At Ploughshares: Ornette Coleman and the Color of Fort Worth

ornette-coleman albums

My first piece for the Ploughshares blog is up now. It’s on the complicated relationship between jazz legend Ornette Coleman and his (and my) hometown, Fort Worth. I’ve been thinking about this one since Coleman died last summer, so I’m really glad to see it published. To summarize, I argue that what complicated Ornette’s relationship to the city was the race issue, and I suggest that his story can be seen as another example of James Baldwin’s experience of the “great shock” of watching cowboy movies as a kid, and facing the realization that “although you are rooting for Gary Cooper, that the Indians are you.”

And the timing is really interesting: just last week I was back in Fort Worth for my annual family trip to the Stock Show and Rodeo, the city’s tremendous, month-long cowboy extravaganza. Guess what greeted Stock Show visitors this year as they looked for parking along University Avenue?

A line of about a dozen old men waving Confederate flags. (Note: I didn’t get a picture of all of them. There were several more just out of view.)


I hope to have more to say about this in a post or two soon. For now, I would really appreciate it if you’d visit my post at Ploughshares. And while you’re there, please check out all of the great writing on the blog!




Four Things for Mid-January: My Heroes Have Always Been Episcopalians

1. On Quotes and Tattoos

If this blog had arms, I would tattoo this quote from Michael Curry around its bicep:

“Our commitment to be an inclusive church is not based on a social theory or capitulation to the ways of the culture, but on our belief that the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross are a sign of the very love of God reaching out to us all.”

For the other arm, I might go with this one from Jim Naughton: “We can’t repent what isn’t a sin.”

Those phrases came, of course, in response to the decision by the Anglican Primates Meeting to suspend the Episcopal Church from decision-making bodies for three years as a result of its support for LGBT rights, including marriage. That decision is disappointing, though, as the Reverend Mike Angell outlines here, it won’t change anything in the day-to-day life of the Episcopal Church. Nor will it result in the church being kicked out of the Anglican Communion, or anything like that.

2. The Episcopal “Consequence” and the Religious Right

The reaction to the vote by American conservatives is exactly why I’ve paused my conversations with the Religious Right. Here’s old favorite Dwight Longenecker, for example, with “Seven Ways the Episcopalians Will React to the Suspension.

What bothers me about that post?

The pointlessness of it all.

Before reading a word of response from the Episcopal Church, Longenecker decided we’d be wrong.  If we weren’t too prideful, we’d be too hurt. If we accepted the decision stoically, we’d be “false martyrs,” and if we argued against it, we’d be “counter-attacking” with ruthless rage. The guy who complains we’re wishy-washy Moralistic Therapeutic Deists was now predicting we’d be too defiant.

And I don’t even know what to do with this lovely “prediction”: “The African bishops will be portrayed as homophobic gay killers. They will be portrayed as ignorant jungle bunnies who ought to mind their own business. It will get racist and it will get ugly.”


To give you an idea of just how little Longenecker knows about the church to which he once belonged, here’s Prediction 7: “The Episcopal Church of the USA will leave the Anglican Communion and become just another one of the nearly 150 Anglican style breakaway churches.”

And here’s the end of Curry’s statement: “God is greater than anything. I love Jesus and I love the church. I am a Christian in the Anglican way. And like you, as we have said in this meeting, I am committed to ‘walking together’ with you as fellow Primates in the Anglican family.“

As Ruth Gledhill put it, that is “a genuine turning of the other cheek. He is not threatening to walk away, he is pledging his Church to walk together with all the Primates of the Anglican Communion.”

Does Longenecker see that? No. Or, if he does, he writes it off as “false martyrdom.”

See how it works? There’s literally no response that the Episcopal Church could offer that would satisfy writers like him. Apart, of course, from renouncing all of the theology and moral logic that has led it to its current position.

But, oh, yeah. Longenecker says that theology and moral logic don’t exist. See Prediction 1: “Their response will not be with reasoned argument, proof for same sex marriage from the Scriptures, the church fathers and the tradition of the church. This is not only because there is no such proof, but because they have abandoned the whole idea of objective truth long ago.”

Now, everyone knows that’s untrue. The Christian case for gay marriage has been elucidated over and over and over and over again, with reason and with reference to Scriptures and the tradition of the church. Even secular writers, like Damon Linker, and orthodox Catholics, like Marc Barnes and Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, get that the current push for gay rights unfolds from the basic precepts of Christianity.

If writers like Longenecker want to disagree with the logic that reaches the Episcopal Church’s progressive ends, fine. We can have a conversation. But if they want to pretend it doesn’t exist, if they just stick their fingers in their ears and say lalalalala… I can’t hear you, what’s the point of talking to someone like that?

3. What’s the Point of Talking to Someone Like That?

Sigh again. The point of talking to someone like that is that the example of my Presiding Bishop demands it. Seriously, how can I read Curry’s words and not feel a responsibility to stand with him in rebuke, and both forcefully with all the compassion I can muster, make and remake the arguments that folks like Longenecker want to pretend are not there?

Curry is a perfect example of why my heroes have always been Episcopalians.

4. A Pattern Language

On a different note, yesterday Rod Dreher pointed out this piece by architect Christopher Alexander. If you’re not familiar with Alexander’s classic book A Pattern Language, definitely check it out. One of my wife’s professors made her buy it in college, and it has been one of my favorite books on our shelf ever since.

Why do I like it so much? I don’t know. A Pattern Language is about, as Dreher puts it, “which architectural patterns produce buildings that please us.” It’s sort of a doorstop-thick Elements of Style for designers, full of bold-type commands like “Wherever paths run along the edge of buildings, build arcades, and use the arcades, above all, to connect up the buildings to one another, so that a person can walk from place to place under the cover of arcades.” Or, “Build waist-high shelves around at least a part of the main rooms where people work.”

I guess what I like about it is what Alexander identifies in this new essay: behind all of these “rules” and commandments is an idea that we can experience the divine in the physical. It’s a sense that Dreher calls sacramentalism, and it’s a notion that always enchants me, whether it comes from Andre Dubus writing about the sacredness of making sandwiches for your daughter or from Casey Cep writing about writing:

One way of understanding the sacraments, perhaps best articulated by liturgist Gordon Lathrop, is that simple things become central things. When Christians refer to the bath and the table, they refer not only to the specific sacraments of bathing and eating, but they point also to the sacramental character of every bath and every table. The setting apart of one table and one bath shows forth the splendor of all tables and all baths.

That setting apart is the calling of Christians but also the vocation of the writer. moreThe attentiveness of the writer is shown in how that writer lifts to the level of extraordinary the most ordinary of people, places, and things.

Emotional Labor in Literature: On “How to Make Collard Greens”


NOTE: I’m treating this very poetic essay as a piece of autobiographical nonfiction, since that’s how it’s framed in the Introduction to Number 4, Volume 15 of New World Writing, where it was published. Bergman writes both fiction and nonfiction, but this piece is not listed as either on her website. I found it through this essay by Nick Ripatrazone, who also treats it as nonfiction. Bergman’s fiction, including the story “Housewifely Arts,” deals with similar themes.


On New Year’s Eve, I mentioned Megan Mayhew Bergman’s essay “How to Make Collard Greens.” In my last post I wrote about gender and emotional labor. Today I want to tie those two things together, because while I think Bergman’s essay is worth reading  on its own, I also think it’s a great illustration of what we mean when we say “emotional labor.”

Before I start, though, let me confess my personal attachment to the piece. In one of my favorite passages on writing, Gaston Bachelard says:

Thus, very quickly, at the very first word, at the first poetic overture, the reader who is ‘reading a room’ leaves off reading and starts to think of some place in his own past. You would like to tell everything about your room. You would like to interest the reader in yourself, whereas you have unlocked a door to daydreaming. The values of intimacy are so absorbing that the reader has ceased to read your room: he sees his own again.

Basically, according to Bachelard, good writing is when you describe your childhood home and in doing so cause your readers to think about their childhood homes.

The thing is,  “How to Make Collard Greens” rhymes so fully with my own life that it sometimes feels like Bergman’s actually writing about my house, just with some of the furniture rearranged. I found the essay last fall, when I was looking for nonfiction to teach my new class. I was immediately drawn to the title, because, as I’ve written, collard greens are an important symbol of continuity in my family—to me, and to my grandmother, who passed away last April. What made me catch my breath was one of the ingredients that Bergman’s grandmother uses in the piece: hog jowl.

My grandmother also insisted on using hog jowl (she pronounced it hog jole) in her New Year’s Day hoppin’ john. Ham hock wouldn’t do, nor salt pork. Definitely not bacon. In case you’ve never tried, hog jowl isn’t easy to find in every American city. It was not easy to find in exurban Tulsa, where my grandmother was living during my mom’s last years.

I can still see my mom rolling her eyes at her mom, in those hectic days between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, for adding one more errand to her list. The way she could turn into a 50-year-old teenager: Yes, mother. We’ll get the hog jowl. 

Mom wouldn’t even eat the hoppin’ john. Like Bergman, my mom turned her nose up at the dish. I don’t know why, exactly. Bergman claims that she didn’t like the smell of the pot, and that she thought making collards on New Year’s was a “superstitious and country” tradition. I suspect my mom would have said much the same, but I also think there was some underlying stubbornness behind it, some attachment to an ancient rebellion.

My mom died of cancer in 2009. Bergman’s evocations of the ugliness of chemo and radiation reminded me of her last years, which my grandmother also witnessed. And Bergman writes about saving her mother’s voicemails: I did that, too.

In other words, I picked up this essay to read about my grandmother, found myself reading about my mom, and even more than that found myself enmeshed in the relationship between the two. In any event, I’ve been reading this essay—for months—to remember. In that reading, the collard greens mean continuity, and the theme of the essay is loss.

But now that I’ve been thinking about emotional labor, something that should have been obvious has become much clearer to me.

In “How to Make Collard Greens,” the greens aren’t just an emblem of continuity; they’re also an emblem of care. The author hopes (against hope) the dish’s vitamins will cure her mother-in-law; another part of her hopes its good luck will protect her family in the coming year.

This realization has re-centered the essay for me. It’s no longer (for me) just about my mom and my grandmother; it’s about the woman who held me together when I was falling apart from both of those losses. It’s about my wife. She’s the woman who asked my grandmother for her collard green recipe, delighting her. She’s the woman who made sure I called my mom and grandmother when they were alive.

Somehow, the first few times I read “How to Make Collard Greens” I glided right over the fact that the author was taking care of her mother-in-law, not her mother. The husband in the story is not exactly absent—the piece is addressed to him, in fact—but, rereading, it’s striking how much of the work of family-making falls on the author. And Bergman’s essay makes clear just how devastating that work can be. Here’s an early passage on the decision to have kids:

I would like grandchildren, she said one night over dinner.

What I couldn’t say was this: it is strange to make love in the face of grief.

Another thing I couldn’t say: I am not ready.

And another: I may never be ready.

There are so many layers to that: the work of grieving acting against the responsibility the author feels for providing grandchildren, which in turn acts against the author’s personal fears about pregnancy (“I was afraid of babies and afraid of miscarriage and afraid of everything,” Bergman writes).

Passages like that illustrate the complexity and pervasiveness of the emotional labor typically expected of women. As a result, the piece offers a powerful literary complement to a quickly-expanding conversation on the subject. It’s also great—if anguishing—reading.

Be a Better Man in 2016: Pick Up Your Share of the Emotional Labor


One day early in our marriage, when my wife and I were living off of Allen Parkway in Houston, some relatives were coming over for dinner and we were trying to get the apartment clean. I thought maybe she was overdoing it. I was 22 or so, not far removed from the days when I’d entertain my parents in a dorm room with an unmade bed. Even though I was growing up quickly (if it had been just me, I definitely would have straightened up some) I couldn’t believe how stressed she was getting.

I tried to make my case: “They’re family, H. They’re not going to be judging us.”

“No, they won’t be judging us,” she replied. “They’ll be judging me.”

We’ve always had what I think of as an egalitarian relationship. We value and support each other’s careers, and I try to make sure that I do as much of the housework as she does. But that moment showed that even when I do the work that goes into keeping up our home, there’s another level of work, of taking on responsibility, that tends to fall to her, and not to me.

If you’re a heterosexual man, single or in a relationship, and you’re still looking for a resolution for 2016, please read and bookmark this document. It’s a compilation (more than 70 pages) of an incredibly rich discussion thread at the website MetaFilter on the phenomenon of “emotional labor.” If you’re not familiar with the term, “emotional labor” originally referred to paid work, coded as feminine, that was thought to depend on nurturing or supporting others. Jobs like teaching, nursing, working as a secretary. But the phrase can also refer to a sort of unpaid and invisible labor that, in families, is almost always performed by women. The thread catalogues an exhausting variety of this type labor, it responds to major objections to the idea that emotional labor exists or unduly falls on women, and it explores the reasons that men—even progressive men—think they can or should avoid such work.

Basically, emotional labor is care. Caring for, caring about, taking care of others. As commenter Lyn Never puts it in the opening to the document:

“I often talk about emotional labor as being the work of caring. And it’s not just being caring, it’s that thing where someone says, ‘I’ll clean if you just tell me what to clean!’ because they don’t want to do the mental work of figuring it out. Caring about all the moving parts required to feed the occupants at dinnertime, caring about social management. Caring about noticing that something has changed—like, it’s not there anymore, or it’s on fire, or it’s broken.

It’s a substantial amount of overhead, having to care about everything. It ought to be a shared burden, but half the population is socialized to trick other people into doing more of the work.”

I admit it: I’ve said, “I’ll clean if you just tell me what to clean.” And though I said that so I could feel like I was doing my part at home, I was really just off-loading the responsibility for thinking about keeping house onto my wife. And that’s a form of laziness. Or maybe it’s better to call it a form of immaturity, because it’s the thinking of a dependent, a child. It’s the type of thinking that gives life to the common wives’ lament that having husband is like having another child in the house.

Another illustration: three or four of my female relatives are Facebook friends with my wife, but not with me. Why? Because, for them, Facebook is a means of family communication, and family communication is a thing women do.

Those “manliness” websites (secular and religious) that teach you how to, I don’t know, shoot a musket or escape to a scotchy man cave: why don’t they focus more on this stuff? Why don’t they teach how to care for aging parents, how to organize a family schedule, or how to plan a week of meals on a budget?* More to the point, why don’t they emphasize the importance of doing these things? These are the basics of being a grown-up in the 21stCentury and, whatever you think about the value of the idea of “manliness,” if you can’t be a grownup, you can’t be a man.

With that in mind, here are a few basic steps you can take to be a better man in 2016:

  1. Notice who’s doing the emotional labor in your life. Thank them. Read the MetaFilter thread and think about how it compares to your life. Is your sister the one who always organizes family gatherings? Is your wife the one who makes sure you’re occasionally calling to check in on your parents? Let them know you’ve noticed. As several commenters on the thread point out, part of what makes emotional labor so burdensome is that it often goes unremarked. Correct that.
  2. Try to carry your own emotional weight. We’re humans, and we’re interconnected, and we all need help with certain things. But the point is that you try to do what you can for yourself. You can keep on top of your own social appointments; you can help your kids write thank you notes for their Christmas gifts, even if your handwriting isn’t as good as your wife’s.
  3. Try to return the favors you’ve been given. Again, we all need help with certain things, so make a habit of noticing and tending to the daily needs of the people you’re connected to. And then take it another step, and try to give the gifts of time and leisure to the people that have supported you.

Doing this doesn’t make you Feminist of the Year. It’s just being a grown up, and balancing out an unsupportable and unjustifiable imbalance. The bad news is that emotional labor is work and, like all work, it can be frustrating and tedious. The good news is that it’s meaningful work. And, as any manliness website will tell you, meaningful work, done well, brings joy.

*I should point out here that one manliness website, the Art of Manliness, does occasionally post this sort of thing. On their website, you can learn how to write a thank you note, how to wrap a gift, and how to cook spaghetti carbonara. But the point is that this sort of work should be something men do everyday, not just on special occasions or when trying to impress a new girlfriend. As one commenter puts it in the MetaFilter thread, it’s actually more frustrating to women that men do emotional labor at the start of relationships and on special occasions, because it makes it seem that “for a lot of men, these are the means to an end, where the end is a relationship where they never have to do these sorts of things again.”

2015: The Year in Letters

In 2015, I finished my PhD, got a new job, started sending my writing elsewhere, and basically abandoned this blog—in part because I got a new job and started sending my writing elsewhere, and in part because the Religious Right’s reaction to Obergefell sent me into a spiral of despair. I mean it. When I wrote a post breaking up with the Catholic Right in July, I thought was being tongue-in-cheek. But every time thereafter I sat down to write something in response to Esolen or Longenecker or Ryan T. Anderson, my heart said meh.

Still, I miss writing here, and so even if my focus changes a little bit in the future, I’m going to try to get blogging again in 2016.

Here’s a quick review of the year in Letters.

I. Some posts I’m glad I wrote:

1.     William Buckley, not Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Bull Connor. This post (or maybe it was the follow-up, On Courage and Coming Out) got me blocked on Twitter by Robert George. I also got blocked by Rod Dreher & Rorate Caeli at about the same time.

2.     Women Reading: Fragonard & Carrie Schneider. It’s just so pleasant to look at.

3.     Posts on my family: The World Sucks and Nothing Makes it BetterA Quick Post on Remembering, and The Father’s Day Paradox That Isn’t. As I wrote in “A Quick Post on Remembering”:

We remember each other not with things, but with words.

And, as much as I write this blog for others, to advocate and persuade, I also write it for myself, to remember: little things, like the article that captured my attention last Tuesday, and big things, like what it’s like to be married to H this year, what it’s like to have a four-year-old daughter. And my mom.

4.     Manliness and Joan Didion. I sent this post to The Millions, and they published it in July. The Word Press Freshly Pressed site picked it up shortly after. The timing was propitious, since I was reeling then from the fact that I had graduated without an academic job. My joblessness was totally predictable given the state of the job market, but it was still disappointing. So I needed that validation. The Millions’ acceptance of that post spurred me to send writing to other places, and within two months I had been published at Religion Dispatches, Essay Daily, and Sojourners.

By the way, I just got back from another ranch trip with my daughter. I’m not working there regularly anymore, but we still get out there when we can, and she still follows me around with her little clippers.

II. One Fight I Wish I Had Picked: Sticking up for the Pres’s Christianity. 

Nobody knows what goes on inside another’s heart. Which is why I get frustrated when it’s taken for granted that our president doesn’t really mean it when he calls himself a Christian. That dismissal is emblematic of the general invisibility of progressive Christianity in our culture. Too often, both progressives and conservatives assume that progressive (or liberal, or whatever term you like) Christians aren’t “real” Christians.

I had a couple of chances to push back against that assumption this year— I could have said something following the publication of Obama’s conversation with Marilynne Robinson, for example. But the moment I really wanted to write about was his note-perfect response to the Mother Emmanuel shootings in Charleston. His eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney, a 40-minute exposition on the nature of grace, was a powerful marriage of Christian theology and practice, and an example of both what Christianity can be in the modern world, and why we need it so much.

It was a devastating speech. Like his talk earlier this year at Selma, it deserves to be revisited again and again, especially by Christians. Ironically, because it came immediately after the Obergefell decision, it occurred at the exact moment that Peter Leithart insisted in First Things that now “Theology has no public standing, no persuasive force in the culture at large.”

That moment perfectly illustrated the right’s blindness to the very existence of liberal Christianity, and I’m sorry I missed the chance to write about it.

III. Two Projects I Regret Leaving Unfinished:

I never finished blogging about Anthony Esolen’s Defending Marriage or Robert Reilly’s Making Gay Okay. Bummer. Maybe next year.

IV. Two Things I’m Glad I Read But Haven’t Shared Yet:

1.     This post by Elizabeth Duffy: “The Most Intimate Encounter.”

2.     Megan Mayhew Bergman’s “How to Make Collard Greens.” My grandmother, who passed away in April, made collard greens every January 1st. I discovered this essay earlier this year, and I’ve re-read it a couple of times in the past few days as I’ve been zipping around to different grocery stores and butchers shops, trying to find the hog jowls that my grandmother insisted were essential to her recipe.

V. Three Blogs I’ll Never Stop Sharing:

Sorry but I’m not sorry if you’re sick of me mentioning them.

1.     Bill Lindsey’s Bilgrimage

2.     Michael Boyle’s A Sound of Sheer Silence

3.     Casey Fleming’s (Non)Secular Girl

VI. Three Things I’ll Be Doing in the New Year:

1.     Starting in February, I’ll be blogging once a month at Ploughshares.

2.     Maybe here, maybe elsewhere, I’ll be writing on Between the World and Me, and what it has meant to me as I’ve started teaching at a majority-minority high school.

3.     Finally, look for a new website from me soon. I’m not sure if I’m going to revive my Scholarly Texan blog or start something new, but I need a place where I can write about teaching, and about Latin American and African-American literature (the subjects of my dissertation), without necessarily trying to fit them into a letter to the Catholic Right.

Have a great 2016, everyone!