This piece was reprinted in the 16 June 2013 Sunday edition of The Houston Chronicle as an essay in the Star features section.
Once I was at a conference in Dallas, or “Big-D” as they like to call it. I think they like to call it that as it is almost the same exact thing as saying “Big Deal,” and so that tells you something right there. The keynote was a well-known writer, Susan Orlean, and she had gotten famous writing pieces for The New Yorker and books of essays with exotic titles such as The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup. She even wrote a book called The Orchid Thief which was made into a movie called “Adaptation” with Nicolas Cage and Meryl Streep, so I was super excited to hear her. I liked her writing, the way she observed things around her, put those things into prose that would stick with you, had the guts to talk to people she had never met. In fact, you could say that I had an irrational exuberance regarding my second row seats in the Hilton ballroom where she was speaking. Sometimes, there is no getting around it: things are so thrilling, and it is impossible to be sad even if you have a really good reason.
But the first thing out of her mouth was, “I am so happy to be in Dallas, and not Houston. Houston is a hard city to love.”
I literally sat straight up in my chair. I wanted to call someone, but I wasn’t sure exactly which authorities I should contact. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, and for such an intrepid reporter I thought she might have figured out that about half of her audience had probably come from Houston and its environs in order to hear her tell us how much she hated it. I guess she was trying to ingratiate herself with Dallasites, but at some point we are all Texans, and I was just wondering if she had ever really visited Houston. And then it was pretty clear that she had been to the airport, and that was about it. I couldn’t help it: all I could think of was that saying about New Yorkers being the most provincial people in the world. I think I was beginning to understand what that was all about.
Anyway, she talked for a very long time, and she was already famous, so what did she care? But all I remembered from her talk was that she told a roomful of hopeful writers that if they didn’t have any personality, they wouldn’t ever make it, and I wondered what kind of personality she thought would suffice. I thought of my students, some of whom are painfully introverted, hardly say a word, and how they can rage or shine on a page in a way that you never forget. I thought about the prospect of them listening to her even when she did not know anything about them. I thought of her seeing Hobby Airport and being driven to a hotel or a university lecture hall, and then back to a hotel and to the airport, and thinking she knew Houston. I thought about how anyone can say anything with a microphone in front of them. I drove back to Houston, leaving Dallas behind, and made my way through the sky-scraped city until I got to I-45 heading home. It was awhile ago, in July.
Now it is May, heading toward another summer, and on Sunday my 11-year-old son Christopher and I took my parents to George Bush International Airport as they were flying to Amsterdam to tour parts of Europe. I thought of how easy it was to get there with so few cars, and how everyone talks about Houston traffic, but if you learn how to time it, you can really move. It felt thrilling to see the huge, improbable planes taking off with such grace, but there you have it, just as it seems impossible to negotiate the sprawl of Houston, but then you do, far-flung as it seems in every direction. You just watch the exit signs fly by until you know which one to choose, and then you know you are really going somewhere.
Christopher and I drive straight to the Museum District and find the John Freeman Weather Museum. I have been wanting to take him for a long time, but after the tornadoes in Oklahoma, it seems more on my radar. It is closed, but Christopher and I don’t mind walking around as it is not that hot, and now we know where to go the next time we come. It is another thing in the city we have figured out, and we put it on our list. We aren’t worried; the museum district has more than you can see in a month, much less on a Sunday, and so we drive a few blocks down, park near the Museum of Natural Science, feel the blast of air conditioning as we walk through the heavy glass doors.
I buy all sorts of tickets. First, we see the Cockrell Butterfly Center, which is really about much more. In the rainforest section, we see a Green Mexican Lizard that is actually orange, and although he looks amazingly prehistoric, I realize how ridiculous that is: this is history right now in front of us. We see butterflies with colors so garish they could not possibly appear in nature, yet they do. We see butterflies flying so much higher than I imagined, drunk on fruit and nectar. We see hairy tarantulas, armoured beetles, curled scorpions. They are all behind glass, with explanatory cards assuring us that the spiders are not that dangerous, the beetles not that brave, the scorpion stings not that lethal. The signs tell us we don’t know all about what we think we know. It is wonderful–so many surprises. Who would ever guess the chrysalis would turn into the owl butterfly if you didn’t stick around and see it for yourself? We walk through the waterfall exit, checking to make sure no butterflies are stuck to us, and when we leave I think we could have been in Costa Rica, or the Amazon. We have seen a bee colony, hothouse flowers, pink fairies that you could brush your cheek with, the blooms look so soft. Some of the butterfly wings are so huge, you cannot believe it, but once you have seen them, you do.
We make our way to the Planetarium, where we see a film called The Stars of the Pharaohs, or something like that, and we learn how the Egyptian astronomers and astrologers also saw their gods in the stars, but somehow could make the pyramids align with the sun in a way that was mathematically perfect. I try to connect the Egyptian gods with their Greek counterparts, but I lose track, and it’s okay because they are not congruent, I have just been influenced by the narrator. When we leave, I realize we will never figure out the mystery of those pyramids, no matter how hard we try. This makes me happy: unsolved mysteries keep us going. It’s okay not to have everything figured out.
We go to the new Egyptian wing, and it blows our minds. Christopher cannot believe that we can see part of the mummies unwrapped–it is like opening the chrysalis or pupa before it is time. We see teeth, eye sockets, unexpected hair on the head of one of the dead. Christopher concedes it is “creepy,” but he doesn’t want to leave. We see elaborate coffins, a painted sarcophagus, amulets buried with the dead. We see pottery that is so old we cannot wrap our minds around it. And then we see the bust of Nefertiti, the original we would have to see in Berlin, a raging battle between Egypt and Germany still on going over the remnants and replications of the dead. We see scarabs, pictures of German Egyptologists, more mummies. It is dark to preserve everything–we have Africa and Europe here in Texas, arranged so that we understand what the Egyptians believed, including that the brain was not needed in the afterlife: what you really needed was your heart. We see placards about Englishmen who could not get enough of Egypt. We see hieroglyphs, learn that a French professor of languages deciphered the Rosetta Stone. We see Coptic containers for internal organs, little statues of workers to take your place in the afterlife so that you will never have to do manual labor.
We read that the poor who had to bury their dead in the desert sand unwittingly put them in a better place for preserving the body than in any high-class crypt. We didn’t know any of this.
Then we go to the Faberge exhibit–diamond encrusted eggs that the Romanovs would give as gifts with little surprises in them. Fans, animal figurines, handbags. Brooches and pendants that were gifts for people who were probably sick to death of gifts. A tiara made for Empress Josephine after Napoleon had unceremoniously divorced her. Elaborate cases for matches and cigarettes, including the cigarette case pulled off of the body of Czar Nicholas II after being shot with his family during the Bolshevik Revolution. So many items designed in Germany or Austria, housed in St. Petersburg, lost forever in Ekaterinburg. It was July. I even see a frame that belonged to the Romanovs that was purchased by Malcolm Forbes and given to Elizabeth Taylor. I remember when she played Cleopatra in the movie that at that time was the most expensive film ever made. I wondered how that frame made it from Elizabeth Taylor’s house all the way to Houston.
It is a mystery.
We are reeling–and who wouldn’t be? We have gone from Ancient Egypt to the Russian Revolution, and it is only 3.
We go to the Empire Cafe, and I tell Christopher that the coffee is perfect and that it feels a little like Paris, in the shade, and not too hot. All he wants to know is if there is a plug for his iPad, and of course, there is. I tell him we are slaves to technology, but I don’t think he wants to be set free. We talk about the mummies, and Christopher says that he couldn’t look at one more egg, but that he was fascinated by the cases for playing cards. At least that made sense. We could be in Paris, it is like many Parisian cafes, but we are not. We are in Houston, on Westheimer. We meet my friend John at Hugo’s, which has real Mexican food (not just Tex-Mex), with authentic mole sauce, and we could be in Mexico, but we are not.
We laugh and talk. The food is wonderful, I love Hugo’s, and how they have squash appetizers because it is May, and arrange my shrimp in a fan worthy of a Romanov. We wait with John for his car, I am happy I will see him again in June. The highway is nothing if you really want to go somewhere.
You might wonder how we could brush so many countries without getting on a plane. That is the thrill of Houston, it is never the same place twice. It is never predictable, like its weather, its citizens, its unzoned streets.
I think of James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, figuring out his place in the world, writing
Stephen Dedalus/Class of Elements/Clongowes Wood College/Sallins/County Kildare/Ireland/Europe/The World
but in a column, his expectations rising, moving outward as he gets further away from his local habitation and closer to The World, whatever that may be. Sometimes, Houston does seem like the world, but laced with a certain kind of happiness, distinct yet kaleidoscopic all at the same time. I don’t feel the claustrophobia that Stephen Dedalus felt in County Kildare, because I have wide Texas skies, pink and orange Gulf Coast clouds, stars that go on forever on some nights, and a child named Christopher, named after the patron saint of travelers, who has a curiosity that does not seem to run out.
We are lucky: we have sunny mornings, wide freeways, ascending planes, museums for inner and outer weather. We have dinosaur bones and breathing lizards, butterflies and beetles, mummified cats, faded tiaras. We have rainforests and food from Mexico and driving back in the evening with the lights of the city clear and bright and high on all those huge buildings. We have the best feeling in the world: that we can do it all again, but it won’t be exactly the same, there will always be a new and interesting turn in the road. It cannot be helped: it is another day in H-town, and we are so happy to be in it.