Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Barbecue Love

I’ve been meaning to write this recommendation for almost a year. I know, because it was December 23rd last year when, after several visits to Ronnie’s Barbecue in Johnson City, I decided that the place definitely deserves some blog love.

I know it was December 23rd, because Ronnie and his family were closing up early for the holiday. They hadn’t sold out of sliced brisket that day, but they had switched the “Open” sign on their window off (I hadn’t noticed) and were wrapping up their remaining meat and sides.

But they didn’t complain when I walked in—instead, they cheerfully unwrapped what they had and sold me a sliced brisket sandwich, with jalapeños, and a slice of chess pie. And they didn’t complain about the fact that I missed another sign, on the door, saying that their credit card system was down and that they were only accepting checks, cash, and debit cards.

I didn’t have checks, cash, or a debit card. “That’s okay,” Ronnie told the girl working the register. “I’m sure this gentleman will pay us on his next visit.”

That was very cool, but I’m not recommending Ronnie’s just because of their hospitality. It’s like this: I’ve eaten two barbecue sandwiches in my life that I would call revelatory. One was a pulled pork sandwich in West Memphis, bought on an Oklahoma to Atlanta road trip with my grandmother and her cat, in the summer of 2009.  The other was the sliced brisket sandwich at Ronnie’s.

Go there, amigos. 

Saturday, September 8, 2012

15 years of Too Far to Care

This year marks the fifteenth anniversary of the Old 97s' first major label release, 1997's Too Far to Care.  For metroplex scenester teens in the late 1990s, Too Far to Care was our White Album, our Led Zeppelin IV.  Our Doolittle.  Everything about it was cool: its title, its cover art, its impossibly clever songwriting.  Too Far to Care was the last CD I played in Fort Worth before packing my stereo to move to Austin for college; it was the first CD I played in my dorm room on West 22nd Street.  When I tried to write fiction, I wanted so badly to capture its tone that I kept it on repeat for days.

To mark the anniversary, the group's lead singer Rhett Miller tweeted that the band would play the whole album at their August 24th show in Dallas (wish I could have been there!).  Miller is also working on a series of mini-essays about each song on the album.  From his entry on "Niteclub":

One lyric in particular has evolved in a sad, marvelous way.  When I wrote "telephones make strangers out of lovers," I was looking at a pay phone (remember those?), and thinking how the false connection it provided served only to increase the emotional distance between lovers.  Now, when I sing the song, I look out over the audience and it only takes a moment of searching the crowd to find a couple standing side by side, both looking at their phones.  These days, the telephone makes strangers out of lovers who are in the same room.
He's going in reverse order, writing about the album's last songs first.  Miller is a smart writer--no surprise there--and the essays are full of fun little revelations (example: Miller once shared a garage apartment with Clark Vogeler of Funland & the Toadies).  Mostly, though, it's fascinating to read Miller--who still seems like a kid--writing about getting older.  Because if Too Far to Care is fifteen, we're all getting older, and fast.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Ornette in Fort Worth

From the New Yorker: "One way into Coleman’s music is to think of it as avant-gutbucket. Hailing from Fort Worth (which figures prominently in the film, as in the clip above), he got his start in rhythm and blues and the blues are, conspicuously, at the forefront of his achievement." (Richard Brody)

Monday, September 3, 2012

John T. Edge on Houston Cuisine

In this month's Oxford American, John T. Edge writes about Houston's awesomely diverse food offerings:

Houston has identity issues. It’s less shiny and slick than Dallas. Less self-consciously Texan than Alamo-worshipping San Antonio. I would say it’s less weird than Austin, which likes to style itself as famously weird, but there’s evidence—the Beer Can Housemuseum, the Orange Show Center for Visionary Art, that runaway octopus meal—to the contrary.

It's an ungainly place, the largest unzoned city in the U.S.  Here strip joints and strip malls bracket Craftsman bungalows.  And concrete culverts are called bayous.  It's not exactly a tourist mecca.  Or a nexus of media collection and dissemination.  In Houston, chefs like Shepherd and Caswell and barkeeps like Heugel work outside the glare.  

Food wonks have recently fallen hard for the antebellum revivalist cooking of Charleston--home base of the impish Sean Brock, recently profiled lovingly in Vogue (Jeffrey Steingarten) and the New Yorker (Burkhard Bilger).  But the new immigrant + city-proud chef algebra that makes Houston the most vital place to eat in the South right now hasn't garnered much magic-hour photography and breathless glossy magazine prose (until now).   

I disagree that Houston is "less self-consciously Texan" than San Antonio, but Edge is right that Houston is a great place to eat.  Check out the whole article: Savoring Mutt City (Oxford American)

Ranch Journal: 8:30-9:00 (supper)

Monday, August 6, 2012

On Taking Pictures in Havana

"It must have been the easiest place in the world to take pictures.  You just got off the plane, and you were in the thick of it...  Everywhere you turned, everything was happening, and everything that was happening took you from all abstraction and into something human, where answers weren't so easy." (Pico Iyer, Cuba and the Night)

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Ranch Journal

Another school year ended, and I'm back at my summer routine of working on the ranch in Willow City.  Most people don't know what I actually do at the ranch, so I've been planning a series of posts that outline what goes on in my days out there.

First thing: I work in two-day shifts, generally two per week.  That way I never have to spend more than one night at a time away from my wife and daughter.  I've got lots of time, too, to work on my dissertation and plan my research trip (this July) to Cuba.

Here's a basic schedule:

Day 1:

5:00—wake up in Austin, drink coffee, read sports and politics blogs
5:30—drive over to the Boss’s house in Austin to get truck and tools, drive to ranch
7:00—arrive at ranch in Willow City, unload
7:15 – 12:15—work.  Work at the ranch mostly means clearing land.  Chopping and dragging cedar, digging out cactus and agarita, throwing it all on piles to be burned later.
12:15 – 4:15—lunch and siesta.  I avoid working in the afternoon.  This is my time to work on my dissertation, or go into town for supplies and iced tea and some wifi at Fredericksburg Coffee and Tea.
4:30 – 8:00—more work.   By 6:30 or 7:00, it’s almost pleasant outside.
8:01—Shiner Bock.
8:10—start cooking supper, continue drinking Shiner.
8:30 – 9:00—eat supper on the tailgate of the ranch truck
9:00 – 10:00 or so—shower, read, dissertate.

Day 2:
6:00—wake up, make and drink coffee, eat breakfast
6:30 – 7:15—run. 
7:30 – 12:30—work.
12:30—pack up and head home

Friday, June 1, 2012

Joe Hockey and Penny Wong on Marriage Equality in Australia

This clip of a question about gay marriage at the end of a televised Australian political debate has been making the facebook rounds in the past few days.  Many responses commend Penny Wong’s dignified answer to Joe Hockey: “I know what my family is worth.”

And that is a great response.  But I think Hockey’s part is the most fascinating aspect of the exchange.

Kudos to the audience questioner, who cuts to the heart of the issue: “…on Friday you said you wouldn’t vote for marriage equality, because you really believe children deserve a mother and a father,” he addresses Hockey. “So I’m wondering if you could tell us, and Senator Wong, why you think you and Melissa make better parents than her and Sophie.”

The question leads Hockey straight into incoherence: “I don’t believe we’re better parents, necessarily, because we’re male and female,” he says before arguing that straight couples are necessarily better than gay parents.

Exact quote: “I think in this life, we’ve got to aspire to give our children what I believe to be the very best circumstances, and that’s to have a mother and a father.  I’m not saying that gay parents are any lesser parents, but I’m being asked to legislate in favor of something that I don’t believe to be the best outcome for a child.”

He contradicts himself literally sentence by sentence.  But what's interesting is that he needs to contradict himself: he knows that he and Melissa are no better at parenting than Penny and Sophie.

This is exactly the sort of cognitive dissonance that President Obama described overcoming as part of his recent change of mind regarding gay marriage.  He could no longer reconcile his abstractions about the "ideal" family with the reality of the gay families he knows.  And this is why the greatest indicator that a person will support gay marriage is having a gay family member or close friend.  Faced with the lived realities of actual human beings, empty abstractions fall away.

Of course, I have met people who have no problem proclaiming themselves better parents than any gay couple, simply by virtue of being half of a straight marriage.  And I know people who cheerfully write that gay families are "playing house," and who accuse gay parents of using their children to prove a political point.  But those are shameful views, and I think bringing them to light is all we need to do to combat them.    

Monday, May 14, 2012

And then it was gone.

When the Dublin Dr Pepper Bottling Company announced, in January, that it would stop making the original-formula Dr Pepper it's sold since 1891, I went out and bought a case.  Today I drank the last can.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Austin: A Paradise Built to My Specifications

All of these pictures come from a half-mile stretch of my daily drive down South First to campus. If I want to buy tacos on my way to or from work, I have at least twenty options--all right on my route, with varying specialties and price levels.  Interior Mexican, unabashed Tex-Mex, hipster taco trucks, you name it.  And I would have the same number of choices if I were to drive down South Congress or South Lamar.  

I don't take this bounty for granted: I fell in love with Mexican food as a kid living in Charleston where, at the time, there were two (2!) Mexican-style restaurants in the area.  When we moved to Fort Worth, I remember pulling out the Star-Telegram's weekly Dining section and marveling at the pages and pages of listings and reviews under the heading "Mexican."  But even Fort Worth can't compare to this.  This is amazing.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Recent Reads

Bad Writing and Bad Thinking (Rachel Toor, Chronicle of Higher Education)

Call me simple-minded, call me anti-intellectual, but I believe that most poor scholarly writing is a result of bad habits, of learning tricks of the academic trade as a way to try to fit in. And it's a result of lazy thinking. Most of us know that we may not be writing as well as we could, or should. Many academics have told me that they suspect they are bad writers but don't know how to get better. They are often desperate for help. I tell them to reread Strunk and White, and to take a look at "Politics and the English Language." Yeah, yeah, they say, and get buried working toward the next submission deadline, prepping for the next class.

Everybody knew that eight hours a day was pretty much the limit for a guy swinging a hammer or a shovel; but those grey-flannel guys are just sitting at desks. We’re paying them more; shouldn’t we be able to ask more of them?

The short answer is: no. In fact, research shows that knowledge workers actually have fewer good hours in a day than manual laborers do — on average, about six hours, as opposed to eight. It sounds strange, but if you’re a knowledge worker, the truth of this may become clear if you think about your own typical work day. Odds are good that you probably turn out five or six good, productive hours of hard mental work; and then spend the other two or three hours on the job in meetings, answering e-mail, making phone calls, and so on. You can stay longer if your boss asks; but after six hours, all he's really got left is a butt in a chair. Your brain has already clocked out and gone home.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

In praise of the coffeehouse/bar

I love a good bar, and I love a good coffeehouse, but there's something to be said for those places that successfully combine the two. I bring this up because I'm writing from Caffe Medici (née Metro) where, at happy hour, the beer is cheaper than the coffee.

(And yes, I'm having both)

Monday, March 12, 2012

What does it mean that, after reading Caitlin Flanagan's Atlantic Monthly essay "The Autumn of Joan Didion," wherein she writes: "to really love Joan Didion--to have been blown over by thing like the smell of jasmine and the packing list she kept by her suitcase--you have to be female," I headed straight to the library to check out Slouching Towards Bethlehem?

Either A) I'm a girl or B) Flanagan is full of it with her gender essentialism. I'm leaning towards B.

But now I've read the book and, yes, it blew me over. Full-of-it-ness aside, Flanagan's essay nails the appeal (and the flaws) of reading Didion. The key to Slouching Towards Bethlehem is the short essay "On Keeping a Notebook," which contains the awesome line "I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not." Didion is asking why she records strange details about strange people--the kinds of details that fill all the essays in the book--and she decides:
I imagine, in other words, that the notebook is about other people. But of course it is not. I have no real business with what one stranger said to another at the hat-check counter in Pavillon; in fact I suspect the line "That's my old football number" touched not my own imagination at all, but merely some memory of something once read, probably "The Eighty-Yard Run." Nor is my concern with a woman in a dirty crepe-de-Chine wrapper in a Wilmington bar. My stake is always, of course, in the unmentioned girl in the plaid silk dress. Remember what it was to be me: that is always the point.
And I guess it's the point of keeping a blog, too.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Internet Favorites, ctd.

Continuing the festival of good writing and interesting thoughts:

I knew Casey at One-Way Ticket Back when I was at the University of Houston. I was mastering English Lit, she was in the Creative Writing Program.

I've actually researched Tex-Mex food (fajitas, nachos) for an encyclopedia that's coming out this summer. So I'm a bonafide expert on this subject. Seriously, it's on my CV. And I approve of this post.

Who is this Emma Straub? She can write. I also liked "My Rayannes."

This is an embarrassing confession: I haven't read any of David Foster Wallace's fiction. And I work about 100 yards from his whole archive, which I've never visited. Anyway, this made me want to dig into both. Because I also have a weakness for slightly embarrassing self-help writing.

Case in point:

Okay, the whole manliness angle is cheesy--physicality is important for men and women--but I really, really liked this essay.

Finally, two football posts, related to the Texas - Texas A&M bust-up. First, a contemplative one from an outsider:

And, to conclude, Barking Carnival's take on the rift between the Texas and A&M athletic departments: When the Lone Star Network All Came Apart.

Happy new year, readers!

Internet Favorites

To start 2012, I thought I'd share a few things I loved reading in 2011. First up:

in February, the Paris Review's blog ran this note on Patricia Highsmith and the mysteries of biography--why does a writer choose to dedicate a big chunk of her life and energy to writing about another writer?

Here's Schenkar's conclusion:

For at some point during my long, excruciating, rivetingly interesting relationship with this dead writer, we had somehow agreed to collaborate in rendering the trespasses of her life and the extremities of her work. By now, enough of her identity has leaked through the porous borders of her writing to perfuse my own, and I’ve been issued a passport to Highsmith Country that can never be revoked.

You might say—she would certainly say it—that Patricia Highsmith and I have become partners in crime.

I don't do biography, but what I do is so focused on three authors--Alejo Carpentier, James Weldon Johnson, and James Joyce--that I understood the feeling. And so I scoured the PCL for both Schenkar's book and Highsmith's fiction. But then I didn't get time to read any of it. Still, this post was great.