Four Things for Oct 26: Sunday Reading

On Home, Accomplishment & Failure, Country Music, Friday Night Lights, Sodom & Gomorrah. And Texas, Texas, Texas.

1) After plugging it on this blog a few months ago, I missed Mockingbird’s Fall Conference in Houston last weekend, though I did follow it as best I could via Jordan Haynie Ware’s live-tweeting.

I couldn’t make it because it was a big family weekend for me: two birthdays in my family, and a sister-in-law flying in to visit. I was definitely sorry to miss out, though, because (among other reasons) the conference headliner was one of my favorite Austin singers, Slaid Cleaves. Here’s what Ethan Richardson wrote about Cleaves last week:

The stories we keep reading and the songs we want to keep hearing are good because they carry a truth we seem bent on forgetting. In other words, good country music is not merely a take-me-back experience—country music preaches.

For Slaid Cleaves, the story that preaches best is the classic country story: the law that reality grounds the stories we’d like to tell ourselves. “Every man is a myth / Every woman a dream / Watch your little heart get crushed / When the truth gets in between.”

2) “Yes, we all wanted to be cowboys,” writes Richardson, “and yes we had big hopes for the future, but our failed lives have brought us back to the failproof hometowns that will take us back at midnight.”

That idea, that the appeal of country music comes from the interaction of failed dreams and a welcoming home, the idea of home as a space for failure, resonates with Hannah Gersen’s essay (“One Long Country Song”) on the TV show Friday Night Lights for the Millions. About the show’s fictional town, Dillon, Gersen tells us:

For years, I had operated under the assumption that the places I knew best were not very interesting. This was due to my own insecurities and also to my intense love of all things New York City. But, my infatuation with the city began to wane around 2008. That was the year the financial markets crashed—a situation I couldn’t help thinking of when I read Smith’s phrase, “sociopathic illusion of limitlessness.” It was the year I started to think about failure, really think about it. I was three years into an ill-fitting secretarial job at a Wall Street law firm, a job that I knew would only become more ill-fitting as the recession unspooled. New York did not seem like a good place to fail. In fact, it seemed like a place where I was not allowed to even speak or think of the possibility of failure.

One of the things I like about Dillon is that it welcomes failures; in fact it embraces them. Growing up in small towns, I always felt there was something bullying about this love of failure, and that there was within it a not-so-hidden class resentment, a desire to keep everyone on the same level, even if that meant everything was mediocre. I do think that sentiment exists, but I also think there is a humanity to small places, an acknowledgement that people need space in their lives to enjoy what they have, for as long as it may last—a space outside of accomplishment. A space outside of self-improvement. A space to have emotions that might not be “productive.” A space to have emotions, period.

3) Casey Fleming reminds us that we can find that space in small houses, too, even in the middle of a sprawling city like Houston. From “Sermon for Small Houses”:

I grew up in a small house.  In the mornings, before school, my father, mother, brother and I all took showers in the same shower, so we had a line-up: first my mother, then my dad, then Ben, then me.  Sometimes I showered before Ben, but I took a long time back then what with shaving and conditioning and exfoliating my vain skin, so if I went first he got a lukewarm shower, if not a cold one.  We had two bathrooms, but the shower in my parents’ bathroom boasted better water pressure.  We were always in each other’s way.  I secretly raged at my mother for four years because she’d come into my bedroom early in the morning to grab earrings or a hair brush (why were they in my room?  I don’t know) and then fail to close the door behind her when she left, so I’d have to hear her morning routine, all the clangs and bangs of getting ready, thereby losing 45 minutes of sleep.  My bedroom shared a wall with the living room, and to this day, I cannot stand the sound of Sunday: football commentators and boisterous mid-game commercials.  We mostly ate in front of the television, not because we were avoiding each other’s conversation, but because it was too cramped at the kitchen table in its tiny nook.

But I loved that house.  It bred in the four of us an intimacy.  I never could have avoided my parents or hid much from them without great trouble: not a late night make-out session, a drug habit, or even a bad mood.  Nor could they have hid much from Ben and I, and while closeness can inflame irritation, we all knew each other so well.

4) Finally, I was going to make this a “Three Things” post, but then yesterday Elizabeth Bruenig published this gorgeous variation on the themes that echo through all of the above posts, and I had to include it. Here she writes about being repelled by her home:

Texas will still call itself business-friendly, and its very fine suburbs will grow and sprawl like annexes of Disney Land, where everything appears to be halfway between real and fake. Many of them will come with zoning restrictions that restrict subsidized housing and targeted building codes intended to keep black people out. Residents will speak fondly of these places, and people will move into them in droves. High school parking lots will gleam with pickup trucks, and they will construct simulation town squares, all brand new, Anthropologies and Sephoras and J. Crews and Ann Taylor Lofts, and some of the boutiques in between will sell jewelry with a longhorn theme. Journalists will write about the ‘complacency factor‘ in Texas gubernatorial races as though it weren’t a longstanding and much-celebrated institution.

And here she writes about its attraction:

Every time I go back I am almost enchanted: there’s a certain parking garage in Fort Worth you can stand at the top of and see the courthouse where my parents were married and the hospital where I was born, and the silver snake of highway straight ahead leads, if you follow it, all the way to my house. The glare of the sun blazes out the distance even though the land is flat for miles. You forget where you are, and it doesn’t much matter. It will get you where it wants you to be.

And here she finds the perfect image to characterize that mix of attraction and repulsion:

In the Bible the doomed cities Sodom and Gomorrah are called ‘cities of the plain’, which I think of every time I come in on some late flight to DFW, and see the whole expanse of Dallas and Fort Worth laid out flat on the prairie, lights and grids, long perimeters of highway. Lot’s wife was turned to salt for looking back at Sodom, because you don’t look back at someplace you’re leaving unless there was something about it that you loved.

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