Dec 2 2017

When Late-19th Century Daughters Remember The Fiddles of their Fathers

pencil shavings

When Late-19th Century Daughters Remember The Fiddles of their Fathers

The other day I was doing some background research on my grand-grandfather by reading Emma Guest Bourne’s (1882-1959A Pioneer Farmer’s Daughter of Red River ValleyNortheast Texas (1950) and came across this poignant passage:

Father used to play a piece on his violin known as Blossom Prairie. I caught a few words as I would hear him singing the song, but have never heard the song since I was a child, and only know a few words. Yet the melody is still with me. In my imagination, I can see father as he sat before the fireplace in his little straight chair with his violin and bow as he played this beautiful song. At intervals he would let the bow rest as it was poised over the violin, and he would thump the melody of the chorus with his left fingers as he held the violin under his chin. In the chorus, Mount Vernon, Mount Vernon, were the opening words, and then these words would follow; [sic] “Oh, the green grass grows all over Blossom…” How I have wished for these words, but no one has even been able to give them to me. Mount Vernon was the county seat for several years of Lamar County before the seat was established at Paris, five miles north of Mt. Vernon. [1]

Bourne was born in 1882, and her longing for a ghost-song of her father initially reminded me of the early days of file-sharing on the internet–when one may have heard a song only once in one’s life, and never knowing the name, was somehow able to find it on Napster or by similar means.

But upon reflection, what Bourne’s passage reminded me of was a similar scene told by Laura Ingalls Wilder’s (1867-1957) daughter Rose Wilder Lane (1886-1968) of her last visit to her grandparents “Ma and Pa Ingalls”:

We were ready to start early next day, before sun-up, and that evening we went to Grandma’s to say good-by….

Aunt Carrie and I sat in the doorway. Papa got up to give Grandma his chair and Mama stood a minute in the doorway to the dark sitting room. They had blown out the lamp, and there was just a faint start-shine that seemed to be more in the summer air than in the sky. Then, Mama said, “Pa, would you play the fiddle just one more time?”

“Why yes, if you want I should,” Grandpa said. And then he said, “Run get me my fiddle-box, Laura,” and somehow I knew that he had said those words in just that way, many times, and his voice sounded as if he were speaking to a little girl, not Mama at all. She brought it out to him, the fiddle-box, and he took the fiddle out of it and twanged the strings with his thumb, tightening them up. In the dark there by the house wall you could see only a glimmer in his eyes and the long beard on his shirtfront, and his arm lifting the bow. And then out of the shadows came the sound. It was—I can’t tell you. It was gay and strong and reaching, wanting, trying to get to something beyond, and ti just lifted up the heart and filled it so full of happiness and pain and longing that it broke your heart open like a bud.

Nobody said anything. We just sat there in the dimness and stillness, and Grandpa tightened up a string and said, “Well, what shall I play? You first, Mary.” And from the sitting room where she sat in her rocker just inside the doorway, Aunt Mary said, “ ‘Ye banks and braes of Bonnie Doon,’ please Pa.”

So Grandpa played. He went on playing his fiddle there in the warm July evening, and we listened. In all my life I never heard anything like it. You hardly ever heard anymore the tunes that Grandpa played…. [2]



[1] Emma Guest Bourne, A Pioneer Farmer’s Daughter of Red River Valley, Northeast Texas, (Dallas, TX: The Story Book Press, 1950), 262.

[2] Rose Wilder Lane, “Grandpa’s Fiddle,”A Little House Sampler, by Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane, ed. William Anderson, (Lincoln, NE, 1988; New York, NY: Harper Collins, 1995), 66-67.

Nov 27 2017

My Article from the “Fortnightly Review”

London - Georgian Apartments

My Article from the Fortnighly Review

It took a while, but after many years I’m quite happy to call myself an “international writer,” after having a piece published by the Fortnightly Review of England-France. In my essay, “Between History and Myth in Austin, Texas,” I explore the differences between history and myth with regard to the Confederate statue removal on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin.

Looking back, I don’t feel I lived through an important moment in the history of the United States but rather an important moment in mythmaking for the state of Texas….

Nov 9 2017

The Greatness of Russia and the Greatness of Texas

la casa

The Greatness of Russia and the Greatness of Texas

Russians call World War II, “The Great Patriotic War,” and Dr. Victor Davis Hanson, whom I almost never agree with, has a decent article out today acknowledging Russian greatness/sovereignty (derzhavonst/державонст), writing:

This Veterans Day, we should also remember those heroic Russian soldiers. In bitter cold, and after losing hundreds of thousands of lives, they finally did the unbelievable: They halted the march of Nazi Germany. [1]

What do I mean by Russian greatness? I mean things like:

Putin’s favorite quote these days is, “We do not need great upheavals. We need a great Russia.”[2]

As Nina Kruscheva, daughter of Nikita Khrushchev, has recognized:

Putin maintains that Russia’s problem today is not that we, the Russians, lack a vision for the future but that we have stopped being proud of our past, our Russian-ness, our difference from the West. ‘When we were proud all was great, he said at the Valdai International Discussion Club meeting last September. While he may bemoan the death of the Soviet state, Putin’s search for greatness extends even further back in history, to Byzantine statehood…. Why is Putin’s idea of going back to the future attractive for Russians? …. But our [Russia’s] problem is that our idea of greatness doesn’t involve such small stuff. It is extreme, everything or nothing.[3]

I find Russian greatness comparable to Texas and its culture of greatness:

If one southerner can whip twelve Yankees, how many Yankees can six southerners whip? Although the premise of this problem seems to have been somewhat unstable, it evidences a spirit of confidence that for a long time seemed lost to the New South. It may be, however, that the aggressiveness and boastfulness so characteristic of the Old South instead of dying out after the war simply followed the trail of cotton and migrated to Texas. From the time they annexed the United States in 1845 until their recent singlehanded and unaided [“not so fast,” said the Russian veteran!] conquest of Germany and Japan, Texans have been noted for their aversion to understatement. But it is possible that when Texans talk “big” they are speaking not as Texans but as southerners. Certainly, that Texan was speaking the language of the Old South when he rose at a banquet and gave this toast to his state: “Here’s to Texas. Bounded on the north by the Aurora Borealis, bounded on the east by the rising sun, bounded on the south by the precession of the equinoxes, and on the west by the Day of Judgment.” [4]


“That’s why I like Texans so much … They took a great failure [the Alamo] and turned it into inspiration… as well a tourist destination that makes them millions.”[5]



[1] Victor Davis Hanson, “Remembering Stalingrad 75 Years Later,” National Review, November 9, 2017.

[2] Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy, “Putin and the Uses of History,” The National Interest, 117 (January–February 2012) 21–31 at 23.

[3] Nina L. Krushcheva, “Inside Vladimir Putin’s Mind: Looking Back in Anger,” World Affairs, 177 (July–August 2014): 17–24 at 19, 20.

[4] Robert S. Cotterill, “The Old South to the New,” Journal of Southern History, 15 (February 1949): 3–8 at 8.

[5] Robert T. Kiyosaki Rich Dad Poor Dad: What the Rich Teach their Kids About Money that the Poor and Middle Class Do Not, (Scottsdale, AZ: Plata Publishing, 2011) 132.

Sep 29 2017

Recently in Russia: four links

la casa

Recently in Russia: four links

I guess (readingwise) we’re going to Russia this weekend. Here are four interesting reads today:


Jun 13 2017

Rereading About Race: Returning to Tah-Nehisi Coates (III of III)

Rereading About Race: Returning to Tah-Nehisi Coates (III of III)


So the literal thesis of the book is Coates (who is six years older than me) warning his 15-year-old son to cherish his physical body. But who else does Coates address in his book besides his son and self-conscious? As a child of the 1990s I don’t feel he was addressing someone like me who:

  • Recalls in 1991 riding in the van with my family past Luby’s in Killeen the day of the massacre heading to the nearby mall to buy my brother a birthday present;
  • grew up in central Texas and one Saturday afternoon in 1993 turned on the TV to learn about the first shots fired in what became known as the Waco disaster at Mount Carmel;
  • heard and saw in 1995 the horror of the Oklahoma City bombing as a response to Waco;
  • amid all of these were things heard and read various school-shootings from the 90s, particularly the 1998 Westside Middle School shooting at Craighead County, Arkansas and the 1998 Thurston High School shooting at Springfield, Oregon so that:
  • when, by the time I was 15 and one day heard on television in its “media language” [1] about the Columbine shooting in Littleton, Colorado in 1999, such language and the incidents they described had become routine, jejune, unremarkable.

All of these episodes of violence were committed by Americans who were not labeled black by our country’s media, and I mention this only to show that someone from a very different background than Mr. Coates can grow up well-aware of irrational white violence. Coates also mentions an episode where, as a kid he had a pistol pointed at him by another kid, while I had a rifle pointed at me by a peer when I was college-age––an experience that still stings when recalled.

As a reader I cannot blame a writer older or younger than me for not being a part of my own generation, so when I point out that Coates mentions shootings of the innocent by police to his son,[2] but nothing of school shootings, I cannot fault him for the omission. But out of my own curiosity, I seek to understand his silence, for teaching occurs only in silence.[3] I am curious because this particular silence seems a little strange when in the twenty-first century U.S., a classmate can destroy her peer’s body just as quickly as a cop.

But perhaps I’m being too specific. Perhaps I need to zoom out and inspect the broader picture. Here I find Coates’ overall critique is against systems, bureaucracies, and institutions, not individuals, such as the person who threatened him with a firearm.[4] In this sense he reminds me of Václav Havel.[5] Yet a school shooting is a specific kind of shooting, and all shootings (whether by cops or by classmates) damage human flesh, which is the criterion Coates abides by to warn his son. So maybe it doesn’t matter much that he doesn’t mention school shootings.

And Coates does (quite rightly) ridicule grade schools for their institutionalizing.[6] This is where my reading and dreaming have led me to compare him to Thoreau:

It is never too late to give up our prejudices. No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof. What everybody echoes or in silence passes by as true to-day may turn out to be falsehood to-morrow, mere smoke of opinion, which some had trusted for a cloud that would sprinkle fertilizing rain on their fields. What old people say you cannot do, you try and find that you can. Old deeds for old people, and new deeds for new. Old people did not know enough once, perchance, to fetch fresh fuel to keep the fire a-going; new people put a little dry wood under a pot, and are whirled round the globe with the speed of birds, in a way to kill old people, as the phrase is. Age is no better, hardly so well, qualified for an instructor as youth, for it has not profited so much as it has lost. One may almost doubt if the wisest man has learned anything of absolute value by living. Practically, the old have no very important advice to give the young, their own experience has been so partial, and their lives have been such miserable failures, for private reasons, as they must believe; and it may be that they have some faith left which belies that experience, and they are only less young than they were. I have lived some thirty years on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors. They have told me nothing, and probably cannot tell me anything to the purpose. Here is life, an experiment to a great extent untried by me; but it does not avail me that they have tried it. If I have any experience which I think valuable, I am sure to reflect that this my Mentors said nothing about.[7]

(go back to PART II of III)

(go back to PART I of III)


[1] Coates: “We live in a “goal-oriented” era. Our media vocabulary is full of hot takes, big ideas, and grand theories of everything,” (Between the World and Me 12).

[2] Coates, Between the World and Me 9.

[3] Quoting Gershom Scholem: “Teaching is transmitted in silence—not by silence…. Where teaching breaks silence, its relation to life becomes dialectical. The outward history of teaching is based upon this fact.” (Weidner, Daniel. “Reading Gershom Scholem.” The Jewish Quarterly Review. Vol. 96. No. 2. (Spring 2006) at 208–09.)

[4] Coates, Between the World and Me 18, 78.

[5] As Havel puts it: “Individuals need not believe all these mystifications, but they must behave as though they did, or they must at least tolerate them in silence, or get along well with those who work with them.” (“Moc bezmocných.” (“The Power of the Powerless”) October 1978. Translated by Paul Wilson. § IV.)

Compare also some passages from Don Delillo’s novel Libra. NY: Viking. 1988:

I’ll tell you what it means, these orbiting sensors that can hear us in our beds. It means the end of loyalty. The more complex the systems [in a novel], the less conviction in people [who read it]. Conviction will be drained out of us. Devices will drain us, make us vague and pliant…. (p. 77) The Agency is always willing to consider a man in a new light. This is the nature of the business. There are shadows, there are new lights. The deeper the ambiguity, the more we believe, the more we trust, the more we band together. (p. 259)

[6] Coates, Between the World and Me 34.

[7] Thoreau, Walden, “I. On Economy.”

May 27 2017

A Meditation on Tree Trimmings

A Meditation on Tree Trimmings

The other day I was driving to a friend’s home, and, while I was in line at a stop sign I saw a flat-bed trailer and two teenage girls and an older man, probably their father, dragging cut limbs of brush and tree trimmings and tossing them onto the trailer.

Such a mundane scene would not have stayed in my memory except that I noticed the girls were not wearing any gloves, which I prefer to wear when I do that kind of work, but perhaps the things cut down contained no thorns, perhaps the bark and the rest of the biomatter was smooth and could be handled in a carefree way.

Amid getting carried away in these carefree thoughts on tree trimmings, the ghost of Jonathan Swift (who has been haunting me since my return from Ireland, and, in particular my strolling through Swift’s old stomping grounds in Trim, County Meath) urged me to meditate on the brush piled on the trailer in Austin, Texas–and I tried to do what the ghost told me, but I felt inept.

But then I remembered that the best way to think about something is to try and forget about it. So I tried that, and after a while I began to realize: what are my bookshelves at home but a collection of trees dismembered and re-glued together into a Frankenstein-forest?–one that furnishes me with knowledge and escape, wisdom and entertainment, answers as well as questions?

No words to describe this perfect place #Ireland #travel #meath #castle

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The eighteenth century #books #Gulliver #london

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Surely some this was inspired by the ghost of Swift, particularly his idea in The Battle of the Books (1697) that all libraries are cemeteries, and the ingenuity of his A Meditation upon a Broom-Stick (1701).

May 26 2017

Michael Morton: a Falsely-Accused Prisoner, Turned-Reader, Turned-Writer

Michael Morton: a Falsely-Accused Prisoner, Turned-Reader, Turned-Writer

I’ve been wanting to read Michael Morton’s memoir of being falsely-accused of the murder of his wife, how the legal system works in Williamson County, Texas, and how he found the ability to forgive his accusers.

There will be plenty to ponder, compare, and write about concerning this terrific book. But for now I will only note that a great surprise was discovering that Micheal Morton is a great writer; and even more surprisingly, an enthusiastic reader:

We devoured everything from the classics to Stephen King, and we passed each ripped and dog-eared copy from cellblock to cellblock, bunk to bunk. As quickly as I read one, I would be handed another. We would wave each other on to or off of a planned selection. We critiqued each author’s work with the clarity and strength of opinion that could come only from never having written a book ourselves.

Reading was the only means of escape available to us. With a book, we could climb over the walls, walk on the beach, meet new friends, and mourn the loss of someone we felt we had gotten to know. We got books from the library, ordered them through friends or family, and eagerly anticipated mail deliveries with book-shaped boxes. We were intellectually starving, and each new read was a feast….[1]

Stacked in my cell, there were always books and authors, characters and adventures—real or imagined—waiting to sustain me intellectually and emotionally, to give me a place to play out my anger, nurture my hope, and indulge my ache for escape. As soon as one book ended, another began. Sometimes, I read two at a time, jumping back and forth from one universe to another. It was the only freedom I had….[2]

Books like The Odyssey and authors like Cormac McCarthy and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn reminded me that even the longest journey has a finish line, that someday I would close the book on this chapter of my life. Reading reminded me that finding justice in the end was possible…. [3]

Inside, I’d been reading so much I felt like I was doing time with Mark Twain, sharing a cell with John Steinbeck, and sitting in the dayroom with Kurt Vonnegut and John Irving. Occasionally Tom Robbins would pop in. Stephen King was always lurking around a dark corner, motioning for me to join him someplace terrifying. They had all become my friends—men I could count on to keep me distracted at night and entertained in the lonely hours when I couldn’t find anyone to talk with who knew how to read. [4]


[1] Morton, Michael. Getting Life: an Innocent Man’s 25-Year Journey from Prison to Peace. NY: Simon & Schuster. 2014.  pp. 127–28.

[2] Morton, Getting Life 171.

[3] Morton, Getting Life 172.

[4] Morton, Getting Life 131.

May 17 2017

Christopher Landrum: the Pretend Priest

Christopher Landrum: the Pretend Priest

Part I: Confessions

I have a confession to make: I am no priest, but I receive confessions from others.

I hear confessions from Dale Dudley (a socially liberal, economically conservative radio talk show host in Austin who broadcasts over 30 hours a week on KLBJ fm and KLBJ am). I also daily read confessions from Rod Dreher (a socially conservative, economically liberal (?) writer from Baton Rouge who blogs at least 10 posts a week at The American Conservative).

Like me, they are Southern white men. Unlike me, Dudley is a victim of sexual abuse and religious shame who grew up in east Texas; Dreher is a victim of a bureaucratic resistance to the sexual abuse scandal of the late twentieth-century Catholic Church and grew up in southern Louisiana. But they talk/write about every anxiety/excitement/crisis/joy in their lives on a daily basis. They cannot help but confess.

Although, I recently pretended to be a priest at a Renaissance festival, I generally hate the fake. I don’t want to be an actual priest. I don’t want to be a monk. I want to drink the beer, not brew it as a friar might.

Name of heroes.

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Me pretending to be a priest/monk

It seems like there’s something sick about wanting to pretend to be a priest but not wanting to be an actual one. Perhaps it’s similar to Rod Dreher’s latest book The Benedict Option (2017) whereby he advocates establishing not “literal” Benedictine monasteries but analogic ones. Then what’s the difference between pretend and analogy when both actions strive to not be too literal? On this point, I feel perplexed.

Similarly, I take pretty pictures in cemeteries but I don’t pray for the dead. But also I don’t deny acknowledging the majority in the graveyard while remembering a few outliers who happen to catch my eye. Some ask only to be remembered, and not prayed for:

A unique specimen #cemetery #Dublin #catholic

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Read the Tale of Edward Duffy #Dublin #Ireland

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Part II: Citations

The nineteenth chapter of Oliver Goldsmith’s (1728–1774) Vicar of Wakefield (1766) is entitled: “The description of a person discontented with the present government, and apprehensive of the loss of our liberties,” and involves a butler pretending to be the master of the house who wants to argue with his guests about politics. This chapter has the wonderful phrase “apprehensions of my own absurdity,” which may aptly describe my anxieties about pretending to be a priest.

250 years after Goldsmith, George Costanza just wanted to pretend to be an architect:

Aristotle points out in the fourth chapter of the Poetics, humans are imitative creatures, but Oscar Wilde (1854–1900) (who is almost always right) says: “The first duty in life is to be as artificial as possible.  What the second duty is no one has as yet discovered.”

After readings some bits by Alasdair MacIntyre, I wonder: is such pretending part of the lost art and effectiveness of argument? Do we pretend because we can no longer argue with anyone about anything? Or perhaps we have lost only affirmative arguments; because negative arguments still hold strong. Modern moral philosophy, according to MacIntyre, defines itself for what it is not, not for anything it might be.[1]

Is my pretending to be a priest an example of seeking the sacred?––a search for some lost community as mentioned in Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age? Do I seek to understand the abstract concept of “community” because I feel like most tangible examples of it have been lost? Or is it something along the lines of what Baylor University’s Alan Jacobs wrote the other day about how part of being in a world that doesn’t feel human is to pretend to be human—and what is more human than being religious?

Anthropocene describes what we are doing to our environment, while posthuman is largely phenomenological, a condensed articulation of what it’s like to live in a world where we are constantly making and remaking ourselves, especially via biotechnology. And surely there is some truth in these points, but I want to suggest that the apparent disjunction obscures a deeper unity. A world in which we remake our environment and ourselves is a world that does not feel human to us. We do not know how to play the role of gods, and on some level perceive that to act as gods is to betray our nature.


[1] MacIntyre Alasdair. “Why is the Search for the Foundations of Ethics So Frustrating?” The Hastings Center Report. Vol. 9. No. 4 (August 1978.) 16–22 at 17.

Apr 27 2017

Farm Noises (a poetic attempt)

Farm Noises

Some chickens scratch, and

The pebbles mumble,

Afore a rumble

Of Santa Fe train.


The highway hisses

Beyond the horizon,

Telling me, tempting me

To ignore this one

Moment teetering

Between night and day.


Barnyard ragamuffins #chickens #guineas

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Mar 30 2017

A Eulogy to Bookclubs (in the form of Confession & Resolution)

A Eulogy to Bookclubs (in the form of Confession & Resolution)

The few bookclubs I’ve been in have given me the opportunity to network and befriend (at a distance) a few people–but as goes the act of reading (whether for fiction or non) these overall experiences have left me with a bad taste in my mouth– they’ve helped me discover that I don’t read the way other people read, and I’m somehow now resentful to the idea of bookclubs (but not their members) because I feel like an outsider.

I’ve always admitted to being a dilettante, a Tolkien taster,[1] and not a professor, not an expert in anything I’ve ever read or reread.

I have a poor memory, so I take notes when I read, and I reread those notes, so that I can attempt to grasp some inking of the author’s intention upon the page. Then I reread my notes and try to connect them to things previously read (and those notes previously taken).

And I’ve found many good points from a few good people in previous bookclubs and have been exposed to many (not just several) life-changing works I never would’ve discovered on my own.

And yet I don’t miss going to bookclub, though I sometimes miss meeting and seeing some of the people–I now must come up with some way of reminding myself that whenever I take notes on something I’m reading (and I tend to take notes on the things in a book that make me excited) that I must additionally attempt to remember that I am an oddball when it comes to the act of reading–and I must remember that overbearing, out-of-place feeling so oft felt when attending bookclub–a feeling that on reflection later reveals all the things I overlooked in the books I thought I had already read.


[1] As Tolkien puts it:

I have, in this peculiar sense, studied (‘tasted’ would be better) other languages since. Of all save one among them [Welsh?] the most overwhelming pleasure was provided by Finnish, and I have never quite got over it.

“English and Welsh – the O’Donnell Lecture – Oxford 21 October 1955” The Monsters and Critics: and other Essays. Edited by Christopher Tolkien. NY: Harper Collins. 1983. 2006. p. 192.