Where I’m Of
That’s right, I’m not from Texas. But I want Texas to want me anyway.
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DURING THE LAST WEEK OF JUNE IN 2000, sometime between the announcement that I would take over as the editor of Texas Monthly and the day I actually stepped into the job, I received a “Yankee, Go Home” letter from Dick J. Reavis. Dick, some of you will recall, has been a longtime contributor to our pages—at various points a feature writer, a columnist, and a contributing editor—but since leaving the staff in 1989, he had been serving, self-appointed, as our purity tester. No one wears his Texanness on his sleeve as aggressively as Dick, who was raised in various small towns, including Waxahachie and Coleman, and subscribes to the theory that there are two kinds of people in the world: Texans (worthy of working for Texas Monthly) and everyone else (not). He makes no bones about his distrust of outsiders, and he distrusts no one more than New Yorkers, who, to his mind, are as unworthy as they come. When we hired one of our star writers, Pamela Colloff, in the mid-nineties, Dick complained loudly that she was from New York and insisted we fire her and hire a Texan; never mind that she had lived and worked in Texas for several years before coming aboard. I’m a native New Yorker too, so it was no surprise that the news of my being named editor was an affront to Dick, who immediately wrote to say that if I really cared about the magazine, I would pack my bags, board the first available train, and move back to Gomorrah.
I thought about Dick’s letter as we put together this month’s special “Where I’m From” issue, because it raises, for me and numerous other carpetbaggers from both coasts, modern-world kinds of questions: Can you call yourself a Texan if you weren’t born here? What if you’ve lived here for ten, twenty, thirty years? At what point do you pass muster? What if you were born in Texas but moved away? How long did you have to have lived here to be considered legit?
Around our office we argue all the time about the Texanness of expatriates and recent arrivals. Steve Martin, the actor and writer, was born in Waco, lived in Texas until he was six, and then moved to California, returning only to make movies here. Does he qualify as one of us? What about comedienne Carol Burnett, who was born in San Antonio and moved to California while she was in grade school? Or President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was born in Denison and moved to Kansas at age one and a half? A few months ago, before the start of the TV season, our creative director, Scott Dadich, proposed a story about Jennifer Garner, the star of Alias. Turns out she was born in Houston—but she grew up in West Virginia. Likewise, the hip-hop star Nelly was born in Austin but grew up in Missouri and hasn’t lived in Texas since. Do our readers really consider these folks Texans?
By contrast, there’s brush-clearin’, g-droppin’ George W. Bush, who was born in New Haven, Connecticut, while his father was still enrolled at Yale University, and didn’t get to Odessa until he was two. Is W. less of a Texan than Ike? Well, he flunks the purity test. So, for that matter, do a number of famous “Texans” who, like the president, came into the world somewhere other than here, including PBS newsman Jim Lehrer (Kansas), syndicated columnist Molly Ivins (California), novelist Sandra Cisneros (Illinois), Bush confidants Karen Hughes (France!) and Karl Rove (Colorado), philanthropist and statesman Jesse H. Jones (Tennessee), former U.S. senator Phil Gramm (Georgia), former governor Sam Houston (Virginia), future governor Kinky Friedman (Illinois), and, believe it or not, purity tester Dick J. Reavis (Oklahoma). Who says irony is dead?
And then there’s me. I had driven through Texas only once, on the back end of a cross-country trip after college, before moving here to take a job at this magazine a few days after Christmas in 1991. (I vaguely remember stopping for gas in Roosevelt, off Interstate 10, and drinking tequila at the Hole in the Wall, in Austin.) At the time, I absolutely considered myself a New Yorker, never imagining that I would last this long in Austin or Texas, let alone make a happy life for myself. Texas is where I met and married my (non-Texan) wife. Texas is where our children were born. (My daughter’s second word, not long after “mama,” was “taco.”) Texas is where we bought the only two houses we’ve ever owned. Texas is where we found a church—and religion. Texas is where we got hooked on fund-raising for the arts and social services. Texas, specifically West Texas, is where we vacation. My kids have nearly killed themselves a million times climbing on the metal playscape behind the elementary school in Marathon. I’ve made two trips, years apart, to the emergency room in Alpine. I can find my way around Marfa in the dark without a map, which is more than I can say about Manhattan these days.
Texas, in other words, is my home. But even after fourteen years, my Texanness is still an issue, and not just to Dick. Everyone has a laugh line in his bio, and mine, whenever I’m introduced before a speech or some other public appearance, is that I’m a native of you-know-where. (At which point I make sure I’m in on the joke and note that I’m “a recovering New Yorker.”) It never fails to generate a reaction. It’s like that Pace Picante Sauce ad of a few years ago, the one in which the cowboy at the campfire is outraged when he learns that his salsa was made in “New (pause) York (pause) City!” Headline writers clearly pick up on this, because whenever I’ve been profiled in newspapers around the state, Lyle Lovett’s lyrics are right there in giant type: “That’s right, you’re not from Texas.”
Of course, the next line of Lyle’s song is “But Texas wants you anyway”—a sentiment that’s entirely consistent with the state’s long history of inviting in cusses and rapscallions and more than a few good folks who want to reinvent themselves or otherwise make their way within our friendly borders. From the run-up to the Alamo to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, it has always been the case that Texas welcomes outsiders warmly and with little concern about pedigree.
What’s one more outsider among friends? Despite the fact that I’m not actually from here, I want to be able to say that I’m a Texan and have people accept it, because that’s how I feel. On a very basic level, I love this place with the zealotry of a convert. I love the bigness of the sky, the emptiness of the land, the abrupt change in terrain in every direction, the majesty of big ranches (this from a kid who grew up never hearing the word “ranch” unless it was followed by the word “dressing”), the intimacy of small-town conversations, the generally pleasant and open demeanor of everyone I meet, the smell of barbecue, the taste of guacamole, the sight of the University of Texas Tower and the Capitol when I’m flying into the Austin airport, the sound of Willie Nelson playing the first notes of “Whiskey River.” I even love college football, which, truth be told, took a while. But now it’s part and parcel of my embrace of Texas-as-home. At a UT football game this fall, I found myself text-messaging a friend in the stands, and in referring to the Longhorns, I apparently used the pronoun “we,” even though I didn’t go to UT. When he mocked me in response, I thought, “Hold on. This is who I am.” Or who I’ve become.
The absolutist in me acknowledges that however long I have my job, however long I live in Texas, I’ll always be like Roger Maris, forever doomed to have an asterisk next to my name. But the pragmatist in me wants to figure out a way to make an accommodation. So I have two suggestions.
First, and I’m smirking as I type this, let carpetbaggers like me take a citizenship test; if we pass, we’ll become naturalized Texans, just as some recent arrivals to this country become naturalized Americans. A few weeks ago, as you may have seen in the paper, the British-born actor who plays Chewbacca in the Star Wars movies became a U.S. citizen after answering a few questions on history, English, and civics. He’s been living in Granbury for more than five years. Wouldn’t we like to claim him as one of our own as well? (Sure beats Anna Nicole Smith.) I can’t speak for the big guy, but I dare anyone to test me and anyone else with a sharp number-two pencil on Texas politics, music, books, movies, food, bidness. (Bidness? See, I already aced that one.) Let us prove we’re up to the task of being Texan—and if we are, stop making faces, or worse, when we say so.
Second, and I’m totally serious about this one, stop basing Texanness on the accident of birthplace. There are simply too many of us from somewhere else who pay taxes, vote, send our kids to school, and have otherwise put down roots that grow deeper each year. We’ve earned the right to associate ourselves with those of you lucky enough to have been here all along; we’ve earned membership in the club. And why on earth would you not want us to join? We may have a lot to learn about Texas, but we also have a lot to contribute. Anyway, we’re not going anywhere. We’re here for the long haul, and we’d like to beat our chests about that deliberate choice before the world.
Once upon a time, newcomers rallied around cries of “Gone to Texas.” The more recent bumper sticker iteration reads, “I Wasn’t Born Here, But I Got Here as Fast as I Could.” Well, I’ve got a new one: “Texas. It’s Not Where I’m From, But It’s Where I’m Of.” Not even Dick J. Reavis ought to have a problem with that.