I'm excited to announce that I'm writing a book about Texas, to be published in early 2013 by PublicAffairs. Not a book about Rick Perry, a book about Texas. The inimitable, unregenerate, indispensable state; the revolutionary and reactionary state; the scrapheap of dreamers and the last best hope of the scoundrel; my home state; the great state.

My goal is to give an account of what Texas circa 2012 is about--not the myths or the hype or the horror stories, but the reality--with a bit of historical explanation about how it got to be that way, and a few arguments about what that means for the future of the state and for the country. So there's a lot more to come on that, of course.

In the meantime, I'll offer a comment on how Texas is perceived from the outside, which is why I wanted to write this book in the first place.

From my view, which is to some extent that of an insider and an outsider, Americans have a bit of a love-hate relationship with the state, or maybe a Freudian attraction-repulsion thing. That was real clear when Perry joined the presidential race late this summer. There was this immediate po-faced chorus: Texas is a backwater. Just a lot of rednecks, plus some oil barons and their cronies. Sure, Texas may have created a lot of jobs in the past few years, but they’re just oil jobs, or McJobs, or jobs for illegal immigrants, or Border-Patrol jobs, or drug-war jobs.  And Texas is an ugly place. It sends people to the electric chair as a form of recreation. Pretty hypocritical for a bunch of Bible-thumpers. They tear up the brushy forest to build highways and megachurches. No wonder God is punishing them with drought and fire. Ha-ha, etc.

And one of the most obnoxious things about the state, the critics continue, is its sheer stupid self-confidence and hubris. Texans are always talking about how Texas is the biggest and the best. Americans want Texans to know that all the states are equal, except for Texas.

Some of these criticisms hit home. And some of the frustration is a lingering response to the last president from Texas. But it goes a little deeper than that; Texas is without question America's most controversial state. And that strikes me as misplaced. Three million people have moved to Texas in the past ten years, two million of them Americans, and most of them aren't crazy. For that matter, you often see skeptics journey down as cultural-disaster tourists and quickly soften their stance. Within 48 hours, they're excited to tell you that barbecue is great, and “y’all” is quite a useful expression.

At work here are a couple of beliefs about Texas: first, that it's weird, and second, that it's horrible. I don't think either of these is quite correct, for reasons the book will describe.

The idea that Texas is like a different country may stem partly from the fact that the state promotes itself as being "like a whole other country." Culturally, maybe. And Texas is bigger than France. But on the going political, economic, and social issues, Texas is a more or less comprehensible American state with a cool hat. On religion, for example. There's this idea that Texans are always cracking down on teenagers having sex and gays having sex at all, and trying to foist their Bible-based textbooks on American children like Perry tried to foist the HPV vaccine on little girls. It's true that the biggest church in America is Lakewood, in Houston (America's fourth-largest city, and its biggest city with an openly gay mayor, incidentally). Still, if you're scared of Lakewood's pastor, Joel Osteen, you're a chicken. There are some conservative religious groups, of course. That doesn't make it a theocracy.

Similarly, when Texans talk about the tenth amendment, they're picking up a debate about federalism that dates to the beginning of the country. When the entrepreneurs argue against taxes and regulations, they’re throwing in with generations of American business. When voters rail about government spending, they’re invoking the frontier spirit of self-reliance, a more recent experience for this state than for most. These are all American norms, if not held by all Americans.

Where Texas is clearly sui generis is in matters of culture and style. This is a product of the state's unusually rich and resonant history--one of the features of Texan culture, of course, is that the state cares about its history more than any other. State pride, accordingly, is as accepted in Texas as it is scorned in the rest of the country, just as American patriotism strikes some Europeans as hubristic, dangerous, or gauche. An important point here is that if Texans don’t realize that they’re giving offense, it’s often because they don’t intend to (this is arguably in contrast to its critics, who may intend to draw more blood than they actually do). Texas may be too cavalier about this; when Perry was talking about secession, for example, a lot of Americans saw it as a neo-confederate thing, which really would have been a thuggish thing to say. But that interpretation never occurred to most Texans, who equably took the comment as such allusions are traditionally meant, to evoke the state’s brief spell as an independent republic.

As for the second belief about Texas, as is probably clear from the preceding, I don't think it's a horrible place. In his memoirs, the late Christopher Hitchens recalls that his first experience with Americans came when a couple at an airport called him cute and gave him a dollar. “That was Americans for you,” he writes, “wanting to be friendly all right, but so loud, and inclined to flash the cash.” He continues:

I was brought up, at home and at school, with an ambivalent view of ‘our American cousins.’ Like many poor relations, we consoled ourselves Englishly with the thought that we made up in good taste and refinement for what we increasingly lacked in money and influence. Americanism in all its forms seemed to be trashy and wasteful and crude, even brutal.

That wouldn't be a bad summary of how many Americans think about Texas. For now, suffice it to say that I suspect the old world is wrong and I think they know it, which may be why they're so prickly. I'm already on the record as being against the Manichean strain in American political discourse. With regard to Texas, it is pretty fun but it's neither healthy or necessary.

So that's just a little bit of what I'll be working on next year. I hope that it'll provide some comfort and insight to those of you who are annoyed or anxious about Texas, and I'll give you a travel appendix online.

Thanks for reading this year, and hope to see you here in 2012.
 
 
During my recent devastating illness I watched a couple of movies which I've seen described, or dismissed, as pretentious--"Tiny Furniture" and "The Future." I say thumb up on the first, thumb down on the latter. Let's start with "The Future," from writer/director/star Miranda July, who has a book of short stories that I thought was very good. To be honest, I didn't pay very close attention to the movie. That may seem like a flimsy basis on which to review it but having recently been apprised of my own mortality I didn't feel that I could squander my limited time on earth listening to every little line of dialogue, especially after the first few minutes made it clear that there was going to be a voice-over from a cat. July's Sophie is beautiful, as is her boyfriend Jason, played by Hamish Linklater. Their physical similarities--healthy bodies, enormous eyes, mops of dark curls--are so pronounced that it begs the question of why they seem to take so little pleasure in each other's company. In an early scene, sitting on the couch, he seems to be a bad boyfriend. She asks if he can bring her some water, and he says he wasn't getting up, only adjusting his position: a preference for self-interest over a minor generosity. But it turns out that he's not being cruel. He just has nothing to give. At 35, he's completely listless. And she too is exhausted. Teaching a dance class for children, she can't even keep hopping the whole time. If the toddlers want to hop, her slumped posture suggests, that's their business. 

It may be a failure of empathy on my part, and maybe I'm missing the point, but I couldn't care about or like either of these characters. Seriously, just take a long weekend in Veracruz or something. There's a subplot about Sophie's relationship with the receptionist at the dance studio, a hyper-toned LA nymphet who posts videos of herself doing sexy dances on YouTube. The suggestion is that Sophie--ethereal, cerebral--is galled by the blunt sexuality and blithe manners of the receptionist. Sophie thinks the receptionist is stupid. The proof is that she mispronounces "Cirque du Soleil." This strikes me as petty and misplaced snobbery. It actually happens fairly often in movies, that a female character is established as smart by her stoical reaction to a stupid female character--like in "Lost in Translation," where Scarlett Johanssen makes fun of the blonde actress because she doesn't know that Evelyn Waugh is a man. Can I just say I find this extremely off-putting, and I do know who Evelyn Waugh was, and how to pronounce Cirque du Soleil.

There's actually a good counterpoint in "Tiny Furniture," a first feature from writer/director Lena Dunham which concerns the post-college malaise of a young woman, Aura, who's just graduated from college in Ohio and moved back to her mom's loft in Tribeca. Dunham's mom plays her mom, and her sister plays her sister, and Dunham plays a character who probably has some things in common with herself. "Tiny Furniture" also includes a character, Charlotte, who's initially framed as a ditsy counterpoint to the more serious female lead (she's the British girl in the trailer). But over the course of the film there's a nice twist on the usual trope of plain smart girl vs hot dumb girl. It's not that Charlotte gets deeper, but our perception of her does. As flaky as she initially appears, she's a fairly consistent friend to Aura, and more grounded than her initial appearance at that party suggests. Expectations are similarly slightly altered with all four of the female characters (maybe even five, which is five more substantive women than most movies have). The men are pretty useless, but that's how they are sometimes. I had heard mixed reviews of "Tiny Furniture" going in, with much of the controversy predicated on the question of how reflective the movie is supposed to be: like, does Lena Dunham not realize that Aura is a little bit of a spoiled brat? To me, it's clear that she does. It struck me as quite a self-aware movie, and not one that condescends to the audience or the creators. ("Tiny Furniture" is now playing on Netflix Instant. "The Future" is available from your local Redbox for $1, but only if you're trying to blow $1 and wouldn't rather buy a pie.
 
 
On Christmas, my youngest brother had a 24-hour stomach bug. I gave him orange juice, Fresca, chicken soup, Saltines, Pepto-Bismol, and some expired phenergan that I found in the kitchen cupboard, although I ate some of his Saltines myself. In return, he gave me the 24-hour stomach bug. "Ha-ha, Merry Christmas!" he said when I told him.
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This young man has the heart of a natural troll
It's odd having a miserable illness of known duration: you know it won't last forever, that it won't even last that long, that it's not that serious, yet it's impossible to extrapolate yourself from the experience, and while you're sick you're all "$25 million in federal grants to fix this? Give that woman $25 billion and a medal." Now that I'm in recovery, I can say that the great thing about having a 24-hour bug is it's a such a good reminder of how good a usual 24 hours without bugs is. All day yesterday, festering on the couch, I kept thinking of all the ambitious and exciting things I might have done if only I had my health. Like gone to the corner store to buy some Gatorade. Or sat upright long enough to put on a DVD.

The other great thing is that sweet Alex, in Britain, tried to cheer me up by sending a small selection of comedy clips. Well worth watching, whether you're well or un-:

Eddie Izzard on Stonehenge

Victoria Wood, "Two Soups"


Monty Python, "Pet Shop (Dead Parrot)"

Monty Python, "Ministry of Silly Walks"


Eddie Izzard on religion

Go for an English

Ricky Gervais on gay animals

 
 
Sorry, been a while since I updated this. With a flurry of friends and family having left Texas this week I'm feeling a little Charlie Brown at the moment.

In any case, some new pieces from the past two weeks. At Democracy in America, a post on the Politifact "Lie of the Year" controversy; on "unauthorised" v "illegal" immigration; the United States postal service; and Newt Gingrich's proposal to debate Barack Obama.

And my latest at GOOD, on forest carbon offsets.
 
 
My column at Good this week looks at Canada's defection from the Kyoto Protocol:

The upshot of all of this is that environmentalists should pay more attention to the economic arguments than the outright skepticism: For whatever reason, America has more vocal climate skeptics than Canada does; chalk it up to American unruliness (or Canadian politeness). But the fact that they’ve ended up with the same position suggests that belief is less important than the business implications. That might point to the next steps. If international agreements—still the best way to coordinate collective action on what is the world’s biggest collective action problem—are stalling out, it’s going to be hard for individual countries to adopt carbon restrictions that won’t, on their own, affect a global problem.


 
 
In this week's print edition, I have an article on redistricting:

WHEN carving, Plato said, one should be aware of the natural joints. It is a sound principle, but one that American politicians often forget when it is time to redraw the electoral map. “There’s no question that the redistricting process is one of the most partisan things that happens in a legislative body,” says Joaquin Castro, a Democratic state representative from San Antonio who is now running for Congress. He should know. In 2003 he was among more than 50 Democratic legislators who escaped to Oklahoma in an effort to block a Republican-led redistricting map. The revolt failed, and the following year the Republicans picked up six additional seats in the state’s congressional delegation...
 
 
At Garden & Gun (one of my favorite names for a magazine) Bronwen Dickey talks about her pit bull Nola:

But when it came time to take her out in public, people reliably cringed and scooted away from Nola. I tried to offer up to wary strangers all the counterintuitive factoids I had come across from veterinarians and behaviorists—like the fact that pits are some of the most social dogs around, that they rank right up there with Labs and golden retrievers in terms of how much they seek out human attention. Or that the American Temperament Test Society, which has tested nearly a thousand pit bulls, gives them a passing score of 86 percent, higher than that of beagles and border collies.

Some of the best dogs I've ever known are pit bulls, including my brother Mark's dog Tank, who is certainly the snuggliest member of the entire extned. As Dickey says, the shelters are absolutely full of them, particularly in Texas. They're hard to adopt, because the breed is so stigmatized; some apartments won't even allow them on the lease.

The reason pits have a bad rap is that they're often used for fighting. They are incredibly strong, which is something to be aware of, particularly if you have small children. But they're hardly vicious by nature. As Dickey points out, one of the reasons they're such good fighters is that they're incredibly loyal to their people--devoted enough to shred themselves to ribbons, which is really a much greater indictment of the people than the dogs. Conversely, pit bulls raised with the normal amount of care, and the training that any responsible dog owner should provide to any dog, are incredibly good companion animals.
 
 
Just in time for the holidays, another crowd-pleaser from Lars von Trier. Two of the characters are wholly sympathetic, 2.5 if you count the kid, and although some people suffer, the villain is the movement of the planets as opposed other people in their cruelty and contempt. It's not the best romantic comedy I've seen lately, but it would make a pretty good date movie.
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Sparks Fly between Kirsten Dunst and the Death Planet
 
 
"You can't ask a Care Bear not to care," advises my friend Emily. Indeed, Em, indeed.
 
 
I too get testy when people assume that some aspect of my identity should have a deterministic influence on my political beliefs. And I also like pizza. But I think that's it.