Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Texas - December 29, 1845

It seems good and right that our last celebration of the year is for a place to which we have some deep emotional ties. Although James and I only lived in Texas for three years, it is where we first attended Quaker meeting and began to internalize simple living. And, as we like to tell Paloma, although she was born in New England, she was conceived in Texas. Lately she has been embracing her Texas "heritage". I think the recent New England snow storm has her thinking that white Christmases maybe aren't all they are cracked up to be. We lived in the Rio Grande Valley (or just "the Valley" to those of us who are most familiar with it), in a town called Pharr, about 10 miles from the Mexico border, and 60 miles inland from the Gulf Coast. James  taught at UT-Brownsville, which is also known as Texas Southmost College (really!) You may hear folks say Texas is like a whole other country, but the Valley, was like another country all together. The U.S.-Mexico border is a surreal place, rife with magic realism, and unexplained phenomema. We had a visit from the chupacabras during the summer of 1996: he sucked the blood out of livestock and left them dead. James also reminded me recenlty that the San Juan Shrine was hit by an airplane in 1970, and no one was hurt. There was also a story of some sort of big prehistoric bird that flew around during the 1970s. The Valley is also a place of extremes - temperature (heat), and  poverty.

We were able to visit some other places in Texas during the three years that we lived there, including Houston, Galveston, Corpus Christi, San Antonio, Austin, El Paso, Midland/Odessa, and Dallas/Ft. Worth. Each place has its own charm - some more charming than others. I expect that if we'd lived in Austin, we might have tried to find a way to stay. But what I can say about the Valley is that in this neck of "the friendship state" the people were especially friendly; I could get fresh, local produce year round; I had a great job there at the McAllen Memorial Library; and James and I learned a lot about our own spirtuality by attending Quaker meeting (a.k.a Society of Friends), where we also made some good friends.

Two things I did find to be true about Texans: one they really do like BIG things (be sure not to miss the World's Largest Killer Bee in Hidalgo); and two, they really like things that are shaped like Texas. You can buy Texas-shaped pasta, corn chips, and stepping stones for your garden.

Beware the Chupacabras!

My favorite thing at Christmastime is driving around the neighborhood to look at Christmas lights. When I found out that there was a book about over-the-top Christmas displays in Frisco, Texas I knew I had found the right book to end this project. Hank Stuever spent the Christmas of 2006 tagging along with Tammie Parnell as she decorated other peoples' homes; helping Jeff Trykoski set up the biggest light diplay on the block; and trailing along on shopping trips and church work with Carroll Cavazos and her family. The way this suburb of Dallas is described in Stuever's book reminds me of everything I don't like about Texas, namely that there is a lot of BIG AND LOUD there. Stuever begins by describing standing in line with Cavazos at Best Buy with Cavazos on Black Friday morning. Don't even get me started about Black Friday. That's Buy Nothing Day to me. Getting up before dawn on a non-work day to stand in line in the cold is one tradition I just don't understand at all. Later in the book he describes a similar scene at Target on the day after Christmas. Yeah, I'm in bed then, too.

Tammie Parnell makes about $30,000 each Christmas season helping her neighbors uber-decorate their homes for the seaon. Once again, I just don't get it. One client laments that she really needed help with the "theme". Huh? Isn't the theme of Christmas "Peace or Earth" or "Goodwill to all" or "God bless us everyone"? Something like that? I was reminded of the time I took the Bridgewater Garden Club Christmas home tour, about 10 years ago. One house had six Christmas trees displayed. Each one with a different theme. I remember the girl's bedroom had a Barbie theme tree; the boy's bedroom was "camoflague" theme; and the kitchen was Disney. I think the "media room" was probably a sports theme. I found it all pretty uninspiring, and was surprised to hear other people say what a great "decorator" the home owner was. A great consumer perhaps, but it isn't hard to decorate when you all you do order "one of each". I was not surprised, however, to read a description of a children's holiday shop experience in Stuever's book that was really no different from my own some 40-odd years ago; or that of my daughter when she was in elementary school - mini shops set up with cheap stuff so that we can train kids to buy at Christmas time, with a gift wrap at the end.  Probably you think I sound a lot like a Scrooge from this, and I will admit to buying almost no Christmas gifts. I am neither a giver, nor a receiver. Which is not to say I don't like Christmas, I just don't like the gift exchange, so I don't participate in it. There are gifts for my daughter when she comes down the stairs on Christmas morning, but not the piles of presents that the folks in Frisco, Texas go for. Read my sermon The Best Gift for more insight on this.

There were two mentions of libraries in this book - one was of a school librarian, the other was a decription of Stuever's visit to the library's microfilm collection to read up on the history of Frisco.

I had a weird deja vu experience reading a passage about the Oprah Winfrey show in Tinsel. If you read my Illinois post you know that I read Robyn Okrant's book Living Oprah earlier this year. In it, Okrant describes learning that her poop should be S-shaped, and later describes the excitement she feels when she accomplishes this feat. Stuever mentions being at the Trykoski home when this exact episode is on. By the way, Oprah's poo is C-shaped. I have to be honest here, I don't pay that much attention to mine.

Screen Door Jesus
We saw a preview of this a few months ago and when I realized it was about Texas I added it to our Netflix list. It seemed like it would be a quirky, indie film - right up my cup of tea. It was full of quirky characters, but it was hard to follow. There were a lot of different stories going on, and they did not all appear to be connected. An image of Jesus on the screen door of Mother Harper creates an uproar in the small east Texas town of Bethlehem. The sick, the infirm, the faithful, and the curious come and stand on her lawn trying to get their turn in front of the icon. Although Mother Harper at first feels blessed she comes to resent all the people keeping her awake and ruining her gardens. She and a neighbor come up with a plan to run them off. This movie touched on themes of racism, fundamentalism, and hypocracy.

We found out while watching the credits that the film was based on the "short stories" of Christopher Cook, which helped explain why the film seemed so disjointed.

Of course the phenomenom of seeing religious images in windows is not limited to Texas. Two years ago, there was a lot of attention paid to the appearance of the Virgin Mary in a window at the Milton Hospital  in Massachusetts. The image looks more like a ghost to me.

South Texas shares a deep connection with Mexico, and a Christmas tradition they both share is making tamales. It is a tradition we enjoy, and since Texas day fell during the holiday season we invited some friends over today to share tamales with us. James begins making tamales in the morning and spends most of the day working on them. This is after he spends an afternoon in search of corn husks to wrap them in. Each year he goes back to the store where he got them the year before, only to find that that store no longer stocks them, and he has to go out searching again. He believes he has found a "muy autentico" place this time, and may be in luck when he goes back there next year. We use a recipe I found online from Texas Coop Power in 2003. I was not able to find the link again, although Texas Coop Power does still have a website with recipes, they just don't seem to go back as far as the 2003 issue. This recipe calls for chicken, cooking oil, flour water, bouillon cubes, green chilis, garlic, oregano, chili pepper, cumin, tomato sauce and cayenne pepper. In addition The corn "masa" calls for lard (we substitue Crisco), salt, "harina" (corn flour) and water.  The ingredients are wrapped in corn husks and steamed. To share in our feast we had seven friends over, including our favorite native Texan, Amelia.

Except for a final reflective post, which I will write on the last day of the year, this is it for my Celebrating the States project.

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