I've been in Texas since Labor Day, but the girl and I are finally moving to a new place, which necessitates doing a whole host of things like signing up with an energy provider. I picked Reliant only because they were listed on the info sheet provided to me by the leasing office at our new complex, and because they're online-only plan offered low rates and no cancellation fees. So I signed up online, and at the end of the process I was greeted with a screen confirming my scheduled start date for service. It also repeated the information I had submitted to them, including my address (click for larger): I figured I had gotten something done with my day, and considering that we've got quite a bit of planning and prep still ahead of us concerning the new place, it felt good to cross this task off my list. A couple hours later, I received an email confirming my new account and start date, and it asked me to double-check my personal info and contact Reliant if anything was amiss. I scanned it quickly, not thinking there would be a problem, but when I saw what they had listed as my address, I knew something had gone wrong (click for larger): They had omitted two digits from my apartment number, placing me at unit 19 instead of unit 3019. I have no idea how this happened, but I knew even before I checked my earlier screen-capture that the error was theirs, not mine. I had entered all my information correctly, they had somehow rendered it inaccurate, and now I would have to call them.
I spent twenty minutes talking to three different departments, having a conversation I could only describe as Kafkaesque. I just wanted them to correct the address — to add two digits to the front of my unit number to make it right — but that wasn't possible. The address they had in their system, for unit 19, had generated a specific code or tag of some kind that couldn't be amended that simply. The only way to fix things, I was told, would be to cancel my service order and re-submit a new one, though I wouldn't be able to get the online-only rate over the phone, so I'd need to hang up and go through their site all over again. One woman even told me (not cruelly, just factually) that because I had submitted an incorrect address, the only way to remedy the situation was to fill out a new order. I firmly told her that I had not, in fact, given them the wrong info, but that they had messed up.
I was also informed that, though it was a Thursday afternoon and I'd requested service to start on Monday, four days later, the service department might not get the cancellation in time. I told them that there is no unit 19 at this complex; it's not like it's somebody's else place, it doesn't exist, period. They said that they would process the cancellation, and in the event that I did get a bill in error with the wrong address, to call them and have them straighten it out. I considered repeating my earlier statement to the woman — specifically, how can I get a bill for electricity at a place that isn't there? — but I simply agreed and eventually hung up. Each of three operators thanked me for my business and welcomed me to the company, but none seemed to have any real understanding of two very basic things: Reliant had messed up, and I was left to fix it.
So I was done. Three hours from start to finish. I got another service provider. I've never had a company so thoroughly botch customer service from the start, and I plan on never using Reliant again.
I've got a new gig here in Houston. In addition to blogging about TV for the Houston Press (here's my latest weekly wrap-up), I'm going to be exploring bars and (eesh) some clubs for 29-95.com, a local culture/entertainment site run by the Houston Chronicle. The angle is that I'm the new guy in town, looking for what the city has to offer, but the bottom line is: They're giving me money to drink in public. Suckers. The New Guy Visits: Alabama Ice House
This blog will be on pause for a few days, though to be honest, given the slower posting schedule I seem to have set for myself, a pause might not be noticeable. But while previous unplanned breaks were usually the result of a lack of work or content, this one comes as I load up what possessions I've decided to keep and drive the 1,559 miles from Los Angeles to Houston. It's a one-way trip. I'd never planned on living in Houston, but I guess that's why it makes sense; most plans have a way of fixing themselves, and this is where the current is carrying me, if I can mix two bad metaphors in one sentence. (Hi, potential employers!)
I've completely loved my time in L.A., and wouldn't trade the people or experiences for anything, but it's time to go and see what life has to offer in another place. In the words of John Hughes, "I haven't disappeared. I'm standing right here. I'm just not in Los Angeles." It's a big world. See you when I get there.
We had seen pictures of naked women before, as children. We discovered a weather-beaten issue of Playboy in an alley when I was in elementary school, the pages whitened by sun and rain. There was discussion and argument about who would take it. I don't remember who did. There was also Jason, who lived with his grandfather a couple blocks over, said grandfather being the owner of what we would still now consider a large collection of skin magazines but what back then appeared to be an almost terrifying amount. Some of these were rougher than others, offering images whose effects would scar over and dull the parts of us that needed tending.
We had seen the pictures, but actually finding a way to own the pictures was another challenge. (Sex itself was to most of us a bump on a distant and fogged horizon, a place to possibly be reached but not without a long and arduous journey through as yet uncharted territory.) I took driver's education at the local mall, and on dinner break one night walked into a store that sold memorabilia, sports cards, movie scripts, and various pop culture items that didn't go together.
They also sold old magazines, including back issues of Playboy, that name revered by the pubescent and yearning. It was winter or spring of 1998, and among their plastic-bagged and retagged issues was December 1997, boasting pictorials of Miss Canada among what could only be a wealth of glories. The centerfold that month was Karen McDougal, who would go on to become Playmate of the Year; apparently my subconscious wanted a good one. I was too young to even drive, let alone buy the magazine, so I did what any 15-year-old would do when driven to frenzied madness by his hormones: I stole it.
I slid it into my red 1-inch binder and went back to class, keeping it behind the paper as I took notes and waited. I don't remember which parent picked me up, but I do remember the ride home, holding the binder as still as possible on my lap, praying to the God I was sure I was dishonoring to not let the notebook slide or fall. I was even so terrified of being found out that I kept it in my backpack and took it to school for days, as if it were a grenade without a pin, something that could detonate and destroy my life if I didn't keep constant watch.
The pictures lodged themselves deep in my brain, the way songs or movies do, only really making their hold known over time. I would see more, but these remain the first I ever owned, and in some weird and kind of nostalgic but also admittedly not good way, I've never forgotten them. I got rid of the magazine at one point, either plagued by fear or swept up in a fit of righteousness I likely regretted hours later, but I don't remember when or where or how it left. I didn't have it when I went to college.
It took me a while to even realize I wanted to tell the story, even though I'm still not sure what the point of the telling could be. I guess it's just one of those high school things that eventually processes itself and needs to be spit out.
The best way to start this is with some background.I attended Abilene Christian University from 2000-2004, and in the fall of my sophomore year, I pledged one of the school's local fraternities. (ACU calls them social clubs, since they're not part of a national system and they require a good deal more willingness to wear satin and harmonize, which is a whole other thing to unpack, but whatever.) I was a member of Gamma Sigma Phi, and choosing that club was one of the best choices I made at school. Our rival club was called Galaxy, because why not. We were the two biggest men's clubs on campus, and each passed down their dislike of the other guys every year to the new pledge class. I pledged in the fall of 2001, and there happened to be at that time a large number of douchebags who were one or two years older, both in my club — a tall, slope-faced asshat named Cade Thompson — and in Galaxy. One of the elder members of Galaxy who was known for giving their pledges and ours a particularly hard time was a guy named Ted Misledine. There are all manner of stories of him harassing guys and being generally dickish; a guy in my pledge class who would go on to become club secretary made jokes about Ted in a few of our weekly newsletters, and was subsequently told through a mutual acquaintance to "watch his back." But as much grief as he gave GSP and our pledges, he was much worse to the incoming Galaxy guys. So that's Ted. Every fall, each club has a party called a grub; it's a costumed and catered affair centered around a theme chosen by the pledges, who are also responsible for planning the event and providing the entertainment. (For reasons I could go into but don't have the space for, the guys' grubs tended to have better acts.) A guy my age named Austin Lawrence who was pledging Galaxy had had enough of Ted's all-purpose douchery and decided to write a song called, simply, "Ted Misledine" and perform it at their grub. It's a funny, sweet-sounding little song that talks about hitting him in the crotch with a baseball bat and accuses Ted of cruising for underage girls and cross-dressing. It's basically what you'd expect a 19-year-old to write, and it's great. Sometime before or after the grub, Austin recorded the song in his dorm room and put the mp3 on his shared folder, and I grabbed it and have had the pleasure of listening to it ever since. I can't quite remember who's doing back-up vocals; my gut says Chad Huston, but I'm prepared to be totally wrong and would welcome correction from any Wildcats who know better. Also, I should confess I never met Ted, or at least I don't think I did. (I'm not even sure I'm spelling his surname correctly.) If I met him now, he'd just be some guy about my age, but because of what he put my friends through, his legend has grown until he's become a mythic name connected with memories I forgot I ever made. For your listening pleasure, I tossed a few random photos of Abilene together and set it to the song and put it on YouTube. But really, the cheap visuals are just a placeholder. Enjoy the song, and for those who knew the singer or the subject, pass it along:
I just got a call from a girl attending my alma mater. She's a senior working the calling center, a storefront in a strip mall not far from the university where ranks of students toil for minimum wage making calls to alumni asking them to verify their contact information and to donate money to the school. This was actually the second call I'd received in as many weeks, but the first one came when I was attending South by Southwest, and when that girl asked if I had time to talk, I had replied, "I gotta be honest, I'm at Ironworks Barbecue in downtown Austin at South by Southwest and I've been drinking, so you should probably call back." I hoped the wouldn't, but I knew they would.She asked me to verify my address, which I did, then she congratulated me on my upcoming reunion, which is a weird thing to be congratulated about; basically she's just telling me I did a good job at not dying in the past five years, which I guess is good. She asked me if I planned on attending Homecoming weekend in the fall, and I said I did. She asked what Homecoming activity I'm most looking forward to, and I said, "Seeing my friends and getting some drinks." She laughed a little, but stayed restrained, probably because we both know these calls are recorded. Then she said she wanted to talk about another ACU tradition, and I finished her sentence for her when I said, "Donating!" She reminded me that every gift counts, no matter the size, and my heart went out to her. I could see the script on her desk; I could practically hear the swish of her ponytail. I feel bad for the kids working these terrible jobs, and a lot of my friends at school did their time in the trenches at the calling center. She said something about class gifts that are going to be presented to university president Dr. Royce Money, and I told her that as much as I'd love to give Royce something on top of the checks he already gets every month, I would have to pass. I'm kind of stunned the calling center is hunting for alumni cash with the economy about to revert into a wasteland governed by a bloodthirsty need for fuel and a willingness to kill, but the Wildcats are nothing if not persistent. She knew she wasn't getting anywhere, but she was nice enough not to seem to mind. She even wished me a good time having a few drinks with my friends, which I appreciated. That's all you can take from these calls.
I'm going to be out of pocket for a few days as I'll be attending South by Southwest. It's my first time at the festival, and I'll be blogging about it here and also over here. So check it out. UPDATE: Actually, please don't read the blog posts at The Hollywood Reporter. They were taken from me and largely rewritten without my consent, eliminating voice and style. I'm embarrassed by them, and consider them unusable.
I was 19.
I long ago realized I would never be able to explain Sing Song to people, or anyway, explain it to the degree that they begin to understand just how intense the competition can be between groups of boys and girls who rearrange pop songs with new lyrics in a three-minute, choreographed number built around a costumed theme. At Abilene Christian University, the fraternities and sororities aren't part of a national system, existing solely on that campus as "social clubs." This adds to the sense of refined isolation sought by the school — to be in the world but not of it — but has the unintended side-effect of making every event feel as if it's happening in a rarefied bubble, and thus much more important or life-altering than it actually is.
The best example of this is the annual contest known as Sing Song. The clubs compete in this every year. There is no entrance fee or prize money, and (at least in my time) there was a cap on the amount that could be spent on costumes in an attempt to help level the field. The only thing you come away with is bragging rights for a year, and that's all most students need to get fired up. The young men and women who suit up in satin overalls or fairy wings speak fiercely of dynasties built or lost, of victory sweetly earned by destroying a rival club. I remember those feelings, as well as the lyrics and moves to the two Sing Song acts I was in as a member of my club.
One year, a guy in club proposed to the rest of us that we organize a Sing Song boycott. The event is a solid moneymaker for the school and draws hordes of alumni, but there's nothing in any club charter that requires participation in Sing Song. We wouldn't even have had to get all the clubs, just us and the other major men's club, and the two top women's clubs, and that would bring down the show. We would do it just for the hell of it. But in the end we decided not to go for it for a variety of reasons, not least of which was that we wanted to keep winning, to keep beating the other guys. Maybe it wouldn't have worked, and maybe we were dumb for thinking of it. But what a way to be remembered.
Anyway, like I said, the acts make total sense to someone who grew up in conservative religious circles in Texas but are going to be just jaw-droppingly weird for anyone else. That said, they're still a part of my college experience, and I have nothing but good memories associated with these performances and the weeks of rehearsal we put into them. My friends and I look young, and goofy, and impossibly happy. I was 19. Sophomore year: Senior year:
I"ll be in Texas from Dec. 19 to Jan. 3, or thereabouts. Like I said last year: "If you're a resident of the Lone Star State and you want to get in touch with me to hang out or to buy me a drink (or if you just want me, you know, like that), leave a comment or email me by clicking on the link on the top of the right-hand column. For the lazy or easily confused, it's danielwcarlson (at) gmail (dot) com."
A recent comment diversion on Pajiba asked readers to relate their favorite tales of the pranks they've pulled or heard about, and it wasn't long before a college friend of mine asked if he could tell a story involving me, some classmates, and two handfuls of flour. I of course told him he could share the adventure, and I'm reposting his words here:
'Twas a crisp December evening in Texas, and revenge was in the air. Our fraternity brothers had grown fond of the Jackassian art of "antiquing," grabbing a handful of flour and hurling it into the grill of an unsuspecting foe. Since one of our brothers was departing at the end of that fall semester to pursue a nondescript West Coast internship (to protect the guilty, his name has been changed to Can Darlson), we wanted to send him off with one last hurrah. In this case, he wanted nothing more than to deliver the antiquing of a lifetime to a college nemesis who we'll call Custy Dooper. This deep-seated hatred we had for Custy went back a few years, to when he manipulated hundreds into electing him class president. He abused the office to get girls with normally high standards to dramatically lower them for him, then kept schluffing his way through college — annoying the hell out of anyone in his way. Custy pledged the same fraternity that Can's father did in the '70s, and labeled him a shameful traitor for not following in dad's footsteps. Can resented the implication as he went his separate way, and vowed that he would exact revenge at the proper moment. Which brings us back to that fateful evening. Our recon team spotted Custy smoking cigars with a group of his frat brothers in their favorite after-hours hangout, Denny's. We put spotters in place and waited for the right moment. I, the getaway driver, drove Can to a convenience store, where he picked up a 2-pound bag of Gold Medal All-Purpose Bleached — a blend of select hard and soft wheat that sticks just right to a 5 o'clock shadow. Can pocketed two handfuls in each jacket pocket and meandered into the restaurant. He declined a menu and paused to let the cold fog fade from his glasses, fixing his eyes on the table of unsuspecting targets. The plan was for a quick in-and-out job, and so my concern grew when Can took his sweet time walking over to the table to make small talk. I didn't realize at the time that this was a clever tactic to lower their guard. After about 5 minutes Can said his goodbyes and met eyes with Custy for what would be the last time. He still smiles when he remembers the way those dopey eyes blinked twice after the first handful of tightly packed powder distinguished Custy's Swisher Sweet and blanketed his face. Time stood still as Can unloaded the second handful into the despicable mouth of his nemesis, provoking a gagging sound. Custy's frat brothers sat motionless as Can turned heel and ran the fastest 20-yard dash of his life and dove headfirst through the open door and into the passenger seat of my '91 Nissan Sentra. Adrenaline-filled jubilee ensued as the night ended with laughs and a case of Shiner Bock. What the prank lacked in intricate thought, it made up for in a precious culmination of 4 years of buildup.
• I spent a recent weekend embracing revertigo. It's easy to consider the affliction purely in negative terms, given that it involves becoming the self that you used to be, which is contrary to everything we tell ourselves about growth and maturation and the other labels we give to getting boring. But a friend of mine helped me realize that the term is free of judgment and only becomes positive or negative within a given context. "I feel like I'm the best version of myself around these people," he said to me, speaking of the friends in our presence, and I knew what he meant. • We've all of us been scarred by the world, but there's nothing like spending time with people who went to the same private university you did and who received the same level of education and occasionally downright terrible spiritual and career guidance to make you realize how much you have in common, and how it's something a broader swath of humanity can never understand. We joke about the bad classes, we lament the horrible air of micromanagement that seeped into the administration's efforts to guide the faith of the student body, and we rail against the occasional instructors who told us that, for whatever reason, we're not cut out to achieve our dreams.
• I remember being 20 years old and having a ranking professor in the political science department tell me that, because of my faith, I would never make it as a film critic on the New York Times level. I didn't know if he meant that a good Christian would choose to avoid the varied roster of films that are required viewing for most critics, or if trying to make it in such a mainstream publication would be to abandon my faith; he probably meant all that and more, but I'll never know. He told me this in the context of an interview I had to endure before I could participate in a film studies program my junior year, and though at 20 I was pretty dumb, I wasn't stupid enough to contradict the man in that setting. I simply nodded and said I knew he was right and understood his point, but inside I knew that I was done with that place and every fucked up and misguided thing about its mentality. In a weird way, the school often acted as a refining fire, burning off the parts of my faith that mirrored the worst parts of the university and leaving me with something struggling and different and entirely better for me.
• And oh, the conversations you can have with these people, these wounded and wandering people who share so much of your past that every word carries with it the subtext of what it means to grow up in these worlds and to get beyond them. I sat in a bar the other night with four other men my age as we did our best to map out the problems facing the faithful few of our generation and what it means to finally let go of the last shred of the familiar in order to embrace the necessary.
• Because the biggest problem facing my alma mater is the misconception that there's something special about the school or the place, when it's the people you can meet there. It's an understandable problem, but still a stupid one reflective of a mindset that building improvements will make a church better. And you can always tell who from the school gets it and who doesn't. Every year at homecoming, another senior citizen would address the daily convocation and say that of all the things they liked about our university, the chapel service is what they missed the most. And when I hear that, I always think: You didn't have any friends here, or anyway, not like mine, not like the ones you could have had.
A Conversation With My Roommate, Who Also Attended ACU, After Watching AcceptedMe: I wish I'd gone to South Harmon. Him: I think we kinda did.
I will be in Texas between Dec. 21 and Jan. 2. If you're a resident of the Lone Star State and you want to get in touch with me to hang out or to buy me a drink (or if you just want me, you know, like that), leave a comment or email me by clicking on the link on the top of the right-hand column. For the lazy or easily confused, it's danielwcarlson (at) gmail (dot) com.
Sis: i was telling co-workers about our pancake dinerthey think it's cool and that we should open it here but i said the chances of getting you to come back to abilene are slim me: tell them the chances of me moving to abilene are slim to none, and none just punched slim in the nuts me: if i won the lottery and my wife heidi klum wanted to move to abilene just so we could have sex beneath the tower of light during watermelons at GSP pledging — i would probably not go Sis: hahahahaha holy crap so that's settled then it'll be in cali or austin me: austin works just not abilene Sis: right me: if my wife kristen bell wanted to move to abilene so she could wear a sandwich-board everyday that said "i will bear all of dan carlson's children, for his love is my sustenance and his body my joy," and if i was given a job as president of acu and allowed to turn the admin building into a house/fort/waterslide — i would probably not go
Sis: Grandy's: It's soul food, not heart food.Grandy's: While clogging your arteries, it unclogs your soul. me: are you making new slogans for grandy's? Sis: haha, a co-worker did. i'm just really full me: man, i haven't eaten there in years since school Sis: yeah, me neither me: all i can remember is cinnamon rolls Sis: it was empty yeah me: "grandy's: the tastiest way to kill yourself" Sis: nice one me: "grandy's: when you stop trying" "grandy's: fried chicken won't judge you like she does" Sis: hahahaha
It seems that many, if not most, of my youth group memories involve a trip of some kind, usually to one of the weeklong summer camps that are so prevalent throughout the South and Midwest. They're often held on the campuses of Christian colleges/universities, presumably because even a secular campus can have corrosive effects on the spiritual development of impressionable teenagers, but the location is often secondary to the fact that anywhere you put young men and women together and lecture them about moral propriety as the girls idly pick at the frayed hems of their summer shorts and the boys stare at the girls' legs and try not to fall over dead in wonder — well, the situation takes on a life of its own.
My youth group attended several camps each summer, but the main attraction was a camp in a tiny town in Nebraska, which took a usually brutal 15-hour ride in one of those big white Ford passenger vans to reach. (Regular readers of this feature will remember that this series actually started with my fuzzy memories of one of my youth group colleagues regaling a small group of us guys with the sketchy details of the brief fellatio he'd received on the van, but since apparently he was lying a little back then or my memory was way off [and it's probably a combination of the two], I should here point out that no one went down on anyone, at least on that particular trip up to Nebraska. Besides, the logistics are mind-boggling; those benches are close together.) But though the van trips were often fun, they were mostly filled with dead time, and we usually entertained ourselves by playing cards, reading, or listening to music.
One summer toward the end of my time in the youth group, the youth minister, operating under the same kind of misguided hypocrisy that had previously led him to swear off R-rated movies but continue to view them on his own, declared that while we the teens would still be allowed to bring our personal CD players on the trip1, we would be prohibited from listening to any artists that weren't Christian. I had a big problem with this, as the only Christian artist I enjoyed at that time was Caedmon's Call, since they had the honesty to sing about doubt and boredom. But at 17, I was a painfully big fan of Dave Matthews Band, and the thought of sitting in a van for 15 hours without being able to listen to "Rapunzel" whenever I wanted to was intolerable. The youth minister even checked our luggage as we set off on the trip. I'd like to believe that the vague anti-authoritarian stance and general dickheadedness, as well as a desire to flaunt this man's stupid rules, that defined my personality at that age meant that I managed to sneak a wallet or two of my secular, hellbound music onto the van, and I really think that's a possibility. But the truth is I don't even remember.
The youth intern was responsible for enforcing the rules, too; he was a frenetic, almost jolly kid of 21 who had already gotten on the youth minister's bad side by (a) befriending me, since the youth minister didn't like me all that much, and (b) organizing the night when some of us TP'd the youth minister's house and scattered pickle chunks in his garden, the smell of which did not sit well with his pregnant and occasionally bitchy wife. The intern inspected one young girl's music and told her that the James Taylor CD she was packing was unacceptable; when he refused to yield, the girl complained to the youth minister, who then told the intern that the JT was fine. "I don't care if it's not Christian, I just don't want the loud stuff," he told the intern. That guy. You know? Just ... man.
The camps themselves were sweaty, confusing affairs built around spending a week in a group of 25 or so kids, most of whom were from other churches or other states, so you could experience all your emotional growth and breakdowns in front of total strangers. The Nebraska camp had a lot of ups and downs, especially when it came to sex. Most teens are already boiling in their own confusion when it comes to relationships — or at any rate, the guys are — but church camp adds another level of guilt by adding the fate of your immortal soul to the mix; touch that girl, and you could be lost forever. So of course, in an environment that scolds its young for expressing the frightening changes they're going through, you wind up playing a lot of sexually charged (for kids, at least) games, the most notorious of which was Kiss and Tackle. Everyone stands in a circle and is assigned either a number or letter by gender, and the ensuing game is a mashup of Duck Duck Goose that gives kids an excuse to run around after each other and attempt to kiss someone. This is intimidating for any geek worth his salt at age 15, but against the women of Grapevine it could be downright terrifying. It was as if every horrible dream you never admitted to yourself you had was being acted out before you in a grassy field in the Nebraska sun, and was condoned by grownups.
That's what the camps were: A heady amalgamation of sexual wonderings and spiritual longing, where genuine change went hand in hand with the desire to score, or at least get some NCMO. Getting the non-commitment makeout, a mugging session with no strings attached, was the holy grail of these trips; my roommate got some all the time, so I guess wearing those Rollerblades everywhere really worked for him. One year, returning from camp, riding in a Suburban that had been brought for luggage, I held forth on the girl with whom I'd crossed the magical Rubicon, a brunette with long hair and a nice smile from somewhere I can't remember. My NCMO story was total bullshit, since all I'd done was hold her hand and walk her back to her dorm, but I felt somehow obliged to confess something big, as if we'd been busted by the youth ministers while she was giving me a lapdance or something. I don't even remember her name now, or what she looked like, just the shape of her shadow on the concrete. Those camps were something else.
1. Ah, life before the iPod. 2. She was a classic '90s Kojie: Kind of hot, wicked mean streak.
• There won't be a cute girl sitting next to you on the flight. Either of them. But really, is that so bad? Would you really have done anything? You're better off sitting next to an empty chair or the guy in his 40s who keeps pulling out a journal-ish looking book and writing in it. It's just easier. • Houston afternoons are impossibly muggy, weighed down by the kind of oppressive heat that rubs your face raw like a pillow and ruins your clothes. And yes, the high heels would suck, as well as the constant makeup and having to live slightly underweight in order to be appreciated by an increasingly skewed society, but women also get to wear skirts to things like weddings, and I can only imagine the holy wonder of having a breeze constantly blowing up your legs and keeping you a little cooler. I'd put up with a stomach-restraining magic elastic waistband for the sheer joy of feeling air circulate around my thighs. • Houston is the biggest city in Texas. That's probably the only redeeming thing to be said about it, and even that trait doesn't get you very far. I spent 72 hours in the city and saw nothing aside from endless acres of car dealerships, strip malls, and franchises, franchises, franchises. It's like Starbucks and Chili's got together and had a hellacious orgy and spewed their little baby restaurants across the coastal plain. I'm not saying there's nothing interesting in Houston, just that I covered a lot of ground and didn't see it. • Going home to the place you used to live is always weird; what you once took for granted becomes foreign and surprising. The abundance of quality and affordable Mexican food, for instance. A lunch that would have run me $11-$12 in L.A. was $7.50 in Houston, and that's a wonderful thing to keep rediscovering on successive trips. Of course, it also works the other way: I'm always floored by the amount of pickups on the road and the sheer open space of everything. • Seriously, Houston is hot. • It's also always inherently weird to travel from a place where marriage is viewed as a risky option to be entered into cautiously to a place and culture where it's much more encouraged, especially among younger people, especially especially especially among younger people who grew up in some kind of church. Being 25 and single in L.A. makes you pretty much a normal face in the crowd; in some parts of Texas it makes you stand out. And it also makes your grandmother wonder if you're gay. Marriage is a good thing, but it's disorienting to pass from one realm into another with nothing but a plane ride. I think you should have to have a passport, or at least sit through an obligatory briefing on board your aircraft, before entering Texas or California. Just as a reminder. • But there's a funny thing about that heat. In early summer, Texas nights are as warm as Los Angeles days, which makes for another in the long line of geographical disconnects, but Texas summer nights are damn beautiful things. The heat's burned off but the air is still warm, and while SoCal nights can be chilly or downright cold near the ocean, Texas midnights under the bruised but smog-free sky are never anything short of transcendant, with the countryside opening up and actual stars coming out for a few hours and everything generally feeling full of the possibilities that only punch-drunk twentysomethings can feel when the moon's out, and which will be clumsily erased by morning. Texas summer nights are easily one of the best things about the place, along with Rudy's Barbecue and the lack of a state sales tax. An old buddy of mine used to call it lawn time; grabbing some lawn time at dusk or late night is key to keeping your wits about you in Texas, to remembering that there are good things there that not even the heat and the humidity and the rednecks can take away. If you can make it through the day, the night is always waiting, and it is always worth it.