and they are truly beautiful, comfortable, durable, and make great winter rainy-muddy-snow day boots.The same rules apply, in terms of colors, as before: men wear dark brown or black. Ladies wear dark colors for work, and fancy ones for dress. A popular ladies style roper for rodeos and other fun occasions has faux laces up the front, like granny's 1890's lace-up shoes. This past year, I have noticed my students (guys and gals) who are involved in the Ag program on campus wearing a squared-toe roper, called a snip-toe, that seems to be the rage of the moment.

A word about fancy dress cowboy boots: Attend a rodeo, livestock show, or Texas A&M University sometime and look at what real people are actually wearing. The men/boys will have on western style shirts in subdued plaids, stripes or solids. Dark western cut (boot cut or slightly flared) jeans, always pressed. (This is key: shirts and jeans are always starched and pressed. Never ever straight from the dryer or, god forbid, wrinkled or faded.) Dark roper boots under their pants leg. Older men often sport a dress shirt, an a outdoors-y sporting style, canvas or quilted hunting coat if it is cold, sometimes khaki type pants if not denim. UT frat boys will wear cowboy boots with baggy plaid shorts and matching solid color polo shirts, but this is a look that is hard to pull off if you are older than 22 because it is ridiculous. Cowboy hats are felt for winter, straw for summer, worn outdoors only, only by real ranchers. They are proportional to one's head size and do not have gigantic brims like the buffoons you see on TV (those are caricatures created to make people laugh !) Ladies will be wearing tight dark flared jeans, wild fancy colored boots (most often ropers) under those jeans, a cute top that is probably short sleeved or semi-revealing in some way, and long hair (often with bangs). The only folk wearing belts with big fancy buckles are the folks who won those belts riding bulls or performing some other rodeo talent.

Contrast those real life cowboy looks with the cowboy chic wanna-be's: these folk turn up in C&W bars in Austin or Dallas, or at fancy resorts in Colorado, Arizona, Montana, New Mexico, often apres ski, strolling around restaurants and bars, shopping. They are wealthy city folk who indulge a fantasy of being a cowboy/cowgirl while on vacation, and they shop at tres expensive boutiques that sell trendy expensive western-themed fashion ensembles. This is where folk buy and wear the truly crazy patterns/styles/colors of (lately, retro styled with pointy curved toes and distressed to appear old and worn) old-fashioned high shaft cowboy boots. They have a narrow shaft bc the model thin rich people who can afford these boots don't want their legs to look fat. Folk want to show off what they just bought, so they wear them with the pants leg tucked in, (or in the case of ladies, with skirts) so you can see the boot designs. They are beautiful to look at but hideously uncomfortable, so no one wears them for long stretches- just out to dinner. Definitely not to dance in. (I went recently with some friends to a west Texas C&W dance hall that drew folk from a 5 county radius, and all the people there wore ropers to dance in.) Now I confess to owning a pair of these fashionable boots, too, (because I am a fashion maven) but I don't wear them in a heads-to-toe western outfit. That look spells "t-o-u-r-i-s-t" ! The Texas chic look is to mix in a little bit o' western wear with other items: some modern stuff. southwestern jewelry, lots of black, south American clothes or colors, and lately just a little bit of bling and /or animal print into the mix. The trick, as with any fashion ensemble, is to not overdo it: You are allowed only one "statement" piece at a time. That means only the cool boots, or the handbag, or one piece of big jewelry. Anything more is a fashion nightmare. By all means, avoid the white-trash version of this look: tacky over the top rhinestone encrusted, feather trimmed, zebra or cheetah print, cross embellished:  jeans, rubber thong sandals, handbag, earrings, t-shirts, necklaces, watches, strollers, baby outfits, sneakers, headbands for your baby, Bible bags, cars, home decor......you get the idea. To put this on your dog, however, is retro hip amusing in a mocking sort of way and is totally acceptable.

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Summer Memories #1

As a child I lived, even as I do now, on the very fringe of suburbia. Just a few blocks from my parent's house where I grew up in far north Dallas the houses and shopping centers and paved streets literally ended. Cement roads became asphalt and then gravel; subdivisions opened up to fields of grain and sunflowers and cattle grazing and the occasional creek, way off in the distance. You could tell the creek was there by the trees growing alongside it.

Summer mornings my childhood friend Monica would ride over early on her bicycle- around 8 am. I always knew when she rolled into the driveway because the dogs started barking. That was my cue to go join her.  I suppose her mom booted her out of the house with the admonition to "go play" or something similar; that's how it was when I was a kid, in the '50's, '60's and even in to the '70's. Moms told kids to leave and not come home till dinner. (Who knows what the moms were doing? Mine always seemed to be watching "The Merv Griffin Show" while ironing. Monica used to say her mom sat around the house, smoking, looking like Greta Garbo:"I want to be alone.....") Moms didn't feel guilty about this; they regarded it as the natural way of things. There were no pre-arranged play dates. No baby monitors, moms, dads, or nannies at the playground. No endless schedule of activities, lessons, summer camps or events to attend for self improvement. Summer was just one long glorious expanse of time to be filled, mostly by dawdling. Adventures were self-generated, daydreaming was encouraged. This free expanse of time- unheard of in the modern world of parenting- was seen as a form of self-improvement, all unto itself. It was a time to put away hard shoes and indoor toys and get outside and explore. Parents told their kids to leave the house, "go outside and play" often as early as 5 or 6 years of age. Small children would hang around the alley, playing kick-the-can or hopscotch or running lemonade stands. By the time one was 8 or so, the world opened up; every kid had a bike. You could tell who was anywhere by recognizing their wheels parked nearby. We could and did ride anywhere, as far as our legs pumping in the hot summer sun would take us.

Monica and I had a fairly set routine: we'd ride north and west until the subdivision thinned out, and then for miles out into the countryside along increasingly narrower dusty roads. Our dual purposes were seeing what was out there - developing a mental map of how the roads went and what was there, and hanging around a creek we had found, exploring its many nooks and crannies. The creek had a rope swing someone had tied from a bent old tree that swung out into a pool of water. The water was often stagnant, drying up to a bare trickle by late summer, but in early summer it was flush and cool and lovely. There was also a stable nearby, and we took apples and carrots from home to feed the horses. Somewhere around noontime we'd start heading home, and often stopped by a Dairy Queen we knew about on the way. From an assortment of coins we scavenged from various places (under the driver's seat in the car, the junk drawer in the kitchen, by returning coke bottles to the grocery store) we scraped up enough change to buy a drink or an ice cream. At this point in the day the sun was at its zenith; the blistering heat of a Texas summer made it just miserable to be outdoors anywhere. We'd sit for hours in the DQ just talking, occasionally reading comic books from the 7-11 if we had any. There was a shopping center nearby that had a toy store, and we'd often pop in and re-arrange the shelves - not stealing anything, not buying anything, just tidying up, organizing and straightening the shelves and everything in the store. I know it sounds weird but the store was run by really old ladies who were too feeble to every clean or organize it, and it drove us crazy. ( All those years of our moms forcing us to clean our rooms!) We'd just pop in, straighten up, then leave. It was weird, but a compulsion we couldn't stop.

I often look back on those summers and think about all that unfilled time- what a luxury it was. My life as an adult is so driven by schedule, bells, needing to be in two places at once. Multi-tasking because there isn't enough time to do all the things I need to do. The stress, the craziness of this sort of life. I was talking to a gf yesterday and she made the comment : "This is as good as it gets ! The whole summer stretching out before us, unfilled, all that time ! What will we do with it ? "