On Fear, Anger, and My Students’ Stories

Over at the new site, I’ve got a new post up that starts from Valeria Luiselli’s new book, Tell Me How It Ends, which the Texas Observer calls “the first must-read book of the Trump era.” Luiselli writes “it is never inspiration that drives you to tell a story, but rather a combination of anger and clarity,” and in my post I try to show how that’s reflected in the words and actions my students have put out since the election.

Check it out to learn about Luiselli’s amazing book, and to read my students’ words about the Day Without Immigrants protests that followed February’s ICE raid in Austin. Here, for example, is something a girl in my 4th period class wrote:

“Not many of our parents were able to stay home or miss work. So we as kids fought for our parents. Our parents crossed the border and worked off most of their lives for us. Now it’s our turn as kids to return the favor.”

And from a girl in 5th period:

“Every day when I wake up, the first thing I think of is, ‘What would happen to me if one day my parents get deported?’ I think it is not fair that my parents are afraid to go to work, but they have no choice because they are trying to get money to buy food and to pay the rent. It is hard for me to see my parents afraid of what is happening today in our country.”

I hope you’ll go read the whole thing.


At Ploughshares: Ornette Coleman and the Color of Fort Worth

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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!



At Sojourners: Sex, Barrenness, and the Desert

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Sojourners, a great journal dedicated to “faith in action for social justice,” is running something I wrote a while back on the desert as a metaphor. Here’s how it starts:

Last fall, in the middle of my first attempt at the academic job market, I got invited to a wedding in far west Texas. By “far west Texas” I mean Marathon, in the part of the state known as Big Bend, about a seven-hour drive from my house. It’s a beautiful drive, moving from the Hill Country of central Texas into grasslands that, somewhere between Sonora and Ozona, give way into the desert that leads up into the low mountains of Big Bend. Or at least I find the drive beautiful — another wedding guest complained at the rehearsal dinner that there was nothing to look at on the drive.

To be honest, I didn’t look at much on the way up, either, except my laptop and my phone. I sat in the passenger seat typing job documents the whole way. I think I actually applied to three jobs between Ozona and Fort Stockton. But I had some time to go for a run on Saturday morning, so I laced up my shoes and headed down Avenue D, across 1st street and a pair of train tracks. A quarter-mile later (no suburbs or outskirts in Marathon), I was in the desert.

Joan Didion says we’re “well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be” because “otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.”

Well, 17-year-old me isn’t as mad as Didion’s younger self sounds, but he was out there in the desert nonetheless, asking, “Why haven’t you been back here?”

It hit me on that run that it had been almost seventeen years — half my life — since I had been in Big Bend country. Which is strange, because the area held an epic importance to me as a teenager. Which itself is strange because I only visited it twice. I guess those two visits made an impression.

The first came after my freshman year in high school, with my (Episcopal) church youth group. The second was the spring of my senior year, as a part of series of field studies for an ecology course at my (Catholic) high school. That second visit gave me words for what I had sensed but not understood on my first trip. Our teacher showed us that what from our bus windows looked empty and barren was actually teeming with life, and not just any life but the most extraordinary, the heartiest, the strangest and most beautiful plants and animals. We went out into the rocks and saw miracles of color. Bluebonnets twice the normal size. Mountain lions. Century plants. Cactus flowers. We learned that what looked “all the same” from the highway was actually an endless series of micro-climates, that, owing to tiny differences in sunlight, elevation, and temperature, creatures that couldn’t exist in one spot were thriving a hundred yards away. He made it impossible, in other words, for me to see a desert and say there’s nothing to look at.

Read the whole thing here, and definitely check out some of the other great recent posts at Sojourners, like this one on the “irregular” ordinations–forty years ago last week–of four female Episcopal priests.

Sexless as the Bees? Complementarity and Country Life


[Photo by Leann Mueller]

Over at Public Discourse, Susan Hanssen writes glowingly about the Vatican’s recent colloquium on complementarity, claiming that the lessons taught there echo the lessons found in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s classic 1932 children’s novel Little House in the Big Woods. Hanssen distinguishes between the roles that Wilder writes for “Ma” and “Pa” in the novel. “Pa and his gun are essential to the family’s survival,” Hanssen writes, while Ma is the novel’s civilizing moral influence. She is also the one who trains her family to recognize beauty, who “completes her useful work by making it beautiful.”

“The family is only whole and safe when it is founded on the complementarity of masculine and feminine,” Hanssen concludes, and worries that without the influence of voices like Wilder’s (and the Vatican’s), we risk becoming “sexless as the bees.”

By coincidence, my wife and I just started reading Little House in the Big Woods to our daughter at bedtime. I think Hanssen is misreading the novel, and I’ll explain why in a follow-up post.

For now, I want to focus on a larger issue at work in Hanssen’s post (and other posts I’ve seen lately): the idea that what she sees as “genderlessness” is a modern thing, and something very different than what we would see in our more rural past. Now, I don’t live in the past, but I do work in the country, and from what I’ve seen, gender roles in ranch and farm work are more fluid—not less—than they are in the average US home.


[Mary’s cattle]

The first cowboy I met while working at the ranch was, in fact, a cowgirl. Her name was Mary, and she was probably fifty, and she leased some of my boss’s acres for part of her herd. She’s moved on since then, and now the same land is leased by an older married couple who have lived in the area their whole lives. Most mornings, I see the husband doing his morning chores in their red jeep, but it’s no surprise, either, to see his wife out doing the same jobs—with or without him. As Barney Nelson wrote in Texas Monthly in 2011:

Men, women, and children can and do cowboy. The word already mixes gender: cow (female) and boy (male). Within the ranching world, even cowboys are seldom referred to collectively as ‘cowboys.’ We just call each other by our given names: Jeff, Candi, Chris, or Liz.

“Historically,” Nelson writes, “women did anything they wanted to do—they went up the trail, rode saddle broncs, and owned ranches in their own names.” If that shocks you, it’s probably because you don’t really know what cowboys do. As Nelson puts it, “The job requires tenacity, not virility, patience rather than strength, and the willingness to do whatever needs doing, not heroics. All these qualities are as easily found among women as men.”

If you think about it, the tasks a cowboy might be called to perform are all gender-twisted anyway: he might spend an afternoon or an evening midwifing a new calf; his wife might spend her days husbanding a bean patch. He will probably be comfortable cooking for himself and cleaning his own clothes; she will probably know how to butcher stock and shoot a gun. Because just like he can’t escape the stereotypically feminine aspects of the job, a rural woman can’t avoid being called on to do “masculine” things. Men are better protectors than women? Maybe. But a woman needs to know what to do if she comes across a rattlesnake, too.

That’s why, from what I’ve seen, being a grownup is valued more out there than fitting into gendered roles. Which is not to say that you won’t sometimes hear rigid gender stereotypes among ranchers and farmers, just that those stereotypes fall away pretty quickly next to the practical necessities of country life. People are more concerned with what’s getting done, in other words, than with who’s doing it.

“This makes a woman of a man,” Wendell Berry says of farming, “… in the body’s pride and at its cost.” A rancher, farmer, or cowboy needs to be able to put aside pride in his or her masculinity or femininity and do whatever the hell is necessary to do to survive. But in return, Berry tells us, comes a new kind of pride, one a lot like what Joan Didion calls self-respect.

But what about the complementarity of Little House in the Big Woods? Doesn’t it matter that everyone in that family has an important role? Well, yeah, and I’ll talk more about that in my next post. But, basically, I’d say that the complementarianism of Wilder’s book is a lot less rigid than Hanssen imagines it to be, and that it can easily be used to describe families like Charity & Sylvia’s. Of course, that puts it at odds with the vision of complementarity that dominated the Vatican colloquium. Little House in the Big Woods, I’m afraid, doesn’t do what Hanssen says it does. Again, more on that soon.


For now, I’ll leave you with another link to Barney Nelson’s essay, which I recommend highly—not just for what it says about gender, but because it’s a very realistic depiction of the types of people (men and women) I’ve met over the past few years. Also, don’t miss Leann Mueller’s photos, which accompanied the story when it ran in Texas Monthly.

Cleaning Out My Phone: Great Reads For the New Year

I’ve got about a half-dozen pages on my phone’s browser open to articles and essays that I’ve been meaning to share here. They’ve been open for months, and I’ve just been carrying them around with me, like a little personal library of thoughtful writing.

Today seems like a good day to get that writing off of my phone and out to y’all. Happy New Year!

1. David Cain at filmsforaction.org on the connection between our weekly schedules and consumerism:

I don’t think it’s necessary to shun the whole ugly system and go live in the woods, pretending to be a deaf-mute, as Holden Caulfield often fantasized. But we could certainly do well to understand what big commerce really wants us to be. They’ve been working for decades to create millions of ideal consumers, and they have succeeded. Unless you’re a real anomaly, your lifestyle has already been designed.

The perfect customer is dissatisfied but hopeful, uninterested in serious personal development, highly habituated to the television, working full-time, earning a fair amount, indulging during their free time, and somehow just getting by.

Is this you?

(Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed)

2. In “Rob Karlsson Will Not Make Your Life a Misery (or Will He?),” Aaron M.G. Zimmerman takes on Joseph O’Neill’s short story “The Referees,” about a recently divorced man trying to find two personal references for an apartment in New York. “Just two people,” says Zimmerman, “to say he’s a decent guy who’ll pay the rent on time.” Zimmerman writes:

Rob has no one to vouch for him. He is left, like many of us, to argue his own case. We are forced to be our own advocates, our own agents pleading for a deal. We spin our wheels, sell our brand, and curate our identity. We hope the people we’ve hurt don’t blow the whistle and destroy the illusion. And we hope it’s enough that our heart is in the right place.

This one hit me, by the way, right I as I was starting the fall cycle of the academic job market: asking for references, writing letters in praise of myself, etc. Rob Karlsson says, “I had no idea the bar was so high.” As Zimmerman writes, “Amen, brother.”

3. Maureen Ryan writes about “‘Outlander,’ The Wedding Episode and TV’s Sexual Revolution.” Here she is on the status quo on-screen depictions of sex:

Critics and viewers protest the most overt, exploitative nonsense, but the industry churns out so many predictable, poorly conceived and lazy depictions of sex and sexual assault that it’s not possible nor advisable to get angry every single time something demeaning, insulting or dumb gets on the air.

So we tolerate the dewy sex lighting, the primacy of the male gaze and the objectification of female bodies. We grimly put up with violence conveyed without insight or compassion. It’s too exhausting to ask constantly why so many scenes take place in strip clubs and brothels, and why so few depict a woman simply looking at a man.

And here she is on Outlander’s wedding episode:

But in “The Wedding,” both characters’ points of view, and both bodies, were equally important. The camera was interested in everything — in both characters’ mental and physical states, in every curve and every limb.

She writes, “I’ve watched a lot of TV, and I cannot recall any show that has done what this hour of TV did. Ever.”

(Ryan’s essay, by the way, needs to be read as a piece in a conversation with two other essays that also spent lots of time on my phone this year: Jenny Trout’s “Outlander and the Female Gaze” and Lili Loufbourow’s “‘Game of Thrones’ Fails the Female Gaze.”)

4. Okay, technically these next two were on my phone last year (I got a new phone since then), but all this talk about the female gaze reminded me of two essays I meant to share way back then: Katy Waldman’s 40th-anniversary review of Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying and Ann Friedman’s incredible essay “What Does Manhood Mean in 2013,” which compares our contemporary understanding of masculinity with the shifts that society’s definitions of femininity underwent in the 1970s. These essays are particularly relevant to all the recent talk of the rise of the lumbersexual.

5. At Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish, Matthew Sitman wrote my favorite 2014 piece about religion, “What Is Christianity For?” It’s a response to a post by Rod Dreher, and could be, in many ways, a manifesto for this blog. On the Myth of Moral Decline, Sitman writes:

I’ve never quite bought this line of thinking, never understood modernity as being a rupture or break from a virtuous past. Instead, the formulation I use is that things are getting better and worse at the same time, all the time. The dazzling achievements of modern life are real but also can have a dark underbelly, which means it’s not always possible to clearly separate out what is “good” from what is “bad.” I resist narratives of decline because they seem to miss this, which means the task of discerning the signs of the times, thinking through them as a Christian, is a complex and difficult task.

About the sexual issues that prick the traditionalists:

I just can’t view the coming of sexual modernity simply as the triumph of hedonism, if for no other reason than that it has led to grappling with real injustices.

On his hope for Christianity in the modern world, which is something that he rightly sees missing from the traditionalists:

When we do engage the modern world, joyfully and without rancor or fear, I still believe Jesus’ message of grace and mercy will resonate.

Right on, Sitman. Right on.

6. I should end with that piece, but in fairness to Dreher I’ll include his great post from last week on the “Hard, Healing Experience of Faith.” Dreher writes about the ways honest religion compels us to face our weaknesses:

That is hard work, and scary work. I think of myself as an introspective person by nature, but I had so much farther than I possibly imagined to go into the dark recesses of my own heart to haul out the wreckage. Yet if I had not done this, if I had not been compelled to do this by circumstance and by a priest who takes his role of pastor and healer of spiritual disease seriously, I would still be sick.

One complaint: Dreher turns the column into an attack on “Moral Therapeutic Deism,” which is fine. But I know from his previous writings he includes the Episcopal Church in that category. Dreher, and lots of folks who cite him, seem to think that Episcopal pastors just hand out lollipops and green participation ribbons in our services. So it has been heartening, this year, to read about Michael Boyle’s experiences with the Episcopal Church, and contrast those with the way the church is depicted by traditionalists.

7. Okay, one more. Even though it’s kind of outside of the scope of this blog, I’ve written a lot about Texas this year, in part on the encouragement of Terry Weldon. So I have to share this blog post from the Houston Press, “Why I Don’t Consider Texas a Southern State.” The relationship of Texas to the South is complicated. On one hand, we share a lot of cultural touchstones: pickup trucks, country music, college football. On the other hand: I’m in Atlanta right now, driving to South Carolina in a couple of days before we head home to Austin and, as always happens when I visit family in the Deep South, I’m struck by what can only be called culture shock. Things are just so different here.

That’s it. My phone is now clean.