Aside

M’uncles, Muscle and Merica: Why cars aren’t just cars

 

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That’s the house where we did it, right there. It’s an old Kansas farmhouse, boxed in on three sides by crops and on the fourth by a stretch of US-50 three miles east of Burrton, Kansas. My dad grew up in that house. He’d take my mom on motorcycle rides out to there.

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That house has always been the gravitational center of Corcoranism as I know it. In 90 or 91 a tornado took the roof off it, Grammy moved into town and my uncle Shaun took over the farm, which made sense. Of all my dad’s brothers, m’uncle Shaun is the one that most evokes the memory of my grandfather, George, who died before I was old enough to know him. When Grammy died my family moved into her in-town house. That’s the house of my high school years. I waxed my old 67 Dodge at that house and took it to prom. My parents still live there.

The car had been sitting in their garage for 15 years. My dad bought it for me for $1,250 when I was 15, and it needed a lot of work. Engine, transmission, paint, interior. This was a project car. We bought it from some stupid rednecks at this dusty salvage yard where these morons would do things like take body panels off a Pontiac and fit them to an El Camino. On the car I bought they had the fuel line running into a Dr. Pepper bottle. That allowed them to start it just long enough to prove the motor wasn’t seized up.

We towed it home using a truck and trailer we borrowed from muncle Kim’s metal fabrication business. My dad has worked for him in Burrton for about 23 years now. On the way, Dad wanted to keep my expectations reasonable.

“Don’t expect it to be done the first day of school,” he said.

Well we started in on it right away. Dad and I re-did the brakes and cleaned out the gas tank and put a brand new set of tires on it – fatter ones on the back.

I cleaned the interior a few times those first few months. I didn’t have any money, but I was too excited to just let it sit there without getting fiddled with. This was my thing. I knew just how I wanted my car to look and sound. I had pages in the parts catalog earmarked. It was going to be those wheels and these valve covers and that intake manifold. What I did all day as a 10-year-old boy was look at hot rod magazines and parts catalogs. I can’t claim that part of my interest in these magazines and the culture at large was totally unconnected to the bikini babes that turned up in these magazines. Consciously, my interest in cars was about the cars, but as I examine it now it seems impossible to remove a sense of sexuality from American car culture without changing that culture in a fundamental way. You often hear rock musicians say the reason they picked up a guitar in the first place was that chicks seemed to dig guys who played guitars. American men have a similar association with cars that sometimes manifests itself in hamfisted ways.

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Dad worked with a guy who subscribed to Car Craft and Hot Rod and a bunch of other magazines like that. When he was done with them he’d send Dad home with a box of old magazines for me. Well, to me a box of hot rod magazines was a year’s worth of entertainment and a precious source of information. I kept them all in a trunk that filled up in chunks, like a suburb. When I came across an article I thought would help me in the future – painting tips, horsepower helpers, brake jobs – I would clip it out like a recipe and put it in a file labeled “car ideas.”

That was data storage, baby. This was way before the Internet arrived at the Corcoran household.We lived in a 90-year-old transplanted farm house with no air conditioning. It had been built without accommodations for running water, so the bathroom was an aftermarket job. It was a long time before we even got an answering machine. We made do, is how you’d put it.

I owe a good deal of my interest in old cars to my cousins, Torey and Tyler, who lived in Burrton. As kids, an unfair world denied us driver’s licenses, so we souped up bicycles instead. We learned how just by trial and error. You could change the way your BMX performed by changing the sprocket ratio or lengthening the stroke on the pedals. The principles of locomotion reduced to their core. Torey was the oldest, and when he got to be about 12, he started mowing lawns. With that money and a loan from his parents, he bought a brand-new riding lawnmower, which as far as I can remember he used mainly as a loophole in the driver’s licensing laws.

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Burrton is a zero-stoplight town, so it wasn’t scandalous for three pre-teen boys to hook up a little wooden flat-bed trailer to that lawnmower, toss our bikes on it and go joyriding around town looking for dirt piles to ramp off. Bigger the better. Sometimes we’d drive it up to Phil Hoskinson’s service station and buy a candy bar and a pop. That would cost 75 cents. Phil always jollied with us about what we were up to. Once he told me about the time way back when that he outran the cops in his 55 Chevy. The trick was a switch that would allow you to turn off your taillights while the headlights stayed on. Then you take him down a dirt road.

I’m sure we talked about girls — Tyler and I spent one afternoon chasing some, though I’m not sure what we would have done if we had caught them — and I know we talked about sports and whatever else little boys talk about, but what I remember most is talking about cars. That conversation always starts, for little boys, with their fathers, and what cars they had. Torey and Tyler knew all about their father, Marvin, and his Plymouth Fury. I knew about my dad’s 54 Ford pickup and 64 Plymouth Belvedere. We were MoPar kids, Ford kids in a pinch, but definitely not Chevy kids. Those are the kinds of allegiances you form at age 8. Other than a sports team, it was the first social group I had ever joined.

Muncle Marvin — muncle, by the way, is Corcoran for “m’uncle” or “my uncle,” I think, although I can’t remember the etymology ever coming up in conversation — had an old four-wheel-drive International truck he’d take us to the lake in. One night Uncle Marvin heard the sound of his truck rapping out in the driveway and found Tyler in the driver’s seat revving the engine. He was probably 8, already known for fearlessness, and he was just desperate for that sensation. Tyler grew up to be a soldier. Torey joined the Air Force.

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Their neighbor was a kid named Andy, and I can remember going to Andy’s house and seeing these meticulously crafted Lego creations in his room. They were huge and perfect, that perfectionism no-doubt inspired by his father, Bart, who built race cars. When it came time to build the motor and fix the mechanical flaws, that’s who I called.

They were always Chevy people, and they kidded me about bringing them a Ford. Couldn’t help themselves, either. They fitted my car with a Chevy alternator.

At that time, the 90s, our family car was a 1967 Dodge Coronet that got handed down to me in high school. It’s what we took to church, it’s how I got to baseball practice, and every other week my mom and me and my two little sisters would take it to Wichita to buy groceries at ALDI.  At the time it was the nearest one, and the savings justified the trip. Plus, the knockoff Captain Crunch tasted almost like the real thing. One time the water pump went out on that trip, and Dad left work, drove over and changed it in the parking lot. I can remember fishing dimes and nickels out of the seat cushions in that car so she could buys us some cinnamon rolls at Burger King.

I’d imagine this is part of the reason I took an interest in old cars as opposed to new ones. To me, buying a new car was something done by the sort of people who ate name-brand breakfast cereal. My parents have bought brand spankin’ new cars since then, but I never have.

That spirit roots in American history.

American car culture really started in two places: The South during Prohibition and California after World War II. These guys out there in California – you could call them artists, but that’s not what they called themselves – would take these old boats their parents used to drive and start cutting and bending and painting. Shaping metal into these graceful shapes we now all identify with that era. The lines on the Las Vegas sign, the Fender Stratocaster and the 57 Chevy all have something similar about them, don’t you think?

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Well that came from these cats out in California. Poor kids, mostly, who figured out how to make old stuff look cooler and go faster than the new stuff. That tradition is still alive in California.

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Then there were the liquor bandits in the South. They wanted the cars to look stock but dust a police cruiser. Most of this was done thanks to the cocktail of Scotch and Irish geneology. There is a peculiar blend of bravery and stupidity in that bloodline. People of Scots-Irish decent are highly over-represented among Purple Heart recipients and Navy test pilots. They’re the people took the cops on high-speed chases through wooded areas and invented stock-car racing.

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So those two ideas started to mix, and these hot rods became such a sensation that Detroit noticed and pretty soon all the cars started coming out of the factory with these California lines and West Virginia motors. It was the space race, too, and that showed up a lot in the cars — taillights that looked like jet engines, fins, interiors shaped like cockpits. People were captivated, inspired — proud.

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“But why, some say, the moon?,” John F. Kennedy said at Rice Stadium in Houston in 1963. “Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask, Why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas? We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

A year later, at a Ford plant in St. Louis, some union guys assembled a Ford Galaxie 500 XL, painted it “prairie tan” and sent it on its 34-year, 78,000-mile journey to a 15-year-old boy who towed it down the same dirt driveway where he had learned to pitch by practicing curveballs to his mom.

The Galaxie 500 was Ford’s full-sized car, and the XL meant it was a two-door fastback with bucket seats and the good trim. The lines were round and swooping and there was chrome everywhere. That part wasn’t new. American cars had been that way since the War. But then they put a big block motor in it, and that changed everything.

This was the beginning of the Muscle Car Era. This is not to say the Galaxie was the first muscle car, but just that all American car companies seemed to get the same idea at the same time. Execution varied slightly, but almost all the cars were powerful and almost all the cars looked cool (or tried hard to).

Because of World War II the economy and babies were booming. Gasoline was relatively inexpensive (about $2.25 a gallon in today’s money). Rock-n-roll was a new thing and more doctors smoked Camels than any other cigarette.

And we beat those Commies to the moon! Stabbed that big blue hunk of cheese with Old Glory.

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In a span of about 30 years the United States had defeated:

  • Hitler
  • Japan
  • Prohibition
  • The Great Depression
  • Enforced racial segregation
  • Russia
  • Outer space

Now it was time to spike the ball in the end zone.

And, hey, the United States had its problems in the 60s, but nobody could look at the 60s in this country and say people weren’t inspired. Americans thought they could change the world in the 1960s.

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I can’t do the 60s justice here, mainly because I didn’t experience them for myself. But there has to be a reason that the music from that era still resonates today, that something about George Harrison’s guitar solo in “Good Morning Good Morning” makes a kid who was born in 1983 feel like someone is saying with a guitar what he wishes he could say with words. There is some reason that when you drive a muscle car 600 miles across the country everybody from the high school girl working the register at the barbecue joint in Oklahoma to the bum on the street corner in Dallas to the Mexican guy in the expensive truck in Conroe wants to talk to you about it. There’s something in there Americans intuitively understand. To me it feels deeper than a preference. It’s more like DNA.

And you know what people want to tell you? They want to tell you what cars they have, or had, or want to have. And they never tell you about their Camry, because they know a Camry and a Corvette are as similar as an iPod and an electric guitar. There is something in there about individuality, expression, adventure.

“When Americans tell stories about themselves, they set those stories in the West. The American heroes are Western heroes. When you begin to think of the quintessential American characters, they’re always someplace over the horizon. There is always someplace in the West where something wonderful is about to happen. It’s not what has happened, it’s something wonderful is about to happen. And even when we turn that around, even when we say something has been lost, what’s lost is always in the West.”

— Historian Richard White, Ken Burns: The West, 1996.

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The Europeans who settled the American West exhibited the best and worst of humanity. Heroism and cowardice. The story of that settlement haunts as often as it inspires, but it is the American story, and it is America’s story to tell. It’s about moving, usually West, for a fresh start.

People came West from Europe, and they settled and they moved West again, to the mountains, and then through the mountains and West some more. Some in search of fortune, some survival, some because they wore out their welcome elsewhere. Keeping going, westward ho, whether dysentery or typhoid fever. Whether following the Oregon Trail or looking for California gold or Kansas soil, there’s a sense that if you just keep going, you’ll make it. Sometimes the American Dream gets misconstrued as the American Guarantee. It isn’t that, and was never supposed to be, but to me it seems there is something in the blood of an American, for better or worse, that tells him he’s got The Right Stuff, if everyone would just get out of his way.

There are plenty of people who say they hate the internal combustion engine, but most of those people drive gas-burning cars. There are other options, but those options just aren’t as good. They drive their car because their car takes them where they want to go. It takes them quickly and anonymously. No ticket to buy, no driver to talk to, nobody across from you on the train.

Nobody to spoil your alibi.

In Houston, we live next to an elderly couple. The man has lost his sharpness, but his white-haired wife still has hers. Every so often the doorbell will ring and I’ll answer and her little body will be standing there holding a plate of cookies. Just being neighborly, like I suppose she was to the people who lived here before us and the people before that. Our house was built in the 60s.

She has this Louisiana accent I recognize as the city accent from New Orleans — it has the funkiest Bronx quality to it. As I was washing my car she walked over and wanted to look at it and talk about it, have the conversation people always have when they’re standing around a car.

“I awl-ways wonted a red sports car, a convuh-tibul,” she said. “I nevuh got one.”

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Early in the morning, last June, I started the Galaxie to drive it to muncle Shaun’s house, The Farm, where in 1956 George and Louise Corcoran settled down to raise their seven kids. I had learned to fire a gun and ride a motorcycle at that farm. That was where the Corcorans would usually gather on the Fourth of July. Shaun would always have the tractors, four-wheelers and dirt bikes all gassed up for us kids, and we’d tear off into the fields on small adventures that felt big. We were free and unwatched, out on the prairie, finding whatever we were going to find, learning a little bit about ourselves and our limits along the way.

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When I turned east onto a dirt road, the sun was rising, stretching its dusty yellow and citrus orange across the fruited plain. The air was cool as my left arm cut through it, cool in a way it never is on the Gulf Coast. It reminded me of driving that Dodge into Hutchinson for morning football practice, and then that reminded me of my mom, who drove us kids around in that same 30-year-old, $2,600 car bought from muncle Shaun without ever a hint she was embarrassed by it. The night before I drove out to The Farm, Mom stayed up with me until 2, helping me install the carpet in the Galaxie. A few hours later she got up for work. In front of me on that road was my dad, who used to watch fuzzy Chiefs games with me on our 13-inch TV, take me to junior college basketball games and always made sure I got to play on the traveling baseball team and my sisters got to take gymnastics lessons. I always had a nice glove, a nice bat, and a decent pair of cleats.

When I was starting high school and learning to drive, my dad and I drove all over south-central Kansas looking at old project cars. He knew that’s what I wanted. Most of the cars in our price range were too far gone, of course. One night we were driving back from having looked at a 71 Charger. It was shot-out past the point we could realistically restore it, but it’s difficult for a 14-year-old boy to see it that way. He must have sensed my frustration with the search. “If I could afford it, I’d buy you the nicest car you could find,” he told me, and I knew that was true.

But really I didn’t want to be bought some $25,000 trailer queen. I’m not saying I would have turned it down, but it would have felt like someone else’s car and someone else’s life. The day we finally dragged that crusty old Galaxie home, I guarantee you I was the happiest boy in all of Kansas. I told my parents they could just buy me car parts for every birthday and Christmas, and I meant it.

Well I chipped away at it — a camshaft here, a set of pistons there. Machine work. I had the motor halfway rebuilt in my basement when I left for college, and that’s how things stood for about 10 years.

After high school I worked at a service station in Hutchinson for two years while going to the juco. Tire repairs, alternators, brake jobs, pumping gas for old ladies. The owner had a friend named Bill, who as I understand it had been the coolest man on the face of the earth for most of his life, the kind of guy who flew airplanes and drove Corvettes and made risky bets on the stock market. But he had gone blind from a car accident and as a result began spending his days at that service station. He took an interest in me, and pushed me. He wanted me to be a really good pump jockey, to see the big picture of what I was doing. The business of it. When he found out I wanted to be a sports writer, he had me bring him some things I had written and he sent them to his nephew, Kurt, who was the sports editor at the Topeka paper.

Kurt thought I was good enough to take volleyball scores over the phone, so when I moved to Lawrence for school, I had a job waiting for me in Topeka.

I have, in so many ways, moved on from the kid I was when we bought that car. I lived in a liberal college town for eight years, and Kurt eventually hired me to do a job that took me all over the country. New York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Miami and half the college towns in between. That job led to a book project on another small-town Kansas kid, a project that got me the hunk of cash I needed to finish the Galaxie. Now I live in a big city and I do big city things and, on the whole, I’d have to say it’s all about as exciting as 15-year-old me would have expected it to be.

But nobody ever looks happy behind the wheel here.

When I got to The Farm, muncle Shaun was drinking coffee on that old porch my dad had surely jumped off, the way kids do, on the way to grade school. Shaun’s dog, a stray he found at a landfill, came out to make sure I wasn’t an intruder. A little while later muncle Marvin came out. He was out there every day, helping, just because he wanted to. When we needed to cut off the bumper, we called a guy named Mark Danner, who built race cars. He brought out his plasma cutter, and we tried to pay him for the trouble but all he’d accept was breakfast.

So for five days we sanded and filled, sanded and filled, sanded and filled, morning to night, ending with primer and paint. It’s achy-body work for me, and I had only just turned 30. We did in five days what should have taken five weeks. One night, right as we were finishing up for the day, a storm came in. One of those good, strong Kansas thunderstorms that makes you close all the doors and run inside. So I stayed out at the farm while it passed, my uncle and I drinking tomato beers and playing guitars as the rain pounded the windows and the wind knocked down branches. He showed me a new way to play an A-chord on a Fender Mustang he got long ago in a trade for a car.

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Muncle told me he was selling the farm. The buyer was going to be tearing the house down to make room for more farmland. He’d be moving into Burrton, and his business, Southwest Wheels, would be moving to Newton. A new beginning. I’ve since learned he needed that. “No more ghosts,” Marvin said.

What do I owe you, I asked when we were finished. “Not a bloody thing,” he said. “That’s what M’Uncles are for.”

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So I bumped the key and that old car with the new beginning answered loud, like a dog barking at a train. And I started driving south. No radio, no cell phone charger, no GPS. Just a little Kansas kid and his car, pushing across America toward the coast and a life that has gone better than I expected, carrying with me a piece of everybody who has helped make it that way.

I had to baby it for 500 miles to break in the motor. When I got south of Dallas, and I knew she was ready, I punched the pedal, and the engine took a deep breath and shot me into the galaxy, and I never felt more at home.

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Aside

Thumping the melons in the BBQ capital of Texas

Barbecue arguments are like political arguments, only less objective. Which is to say they’re infuriating and unresolvable. For example, every time I hear someone say Oklahoma Joe’s or Jack Stack is the ultimate Kansas City barbecue joint, I want to stab them with a rib bone.

Barbecue is personal. 

So I know that a barbecue argument is an inevitable outcome of this post, and I accept that, but that is not the goal here. I am not going to try to convince anybody of anything one way or another.

Having said that, I don’t think I can in good faith not write that the best brisket I know of in the world is made in central Texas. If you are at a barbecue joint in Texas and you don’t order the brisket, you have committed a cultural crime equal to that of driving past the Grand Canyon and not stopping to look at it or going to the Kentucky Derby and not betting on the race.

Texas barbecue is brisket, brisket is Texas barbecue. Anything else is a neat little sideshow. And how can I describe it? Well there is something about the smoke itself down here. I assume they’re all using at least some mesquite wood but I didn’t ask. When you walk into Smitty’s in Lockhart, you are greeted by an open flame burning on the floor.

You think I am embellishing.

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And that, sirs and ma’ams, is why they can’t make good barbecue in California. Too many codes. In Texas, you can build a fire on the floor right next to the cash register and you don’t even have to put a little rope around it.

Oh, has somebody gotten burnt up? Well then this was a good lesson for them about fire being hot. Bet they won’t make that mistake again.

If you don’t know, Lockhart is sort of the barbecue capital of Texas, which would put it high in the running for barbecue capital worldwide, up there with Kansas City and Memphis and whatever part of North Carolina you want to choose. It’s a small town with one of those Main Streets that remind you of the 50s. On Sundays you can see Al Dressen and the Barbecue Playboys play at Black’s Barbecue.

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I was with my wife, Abby and my friend, Jacob. In Lockhart, we visited Kreuz’s, Black’s and Smitty’s and near as I can tell the whole operation doesn’t differ much from place to place. At Kreuz’s and Smitty’s, you walk into a hot smoky room to order. You tell the guy at the register what you want — One rib, a 1/4-pound of brisket and a sausage link? Sure. — and then he tells another guy who reaches into a giant black metal box and stabs a slab of meat, pulls it out and carves it up to order. I didn’t pay close attention to the prices, but that hypothetical order I just made would probably be something like $7. It’s not expensive.

Other than the smoke and the brisket itself — it really is different — the primary distinction between Texas barbecue and all other styles of barbecue is that Texans have developed what I consider a strange and silly kind of pride regarding barbecue sauce — they seem to think of it as cheating .

Only one barbecue place I have ever seen was so pretentious as to not only disallow sauce, but to preemptively warn you not to order it, and that distinction belongs to Kreuz’s.

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Pretentiousness is something not usually found in barbecue restaurants or small towns, but by golly there it is in the warning palate of black and yellow.This was our first stop and we went with brisket, turkey and sausage. All of it was good, in particular the brisket, some of which was served chopped and some of which was served in the slices you’re used to seeing. I thought the slices brisket was better, but that wasn’t unanimous. However you got it, it had a robust, salty bark on it with that burnt pink smoke ring on the inside.

On the way out, we evaluated.

“That was great, but you know what would have made it better?” Jacob said in the car. “Some barbecue sauce.”

Thankfully all the other places we visited offered sauce, but none of them seem to be real proud of it. It’s an afterthought, a garnish, offered with a reluctance that says, “You’re the customer and we guess that means you’re always right, but we’d really like you to try it without the sauce first.”

Well OK fine but I’ve done that plenty of times and I like sauce, all right? IS THAT OK? I especially like sauce when there’s been some real effort put into it, the way it is done in Kansas City, but that is uncommon in these parts. I have to say, though, that my compulsion to have my meat swimming in it like buffalo wings has been eliminated. Its best usage is probably closer to the way you use Tabasco on your eggs or honey on your biscuits. You’re not mopping it, you’re not slathering it, you’re not trying to drown this velvety meat in sugar and acid. You’re just drizzling it. It allows you to taste all that wonderful, delicate smoke and just complement it with a touch of tang and some sweet.

There is something magical about Wonder bread, barbecue sauce and smoked meat all dancing together (to the BBQ Playboys, most likely), and I say this as a guy who places high importance on bread quality. It’s just that, quite simply, cheap white bread is the most ideal bread medium for barbecue. I submit that if you are in a barbecue place that is offering something other than Wonderbread with its barbecue, you are in a barbecue place that is missing the point. That is a combination that cannot be improved upon and should not be messed with. It’s like a buddy cop movie about a young rule-breaking hot shot and an old vet who’s one day away from retirement. It is tried and true.

Near to Lockhart is a town called Luling, which we learned is best known for something called the “Watermelon Thump.” It is the kind of event where you can ride rides and get a funnel cake. Teenage girls compete to be voted “Thump Queen,” which sounds more like an insult than a social decoration, but nonetheless it was clear Luling is big-time watermelon country. Unfortunately the Thump Festival didn’t begin until a couple hours after we left.

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We ate more brisket, sausage and pork ribs at Luling’s City Market, the ribs being the best of the trip. Luling’s offered little bricks of cheese for 75 cents (which is uncustomary) along with dill pickles and raw yellow onions (which is). I have a bit of a ideological (and, given my stance on sauce, possibly hypocritical) objection to adding cheese to barbecue, but I can’t say I didn’t quite enjoy folding some brisket, cheese and onion in between that Wonder bread.

Because you’ve been so nice to read this far, I feel I should come with a STRONG TAKE about some of this. So here you go: If I had to stop eating meat forever, I still think my last pile of it would be the beef sandwich from Arthur Bryant’s. The best pulled pork sandwich I have ever had was at B-B-Q Shop in Memphis and there is no doubt about this: Nobody does brisket better than Texas.

The secret reason basketball is not popular in the south

Today is the beginning of college basketball season, but it does not feel like it to me. By this I don’t mean that my own personal psyche is not quite prepared for the sport to begin, or that I have lost ties with the sport emotionally. I mean that I just stepped outside to walk my dog, and now I’m sweating. By noon, I will have turned on the air conditioner.

And I wonder if this isn’t secretly the reason basketball is not popular in the south.

As you know, I live on the Gulf Coast, as a great many “southerners”* do. Relative to the weather I grew up with in Kansas, it still feels like it should be the nonconference portion of football season. It’s still, you know, muggy out there. It feels like summer is still kind of hanging around. If I were to drop the exact weather I am experiencing on Kansas right now, some people would reflexively pull the boat out of storage.

*I put that in quotes because I don’t consider myself a southerner, and even though I am technically a Texan now, the term “The South” is kind of ambiguous when it comes to the state of Texas. For purposes of discussing weather, however, Houston is TOTALLY southern. So that’s what I’ll be meaning when I use this terminology throughout this post. 

I know that, on me, this has a discombobulating effect. In part this is because it is still somewhat unfamiliar. It still feels strange that I could, without total discomfort, jump in a pool on the same day big guys jump center for the first time. But I wonder if this has something to do with the southern sports psyche altogether.

Basketball, of course, was invented by a Canadian who was living in Massachusetts and later taught in Kansas. The whole point of it was to be something that could be played indoors during the winter. And it really became part of the DNA in places where that was important. Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, etc.

I don’t mean to oversimplify this. There are hundreds of other factors that influence where certain sports become popular. Football was huge in Nebraska, basketball in Kansas. The early years of both college football and college basketball were dominated by teams in the upper midwest and northeast. I am not trying to explain American sports culture by using barometric pressure, although I’m sure there’s a sabermetrician out there who will be happy to try.

I am really just saying that in the midwest, in Kansas, you can feel basketball season coming. You can feel it with your skin.  And this adds to the anticipation of it. There is something about walking in from the dark and the gray and the cold — shoulders bunched together, face tucked down into your chest to get away from the sharp wind — and into a hot gym, where you scoot your feet across a mat to knock off the snow and it smells like popcorn and a brass band is blowing “Carry On Wayward Son” with full lungs and pattering hearts and tiny girls in short skirts are being thrown into the air and your eyes take a minute to adjust to all the light.

At the risk of coming off as maudlin, I write that it feels a little bit like coming home for Christmas. Well, that’s how coming home for Christmas feels in the Midwest anyway.

It doesn’t feel like that on the Gulf Coast. Here, it still feels like football season is just getting started. And it will feel that way until football season is over. On the Gulf Coast, the winters are not something to escape. It’s where birds hang out in November.

So basketball doesn’t seem as necessary here. But it is still in my DNA.

Can’t we just be proud of Lebron James?

Can we all just be proud of Lebron James? For Pete’s sake.

He’s practically perfect. He plays spectacular basketball, unlike anybody else plays it. He plays unselfishly. He enjoys his teammates’ success. He plays the best defense.Then when it’s time for somebody to drop the hammer, he’s like Paul Bunyan ringing the bell at that sledge hammer game at the State Fair. He doesn’t get in trouble. He pretty much keeps his mouth shut. He actually seems like a reasonably nice guy. He has been in the NBA for almost nine years, has been one of the most spot-lit players in it the entire time, has been Everybody’s Villain for about three years and yet he has said the wrong thing, what, twice?

He goes to London and leads our country to a gold medal win and with the world watching represents everything good about basketball, about sports, about Americans. After it is over, he posts that photo of himself holding the stars and stripes like a cape and he types “love my country.”

What do you want from this guy?

Cleveland? What do you have to say? You’re still mad he’s not on your team anymore? Go cry me another Great Lake. You know why Lebron isn’t on your team anymore? Because your team stinks. It stunk to high heaven the entire time you had Lebron. You had the best player in a generation on your team and you failed — completely — to benefit from that. You had him playing with Mo Williams and Zydrunas Ilgauskas. And you’re mad he left? You’re surprised? You’re hurt? You should have been burning all the other jerseys, not Lebron James ones.

By the way, do you remember when Lebron actually did sign a contract extension with the Cavaliers? He did. It was in 2006. You had your chance.

Matter of fact, let’s not hear anymore whining out of Cleveland until one of your professional sports teams gets it together. Just one.

And the rest of you. What’s your big problem? You didn’t like when he said “take my talents?” That phrasing bothered you? You didn’t like how the players got to decide where they were going to play?

Are you against free agency?

What, you wanted Lebron to “do it the hard way?” You didn’t think Michael Jordan would have left Chicago to play with, say, Shaquille O’Neal? Well what’s that got to do with it?

WHAT DOES MICHAEL JORDAN HAVE TO DO WITH IT?

You believe Jordan is the greatest basketball player of all time and you will always believe that no matter what and you’re terrified that someone might seriously challenge that notion and Lebron is the greatest existing threat. Is that it? That’s it, isn’t it?

Isn’t it?

Boy, the next six or eight years are going to be rough for you.

Because Lebron is going to win more NBA championships, and he’s going to win another gold medal for your country and he is going to be the best player in the world for at least five more years.

And you’re going to have to deal with that.

Or you could embrace it. You could enjoy it. You could be proud that your country produced the best player in the world, and that he represents you beautifully on the world stage. You could appreciate the opportunity to watch a player unlike any we’ve ever seen in the sport.

Or you can just be mad all the time.

The soft simple lesson of Mr. Rogers

I am sure this story by Tom Junod is the best thing ever written about Mr. Rogers. It might be the best thing ever written about anybody, for that matter. So I am not going to embarrass myself by attempting to write some terrific Mr. Rogers thing.

But for the last 24 hours I have been thinking about Fred Rogers without stopping. It started when I saw that haunting and catchy “Garden of your mind” remix somebody did on YouTube.

I then went to Wikipedia, and found this wonderful quote, which Mr. Rogers said in court in the now-famous Betamax case. He was defending the use of recording devices like the VHS:

“Very frankly, I am opposed to people being programmed by others. My whole approach in broadcasting has always been ‘You are an important person just the way you are. You can make healthy decisions’ … I just feel that anything that allows a person to be more active in the control of his or her life, in a healthy way, is important.”

Then someone sent me a link to Junod’s piece. Then I watched Mr. Rogers give a speech to Congress, defending PBS back in the 60s. Watch him melt this senator:

Then, maybe the greatest moment of all is the one Junod mentions near the bottom of that story. It is Mr. Rogers accepting a Lifetime Achievement award at the Emmys– one of the biggest celebrations of self in our culture — in 1997. By that time he had spent almost 30 years as the host of “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood,” a children’s show unlike any other. He wasn’t teaching us to count or spell, he was teaching us how to be human, how to handle our feelings, how to believe in ourselves. It was his vision and he had turned it into one of the most iconic television brands in history.

There he was at the Emmy’s, among the glitterati, on stage being honored for a lifetime of his work. You only get a couple of minutes up there, and this is how he used them:

Mr. Rogers died of stomach cancer in 2003, so he is no longer around to care about the way children are talked to or the things they’re learning from the medium he cared so much about, and mastered.

There will never be another Fred Rogers. Some people are one-off creations, and he was one of them. It is fitting that his message orbited so tightly around individuality. Mr. Rogers was never afraid to be who he was, to say what he felt and to work for what he believed in.

So even though there will never be another, I think we can take something from Mr. Rogers that even transcends his simple message. And I think what we can take from him is the incredible power of sincerity.

Mr. Rogers could pulverize you with it. Watching him speak in those videos made me feel like he crawled inside me and just started mixing everything around like a pot of stew.

Watching Mr. Rogers can give you the sensation the he was not of this world. You’ll see that idea in the comments on YouTube. But I think that’s the wrong idea. It suggests that he is gone for good and everything he was about left with him.

I hope that’s not the case, and I don’t think it is.