Apr 24 2018

Hosting the Italians: Part II of III

Western book stack

Hosting the Italians: Part II of II

(Read Part I here.)

Onto the plains [of west Texas] you issue as onto a lighted stage, and with that sudden sense of isolation and exposure. The farther behind you leave [central Texas] the now-familiar prairie, the fewer people you see, the stronger grows the sensation of being watched. The silence sharpens the ear, the emptiness the eye. An ambiguous, double sensation comes over you: you feel at once taller, a very tall man, and smaller, a very small creature….

––William Humphrey (1924–1997)

I had to work the next few days and couldn’t journey into our state’s own Big Sky Country with the gang as they headed into west Texas. But I’ve been to many (though not all) the places they went. Most of what follows was told to me upon their return. And where any gaps in the narrative happen to appear, my muse has instructed me to turn to my books about Texas and conjecture the story accordingly.

The next day, after the late supper Cosimo and Chiara had prepared for us Tuesday night, our guests drove to Houston to meet an old friend. They returned to Austin on Wednesday evening and said they had eaten some great barbecue somewhere in that city. Later that night they visited our friend fbom and worked on music.

A post shared by Scott Hebson (@outlawproducer) on


(Cosimo working on music at fbom’s studio)

Because Wednesday was the official start of the music portion of the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival, after work I went to my neighborhood bar [K]nomad and saw two performances. The first was a local gal named Kat Allison, who sang solo and played an acoustic guitar; her style reminded me a lot of Jewel. She looked pretty but her music was plain.

The second act was a two-man band called Domico. They came all the way from Tokyo. I learned later that this was their first time to play in the States. They were very young, a little nervous, but didn’t seem necessarily anxious. Before they went on, one member approached the bar to order a soda. It appeared the bar had given the band a fixed number of drink tickets (not uncommon at some venues for SXSW shows), but––because the guy only wanted a soda (he looked under eighteen) and bars make their money selling alcohol, not soda––the bartender was nice enough tell him to keep his ticket and gave the guy a complementary coke. That may sound like a pretty mundane moment in the history of SXSW, but as soon as the Japanese patron learned that his soda was free, his eyes bugged out of his head in such an unexpected burst of excitement and gratitude that it was as if I were watching a hand-drawn anime from his homeland.

(Domico at Knomad, Austin, TX)

Domico’s style was very loud, rough, a lot in the vein of alternative rock from the 1990’s, but with more complexity—and that made it refreshing. After their set, I ended up purchasing one of their CDs as well as a t-shirt. Another member of the audience was at the merchandise table, and he also happened to be Japanese, though he wasn’t connected with the band. I was trying to convey to the band members what I thought about their music, but their English was very limited, so this other Japanese guy translated to them for me that I thought their music was “technically precise, but at the same time, emotionally wild”—and that this was a good combination.

The changeable winds [of west Texas] pass and repass over the dry grass with a sound like shifting sands, and running before the wind, the grass turns its nap, first this way then that way, like velvet pile when a hand is run idly back and forth over it. Flat as a marble floor, the land stretches away empty and endless as the bar boundless sky above. The eye strains ahead for a landmark, a rooftop, a spire, a tree, anything vertical, anything that thrusts above the brown level monotony….

––William Humphrey (1924–1997)

Thursday morning Cosimo, Chiara, and Scott, along with David and Dyhana all set out for Big Bend National Park, over 300 miles from Austin as the crow flies. They stopped for lunch in the old German town of Fredericksburg, at a Bavarian restaurant called Auslanders, which means “foreigners” or “outsiders” in German.

A post shared by Scott Hebson (@outlawproducer) on

(The gang at Auslanders, Fredericksburg, Texas)

After a shared appetizer of various meats, cheeses, and crackers, they ate Jagerschnitzel (breaded pork loin), bratwurst sausage and Rinderbraten sandwiches consisting of: “tender pot roast, piled high on a sweet sourdough bun with beef gravy, onion strings & roasted garlic mayo.” With their meal, they drank Altstadt beer. The name means “Old City,” and it’s made in the Altstadt brewery there in Fredericksburg.

Looked at long enough—and once embarked upon it, you look for a long, long time—the land [in west Texas] will seem to exhibit that phenomenon called seiche,[1] to rock slowly from side to side like the wallowing of a lake. That, and the absence of objects to relate yourself to, bring on land-sickness. Even the sun gives no direction, but hangs straight overhead all day, as if uncertain of the way. Under moonlight the plain whitens like an arctic snowfield….

––William Humphrey (1924–1997)

That evening they drove to Alpine, which over 300 miles directly west of Fredericksburg, and checked into some motel rooms. After unloading their bags, the gang drove to Marfa, only 25 miles farther west, to see the Marfa lights. I saw them once as a child, and all my adult friends said they saw them that night. As I remember them, the lights were not eerie like an alleged extraterrestrial encounter might be described. No, there is something so apparent about those lights that they lack mystery. In other words, they seem naturally perplexing, not artificially ambiguous. Yes, deep in the heart of Texas, the stars at night may be big and bright—but out in rural Presidio County, the Marfa lights might be better described as “blinking and benign.”

After seeing the lights, the crew headed back to their rooms at the Value Lodge in Alpine. Along the way they saw many jackrabbits in the night but no chupacabras. The next morning, Friday, March 16, they had breakfast at Penny’s Diner in Alpine, then, drove about 80 miles southward to Big Bend. Just before they got to the park, they stopped at the ghost town of Terlingua and explored its grounds.

When you do see a man you first see him at such a distance that he is like a fly crawling on a tabletop. There is no horizon [in west Texas]. Rather, there is horizon everywhere. The horizon is created whenever something or somebody stands up somewhere in the landscape. Then where a rooftop rises, the barren eye eagerly draws all lines towards it. You see clouds underneath the belly of a cow, see the sky winking between the legs of a walking man. It is a place without perspective, and things thrust themselves up isolated, unsurrounded by any of the close familiar objects by which one judges distances and size; and so the eye, as if out of focus, cannot judge, cannot relate it: is that a child nearby or a man far off, a haystack or a hummock, an insect or a bird—or nothing at all, a mirage? ….

––William Humphrey (1924–1997)

At Big Bend they saw its splendid scenery, the Rio Grande (and Old Mexico on the other side), as well as several coyotes (the canine kind, not traffickers of human beings). It was almost dark as they were leaving the park.

A post shared by Scott Hebson (@outlawproducer) on

(Cosimo and Chiara at Big Bend National Park, Texas)

On the long journey home, they stopped at a Sonic in Fort Stockton. It was almost midnight, but they managed to get some food before the place closed for the evening. Then they got back on the road, aiming for Austin. But both the desert and the darkness were starting to drag on everyone, so they got some motel rooms in Ozona (about 100 miles east of Fort Stockton) around 2:00 a.m. There they rested for a while.

And because you haven’t any landmark or person for so long in view, nor ever lose it, or him, under a hill or behind a bend, you seem to take forever getting there, and time hangs suspended and unreal. And yet when you finally reach the place no time has elapsed, for across that unarched plain of a sky the sun inches along and it is noon all day. Across the plain west from Fort Worth the road runs straight as a line left when a woman pulls out a thread to cut a piece of cloth along….

––William Humphrey (1924–1997) [2]

The next morning they continued on their journey back, driving through the wine country, and stopping in Fredericksburg again for lunch as well as for some peach cobbler for dessert. With the Wild West at their backs, they had only the hill country of central Texas before them now:

The vastness of the southwestern landscape is emphasized by the gradualness of its transitions. As you pass from east to west across Texas, the masses of moss hanging from gigantic oaks gradually become scarce. Gradually the trees scatter, and the growing gaps between them add a sense of expansion to the sight of land and sky. Fields of maize and grain around frail-looking but primly painted lumber homes suggest happy living. Their appearance is so gradual that no traveler can find the exact point of their beginning. The land, though absolutely flat along the coast, son begins imperceptibly to roll. At first the slopes are so gentle that valleys are apparent only in the recurrence of huge, moss-hung oaks with wild grapevines draped over their foliage. Instead of blocking visibility, the low hills only lengthen it. To catch the breeze above them, windmills are built on higher towers than along the coast, yet they seem hardly larger than toothpicks in the distance. Cattle graze on miles of green forage. Though scattered as the patches of shrubbery, they can be seen by the hundreds at a glance.

Before the earth’s undulations are high enough to be called hills, you can see them cutting waves in the horizon, far enough away to share a thin, transparent slice of the sky’s blue. Giant oaks, looking like tiny spots of dark blue, dot this slightly curved horizon. Farmhouses, appearing as beadlike blocks of white, freckle the blue. Roads wind like threads of gray between them. Yet all this is on a generally level expanse of land.

––Frank Goodwyn (1911–2011)[3]

They got back to Austin early Saturday afternoon.

(Read Part III here.)

NOTES

wood

[1] seiche: “(Swiss French) a short-lived standing oscillation of a lake or other body of water (as a bay or basin of the sea), somewhat resembling a tide, which may be caused by abrupt changes in atmospheric conditions or by small earth tremors.” (Oxford English Dictionary)

[2] William Humphrey, The Ordways, (New York: Knopf, 1965) 286–87.

[3] Frank Goodwyn, Lone Star Land: Twentieth-Century Texas in Perspective, (New York: Knopf, 1955) 82–83.


Jul 26 2017

Works of Art versus the Art of Hard Work: Some Recent (& Not So Recent) Examples

typewriter

I don’t know where the cliché “Are you working hard or hardly working?” originates from, but it recently came to mind as I was reading Frank Goodwyn’s Lone Star Land: Twentieth-Century Texas in Perspective (1955) where a few passages made me huff:

As in the case of older Texans, their faith was bolstered by a strong equalitarian outlook. They scorned all aspirations to identify themselves with the self-styled elite by cultivating a fondness for deliberately complex musical, artistic, and literary patterns. Their basic philosophy prevails to this day, coloring the political and cultural life of the state. Their blanket endorsement of plain labor and their suspicion of all exclusively intellectual activities are well depicted in the answer that one West Texan gave when I asked him whether his town had produced any successful artists, writers, actors, or musicians. “No, sir,” he said. “None ever had time for such things. All have tried to work and make an honest living.” [1]

I suppose all work and no play means West Texas has no “complex” music, at least it didn’t in 1955. Perhaps it’s why I (being born in West Texas) never learned how to properly read (and therefore never bother to attempt to write) poetry. Continuing with Goodwyn:

Most Texas versifiers are still too busy being poets to write good poetry. Anxious to excel in the literary world’s critical eyes, they adopt the classic poet’s manner without capturing his fire. They follow his metrical rules without fully feeling their powers shying from clichés and baying the moon in accepted bardian style. They think they have to speak in terms of Greek mythology and cosmic dreams, treating the seasons as if they were lovelorn spirits and the heavenly bodies as if they were rational creatures. The task of expressing these trite ideas without using the trite words which have traditionally conveyed them is too much for the average Texas poetaster, as it would be for anyone else. He hence emerges with little more than a few lame lines in slender books printed at his own expense. [2]

As Mark Athitakis has recently pointed out in The New Midwest: a Guide to Contemporary Fiction of the Great Lakes, Great Plains, and Rust Belt (2016) one of the reasons Laura Ingalls Wilder focused on hard work, particularly in her first work Little House in the Big Woods (1932), is because, when one is living in a frontier environment as she did in her childhood, one quickly appreciates hard work’s relationship to survival. Wilder’s emphasis on the relationship of hard work and survival is part of what made it a hit with Depression-era readers when the book was first published. [3]

Athitakis then goes on to show that some contemporary writers of the Midwest have been much more hesitant in their enthusiasm for portraying hard work, even when portraying hard work as it relates to the act of writing, as in Athitakis’s example of Lionel Shriver’s novel Big Brother (2013), which I have yet to read. [4]

Now when it comes to the concept of hard work and contemporary nonfiction writers of the Midwest, J. D. Vance has recently observed in Hillbilly Elegy: a Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (2016):

People talk about hard work all the time in places like Middletown. You can walk through a town where 30 percent of the young men work fewer than twenty hours a week and find not a single person aware of his own laziness. During the 2012 election cycle, the Public Religion Institute, a left-leaning think tank, published a report on working-class whites. It found, among other things, that working-class whites worked more hours than college-educated whites. But the idea that the average working-class white works more hours is demonstrably false. The Public Religion Institute based its results on surveys—essentially, they called around and asked people what they thought. The only thing that report proves is that many folks talk about working more than they actually work[5]

The concept of hard work (and sometimes the mere appearance of hard work) was very much accompanied with that of survival for most non-whites in the early and mid-twentieth century South. As Isabel Wilkerson shows in The Warmth of Other Suns: the Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (2010) with the example of Robert Joe “Pershing” Foster:

The friend showed him what to do, and Pershing worked beside him. He looked up and saw the foreman watching him. Pershing pretended not to see him, worked even harder. The foreman left, and, when he came back, Pershing was still at work. At the end of the day, the foreman hired him. Pershing finished out the summer stacking staves, not minding the hard work and not finding it demeaning. “Sometimes,” he said, “You have to stoop to conquer.” [6]

For Pershing, survival eventually meant leaving the South. But others were determined to stay (and they did), like the parents of actor Wendell Pierce as he, a native to New Orleans, writes in The Wind in the Reeds: A Storm, a Play, and the City that would not be Broken (2015):

It’s hard for people today to understand it, but for black folk back then, a strong will like Mamo’s and Papo’s, joined to a rock-hard sense of discipline, was a tool of survival. [7]

With regard to hard work and Southern whites, consider the nonfiction writer Rod Dreher and his family situation. Even though his father Ray Dreher graduated from LSU, “he was a man who had no business confined to a desk. It wasn’t in his nature,”[8] because “Paw had not wanted to go to college; he thought he belonged at trade school, where he could improve his mechanical skills, which were his passion.”[9] In contrast, Ray describes his son Rod as a child who “had your head in books all the time,” unlike Ray and Rod’s sister Ruthie who “loved nature, and being outside.” [10] Later on when Rod and Ruthie attend LSU:

Ruthie thought I was getting away with something, and not only because I managed to ace tests even though I had stayed out late drinking beer and barely studied…. [11]

We were both straight-A students, but Ruthie earned her grades through hard work and grit; academics came much more easily for me. [12]

Ruthie and Ray revered hard work in a way Rod (at the time) did not; they even defined the concept differently than he did, where in a sense, physical accomplishments were valued more than mental feats. At times, for Rod, even something as physical as preparing a dinner for his family ended in resentment, because, frankly, concocting a hoity-toity bouillabaisse just ain’t the same as stewing plain ole gumbo. [13] Rod describes his father’s worldview:

To him, preferring the world of ideas to the natural world was no mere aberration on my part. It was personal, and constituted a failure to love. If I loved as I ought to love, I would desire the things he desired. [14]

If that wasn’t enough his sister and her husband felt similar to their beloved patriarch:

Hannah [Rod’s niece] said she and her sisters had grown up with Ruthie and Daddy disparaging me as a “user”––my father’s word for the most contemptible sort of person, one who gets things done craftily, usually by taking advantage of others. [15]

Rod’s hard work as a writer was never fully accepted by his family.

As I attempt to bring these thoughts to closure, let me contrast these contemporary American concepts of hard work, and their relation to survival, and their relationship to creative output (particularly writing) to the life and work of James Joyce––an Irishman who worked hard on his writing—some might say too hard, at least some of the time, because it is hard work to learn to read him properly, no matter what they say in West Texas.

As his biographer Richard Ellmann acutely observed:

We are still learning to be James Joyce’s contemporaries, to understand our interpreter….[16]

He does not wish to conquer us, but have us conquer him. There are, in other words, no invitations, but the door is ajar.[17]

At one point Joyce confessed:

“My literary work during the last eleven years has produced nothing. On the contrary my second book Dubliners cost me a considerable sum of money owing to the eight years of litigation which preceded its publication.” [18]

NOTES

wood

[1] Goodwyn, Frank. Lone Star Land: Twentieth-Century Texas in Perspective. NY: Knopf. 1955. p. 239.

[2] Goodwyn 339.

[3] Athitakis, Mark. The New Midwest: a Guide to Contemporary Fiction of the Great Lakes, Great Plains, and Rust Belt. Cleveland, OH: Belt Publishing. 2016. pp. 37–39.

[4] Athitakis 39–43.

[5] Vance, J. D. Hillbilly Elegy: a Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. NY: HarperCollins. 2016. p. 57.

[6] Wilkerson, Isabel. The Warmth of Other Suns: the Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. NY: Random House/Vintage Books. 2010. p. 131.

[7] Pierce, Wendell. The Wind in the Reeds: A Storm, a Play, and the City that would not be Broken. NY: Riverhead Books. 2015. p. 21.

[8] Dreher, Rod. The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life. NY: Grand Central Publishing. 2013. pp. 3–4.

[9] Dreher Little Way of Ruthie Leming 63.

[10] Dreher Little Way of Ruthie Leming 9.

[11] Dreher Little Way of Ruthie Leming 35.

[12] Dreher, How Dante Can Save Your Life: the Life-Changing Wisdom of Historys Greatest Poem. NY: Regan Arts. 2015. p. 8.

[13] Dreher Little Way of Ruthie Leming 78–79; How Dante 19–20.

[14] Dreher How Dante 10.

[15] Dreher How Dante 27.

[16] Ellmann, Richard. James Joyce. Oxford UP. 1959. p. 1.

[17] Ellmann, James Joyce 4.

[18] Ellmann, James Joyce 404.