Sunday, April 29, 2007


The satellite network out here gets BBC America, which I watched a bit last night. The Robin Hood revamp featured a brooding Guy of Gisborne of suspicious hotness, and a Robin of youthful callowness, and some staggering enormous temporal incongruities, but what did catch my interest was the teaser for next week. We've all heard and rehashed the arguments over the pirates versus ninjas question, but the BBC presents a new and intriguing wrinkle: ninjas versus OUTLAWS. I am sorry to miss the opening arguments of the debate. For my money, the home team has the advantage, but perhaps Robin and his merries were a little less jolly after getting shurikened to the trees.

In other news, we've reached the point in the visit where my grandmother reads her mail out loud to each person who comes over. A notice that she's being called for jury duty has been repeated three times, with great discussion of how she could take the age exemption but feels that it's her civic duty et cetera, and now my great-aunt is starting to read the entire letter, with comments, out loud. I didn't sleep well last night, my patience is at an ebb, and I'm trying very hard not to be the skeleton at the feast. Where is Neil when you need him?

Friday, April 27, 2007

Serendipity in a small town

Many of Texas's small towns were built around a central business district back in the early part of the 20th century and follow the same model: court house in a plaza and a few main streets around it, with the big-name businesses on those roads. The court houses are often beautiful, showing off fantastic stonework or Lone Stars worked into finials. Unfortunately, now that going to town is a matter of hopping in the SUV, a lot of central districts are dying for lack of parking. The big stores set up on the edges of town, where acres of asphalt desert are possible, and the few small family businesses that try to hang on in town are hurt by the lack of pedestrian traffic. It sucks, not to put too fine a point on it, partly because it's hard to feel much community spirit at a WalMart and partly because the architecture of a big box store will never have the charm of the older two-story places witht their elaborate facades and pressed-tin ceilings. People keep trying, but it's depressingly common to see new enterprises in the town centers set up in a blaze of optimism and slowly wither away.

I'm not the first to lament the woes of small towns, but at least the communities aren't going down without a fight. The weapon of choice? The festival. Luling's got its Watermelon Thump, Flatonia goes for the Czhilispiel (featured sport: hurling), Poteet gets enormous crowds for the Strawberry Festival, and Hallettsville's Kolache Festival was once cancelled for Hurricane Rita evacuations. Tonight La Mere and I grabbed an early dinner and headed downtown for the Fiddler's Frolics,
a local event that we had long anticipated never heard of. We figured it wouldn't be a bad way to spend an evening--better than listening to my grandmother and her sister argue out the bad mood they both seemed to have caught--but I wasn't harboring high hopes. I will now admit that the massing of the RVs in the KofC parking lot should probably have tipped me off to the size and awesomeness of the party.

It turns out that the Frolics stretch for an entire weekend and are taken seriously by a lot of people. Food on offer was listed as Cajun a la carte, which translated as $12 for a box lid full of scarlet crawdads, steamed potatos, and corn on the cob; for an extra couple of bucks, you could add a Lone Star or a Shiner bock (cans only; long-necks plus concrete is not a promising recipe unless the EMTs are standing nearby chewing their toothpicks and waiting for the inevitable). Tomorrow there is supposed to be a barbecue contest, and given how important barbecue is to this part of the country, I shouldn't have been surprised by the elaborate nature of the set-ups. One pit was surrounded by a split fence, a fake outhouse, strings of carp lights, and handmade wood signs with the team's name burned into the wood. Another pit was decorated with A&M logos on one side and UT labels on the other; maybe the brisket inside was simmering on a bed of delicious multigenerational hatred. (For the uninitiated: the A&M/UT rivalry isn't some polite Ivy-league grumble. A&M once stole and cooked Bevo, UT's mascot; UT partisans have been known to make slighting reminders about putting the big logs at the bottom of a bonfire. Families have been ruined over a child's choice to go to the other university, and without bowl games to keep the entire state distracted, Texas might be an even bigger pain in the national politics.) Bottom line: can there really be a loser in a barbecue cookoff? And no, the four-feet don't count.

The fiddling competitions take place in the cavernous hall, and after getting ADMIT ONE tickets stapled to our shirts, we grabbed spots to watch the seniors' fiddling competition. Some of the guys were pretty good, and the only one who was actually bad turned out to be 98 years old and suffering from arthritis. He cramped up halfway through a song and had to be massaged before he could continue. I cheered for him, because at that age I'll damn sure want applause if I'm doing anything but turning up for naps. Between players, the emcee chatted to the audience and I watched the crowd, counting pairs of cowboy boots (surprisingly few) and Texas-themed button-down shirts (lots), admiring feed caps and stetsons, and wondering about the combination of jeans and physique that makes so many rancher guys have absolutely no ass (really, you could run a plumb bob from shoulder to heel and not hit anything on the way on most of these guys; how does that work?). Nobody was quite sure what to expect from the next event, billed as the "Anything Goes (As Long As It Involves a Fiddle)" competition. La Mere was disappointed at the rule that pants had to stay on, and nobody took the organizers up on their suggestion that playing in a headstand was allowed, maybe because the mic wouldn't permit it. The crowd favorite was a group family from Minnesota, which was variously rendered as Maine, Michigan, and Minnesota by the emcee, who apparently couldn't be arsed if it wasn't Texas. The two girls, both sweet-looking teens, played fast and clean, keeping in perfect synch even after one of them tucked her fiddle tucked behind her back and the other propped hers up on her right shoulder, and they got the lion's share of the whooping and stomping fromt he audience. A ten-year-old boy from California did a sharp version of a Stevie Ray Vaughn tune, and one of the seniors did a set of mockingbird calls to break up "Listen to the Mockingbird," but most of the other groups stuck with just...playing well. Which was nice, but not terribly wild. Maybe next year they'll ease up the no-nudity rule and we'll get to check out a few G strings. And yes, since you ask, that is the oldest joke in the book.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

What is the sound of one miga frying?

Texas does NOT need rain. My mother and I are pretty infallible rainmakers for the state, to the point where we even managed to bring snow on Christmas one year, thrilling the pants off Victoria County’s headline writers ("Christmas miracle! First snow in 100 years!"). This year it appears that we’ve surfed in on the edge of a spectacular wave of storms, although I wish we’d managed not to drag the tornados along with us. On a more positive note, the long wet spring has provided a spectacular crop of wildflowers, including the famous bluebonnets. Catching bluebonnet season is about as easy as seeing the cherry blossoms in DC: You can make a guess at the date, but the best way to ensure that you see them is to have a completely flexible schedule and a local who can call you in on a week’s notice.

The other really good news, at least from a personal standpoint, is that the in-flight magazine had a piece about Austin’s breakfast tacos, and La Mere and I followed its instructions to one of the scroungiest places I’ve ever been. The reviewer said she had driven past the place for five years, not because she thought it looked like a bad restaurant but because she thought it was a condemned building. For those of us who grew up snarfing down cha gio in Northern Virginia’s minimally decorated Vietnamese restaurants and barbecue in cinderblock hulks where oilcloth-covered tables were swank, that sounded like a genuine Mark O’ Qualitah. The Tamale House turned out to be a tiny place with a concrete porch overlooking a parking lot and Route 183 (justly not famed in song and story), a counter for placing orders (“No checks, no credit cards, no debit cards, no exceptions” and “Don’t complain about the heat; AC is expensive and this way your food is cheap”), and an open kitchen staffed by several portly women stirring enormous skillets of potatoes and eggs. We ordered platters of migas, and for a bit less than five bucks got Styrofoam trays of eggs scrambled with ham, cheese, tomatoes, tortilla frag, and jalapenos; refried beans; and potatoes fried with an inordinate amount of coarse black pepper. Clearly this is one of the mother foods for recovering from hangovers. We swiped the foam clean with fresh tortillas and promptly shoved off; space was at a premium and our cherry spot overlooking a pickup was coveted by a couple of guys in feed caps.

Storms permitting, tomorrow it’s a road trip to San Antonio. There’s something there I’m supposed to remember, but what the hell could it be?

Friday, April 20, 2007

You can yomp eet at de walk

I was extremely relieved when the barn where I ride started offering a Western option rather than English. The advantage of the Western saddle is that lovely come-to-Jesus, oh-damn-it-just-went-pear-shaped button at the front, more briefly known as the horn. Cowboys use it to hold a rope when they're otherwise occupied, but for the student rider, it's a lovely crutch when you're startled. Unfortunately, it also presents certain obstacles if your horse decides that it's time to jump over something. The English saddle, lacking the horn, feels less secure, but if you jolt forward, it also won't take advantage of your virtue. But sometimes, especially out on a trail where a tree has been inconsiderate enough to fall across the path, you just gotta jump no matter what the saddle.

I've jumped in classes, albeit over tiny poles, and occasionally on trails I've had to clear trees or ravine banks. I've yet to fall off, but grace hasn't been a hallmark of the experience. The worst was in Argentina, where the horses, mountain-bred and canny, refused to jump until they could see the other side of an obstacle. We came to a huge fallen tree that completely blocked our way, and my horse reared up, put both hooves on top of the trunk, peered at the footing, and finally lunged over in a giant convulsive leap. In my effort not to thunk down onto his back end, I ended up flying forward and wrapping myself around his neck like a spastic lemur; he wasn't hurt or particularly fussed (although I would have understood if he were exasperated), and I was able to scootch backward into the saddle, adjusting my sheepskin and silently thanking God that I wasn't born a guy. The guide was kind enough not to snicker audibly, but I wouldn't have blamed him either.

All of which is to say that when my teacher announced last night that we were going to go over jumps in Western tack, I was both pleased and nervous. As it turns out, my partner Doc loves to jump; he's been known to sidle toward jumps when he gets bored, and just seeing the poles made him pick up his pace. We kept things low, not more than a foot off the ground, and since I'm used to his enormous rocking canter, it was easy to stay in place when he reached up to jump. I wish I had started enjoying jumping sooner, because it was thrilling, but part of the fun came from the lack of pressure; I just wanted to be able to handle an emergency, not line up for the Grand National. Kudos and endless affection to Doc, of course, and gratitude to Teacherwoman, who made it seem easy and stressless. There's no guarantee I won't end up making a fool of myself next time I'm on a trail jump, but it's nice to know that I'll have some semblance of a clue of how to stay on.

In other news, spring finally appears to have arrived, and it's time to go glory in the feeling of not being in the office. Muahahaha.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Crank the panic

April in DC is usually one of the months that makes me glad I live in this area: Although there are hordes of tourists, they tend to stick to the Tidal Basin area, a section of the city cleverly designed to keep people searching desperately for parking and never wandering beyond the confines of the Mall. Occasionally they get as far north as Metro Center, but the rest of us are left largely in peace. Allergies notwithstanding, seeing everything burst into bloom is fantastic: All the trees are hazed with green, the redbud starts to open up, forsythia become conspicuous, and the dogwood and azaleas start to warm up for a long drawn-out flurry of colors that would be spectacularly tacky if they weren't actual flowers. The air is warm, everyone gets all romantical, and generally you feel that the Magnetic Fields' "Washington, DC" gets it right about the spring.

All of which is to say, I hate this weather. The weatherdroids are working themselves into the usual state about our current storm fostering a classic nor'easter for our neighbors up the coast (sorry, Seesterperson! wasn't my idea!), it's pouring and dreary here, and I can't help wondering why the Wilson bridge is suffering from standing water. Maybe they were hoping for a dual water-traffic aqueduct and didn't quite get the balance right.

What with the cold, the rain, and the general misery of this weather, the horses have been all over the map. My gentlemanly gelding partner was so full of chilly weather beans on Monday that I gave up on riding and just chased him around the ring ("whooshing," the barn term for making sure a horse stretches out a bit); on Thursday, he was calmer, but the sucking mud of the ring was so bad that we kept it to nothing faster than a jog. I did get to try out another student's QH/Arab cross, a zippy young gelding, and after I got used to the OMG MOVING! speed of his walk, I had a terrific time. I rode him when he first came to the barn, when his settings consisted of slow and aieee, so the work his owner has put into him was beautifully evident. He's still boss hoss--first through the gate, first in the line, don't grab his mouth--but he bends and adjusts his speed and backs a treat. Mental note: win lottery. Buy pony.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Easter 2007, and most of us survived

That's about the size of it. I bailed out of the all-night service just after midnight; the press of yammering FOB Russians and the amount of effort that it would take just to get back into the church was too much to face. I went home and was asleep by 1 AM. People who stayed until the end probably didn't get to their cars much before 4:30. Bah.

It's worth pointing out that Orthodox liturgics, much like Elizabethan English, will never use one word when fifteen will do. The readers don't always nail it, either, which gets funnier as Holy Week wears on and people get more tired and punchy. This year was fairly mild: "hethens" and "areo-pagites" were about as far as it went, although there were also reports of "evnocks" (men who've had their bits knocked off, I guess) and the tribulations of Jobb (for reals). Last year heard the memorable exhortation, "Oh Mother, do not beat your beast in grief."

None of those, however, match up to the Christmas blunder committed a few years back: "You will find a babe, warped in swangling clods, and lying in a mangar." When you realize that that particular combination occurs no fewer than three times in that reading, the sudden epidemic of coughing that swept the congregation is perhaps not such a shock.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Why don't these oysters have shells?

Things I did for fun this weekend:
  • Drove through Gates Pass, occasionally whooping to myself over the more dramatic dips and twists. Then I decided that it was so much fun that I did went back and did it again, with a break to watch the sunset and moonrise from Saguaro National Park. I also decided that the bicyclists who take the pass are freaky masochists. Nice legs though.
  • Rode horseback through the Sonoran desert until a lot of my bits were sore and/or chafed. Which is absolutely not your fault, Snip, and thank you for handling those insane slopes without making me want to cry. Also thank you for not running yourself into a barrel cactus and dooming yourself to euthanasia because the hook-shaped spines would work their way inward and ruin your joints, a new and exciting thing our guide taught me to worry about.
  • Got up before the sun to tack up and ride out to round up cattle and then help body-slam the calves and hold them down for vaccinations, ear tags, and the ever-popular branding. For interesting times, I cannot but recommend leaning your entire body weight on a highly agitated cow while someone wielding hot pieces of rebar tries to sear it and not you. Before I do that again, some serious weight training is in order. Likewise some serious weight gain, because inertia is your friend when you're tackling a panicked bovine.
  • Remembered yet again that even inexpensive beer is nectar when you're hot and covered with dust.
Things I did not do this weekend:
  • Lose any teeth to kicks from adrenaline-filled calves. Danny said that someone got whacked in the face last year and hasn't been back since. Wuss. But telling us that story ensured that we were all careful about leaning back whenever we let go of a calf.
  • Find the missing clues for finding the Jesuit treasure that, according to legend, is buried not far from Peck Canyon. Personally, I think this sounds a little too much like the Lost Dutchman's Gold thing from the Superstition Mountains and that Arizonans have hit on a nifty way to get rid of irritating members of society. "There's gold in them thar hills. Follow these incredibly vague clues about lining up the Needle's Eye with the cross carved on the wall that we can't find, and don't come back. I mean, don't come back until you find it."
  • Wind up kissing any of the following: the ground, ocotillo, cholla, mesquite (a glancing smooch from the saddle doesn't count, though my t-shirt begs to differ), prickly pear, or barrel cactus. Damn but Arizona is home to some pointy flora. As for the fauna, I was reminded of the confession in A Canticle for Liebowitz: "Bless me, Father, I ate a lizard."
  • Eat prairie oysters, Montana tendergroins, Rocky Mountain oysters, cowboy caviar, or anything else made of calf testicles, despite assurances from one of the other guests that they are delicious as part of an asado. Since Danny doesn't castrate his calves, preferring to let them get big and ornery so he can sell them for rodeo work, we would've had to make a special trip. I cannot say that I am disappointed.