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Favorite Things Written and Read in 2020

Okay, since no one else is going to say it, I guess it falls to me: 2020 has been a rough year. Unprecedentedly rough. Crisis rough. Surreally rough. Rough like no other. Roughest. year. ever. Roughness is so 2020. Because 2020, amiright?

Phew. Don’t we all feel better now that someone has FINALLY just said it?

It’s heady to be in journalism right now, because we are writing the first draft of history, which is intimidating and motivating and cool. Not just the pandemic but allllll the history going down right now. Trump. Black Lives Matter. Kamala Harris. Some of my colleagues, I believe, were built for this kind of gravity.

I go on a lot of walks.

In May I started working more or less full time for The 74 Million, reporting on the pandemic in San Antonio schools. I’m on a team! Just like I wanted! It’s amazing! It is a position created by a pandemic that cost a lot of people their job and I don’t know how to feel about that so I’m just going to try to do really good work and not think about how the pandemic ending would mean my gig ending!

Your lives are more important to me! I swear!

The gig has some very specific vocabulary, that I’m sure we’re all equally tired of: remote learning, in-person learning, COVID-19 protocols, learning loss, enrollment decline. I’ll never forget the moment when contact tracing went from getting flagged as jargon to being common vernacular, along with asymptomatic and asynchronous. I’m torn between never wanting to type those words again and being gleeful at getting away with it. Like when your family visits Hoover Dam so you say the word “dam” as much as you can before it’s outlawed again.

However you feel, fools can’t keep their masks on, so you’ve doomed yourself to another year of it, kids. Time for some asynchronous protocols for asymptomatic learning loss among in-person learners amid the pandemic.

Even though most of us had to write those words more than we wanted, some folks made some very delicious work out of it. Or just did delicious work about other stuff still going on in the world that still needs lots of attention. Cue the lists!

Favorite journalism by others:

This Texas Monthly oral history blew my mind and made me proud. It also explained why, as eerie as things were in those first pandemic weeks, in San Antonio they were not as dystopian and weird as in other places, grocery-wise.

Alec MacGillis’s Dollar Store investigation had me on the edge of my park bench for 20 minutes, then had me bothered for months. Definitely ruined my trip to the Family Dollar in rural West Texas when I realized that I had no other option and then realized that no one in that town had another option. MacGillis also wrote one of the most painful looks inside remote learning debacle.

Maria Godoy on the lingering effects of housing discrimination in Dallas. It emphasized something we saw graphically illustrated in the Somos Neighbors project in San Antonio earlier this year, which I was lucky enough to work on.

Alia Wong wrote about tools to help emerging multilingual learners during COVID-19 in Tulsa, a city which became dear to my heart this year while I was reporting on their refugee welcome efforts.

Favorite Stories I Worked On:

The renaming of Pacific Bay Christian School was something I wanted to write about for over a year before I got to do it. This story was so, so cathartic, for many reasons. I loved working with Sarah Garland at the Hechinger Report as point editor and with The Undefeated. Both were incredibly generous.

The reporting for The Gardeners of Eden (its print title) for Christianity Today was dreamy. I was in orchards and community organizing meetings, driving up and down the California coastline meeting humble, committed people who deeply care about the communities they serve. I want this story to make people think about their food differently, and the complex, at time exploitative and strained system that delivers it. It did that for me. We joined a farm delivery co-op.

Reporting on the pandemic in San Antonio schools (while living it) has been a trip. I’m particularly proudest of this piece, which involved public information requests, data analysis, and interviews with bold people who got real with me. All the best things.

Favorite Books I Read this Year, regardless of the year they were written:

Kiley Reid’s Such A Fun Age was amazing, and sent me into the tailspin identity crisis of ohmygodI’mthevillain. Given that it was sent to me as part of the Ally Box subscription from Fulton Street Books…I think that means it hit the mark.

Mothers of Massive Resistance, by Elizabeth Gillespie McRae provides more explanatory ammo for debates with doubters of systemic racism than any one person could ever remember without notes. So take notes. Because if you can’t gain ground in those conversations, you just embolden the doubters.

I began to have some concerns about my brain this year, so I read NeuroTribes by Steve Silberman. It was very reassuring, after it stopped being terrifying, and it was entirely engrossing.

My husband gave me Allie Brosh’s Solutions and Other Problems for our 10th Anniversary. We were planning to travel to Zambia for the occasion, but a comic book about life with mental illness written by a winsome lady who looks nothing like the monster she depicts herself to be (I won’t hold that against her) was a more than adequate consolation prize.

Calypso, by David Sedaris, gutted me. I like to think I’m willing to bleed on the page, or smile with my makeup off, but when I think about writing the stories of my life that are a distant parallel to the stories he’s telling (we ALL have them)…I feel palpable fear. The fact that we are warmed by these in any way, and drawn to him even, is a testament to how good of a storyteller he really is. Which cued a different kind of panic for me than the panic Kiley Reid called up.

Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series. Because I needed something to read on a rainy day, grabbed In the Woods from a shelf of my husband’s paperbacks, and then read the rest of the series, because once I’m really in, I am all in, without the ability to moderate. I then watched the miniseries, and am now, apparently against my will, doing the same thing with The Pillars of the Earth.

Looking back on the list of my favorite books of the year, I see a theme. The theme is “my own crap amid all the crappiness.” I think I was reading books to make myself feel less alone, and more equipped. I hope that some of my writing did that for you.

Small Girl Mows Small Lawn

A local six-year-old stunned many last week by doing what, she said, “no six-year-old has ever done before, probably.”

She mowed half the lawn.

San Antonio resident Moira McNeel said she’d taken on the task, “Just to see if I could do it. Not for fun.”

Her father confirmed that the endeavor was, in fact, not a lark, but a serious undertaking.

“She took it upon herself to volunteer. She saw a need and she stepped right in and did what needed to be done,” the father said, “I’m very proud of her.”

By “need” her father means that he appreciated the help, though he maintains the work he was doing up to that point was perfectly adequate in quality. “I didn’t take her desire to come help as a sign of criticism,” he said, he was happy she wanted to give mowing a try, and even happier she asked so nicely.

Fortunately, the only mower the family has ever owned, a Scott’s manual push-reel, posed little threat to her safety.

McNeel mowed for approximately five minutes, pausing only to direct her father to take photos for this article, and to alert the media, who was on the porch but, to her frustration, not watching the lawn-mowing.

All told, McNeel said, “I did a full swoop.”

The McNeels’ only patch of actual grass measures exactly 15 feet in diameter, so a little went a long way. McNeel was able to cut in straight rows with minimal missed blades between the passes. When she had mowed “enough,” she said, “I was tired.”

McNeel’s father offered no further details on the current status of the job, and would only comment on the enthusiasm with which the child took up the task.

“I have never in my history of mowing lawns seen a little girl mow a lawn so well,” McNeel’s father said, “Or with such zest.”

Disclosure: Moira McNeel is a primary source of joy for the author of this article. Her father is also a financial contributor to the Hall Monitor blog and, according to Texas state law, owns half of it.

A decade of being bravely underwhelming.

In late December 2009, ten years ago, I did something strange. I started a new journal expressly dedicated to chronicling a love story—my love story. In my 18 years of journaling before then, I had always been cautious about how much weight I ascribed my various romances. That’s easy when you have a written record of all the non-starters that came before. I knew how much shame I felt when reading “he’s the one!” in bubbly 2001 letters, when mere pages later he’d disappear.

What’s even more strange about my decision to start an entire journal dedicated to my love story is that it had not even really begun. I’d met a guy. We’d hung out twice. But when I started the journal we were one week into what would turn out to be a four week silence between first meeting and first date. No flirty messages. No emails or phone calls.  There was no evidence to suggest that this non-relationship was going anywhere.

Nevertheless, in a fit of romance, I did it. I started a brand new journal with the explicit and stated purpose of writing about my love story with one Lewis Maverick McNeel…who had yet to call. 

In that first journal entry, I wrote about the moment I now know, and then suspected, I had fallen in love.

We were at the grocery store, and I was buying break-n-bake cookies…for one of those fancy holiday cookie swaps where everyone goes all out. I was working in college ministry, making $16,000 per year (all of which I was fundraising), and jumping from crisis to crisis with the people around me, students, friends, and family. I just didn’t have the resources or energy to make elaborate cookies. 

But that was the life I was in. I was unsure of the value I brought to the world. Convinced that I had to earn my keep by being agreeable, unimpeachable, and useful. Knocking myself out to sell myself short, professionally. Auctioning off my time and energy to the people I thought would keep me safe, emotionally. Running on affirmation and little else, spiritually.

Break-n-bake cookies do not bring affirmation.

I lamented my predicament to Lewis at the checkout and he said, “I’ve been underwhelming people for years now.” 

I fell in love on the spot. And then he disappeared for a month.

Four months after he reappeared, he asked me to marry him. And for the first time in my life I really didn’t care if anyone thought that was a little irresponsible or too fast. I was certain. I bought a wedding magazine, looked at the recommended planning timeline, and realized that most people spent longer planning their weddings than we would spend going from “hello” to “I do.” 

That was the easiest brave thing I’ve ever done.

The next brave thing happened in 2012. That’s when I left the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). 

Despite my bold dreams of a life in ministry, there was no future for me in it. Looking back, I realize that I had traded usefulness and approval for calling. For 28 years that denomination had been my home, but it had also kept me childlike and dependent—because women in that world will always serve at the pleasure of the men, the “specially gifted” who are ordained by God. I had never been taught or allowed to think outside those rigid guardrails, so I just maintained them. A strong, smart woman joyfully submitting, proving that the system worked.  

I believe I would have wasted my life as a Martha sweeping the stoop of the boys club had it not been for those break-n-bake cookies and that fast engagement. I was not defined by my fancy cookies or my prudence. I was loved beyond my usefulness. 

When I left that church it was like coming up out of the ocean and being able to see without the salt burning my eyes. 

In this new world, I could be a terrifying anything. I could be what I was supposed to be. It turned out that was a journalist and a mother. 

My fingers trembled a little as I submitted an essay to The Rivard Report in June 2012—after all, I was nothing but a failed ministry paraprofessional at that point. I had no idea if they would laugh at my small life, my small thoughts. Would they dismiss me like my writing had been dismissed and diminished for the past four years? 

I was able to push “send” only because I said, “Maybe they will be underwhelmed. It won’t be the end of me.” 

I had just quit my job and left the church community I’d been in for almost a decade and the denomination I’d been baptized into. I’d married a man I’d known for less than a year. I had dedicated a journal to a guy who hadn’t called me. I’d taken break-n-bake cookies to a cookie swap. If some editor on the other end of an email laughed at my small mind, what was that to me? 

Of course, that’s not what happened. Robert Rivard and Monika Maeckle may have been underwhelmed at some parts of the essay—I don’t remember what that first draft looked like—but they also called me. They gave me a shot. 

In 2013 things were looking strong on the career front, and the thought of starting a family sounded like setting off a bomb in the middle of it. Having a baby would change how the world saw me. I was so close to being taken seriously, I felt, to no longer being underwhelming. If I had a baby, the climb would become steeper. My capacity to perform would be split between worlds, and I needed every bit of it, because I was already balancing two jobs.

I would also have to fight for my writing to be professional and motherhood to be relational. Parenthood is not a career. It is a relationship. Caring for children’s needs, however, can be a career, and one at which many parents excel even as they are unpaid and undervalued by society. It’s noble and incredibly necessary—and not the career I wanted. But we have a hard time separating parenthood (mostly motherhood) the relationship from childcare the career, and I knew that doing so would test the limits of my professional and relational confidence. 

But Lewis— that man who had given me the courage to underwhelm and befuddle and flout expectations—wanted to be a father. He wanted the parenthood relationship. And he promised that if he could be 100 percent architect and 100 percent father then I could be 100 percent journalist and 100 percent mother. He didn’t care that there were precious few examples of this in our world, very little evidence it could be done.

I had lived 28 years looking to others to tell me what to do. Only two years listening to Holy Spirit inside me. The Holy Spirit reminded me how this whole adventure had started. “I’ve been underwhelming people for years.” 

I was free to underwhelm. Free to do it differently, even if different was disappointing to many. 

Having Moira was the only brave thing I did in 2013-14. We have had to fight for balance every single day of her life, but we have found it. It is not the vision of motherhood or professional life I had imagined. And with it have come incredible doubts. Such doubts, in fact, that I was not sure that a second child would be a wise decision for me. As a mom, I felt underwhelming, and not in a free and easy way, but in a fearful, inadequate way. 

But one day, at our new church, a couple prayed for me. A couple with five lovely, successful adult children, prayed that I would have confidence that I was not the perfect mom, but the right mom, for my daughter, and whoever might come along next.

And so having Asa was the brave thing I did in 2015-16. 

With a second kid on the way in 2016, I quit my side hustle and leaned hard into journalism. In 2017 I walked away from a sure thing—The Rivard Report—to try something idealistic and new—Folo Media. One month into 2018 I had to walk away from Folo on principle. I did not have nearly the portfolio or reputation I needed to be a successful freelancer, but that was the option. The day I left Folo, I thought back to 2012, when I’d left my ministry career. Maybe this was it. The end of my journalism career. 

But I had given birth to two children while working two jobs. I’d submitted an untrained essay to a fledgling publication just one month after leaving an entire life behind. I had married a man I’d known less than a year. I had dedicated a journal to a guy who hadn’t called me. I had taken break-n-bake cookies to a cookie swap. 

I had been underwhelming people for years.

Freelance journalism, any journalism at all really, is like tying your ego to the tracks. It is rejection and tough feedback. It’s also thrilling and fulfilling. But it does feel like I have to do little brave things on the regular now. Pitches, fighting for stories, calling sources without a big institution behind me. I publish things on my blog. On other people’s blogs. I write things that less than 100 people read and things that tens of thousands of people read. Both feel incredibly vulnerable.

I regularly hover over the “send” button and tremble a little, and then tell myself, “Maybe they will be underwhelmed. It won’t be the end of me.” 

Summer reading list: The book that (further) sold me on reparations.

Because the ed beat slows down a little in the summer, I have to keep myself busy doing other things. Most recently that’s meant covering immigration. But I also like to use to summer to read really enriching things that my brain totally cannot handle during the school year. 

First up, one that I’ve been anxious to get to, mostly because I felt like until I did, I was just walking around making a fool of myself.

Like most people, and nearly all white people, I’ve carried around some what-I-thought-were-truths about housing segregation in the US. Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law has disabused me of some of those beliefs.

Housing is part of the education beat, because housing segregation leads to school segregation. In a city as sprawling as San Antonio, there are plenty of opportunities for those with means to escape the discomfort of being poverty-adjacent. However, when those who still have a lingering tinge of poverty move in next door to middle class families in the aging inner loop of the city, the trend continues northward. We call this de facto segregation. People are legally able to go to the same schools/live in the same places, but they choose not (i.e. white flight) to or are barred from doing so by economics (not laws).

Myth-I-believed #1: Changes in the law are the end of the story

White flight is not the whole story on how segregation works. That’s how it has worked in my life time. But everything about my lifestyle will tell you: what happened before I was born changed everything. 

I’ve never been salaried over the national average. If things keep going well this year I just miiiiight reach it. Combined with my husband’s salary, we do well. But our lifestyle way outstrips our income because of what we’ve inherited. Not just the actually inheritances, but the networks of people willing to give us a break on rent, the families who paid for college and continue to help out with camps for kids, vacations, etc. We were born into land wealth which translated into excellent dental and medical care, private schools, and summer jobs that were more about long term career goals or edifying experiences than they were about helping out with family income. We can afford maintenance on ourselves, our house, and our cars so that we do not have huge emergency costs from deferred maintenance. 

All of that is because our families have been landowners for generations. Or, as my husband put it, wryly remarking on how the deck is stacked in our favor: “The smartest thing you can do financially is to be rich.”  

Before I go on, I realize that not every white person benefits from generational wealth. Tragedy, crashing markets, changing work forces, and various forms of usury have taken their toll. However, we were never legally prohibited from advancing into middle class houses and schools. If you’re white, money is money. If you were a person of color in the 20th century, your money wasn’t always accepted currency.

I was once interviewing a city councilwoman from Austin, where they are fighting to preserve family homes of black residents on the uber-gentrified East Side. Without historical designations, many are not preserved from rezoning or demolition, and the market is now priced above entry for most young working class people. 

Councilwoman Ora Houston was born on the front end of the baby boom, just a smidge older than my own Boomer parents. She owns her home, and is trying to help others secure the same. When we were talking she said, “I’m just trying to do for my kids what your great-grandparents did for you.” 

Her parents and grandparents were not allowed to do that. They did not have access to the loans, neighborhoods, zoning protections, and housing stock that would create value over generations. 

In the two generations of buyers between government efforts to help white people own homes after the Great Depression and the Fair Housing Act (1968) you have my great-grandparents and grandparents accumulating wealth, and Ora Houston’s parents and grandparents being denied the same opportunity. 

If prosperity were a race, which capitalism has ensured that it is, my white family is two laps ahead of Ora Houston’s. We were two laps in when they fired the starting gun for her. 

Which is why housing is about more than the legal freedom to move where you want to move. It’s about the fact that we live in two different housing markets—one in which prices of our assets have inflated our prosperity, and the other where you get less for your money than ever before.  

So it’s sort of insulting when people who got a two lap head start (at least…I married into a few more bonus laps) look at the people who just started the race and say, “Why can’t you just catch up?” 

Myth-I-Believed #2 That de facto segregation is more damning than de jure segregation

I thought the fact that we had no legal excuse to divide the world into ghettos and enclaves—and yet continued— was a moral indictment. I thought that’s where we were as a society, just trying to make our final strides toward justice by winning hearts and minds. 

Rothstein, however, points out that in order to make racial disparities better on any meaningful scale, it is the de jure segregation that matters. 

That’s what the book is about. It wasn’t a bunch of racist people individually excluding black people between 1932 and 1968…it was a series of racist laws. As those discriminated against by the law, black people should be entitled to legal restitution. 

This is also a good time to point out that decrying de facto segregation is more to appease my white conscience, while confronting de jure segregation can get some stuff done. 

Not to worry, there’s plenty of cathartic self-flagellating to be done in de jure segregation. After all, who was making these laws? 

The 14th Amendment made, essentially, segregation Constitutionally untenable. It would take some time to get from segregation being mandatory to it being permissible to it being illegal. We have not quite figured out how to proactively encourage integration, but that’s the next step, and it probably involves reparations—incentives, subsidies, grants, scholarships, etc.

So the existence, however specific or local or de jure segregation is key to making good. However for justice to be complete, the will to make amends must touch the heart of de facto segregation—there’s going to have to be enforcement, which means that property owners, police forces, judges, and elected officials are going to determine the lived experience of those who would receive their legal due. For instance…Ruby Bridges got to go to school, but I’d hardly call her experience a laudable example of justice.

Myth-I-Believed-about-segregation #3 That progressives support integration 

Sometimes, as a guilty pleasure, I read the exchanges between historian Kevin Kruse and provocateur Dinesh D’Souza. One such exchange pointed out that Southern Democrats were the party of segregation, Jim Crow, etc. It was, as Kruse pointed out, a shallow, intellectually dishonest pot shot at current Democrats. 

Then, of course busing came up at the Democratic debate. 

You can be “progressive” and still uphold racist systems. You can be in favor of abortion, LGBTQIA rights, and environmental regulations and still not give a lick about brown people at all, in fact. You can even be for “the little guy” and limit that definition to just “the little white guy.” 

Right now, the deep blue cities are priced out of range for working class people. People who financially support Planned Parenthood and the ACLU won’t put their kids in schools where too many of the kids are poor. 

The examples Rothstein uses in the book aren’t all conservative strongholds like Birmingham, Atlanta, and Dallas. They are in the Bay Area and the Northeast. 

From Reconstruction to the Great Recession, the politicians trying to take care of the most people were often convinced—not saying how difficult it was to convince them—to trade the freedom of black people to live and go to school where they wanted to, for things that benefitted poor and working class white people. When they could rally support to give something to black people (i.e. public education, subsidized housing), it had to come with the promise to in no way increase white exposure to those black people. 

Integration—and any support for reparations that might lead to integration—is the ultimate test of hypocrisy. It asks not whether we believe that people of color deserve to vote, own property, or move freely throughout society—but whether we believe that they should be able to do so to the same degree that white people are, and whether we are willing to bridge the gap our laws created. 

To my kids, on the seashore

The beauty and energy of being four, and being certain of everything, and hungry for everything else.

The depth of being two, with emotions carving out subterranean chambers until they erupt, run down your face and cool into igneous beaches that will hollow into coves and  gather soft sand over time.

This is our now. It is not easy, but it is pure life, and it is life-giving. It is humanity distilled to its essences – need, delight, energy, feeling, understanding.

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These two small people- the four year old circus and her brother with moods like fog and lava- are exactly who I dreamed I would mother, and yet exposing every day how small my dreams were. How low was my bar for a full life. Fullness is not easy. Fullness is scary, like my daughter on a cliff, insisting she’ll needs to take just one more step toward the edge. Fullness is one more stop, even though it’s bedtime, because we may never be back.

Fullness comes with tears, of course. But I’ve learned that tears are not a sign of failure, not theirs and not mine. Tears mean we are growing, expanding our reach. Even though I know this, I still avoid them when I can, I’m incapable of drowning out the whining or the wails.

The ocean is a perfect mother. She drags her tides in and out, at regular intervals, morning, noon, evening, night. She never complains that the work continues, she only delivers a new smattering of simple treasures to be scavenged by insatiable collectors, like my own. She lulls them to sleep, and chases them from the beach when it’s time to go home.

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I’m not the ocean.

I’m like the wind. All force and no regularity, leaving my family tousled and chasing their scattered paper goods. I’m always with a list or a task, always on to the next thing.

It’s nice to let the ocean be mother for a while, so that I can watch my children be nurtured by her. I am taskless here.

When we go away from our routine, I discover my children in their latest form. Not in the ways their newest angsts disrupt, derail, and splatter paint the day’s agenda. But in the ways they carve adventure across a landscape, and spread to fill the frame of every moment. The way each passing year adds to their capacity for rapture.

 

 

Ode to Tom Wolfe, a delayed tribute

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Another book assigned by Jack Simons.

I was 19 years old when I read “Radical Chic,” Tom Wolfe’s biting critique of New York socialites who try to capitalize on the cultural cache of the Black Panthers. The teeth of the essay have come back to bite me often. It’s incisors haunt me as I try to write about social justice in an age where “wokeness” is having a moment.

That’s not a bad thing, that haunting.

When he died in May, I thought about how Wolfe’s work in general, and “Radical Chic” in particular, brought me into journalism. Ultimately, it was less about what he wrote, and more about the fact that he wrote it.

I read “Radical Chic”…and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test…and The Painted Word…and Bonfire of the Vanities…and Hooking Up…while I was deeply mired in the corner of the Evangelical world that is skeptical of outsiders at best and anti-intellectual at worst.

Jack Simons— a singularly formative voice in my education— assigned “Radical Chic” to his intro to journalism class. Simons is a Fulbright Scholar, Baptist preacher, and Vietnam vet, and at the time he had been seemingly exiled to a tiny building on the far edge of the campus at The Masters College (now University). He also taught a class on Southern Women Writers, which he boiled down to an exploration of the fear of “sexual predation between the races.” He devoted one class per semester to the proper use of swear words in writing.

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A book recommended but not assigned by Jack Simons.

In other words, he was a smart guy in a weird world. So when he assigned Tom Wolfe, he knew what he was doing.

He also assigned what came to be all of my other favorite books.

I read those mentioned above and other works from Wolfe, and fell in love with his style, which is super fun. It’s catchy yet human, casual yet precise. It’s readable. A perfect hook for the boy crazy and distracted reader (see photo below)

Wolfe often wrote about things far from the ordinary person’s experience, but he did it in a way that felt like it was happening in your back yard. More importantly, he wrote about a world of limited access in a way that didn’t act like he was happy to be there.

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What I looked like the summer I read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and clearly took it to heart.

He was one of “them” in almost every way, except for the collective self-righteousness.

For an Evangelical kid from semi-rural Texas, Tom Wolfe was my inside man. He made me see that those people who, in every other form of writing, tended to sneer and disregard people-like-me, were just as silly and insecure as I was. They were striving and shallow at times. They were guided by the same base instincts as I was, and just as afraid of them.

With a trustworthy guide who was not trying to sell me or shame me, I was able to take a few glimpses into worlds outside my own. Wall Street, free love, radical counter cultures, and hyper-intellectualism. While my people were adding more locks to the door, I was able to cautiously peek outside. I could let down my defenses, because Wolfe was already on the offensive.

Evangelical alarmists beware, though. Wolfe made me feel “safe,” but I clearly was not. He made it appealing to think for myself. And that led to a life that is far from where things were headed when I first read “Radical Chic.” For those who knew me before, I’m a cautionary tale. If you ask me, I’m a close call. What if I had ignored the “Radical Chic” assignment, never discovered Tom Wolfe and kept fearing the Left and running harder to the Right? 

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Another Simons assignment. (Also Plutarch’s Lives was on his recommendation.)

If we want more people to fall somewhere in the middle, instead of on the far ends of ideology, we’ll always need Tom Wolfe in some form. Someone inside the camps has to be willing to critique their campiness in the most searing tone. Someone inside the pastures has to be willing to tip the sacred cows.

Writers like Tom Wolfe are good for everyone. No one has to be on the back foot when our toughest critics belong to our tribe. It opens up dialogue inside and outside, because it doesn’t equate criticism with rejection.

In the church, we call these internal outsiders “prophets” and they have long since been exiled by the greed of kings and the anxiety of priests. They are had to find in our partisan media environs and increasingly polarized academic institutions. There’s pressure to choose a side and back their play as they drift to the fringes. There’s pressure to put Team over Truth, and it’s dangerous.

But it’s a world with lots of fodder for the next Tom Wolfe.

San Antonio’s Two-handed Justice

The week after Harvey was a big week for San Antonio. We took on evacuees and sent aid to Hurricane Harvey victims with one hand, and with the other hand voted to change the name of Robert E. Lee High School, take down a Confederate monument, and obtained an eleventh-hour injunction against the State’s new “anti-sanctuary cities” law.

I’m partial, this being my hometown, but this week, San Antonio showed the world what it means to be hospitable and generous. With both hands.

Some argued that the time was not right. That one hand didn’t know what the other was doing. That both hands should have been full with Harvey. People argued that the monument and the high school renaming were “too emotional” and “a distraction.”

I disagree.

San Antonio is engaged in the both/and of social change. The one-two punch, if you will.

Pictures of Harvey rescues have gone viral. Black firefighters carrying white kids. White guys with their private boats going into Hispanic neighborhoods to run rescue operations. Young Hispanic EMTs lifting senior citizens in wheelchairs. They went viral with the comment, “We are not Charlottesville. We are Houston.” The people who posted meant this in one of (at least) two ways, as explained in their more elaborate comments.

Some meant it as inspiration. Like when you say to your kids, “You are part of this family, and in this family, we finish what we start.” It’s aspirational, a way to help them live into the identity we hope they will embrace. I’m all for America deciding that we want to be more like the heroes of Houston.

In San Antonio, our civic leaders beat that drum all week while asking for blood, diapers, blankets, cooperation, extra space and money for our friends down the freeway. They constantly reminded us of who we are: a generous, friendly, and hospitable city.

Others who posted “We are Houston,” however, meant it as a counterpoint to Charlottesville. They meant it to say, “see, at the end of the day, we don’t have a race problem.”

I would argue that we do. That while, yes, we will rescue “the Other” from a flood, we will alienate him again when the waters recede. The heroic deeds and character of individuals does not erase the injustice of institutions.

And so, with its other hand, a hand freed up by the fact that Harvey dealt us a mere glancing blow, San Antonio went to work on those institutions that marginalize or alienate. On the Tuesday after Harvey, San Antonio’s North East ISD school board voted unanimously for the name change of Robert E. Lee High School, a change led by student petition. One alumnus suggested changing the name to Harper Lee High School, to celebrate a brighter light of Southern grace.

On Wednesday a federal judge granted an injunction on the implementation of a law that was set to go into effect on Sept 1. It would have prevented cities and counties from adopting policies to keep their officers out of immigrations enforcement. It would have penalized elected officials who criticized the law. Law enforcement around the state spoke against the law, saying it would discourage cooperation with police and cause confusion among law enforcement. San Antonio and other cities in Texas joined a lawsuit to stop the law from taking effect. On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia granted an injunction stopping the most potent provisions of the law from going into effect.

On Thursday the San Antonio City Council voted 10-1 to remove a Confederate monument from one of our historic parks.

Meanwhile, we kept taking in evacuees, donating diapers, and giving blood.

San Antonio was not distracted. San Antonio was looking deeply at what it means to be hospitable and generous. It means taking in evacuees, it means sending out teams from your Fire Department and EMS department.

It also means putting flesh and blood people ahead of bronze statues. It means that black children are not sent to schools named for soldiers who fought for the right to enslave black children. It means fighting against laws that make our communities less safe and goad vigilante justice.

We have to think both short and long term. In the short term, the Harvey victims need real help, and they need it now. In the long term, we need better laws and a more equitable world. When you have two hands free, you should use them both.

The hands of justice are both open and closed. Open hands offer assistance, comfort, and aid. Closed hands hold tightly to their vulnerable neighbors, pull down monuments to injustice, and clench into fists of determination.

Obviously, our work is not done. Not in San Antonio, and not in the world. Some say the monument and memorial discussion lacks substance, that it doesn’t make life different for anyone.

Again, I disagree.

To take down a monument or change the name of the school is not to pretend it never happened. It is a public statement about what we do and do not cherish. We take down monuments because we know we have a problem, because we are Charlottesville on August 12. We also take them down because we do not want that problem to continue to corrupt our identity going forward. We want to be Houston on August 27 and the days that followed.

If we are to make good on our statements, we have to keep both hands in mind. When Harvey has passed, we must continue to take care of the poor and most vulnerable. We also must continue to confront the injustice in our institutions—be they schools, churches, businesses or City Hall. We must continue to work at being who we are.

 

 

 

 

Twig Book Challenge: Second Quarter

This year our local bookshop is conducting a reading challenge. Now that Moira goes to bed at 7:30pm, I thought, well, why not! Reading is quiet, portable, and doesn’t require me to get into a “mode” the way that writing does. As January revealed, I like a structured challenge, and I have been enjoying the Twig’s reading challenge since January 2. I’ll be reporting on my progress periodically. This quarter’s reads have reviews, last quarter’s reviews are on the previous Twig post.

AND I want your recommendations for the categories I still haven’t completed! …

The Twig Book Challenge

This year our local bookshop is conducting a reading challenge. Now that Moira goes to bed at 7:30pm, I thought, well, why not! Reading is quiet, portable, and doesn’t require me to get into a “mode” the way that writing does. As January revealed, I like a structured challenge, and I have been enjoying the Twig’s reading challenge since January 2. I’ll be reporting on my progress periodically.

AND I want your recommendations for the categories I still haven’t completed! …