Whatever the cause, I have reached the point in my life where I am quickly shedding my previous roles and concerns. Maybe what is liberating is finally, after 20-25 years, I don't have to change someone's diaper, feed them, work to earn money to care for them, spend every waking moment either driving them or else attending some function for them, giving them all my money and never having anything fun for myself, and then having the very child you slave for to turn and be embarrassed by your (extremely constrained, as normal as you can make it) self. Ah, teenagers: God's gift to parents, otherwise, if they stayed cute and adorable like a 4 year old, you'd never want them to leave. So maybe the demarcation is when your kids have moved on to lives of their own and you are free to be as whimsical as you always wished you could be. (There's always the Mr. to worry about, your last child, but hopefully he can manage to take care of himself now and then.)
Don’t talk to me about “fly over states”, you snarky east and west coasters, and include Texas in that dismissal. We take umbrage at that notion, and consider ourselves “the third coast”.
Some facts to consider:
Population Canada 35 million (2013)
Population California 38 million (2014)
Population Australia 23 million (2013)
Population Texas 27 million (2014)
Population NYC 8.4 million (2013)
Population DFW 6.6 million (2012)
Population Los Angeles area 13 million add San Diego, total area 18.5 million (2010) + Population SF bay area 7 million (2013) = 25.5 in two urban areas
Population DFW 6.6 million + San Antonio Austin area 4.7 million + Houston Galveston 6 million = 17.3 million in 3 urban areas
Texas coastline has 367 miles (as the crow flies) and 3300 miles shoreline including islands, bays, inlets, etc
The economy of Texas is one of the largest economies in the United States. As of 2013, Texas is home to six of the top 50 companies on the Fortune 500 list and 51 overall, (third most after New York and California). In 2012, Texas grossed more than $264.7 billion a year in exports—more than exports of California ($161.9 billion) and New York ($81.4 billion) combined. As a sovereign country (in 2012), Texas would be the 14th largest economy in the world by GDP (ahead of South Korea and the Netherlands).
In 2011,Texas had a gross state product of $1.332 trillion, the second highest in the U.S. Texas has the second largest population in the country after California. (Wikipedia)
Percent of Texas Natives Shrink as Newcomers Arrivehttp://blogs.houstonpress.com/news/2014/08/numbers_of_texas_natives_shrinking_as_population_booms.php
I tell you what I do know.....I know that Jesus probably never in a million years imagined the cross that believers feel he died on would be snuggling up to the inside of some girl's butt.
First they tried to prohibit basic human rights for the gays,
and I did not speak out-
Because I was not gay.
Then they tried to restrict a woman's control over her own body,
and I did not speak out-
Because I no longer worried about birth control, reproductive issues, or the fundamental privacy between a woman and her doctor to make intimate decisions about her healthcare.
Then they came for the schools and the teachers,
and I did not speak out -
Because I no longer had kids in school, or friends who taught, and I no longer cared about the social and economic importance of education for others.
Then they came for the 98%, the workers, the elderly, young children, the poor and the middle class,
and I did not speak out-
Because I felt helpless, powerless, unable to decide what to do, that my vote didn't count, or how to make a difference.
Then they came for me-
and there was no one left to speak out.
Tex-Mex cuisine, at least in the northern half of the state, starts with enchiladas. When I was a little kid growing up, enchiladas were always rolled by hand, and made fresh in the restaurant. Even today, having enchiladas on a menu is a signifier that this is a classy, sit-down, often family owned ( non-chain) restaurant (which is why some of the more upscale fast food joints have added them to their menus). The basic enchiladas to be found when I was a kid, in the ‘60’s, were cheese and beef, and a traditional mom-and-pop restaurant serves these to this day. A cheese enchilada contains shredded cheddar cheese or a blend of cheddar with Mexican white cheese, chopped raw onions, and is rolled up inside a corn tortilla, which to a purist, has been dipped in hot cooking oil before this is all assembled, blotted dry with a paper towel, then placed in a casserole dish, side by side, covered in sauce, then more shredded cheese, and baked till hot and bubbly. Beef enchiladas are the same thing, filled with sautéed ground seasoned beef in a vaguely chili flavored sauce. These are covered in your choice of sauces, and you can mix ‘em up: queso (cheese), carne (meat), tomatillo, green chile, “red sauce” (theoretically, red pepper sauce, but more often than not, enchilada sauce from a can). The typical combo is a cheese interior with meat sauce chili style gravy, and a beef interior with a cheese, chili, or red sauce gravy. A little bit of shredded cheese, chopped cilantro or chopped peppers sprinkled on top are often the garnish. Oddly, an enchilada with both a cheese filling and a cheese sauce is called a cheese taco, not an enchilada. I do not know why. I have never known anyone to add salsa or hot sauce to their enchilada; they are always eaten as served. (However, you are welcome to swirl around on your plate any odds and ends of whatever you have left, and eat them all together.) I do have one finicky friend who always asks for the onions in his cheese enchiladas to be removed, as if that alone is going to make the difference in having bad breath: what about the cumin, the garlic, the jalapenos, the spices, bro? I think it’s just a way to ensure that his food is freshly made, or at least tampered with.
Enchiladas are always rolled fairly tight, like a big fat Cuban cigar, never gaping, like a cannoli. The end is not tucked under (see burrito, below). Really old-school restaurants will also offer you an option of flat enchiladas, with all the same ingredients layered flat like lasagna. While enchiladas are at least theoretically baked en mass, (perhaps ahead of time) they seem to have the additional requirement that when two of them are put on your plate in the restaurant’s kitchen, along with refritos (refried beans, pre-cooked pinto beans, mushed with lard into sort of a “bean porridge”) and rice, that the enchiladas be refreshed with more sauce and cheese and reheated; which is why your waiter will always say, “Hot plate! Hot plate!” as he brings your food to the table. The plate containing this wonderful gooey mess has been run under some sort of broiler, en mass.
Globalization changes everything, even Tex-Mex menus, and as a result we now have influences from New Mexico, California, and Mexican from Mexico cuisines. New Mexico Mex food offers a chicken, bean or beef filling with a Hatch (type of chile) green chile gravy. California Mex food also does a chicken version, (note: chicken is cooked beforehand, this is a great way to use leftovers) often with sour cream or spinach. Enchiladas aren’t as prevalent in Mex-Mex culture – they are mostly a gringo (white person/culture) Texican or what we call “Del Norte” (north of the Rio Grande) invention- but I have seen and eaten versions with a variety of fillings, most notably grilled cabrito (goat meat). There is a popular home-made Tex-Mex dish, called King Ranch Casserole, which is a staple of church and Junior League pot-luck dinners. It is a type of flat enchilada casserole made with chicken; you can find recipes all over the web. It is considered a mark of high social standing to make and serve this, much like one’s choice of chicken salad or devilled eggs in the deep South. I always make one with turkey leftovers from Thanksgiving.
Note that enchiladas are always made with corn tortillas. They are not, as I have seen in some places, a lump of chopped up chicken, rolled and served dry (no sauce, no cheese) in a flour tortilla. Some authentic home-made enchiladas are “fluffed” with rice or potatoes, but if I got this in a restaurant, I’d complain.
I see a lot of recipes on the web that for some reason, have olives on them. I love Mediterranean food, especially Italian, Greek and Spanish .... and that's where I eat my olives. Note to self: Leave the olives off. They would taste hideous on Mexican food .(and I am a fan of olives.)
Tacos, including fajitas
If the enchilada is a signifier of an upscale dining place, tacos are clearly the hand –held portable fast food workhorse of Tex-Mex cuisine, much like burgers or a slice of pizza in other locales. Tacos come in dozens of varieties: The basic, old-school version is the standard sautéed ground beef seasoned meat inside a crispy corn tortilla that has been previously fried (is now cooled, drained and less greasy) and is shaped like a “U”. It is topped with thinly shredded lettuce and cheese at a minimum but often includes chopped raw tomatoes, hot sauce, jalapenos, pico de gallo, or other items. This was the taco of my childhood.
Somewhere in the late ‘70’s/early ‘80’s, a restaurant in Houston named Ninfa’s invented or brought to public attention “tacos al carbon” or fajitas (same thing), using marinated grilled skirt steak, sliced into thin strips, served sizzling hot in an iron skillet, along with a stack of warmed soft flour tortillas. You took some bits of the meat and veggies and built your own soft flour taco at the table. This a “del Norte” adaptation of the classic cabrito taco of south Texas/Mexico- only now it is marinated sliced beef. (Note: flour tortillas are like bagels in this one regard: you buy them half- cooked. Just as a bagel must be toasted or else you have a mouthful of semi-raw dough, if you do not finish cooking a flour tortilla before you serve it/eat it, you also have a mouth full of semi-raw dough. The way to cook them is to lay them on a skillet for a few minutes, like making a grilled cheese sandwich, heat on med, turning frequently, till they just begin to puff up. Pull them off then and serve. If you wait till the entire thing is puffed, they will be too tough.)The marinating liquid for the meat in fajitas often included tequila, garlic, cumin, spices, cilantro and who knows what else. Later, chicken fajitas were added as an option. Fajita garnishes include sautéed green chilies and onions for a start (this arrives on the sizzling skillet, sautéed along with the meat) as well as other add-ons (lettuce, cheese, tomatoes, salsa or hot sauce, jalapenos, etc) of your choice. The fajita craze swept the country and now you can find them anywhere, from a roadside diner on the New Jersey Turnpike (I told my dining partner not to order them, but he wouldn’t listen. They were sliced bits of pot roast, with carrots, in a pita bread.), to a chain restaurant in Boise that makes them in some corporate kitchen in China, ships them frozen, reheats them locally, and poof! Out they come, exactly the same, no matter where you are.
A welcome addition to the taco category is “street tacos”, brought to us from our neighboring country to the south. An authentic street taco is served on a white corn tortilla that is much smaller than the typical size – typically one person eats 4 to 6 street tacos, where they might eat only 1-2 regular Tex Mex crispy beef tacos. You could call them the sliders of the taco world. The tortilla has been steamed so that it is soft and warm and moist. Street tacos offer a diverse variety of meats, marinated and cooked in a variety of pungent, spicy sauces. There are fillings from different cuts of beef and pork, some are grilled, others are boiled with seasonings. My faves tend towards the jalapeno pork variety. Ask a native what’s the best or to translate for you; you never know what might be in them! The typical veggie condiments are chopped onions and cilantro.
Fish tacos originated in California, Miami and Baja. You can find them in Texas in upscale fusion restaurants, but they are not native to our area. The best version of these I’ve ever had have been in Key West.
Note to self: Leave the olives off.
Breakfast tacos, huevos rancheros, and migas
Mexican breakfast items are among the greatest inventions known to man. Something magical happens when you put salsa and cheese on scrambled eggs, and you can do this rolled up in a warm tortilla and call it a breakfast taco or burrito, or with salty crunchy tortilla strips and chorizo (spicy Mexican sausage) on a plate with a side of refried beans and call it migas, or with fried eggs and seasoned potatoes and call it huevos rancheros. Throw in a garnish of bacon or chorizo, and you are in heaven.
You say Chalupa, I say Tostada
All my life I have been asking if anyone can tell me the difference between a chalupa and a tostada, and no one ever has. So I’m going out on a limb here and making a bold pronouncement: these are two different words for the same thing. Never once in 50+ years have I had one that was different from the following: flat crispy (having previously been fried or baked) corn tortilla, layered with refritos, thinly sliced/shredded iceberg lettuce, and shredded cheddar or American cheese. It’s up to you to add more veggie garnish (pico de gallo, sliced jalapenos), hot sauce and salsa, if you want.
There are all kinds of recipes out there for this item, with additions of shredded beef, chicken, or even seafood. I prefer just the veggie option, its sort of a taco salad, in a flat presentation. But that's just me. It has a lighter, less greasy taste which balances the heavier meat and cheese flavors of the other dishes.
Note to self: No olives here.
Melted cheese, either as a dip, or poured over tortilla chips. (Not Doritos.) Some old school restaurants will pour it over an entire crisp tortilla, leaving it to you to break it up into pieces and eat. The best versions have a blend of American and Mexican cheeses. The easy-to-make- at home queso involves Velveeta+ Rotel, which you can spruce up with seasoned sautéed ground beef, or a can of chili.
Nachos are an under-appreciated menu item and so easy to make as a quick meal for yourself. You can go with just cheese but that’s pretty boring. Evenly spread a layer of tortilla chips on a plate, sprinkle with shredded cheese, and microwave a minute or two (depending on the strength of your microwave) till the cheese is melted. The trick is to get the chips evenly spread, about 2 or 3 deep but no more and no less, not too compact but with some air pockets. You want enough so that they catch all the drippings and are not soggy, but not so many that the bottom layer chips are dry.
The best nachos from a restaurant or made at home have at least 3 components: meat, beans of some sort, and cheese. Sprinkle these items on top of your tortilla chips. (Not Doritos.) I used to hand spread bean dip or refritos onto each one of the tortilla chips, then place each one on the plate, then sprinkle all with shredded cheese and other toppings, then microwave. This tastes awesome, especially when served with salsa, jalapenos, and other accouterments. But often I was so hungry and hasty that I would break the tortilla chips while trying to do this, and so I adapted to the way they do it in restaurants: Spread out your chips (not Doritos.) on the plate. Take a can of beans- pinto or black bean (do NOT use BBQ beans, white beans, cannellini beans, pork n beans, any kind of flavored bean such as maple, bacon, hickory smoke, honey BBQ, etc) and first, drain off the liquid in the sink, then sprinkle/pour the beans on top of the chips. You can next add seasoned ground taco meat, chili, roast or grilled chicken- whatever you have, chopped up and pre-cooked. Great use for leftovers. Cover liberally with cheese and microwave till melted. Add garnish: sour cream, pico de gallo, jalapenos, salsa, etc.
Note to self: Sour cream, pico de gallo, and avocado are left off until AFTER these are cooked. Leave the olives off. All of these recipes call for tortilla chips, made from tortillas. It's easy to make your own if you can find tortillas: just bake in an oven till crisp. But avoid Doritos at all costs. Too many chemicals, too many faux flavors, too thick and gummy, too salty,too....too....too.....
Burritos (and chimichangas)
A burrito is another staple of the make it and take it fast food culture. Oddly, when I was a kid in Texas in the ‘60’s, there weren’t any burritos around ….. I think they were imported from California. (The fact that they are always made from an extra large flour tortilla would seem to support this theory. True Texas dishes always use corn tortillas.) Burritos have been here long enough that I can’t imagine Tex-Mex cuisine without them……take a large heated flour tortilla and lay it out flat. Draw a line down the middle of it with your choice of filling (shredded beef, taco meat, refritos, black beans, pinto beans, fajita meat, chicken, all pre-cooked) and garnish (sour cream, salsa, pico de gallo, jalapenos, shredded iceberg lettuce, chopped raw tomatoes, etc.) Add a layer of shredded cheese. Now you fold it: one side, left or right, over, then the bottom comes up, like a baby’s diaper, then the remaining side. It’s like swaddling a baby. A good burrito is a fat burrito. It never has an exterior sauce. All the interior ingredients blend together and taste great. A chimichanga is a burrito that has been deep fried, and is now served on a plate with cheese and/or beef sauce on top. I always suspect these are leftover burritos from the previous day, recooked and sauced so you don’t notice that it is stale or wilting or soggy, and I avoid eating them.
Note to self: Continue to leave the olives off.
A quesadilla is like a Tex-Mex grilled cheese sandwich. You take two flour tortillas and place one on a flat griddle or skillet, layer with shredded cheese in the middle, another tortilla on top, cook over medium heat till golden brown and crispy and the cheese is melted. Flip it periodically so it cooks on both sides- I like to use a heavy flat plan lid, to sort of press it down, like a Panini maker. Viola! Cut into quarters, dip into salsa, and you have a quick snack. You can add pre-cooked chicken, taco meat, veggies to make it more substantial to eat.
Note to self: No olives here, either.
Sort of a cross between a side dish and a hearty bean soup, borracho beans are often served as a little “extra”, a lagniappe, with your meal at some older family owned Tex-Mex restaurants. This is a shame because they are awesome and I could eat them every day for the rest of my life. Prepared correctly, this is a rich, smokey, nuanced dish. I keep trying to make them myself at home and haven’t yet gotten the recipe just right. Borracho beans are a spicy pinto bean soup (low on the liquid, heavy on the bean, that’s why I call it a hybrid dish) with some combination of ham/lard/bacon, onions, cilantro and jalapenos – that much I can see when I eat them. The magic percentages to get the flavor just right, I have yet to discover. Several recipes online suggest the secret ingredient is beer.
Taquitos, flautas, pizza-tacos, taco-burritos, gorditas, and other oddities
You will find the most bizarre items at your local Taco Bell these days. I suspect this is for two reasons: 1)They feel like they have to constantly come up with something “new” and “improved” to lure people in, and 2)I suspect this is a way to creatively use up left overs. Got a bunch of withered tortillas and some dry old taco meat lying around? Roll it up, fry it, and you have a taquito. Just as the French turn day old bread into croutons and French toast, and Wendy’s turns their old hamburger meat into Wendy’s chili, these “new” fast food creations are creative ways to use up old ingredients. Anything wrapped inside something else would be your first clue, anything that is made then deep fried, especially if then covered with a sauce. Just say "no,thanks".
Guacamole aka guac, guac-o
Avoid the electric green plastic-y goo that is sold in a tub in grocery stores. Read the ingredients on one of those tubs if you don’t believe me. Real guacamole is so easy to make we should all strive to put the purveyor of the faux guacamole out of business. Take a ripe avocado (should be slightly squeezable, like a young woman’s breast. Check the stem-pop it off- it should not be brown.), slice it in half lengthwise. Stick your sharp knife firmly in the pit/seed, if it pulls out cleanly, your avocado is ripe. If not, just deal with it. The flesh should be scooped out with a spoon, don’t waste time wrestling with it trying to slice or peel it. Dump the avocado flesh (meat, fruit) into a bowl. Add about two heaping spoons of the salsa of your choice. Mash with a sturdy whisk, or a fork, or a potato masher and Voila! If you don’t have salsa, you can chop up tomatoes; squeeze in a wee bit of lime juice and a tiny bit of salt. Taste as you go and for heavens’ sake, don’t over salt it. Eat it up quickly because it doesn’t keep and turns brown fast.
Chili and chile
Technically speaking, chili (a Texas dish consisting of beef, tomato sauce, and dry ground pepper spices, served like a stew but more solid, not as watery) is not considered a Tex-Mex item. It gets it's own entire category. Why, I am not sure. Sometimes this very same chili, however, is served as a sauce or gravy, on top of true Tex-Mex dishes such as enchiladas. Frito Pie is a bowl of chili with shredded cheddar cheese sprinkled on top, and either scooped out with or mixed in with Fritos corn chips.(not Doritos.) Chopped raw onions are optional. I'm not going to get into the argument of with or without beans - that's a post for another day.
Chile is the New Mexico Spanish word for the many different varieties of peppers, (not black ground pepper, but bell, jalapeno, poblano, banana, Serrano, ghost, Hatch, habanero, and more) that are harvested and served fresh chopped up (in pico de gallo), cooked (in chile rellenos), dry and powdered (in red chile spice/sauce).
Tamales are a labor-intensive food, nearly always hand-made (rare to find in restaurants) and associated culturally with the Christmas holidays. As a kid, I hated them, because the only ones I had ever tasted came from a can and were served in my elementary school cafeteria often cold or not completely cooked. They were greasy and gross, swimming in a slimy sauce. I've recently re-discovered tamales, as my Hispanic students have shared them with me - ones that are made at home by grandma and the entire family, as a special holiday (or late fall, that's when you get the corn husks) treat. Good tamales are soft but firm and not greasy at all. They are actually kind of dry in a way that is hard to explain, but tasty. Has a good "mouth feel". To eat one, you first peel off the outer corn husk wrapper (used to shape it while cooking, and hold it all together until you are ready to eat it), as any Texan knows. This is why it was such a gaff when former President George H.W. Bush (who claims he is from Texas) ate one incorrectly in public once, struggling to cut/gnaw through the tough, fibrous corn husk that, once cooked, has a consistency of cardboard. Any true Texan would know better.
Inside, the tamale is a bundle of mas (an exterior layer of course ground cornmeal, similar to polenta or grits, a little bit of water, and seasonings, worked together with your fingers) that is rolled out, much like the sticky rice used when making sushi; and a filling, one of several types of spicy-slightly yet not too moist-meat mixture. This is then rolled up, just like making sushi, and instead of seaweed as a base layer that holds it all together, is rolled in a dried (not fresh) corn husk (made pliable by soaking in water, first) , before it is cooked. Making tamales is an all day thing, but the reward is that they freeze and reheat well, and you can serve them, once re-heated, stored n a crock pot (no sauce) or low temp oven, for an event that lasts a long time, like an all day party. Keep them in their corn husk wrapper and they wont dry out. The meat filling comes in many varieties; my fave is jalapeno pork.
Like any ethnic cuisine, Tex-Mex makes a variety of dishes made from the same dozen basic ingredients. Just as Italian food uses pasta, tomato sauce, cheese in most of their dishes, Tex-Mex makes use of what is locally grown in a variety of ways. I can, and I do, frequently eat something Tex-mex nearly every day. but I don't eat the same thing at every meal: I might eat breakfast tacos, a quesadilla for lunch, and fajitas for dinner. Bon appetit!
It is said that “only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noonday sun” and if you are planning to move to Texas, or new to this land, you had better heed this advice.
Texas is hot roughly 6-8 months of the year in the northern half of the state, and pretty much year-round in the southern half of the state. And by using the word “hot” I do not mean 75F/24C degrees with a slight breeze, as contestants of the PBS series “Britain’s Best Bakers” recently complained about when a “heat wave” melted all their ice cream cakes. When I say “hot” I mean 90F/32C degrees or higher, day after day after day, and 100F/38 degrees or higher in July, August, and September. (Even our winters are intermittent days of 30F/-1C degrees mixed with days of 60F/16C degrees.) Sunshine year round is the norm. Wind is rare in the hot months, abundant in spring and fall as weather systems push through. We do not have a monsoon season. Air pollution in the major cities just sits and collects for months on end. In the eastern half of the state the humidity is just enough that shade offers no relief. As a comparison, world cities Cairo and Taipei have similar highs and lows, while Madrid, Athens, Calcutta and Hong Kong are cooler climes.
Now wait a minute, you say, don’t you have air conditioning in Texas? Why yes, yes we do. What that means is that for at least half the year or more (I run mine continuously about 8 months of the year, and occasionally in the winter) living here is like living in Biosphere 3. Inside the dome, it’s a pleasant, if stale, 72 degrees. Outside, it’s like the Bonneville Salt Flats. This is why Texas has evolved as a car culture, because it is just too hot and sticky outside to walk a few blocks to the train station or ride in the subway.
There are unforeseen aspects to living in this hot of a climate for months at a time. Natives have learned long ago how to adapt: People wear natural fibers, in pale colors, in thin fabrics. Shorts are acceptable attire anywhere. You can tell freshly arrived Yankees because they are the ones driving dark colored cars. If you fall in love with one of those shiny new track homes way out in the suburbs, the first thing you will do when you move in is: plant fast growing shade trees. The second thing you will do is: hang up sun-blocking curtains. If you have the funds, you will build a pool and a patio cover, replace your windows with thermal reflective heat-deflecting glass, and maybe decide to go solar. You will learn to run your errands in the early morning or late at night, and the best parking spot is not the one closest to the door, but the one in the shade. It’ll only take you once to figure out that anything you leave in your car, even in the shade, will liquefy (chapstick, hand lotion) or spoil (groceries, formula) and things you never imagined could melt, will melt (CDs, binkies, plastic toys, soles of shoes). You will be arrested if you leave your child or pet in your car – even if for just a minute, even with the windows open in the shade. Your social life will start to revolve around breakfasts or dinner parties instead of lunch; kids will have soccer and baseball practice in the evenings.
If you do venture out at midday, the streets will be deserted – it will appear as if the Rapture has already happened and you are left behind. There won’t be a soul outside, not a kid playing in a yard or a mom pushing a stroller, much less a jogger running by, not even a dog barking in a yard somewhere. The mailman gets an air-conditioned truck to deliver the mail. Even the cicadas don’t hum till the early evening; they spend mid-day taking their siesta too.
I once ran into some German tourists, of all things, walking around the historic square in my quaint little town as I was driving to an unavoidable doctor’s appointment. The sun was beating down on them: mom, dad, two little kids. Tall and slender and tow-headed, like a family of giraffes. They were all wearing bright wool clothes and hats, beginning to sunburn on their arms and faces, and looked like they were about to pass out, confused from the heat. I could tell by their body language that they were lost, so I pulled over and asked if they needed help. They just needed directions, it turned out, to a spot just a few doors down. I showed them where to go and went on my way, but never forgot them. How and why did they come to my little town? What were they doing out walking around when it was 105 outside? Surely once they got here and realized the true nature of the climate, they could get to a Walmart and buy some t-shirts instead of their colorful woolen vests? Just the same way you’d buy a rain poncho if you found yourself in York or Rangoon on a rainy day? However, I remember when my sister-in-law came to visit us for the first time – in spite of our warnings, she brought a suitcase of what she called “summer weight” turtlenecks. It was 112 degrees every day she was here. We did nothing but sit in the pool all day, to escape the heat. The turtlenecks stayed packed away.
I’ve never understood why we didn’t adopt the Spanish colonial method of architecture and city management in Texas north of San Antonio or after WWII. If we had buildings with thick stone walls, shaded arcades, fountains all over, and lots of trees, we could save so much energy cooling our homes and offices, and life would be so much more pleasant. Aqueducts and rain gutters could collect and channel rainfall into underground cisterns, helping our persistent droughts. This style of building is found in hot climes all over the world, from Greece to Morocco to Mexico City to Bali, Pondicherry to Sanaa, to Istanbul to Avignon.
I've lived here most of my life, and every year about this time I start looking around, preparing for the coming hot season - in much the same way that northern folk clean their snow blower, stock up on fireplace logs, and buy new snow boots if the old ones have cracked, One of my ceiling fans is about to die on me, and needs to be replaced. (Yes, we run both the ceiling fans and the air conditioner concurrently.) I've got some new thermal curtains I am getting ready to put up, this weekend. (The cats destroyed the previous ones.) I'm taking bids from contractors to expand my a/c duct work into some different spots of my house that for some reason, never seem to cool down. Each year I add a few more pieces of loose linen clothing and sandals to my wardrobe. I'm still agitating hubster to put in a pool for us....our grill needs replacing, too - it's over 50 years old, and this time of year, it's just too hot to cook inside the house.
1) Texas voting districts are gerry-mandered. (Many other states are, too, but that doesn't mean it's right.) That means they are laid out all wonky, (for example, not by county, or not laid out in a reasonable grid, by geography or other impartial formation). These voting districts were set up years ago so that the powers that be could keep winning control of their districts, in spite of the fact that Texas is (according to the 2010 census) : 38% Hispanic (and growing), 12% African-American, and 75% urban (inside the mega triangle formed by Dallas-Ft Worth, Houston, and San Antonio-Austin. These factors alone would seem to suggest that Texas should trend Democratic. Yet it does not.
2) As many studies have demonstrated, a huge swath of the voting population just simply doesn't vote. Millenials and Gen Z - ers have abysmally low voting rates. Minorities have low voting rates, too, and have increasingly been impeded from voting by recent Republican "Voter I.D." laws. If we want to change things in this state, we need to focus on getting out the vote among the younger generation and various groups that traditionally swing Democrat. We need to stop letting folk get distracted by uber "patriotic" internet memes, and focus on real issues of the day, addressing them in a variety of media sources.
3)An educated electorate produces a thoughtful voter. That's a scary thing to political groups who want to control voters by narrowing their media options and ability to see through these manipulations. (See Hitler, Adolf : use of television, use of rallies, state control of media, etc.) The recent war on education (begun in the Bush years) is often couched in terms of catchy sounding "improvement" acronyms that in actuality represent backroom deals (contracts for testing materials) between the testing agency (State Board of Education) and the few mega-corporation testing companies out there. I wonder, are these corporations owned or operated by Republican campaign supporters?*,This situation, combined with the classic Republican maneuver of de-funding educational programs (i.e. schools) while simultaneously raising standards, has created a crisis in our schools. This one-two punch engineers seemingly educational /school /teacher / curriculum "failures" all of which bolster their argument for school voucher programs- you know, so they can send their own kids to private schools and get the government to pay for it (sure as shooting, if voucher programs ever come to pass, there will be an ability test that goes along with qualification for access), all the while creating sub-standard education in the public domain for all the poor kids left behind. This is all in direct contrast to our nationwide idea from the 19th and early 20th centuries that an educated population led to better citizens. Well informed citizens required a basic literacy to read newspapers, background knowledge to discuss politics, and theoretically, voted thoughtfully. Initiatives created in the 1960's such as desegregation and the G.I. college bill actually expanded educational opportunities to many. You know, back when Americans were at the apex of our cultural, democratic, technological, and economic powers. After we had just won WWII for everyone else in the world. When we had just sent a man to the moon.
*TAAS=Teach Americans to Accept Stupidity
*TAKS=Testing Arbitrarily Kills (meaningful) Standards
*STAAR = Supporting Testing Associates And Republicans
*NCLB = No Classroom Left (with a) Book
Race to the Top = Race to the Total (elimination of anyone left wanting to become a teacher)
Want more thorough content on the state of education in America? There is a facebook page that aggregates news on this topic: Rice Alumni Educators
"I must say as to what I have seen of Texas, it is the garden spot of the world. The best land & best prospects for health I ever saw is here, and I do believe it is a fortune to any man to come here. There is a world of country to settle. Davy Crockett, Letter to his children (9 January 1836)
4)Ripe pickins' : Ted Cruz isn't the first politician to look around for a place he can perch, roost and take control. Much as the mockingbird lays its egg in the nest of another species and then lets that other bird family to deal with the problems caused by its offspring, politicians have long eyed Texas as a "Garden of Eden", a vast unshaped land, just ripe for the taking. The Bushes came from Connecticut. Cruz comes from Canada. It only happens because we the voters let it happen (see # 1, 2 and 3).
5)Women. The thing I can't figure out is why the over 50% of females out there, old and young, have tolerated the war on women's bodies that's been going on in recent years, vis a vis laws that would eliminate an individual's choice concerning medical control over the most private aspects of her health. Republicans claim they want less governemtn, so why are they bringing government regulation into the doctor's office? I just don't get it why sisters are putting up with it. It's like Margaret Attwood's The Handmaid's Tale. But that's a topic for another posting. If all the moms in this country united against open carry gun laws, for universal access to birth control, for workplace laws that were family-friendly, just think, we could be like Sweden.
Why should you care about any of this? As goes Texas, so goes the nation.
This two part blog posting is about societal-defined norms of attractiveness, and both our culture's and my own reaction to the presence or absence of this one aspect of my personhood......through various periods of my life.
The increasing self-awareness of adolescence brought about a determination to seize control of my own destiny by working consciously to alter my physical appearance. This happens to most teens, and we do the best we can with what we've got. I came of age in the early 1970's: Even my husband coaxed his own mother to sew him a rust colored corduroy three piece suit with bell-bottom pants. (Which was very cool at the time.) She also agreed to let him grow his hair longish if he cleaned his face often enough to get rid of the pimples. (His family was military and this was a pretty radical thing, long hair: our tv news was full of images of long-haired "hippies" protesting against the government, our military, and the Viet Nam war.) I tried to work my own magic on my appearance: For starters, I didn't have to worry about my weight. I had the fact that there was very little food in my childhood home to thank for that. Naturally inclined to be a tomboy, I spent all my free time during my junior high/middle school years riding horses, climbing trees, walking to and from school every day, riding bikes, swimming, hiking, playing tennis, and water-skiing. So I was fit. As I said, my first act of defiance was to cut off the rear tail of my shag/mullet, leaving my hair short and lumpy, in no particular style at all. I then refused to let it be cut, for the next 4 years, until it was "long".
The second expression of my self-determination was to wear my mother down with daily nagging sessions (aka "arguments") until she let me pierce my ears. In my mom's 1930's mindset, only "fast" girls had pierced ears. Never mind that this was all the style and everyone I knew had them, even "nice" girls. I was so innocent and unwordly that it never even occurred to me to take matters into my own hands and get a gf to just do it at a slumber party one night with a sewing needle. (Which would have produced better results, more than likely.) After about three years of daily altercations on the issue, I finally exhausted my mother's determination on this topic, and she agreed to take me to our family physician, to have it done "medically" in the doctor's office. Why she decided it needed to be done this way, I have no idea, but I do remember mom and my dad discussing the issue, and maybe he put it to her as a sort of compromise. (My dad was often the one advocating for issues on my behalf, such as giving me art lessons when I won a prize at the school art show in 2nd grade.) Our family physician was a fat old drunk who wore a toupee that was an entirely different color from his wild looking 70's style mutton-chop sideburns. With an inebriated squinty-eyed jab, similar to the technique one uses when drunkenly throwing darts, he pierced my ears lopsidedly; they remain that way to this day. Of course, of course, my mother and sister went immediately to the mall, a few days after this, and got their ears professionally, symmetrically, and painlessly pierced at the little mall kiosk that also sold earrings. This mall kiosk had a little ear-piercing gun that just went "pop!" and it was done, kind of like a bedazzler.Their ears healed the requisite 6 weeks (twisting and cleaning with hydrogen peroxide each day until the holes healed up) while wearing small matching 14k gold posts. My ears healed up while I wore large lopsided stainless steel hoops the drunk family physician had fashioned himself from dental wire. Why was I so passive and accepting of all this? Why did't I just go to the mall and replace or redo it? Because I had no money. I was 13 years old and my mother wouldn't let me babysit, do chores for others, or anything to earn extra cash. I was totally at her mercy and whims....for 3 more years.
The third event that altered my appearance came about due to my orthodontist, bless that man, who shamed my mother into replacing the silver tooth crown with a natural, white, tooth-colored one that matched my other teeth. These three things changed my life, in a good way, forever.
"Charlie's Angels" Jacqueline Smith phase
By the time I reached high school, I had, as they say, "blossomed." I read Seventeen magazine and spent a lot of time with my gfs obsessively discussing the best hairstyles, fashion, and make-up colors of the day, but I didn't feel any different on the inside. "Give me a child from one to six, and he is mine for life," Saint Ignatius said. I kept the same self-concept, world view, study habits and friends. My mother went back to work around this time and I also managed the house and chauffeured my little sister around, too. Did I mention that I also worked 16-24 hours a week, in addition to running the house, my school extra-curricular activities, and studying, this entire time? Supported myself with my own paychecks? I refer to those years as my "perfect girl" phase. But life, as I knew it, had changed, all due to the fact that as I grew up, my appearance changed. Everyone grows out of the awkward early adolescent phase, eventually, but it's very weird to go from being an ugly duckling to a Cinderella at the ball almost over night. You kind of don't know what to do, what to think about it. Do people really like me for me? Or because of how I look? You want to pinch yourself when you look in the mirror. You know people think you are pretty, but you still hope and think they like you for you, which is not always the case. You start to double-think it....You are also oblivious to the things you say about appearance that may hurt others' feelings. You assume everyone responds to your attractiveness as you do. There were times I felt distanced from my own body, as if I were looking down at myself from above, watching what I was doing, and how others perceived me, in their eyes. I could see their feelings in their eyes. "Don't you know," I would think to myself,"that I am this nerdy little girl with the silver tooth, bushy hair, and ugly clothes? Why do you love me so?" I did and I didn't believe the admiration of others was genuine; but I always assumed it was fleeting.
Myths sprung up about me, Gatsby-like : "Did you know her grandmother died, and left her all this money to buy new clothes?" (She did not. I earned the money myself, once I turned 16, to buy them.) "A natural beauty....unaware of her own prettiness." ...."I hear she is a model." (I was, for about 5 minutes, in a very small local way. I did not attend Barbizon Modeling School, which plenty of girls at my high school did. There were also many girls who went on to become Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders - that's the sort of place it was.) I carried on as I always had, studying, working, true to my old friends, but suddenly new people were friendly to me as well; boys chased me, I won awards, teachers smiled at me, - I swear to god, teachers had never smiled at me before, no matter how hard I had worked or how much I had achieved, academically. (Studies have long documented that teachers are in fact prejudiced towards attractive students.) It was an exciting golden time; my social life exploded into a mix between that of young Scarlet O'Hara and Zelda Sayre. I was always worried that the balloon could pop at any moment, but I lived it, baby, I lived it : there were parties, clubs that invited me to join them, dancing in fountains, long phone calls with boys, people came out of the woodwork to be my friend, invitations were extended to social events way beyond my ken, I won an elected school leadership position, received extravagant gifts from admirers, attended proms, teas, dates, had beautiful dresses and beaux beaux beaux- suddenly I was popular. Yet keenly aware that nothing, except the outside, had changed.
Brief stint as a model
The down side of all this is that, at least in my experience, when you are pretty, people also assume you cannot be intelligent, (or as intelligent as a less pretty person with comparable abilities and achievements), hard-working, ethical, or worthy.... that you have not, in fact, worked hard for what you have accomplished. People frequently assume that a beautiful woman is granted many things in life just from being beautiful, and thus that she doesn't need (or sometimes, deserve) to be rewarded for her hard work, diligence, or excellence in other aspects of her life (because she gets enough reward for the physical aspect). I know this because I won academic accolades in events where my physicality was unknown, such as taking a national Latin exam (in a room of 500 people, filling out scantrons) and scoring second in the nation. (Not a random fluke- I studied for that thing, and repeated it next year, at the state level-didn't attend nationals.) At smaller more local venues, awards eluded me. Perhaps society has changed its preconceptions for this era - the late 70's and early 80's - feel free to start a conversation on this topic with anyone you know who fits the bill. I suspect you will find some differences, perhaps, in how our society regards women nowadays, but the entire societal expectation of "beauty" (however that is defined) is so wrought up with its definition of "femininity" or "womanhood" as to be an integral part. I know women who are not blessed with great looks would make the same argument, from the opposite perspective. Society cares way too much about how women look, or "should" look, one way or another, and tends not to judge them solely from their intellectual or work related efforts, or their personal qualities such as kindness, empathy, or good deeds. If you look like Eleanor Roosevelt - bless her heart- you can be respected for all your accomplishments and the demands you make on others towards that end (and I admire E.R. very much). If you look like Meryl Streep in "The Devil Wears Prada" you will be regarded as a bitch, a ball-busters, a she-devil, etc.
We all know that men face similar issues as regard their looks, but not nearly to the same degree. A wide range of CEO's, lawyers, politicians, doctors, dentists, engineers, authors, educators, businessmen and other (non-media related) male professionals are attractive, as well as unattractive, or even neither, just sort of middling - and they can be equally successful. The topic of attractiveness never even enters the equation of their relative merits. The bar is set lower for men, and the exclamation is more often "smart and handsome to boot" rather than the other way around.
High school graduation
The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolfe was yet to be written, but I had some interesting experiences from this era of my life that would appear to support its central premise. I came of age before feminist theory was widely studiable, at least in the corner of the globe where I lived. When I was a sophomore and 16 years old, I dated a senior boy, 18 years old (also an AP student, like myself) who took a serious ribbing about dating a "soc" (a "social", a popular girl) from his nerdy slide-rule wearing buddies. His reply was ,"She's smarter than me and if you'd talk to her, you'd know it." (Thank you, Randy Farber, for the witty come-back and for standing up for me.) My high school guidance counselor told me -without ever once looking at my transcript or inquiring about my SAT scores - that I was too pretty and not smart enough to apply to a seriously challenging academic university. One of my high school honors English teachers hated me because I didn't join the pep squad (my mother refused to let me consort with "floozies and bimbos", her words, not mine) and also because I had contempt for this teacher's lack of knowledge in her subject matter. I knew more, had read more, understood more, and was a better writer, than she was. My chemistry teacher told me that I'd never get into "x" university (her own alma mater, a very prestigious college) "because I just wasn't a good enough student" ......When I did get accepted into her alma mater, one of several stellar colleges that accepted me, I said nothing about it to her. That would have been unkind.
When I showed up at my chosen college (same one as my h.s.chem teacher) for freshman orientation, I was told repeatedly by other students and by some members of the faculty that I was "only accepted because I was pretty" and that "the campus admissions office was merely trying to diversify the student body by admitting a few pretty girls too". None of these people ever bothered to inquire about my grades, my SATs, or my college application.....They never knew that: a) I was in the top 10% of my graduating class (from one of the top 3 most rigorous high schools in the state), had an SAT score that qualified me for membership in MENSA, and had won numerous national and state awards in Latin, UIL English Ready Writing, and Jr. Achievement (business club) as well as other killer extra-curricular leadership experiences. and b) my college application did not include a photo of myself. I had several room mates while at this prestigious university who told me they "read over my essay that was lying around" and that "it wasn't very good" .....yet I somehow managed to earn, once I turned it in, an "A" on it. Whuzzup with that, homie? Several male profs in my major told me repeatedly that I wasn't a strong candidate for graduate school, but a female prof who was my mentor told me that I was. Where did the truth of any of this lie? What conclusions should I draw?
The fact is, people project their own insecurities, worries, inadequacies and fears onto you, ugly or pretty, smart or stupid. It's rarely truly about you.
I don't bring all this up because I think I am "all that." I bring all this up to let you know that the belle of the ball phase was but a brief fun interlude in the long trajectory of my life. I kept my good looks throughout my 20's, throughout my 30's, even after two pregnancies (the second of which nearly killed me), and in spite of a whole host of increasingly serious health problems. As a charter member of the "disease of the month club" I have pretty much been ravaged by health problems over the course of my life, My 40's were fairly cruel, as I lost my looks before many of my gfs and peers (Now, as we are all working towards 60, they are starting to catch up to me. Not the kind of "leader" anyone wants to be.) Over the course of my lifespan, my external outward appearance has been seen by others first as pretty, then ugly, then pretty, then ugly. I have experienced life from both sides of the "the beauty gap". I'm here to tell you that life ain't easier on one side than the other; and either way that society categorizes you ( "pretty" or "ugly") attempts to label you and confine you to some predetermined, stereotypical flattened out version of your self. It's up to you to decide how you will regard your self; in my case, my self concept was formed as the quiet, smart little girl with a silver tooth and bushy hair who read a lot of books, liked to draw, and had true-blue nerdy friends. I will be that person till I die.
Society's perceptions of me (who I was, my depth, my worthiness) based on external appearances always felt such an oddity. I could "see it", I knew I was pretty, as an abstract concept, and I could feel the magnetism that this entirely random happenstance created within others around me, but it felt like like something that could be taken on or off, like a dress. The way others looked at me from the outside was at some curious phenomena, as if it were happening to someone else, not actually related to me. I still feel this way, back on the other side of the attractiveness equation.
After baby #1 early 30's After baby #2 late 30's
Old habits die hard. Even today, I attempt to do the best I can, with what I have. I dress as nicely as I can afford and practice good hygiene. The results aren't great, but could be so much worse. Why can't I age like Sela Ward? Right now, I just wish I could look as sassily good as Judy Dench. If you've ever wondered whatever happened to Kathleen Turner of "Body Heat", well, she has similar health problems as I do. Some of them. I do take care of myself, but am not obsessive about it. I am still the same person on the inside as I always was. I still have the same old friends, and new friends of the same sort, As you age, and especially when you are considered by societal standards to be less physically attractive, especially if you gain weight, others make assumptions about you that are just as baseless as their assumptions were when you were young slender and beautiful.
I have been told by friends and strangers alike that I "need to join a health club or a gym" (my weight gain is actually due to my health issues, medication I take, and the fact that I can barely walk; literally, have been almost crippled for years now.) I don't discuss my health situation much because I don't want them to become me. I want to be who I am,without them as the core of my identity.
The weight issue is truly interesting to me, as a sort of one-person sociology experiment: I have been treated / had comments made to me as if I were uneducated white trash, a denizen of a lower socio-economic order, because I am over-weight. It is a truly bizarre and striking phenomenon. I am by any definition you care to consider none of these things, People's first assumption if you have gained weight is that you are lazy, and that exercise and diet will fix it. From there the logic that seems to follow is that if you are over weight, you are lazy; if you are lazy, you are uneducated and shiftless; if you are ignorant and have no drive, you must be poor as well. People freely give me handy tips, such as I should shop at Walmart or Sam Moon; they just heard of a "new" _______(fill in the blank: vitamin, hand lotion, diet, pill, exercise plan, superfood, etc) that will help you lose weight. Or a new hairstyle, brand of clothing, etc that will make you appear younger or thinner. Old friends who know you won't bring this up, but strangers and casual workplace acquaintances start with these assumptions and build their concept of you from there. The assumption, if one is overweight or less attractive, is that you are not aware of it, and just need some help. This goes back to the underlying notion that fat people are stupid.
25th high school reunion
I was once called "fat" (by an @$$hole) when I young and lithe and beautiful. At 105 pounds at 5' 5" I wasn't over weight at all (in fact, at that particular moment, too thin) and I knew even then that the comment wasn't really about what I was, or wasn't. It was about the other person's desire to hurt me in some way, to attempt to control or confine me through his skewed view of what a woman should be, should look like. As a beautiful young woman, I always felt damned if you do, damned if you don't, and everyone thinks they have the right to voice their opinion on your appearance. Why do people think they have a right to comment at all, one way or another? This dress : too slutty? Too prudish? Too boring? Too colorful? My hair: flattering, or not? These shoes: trashy, or demure? Do these pants make my butt look big?
Of course, it goes without saying, that I really don't care what others think. At all. That's the best gift that middle age confers upon you. you simply do not care. You care very little about things you used to care about quite a bit, and you can't muster the energy or desire to care about new trivialities that rise up. You know that none of this really matters. (Oh yeah, I care about other, more important stuff: global warming, our current political situation, the future of literacy, the war on women, what sort of world are we leaving our children? - but not about appearances.) My core self-concept was formed at that earlier stage in my life, Nowadays, if I am often treated as if I have been a fat nerdy girl all my life, and thus share the expectations and experiences of one of those girls, I laugh, I still think "I am the cutest little trick in shoe leather" and behave as if I am the belle of the ball- self-confident and flirting with men - which really throws people for a loop.