One day a year, usually in late February, the bumper-to-bumper pickup trucks and SUVs that clog major Houston streets are joined by covered wagons and riders on horseback. They come from all over the state—Corpus Christi, Amarillo, San Angelo, El Paso. Some of their drivers have taken a full month off their jobs as dentists or lawyers to travel in bands of cardboard cowboys, grown men and women playing dress-up. They have the beat-up, patched-up clothes, the animate mode of transportation, and the nonchalant swagger down as they inch East up Memorial Dr. then South through the medical center, frustrating afternoon commuters. This is the trail ride—an event in and of itself, yes, but merely the starting gun for something much bigger: the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. This rather grandiose name suggests something of great scope and spectacle. It promises music and dancing, fireworks and dust, mud and media. The rodeo doesn’t disappoint.
Rodeo themes begin to creep into everyday life long before the trail riders reach Houston. Middle schools hold essay contests; elementary schools, art contests. Students across the city bend their pens towards themes of nineteenth-century Texas Rangers and how the rise of barbed wire fences ended the cattle drive, or their crayons towards cacti and the Comanche tribes. Children learn square dancing and the story of the Alamo. There’s even a “Go Texan Day,” on which Houstonians don their most Western apparel. During rodeo itself, the Houston Chronicle dedicates a daily two-page spread to competition standings. The whole city gets into the excitement. Eleven months out of the year, Houston claims to be cosmopolitan, but in the three weeks of rodeo, it is proudly, stubbornly, fiercely Texan.
If you attend the rodeo, once you have braved the inevitable traffic jam (the more mundane variety this time—all Volkswagens and no covered wagons), you’ll work your way inward, attraction by attraction, to the heart of the rodeo. The midway, which flanks the parking lots, seems to have sprung up overnight. It’s full of gangly contraptions of dubious integrity, which in turn are full of gangly teenagers of dubious integrity. Gaggles of preteen girls wander the carnival, their checkered shirts freshly knotted just below the bra line. Couples caress in an attitude that suggests an experiment with superglue gone horribly awry. Fathers shepherd young children who happily brandish enormous stuffed animals, prizes won (after several costly tries) from the ball-throw booth or the dart booth or the basketball booth. Women with moussed-up hair, push-up bras, and high-heeled boots dangle on the arms of men with cowboy hats and grossly large, necessarily silver belt buckles. It often takes a second glance to realize that these are the same people you see at the grocery store on Sundays.
The livestock show, though a somewhat less seedy environment, nonetheless has all the ambience of a giant hamster cage. The odor of manure and wood shavings assaults your nostrils immediately upon entrance. Kids from the 4-H club show guinea pigs and rabbits while proud owners blow-dry the disturbingly glossy coats of prize-winning steers. Exhibits celebrate meat and meat-related products. Businessmen sample Emu sausage (made from Texas-raised emus, of course). Suburban kids (whose idea of “roughing it” is having to sit in the back of the Lexus) milk cows and watch chickens hatch.
Many families set their whole day aside for the rodeo. They come a few hours early, do the midway, catch a pig race, check out the livestock, and eat dinner before the start of the show. The rodeo fare–barbeque, sausage on a stick, turkey legs–is decidedly carnivorous. Even the baked potatoes are stuffed with brisket. For the health-conscious, funnel cakes, those finger-burning confections of fried batter and powdered sugar, are among the best options.
The main events of the rodeo—tie-down roping, steer wrestling, team roping, barrel racing, bareback bronc riding, bull riding, and saddle bronc riding—take place in the Astrodome, Houston’s favorite white elephant. The first four events are classified as “timed” events. In tie-down roping, for instance, a steer is sent running from the metal corral. Then a few seconds later, the cowboy bolts out and sends his rope whistling across the arena, hoping to catch the steer by the neck. If he does, he leaps from the horse and rushes to the steer’s side to wind the rope around all four of its legs, finishing the knot by triumphantly throwing his hands in the air. Barrel racing is the tamest event and by many accounts the most boring. It is also the only event that features cowgirls. The last three are “roughstock” events. In these, the cowboy, holding on with only one hand, must flop around like a rag doll on a decidedly annoyed behemoth for eight seconds in order to receive a score. Twenty-five of the hundred points are based on the feistiness of the animal; the other seventy-five, on the cowboy’s technique. Roughstock events are favorites in the “hard luck awards” given on the last night of the rodeo. The audience watches clips of cowboys being thrown from animals, kicked, gored, chased, and so on and so forth, and applauds the best (or worst, if you’re the cowboy) thrashing. Rodeo is the Roman coliseum with cowboy hats.
Of course the crowd just loves it. The cheering starts from the moment the first blonde beauty rides out waving a Texas flag at the opening ceremonies and carries on into garbled renditions of the Texas pledge of allegiance and “Texas, our Texas.” By then, Texas pride has already manifested itself in mass consumption of locally brewed beer. Southern drawls thicken. “Y’all” is promoted from commonly condoned mistake to commonly embraced idiom. A middle-aged couple who moved three weeks ago from Minnesota screams “Yee-haw!”
There are families who buy tickets to every single show and attend the rodeo every night for three weeks. By the end, they sweat barbeque sauce. Then, there are families who come once a year, but try desperately to look the part. They trade in their khakis and polos for full western regalia—embroidered jeans, checkered shirts, big belt buckles, boots, spurs, chaps, hats, bandanas. Their smooth, un-callused hands hold lassos. They haven’t the first clue how to use lassos. Then there is the occasional out-of-place straggler, the person who doesn’t really know what he’s getting himself into when he takes one of the ten thousand seats in the arena. He struggles to conform, even slipping in the occasional “fixin’ ter” or “y’all.” Little does he know that the accent he mimics is an annual phenomenon.
The truth is, this is as Texan as Houstonians get. There isn’t all that much state loyalty in the other forty-nine weeks of the year, aside from a handful of slogans—don’t mess with, everything’s bigger in, etc. Most of the year, you could mistake Houston for St. Louis or Phoenix–any large city, really. There’s just something about the rodeo that makes people squeeze themselves into clichés, sometimes leaving behind other arenas of their lives. Green party members don’t boycott the rodeo’s animal cruelty and meat obsession; they just put on faux-leather cowboy boots and join the fun. The crowd overlooks the fact that most of the cowboys competing are not actually Texans. Some are even—gasp—Canadian. Rodeo is the only time you’ll see red dust lining the creases in your face that in Houston are usually reserved for smog. For three weeks out of the year, everything is Texan. And if it’s not Texan enough already, all you have to do is paint it red, white, and blue and slap a star on it.

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Waiting room: a rhymeless pantoum

More form experiments

The clock swirled nauseatingly on the wall,
The patient stirred and crossed his hairy arms
The ticking of the pens across the clipboards
Grated on his tried sensibilities.

The patient stirred and crossed his hairy arms
The children playing with the dingy toys
Grated on his tried sensibilities.
He crossed his ankle on the other knee.

The children playing with the dingy toys
Irritated him. He turned away, and
He crossed his ankle on the other knee.
The woman sniffling into a ragged tissue

Irritated him. He turned away, and
The fabric in his mind began to tear.
The woman sniffling into a ragged tissue
Drove him to a terrified despair.

The fabric in his mind began to tear.
The ticking of the pens across the clipboards
Drove him to a terrified despair.
The clock swirled nauseatingly on the wall.

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Amusing websites

I’ve decided to start a list of websites I find amusing, for my own reference in times of boredom and to serve the deep-seated need of my community for procrastinatory strategies.
Rather Good
Straight Dope
Shameless Yale Record Promotion
Exploding Dog

I’ll add to these later.

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Poetry edits

I just edited a few of the poems, getting rid of gratuitous allusions and whatnot. I also published a poem which had previously been private. Comments are always more than welcome.

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The latest of the poetry games. My assignment was to write a seven-stanza poem in rhyme royal.

I drove by the refineries today.
The torches flickered in the summer night,
And I in my suburban looked away,
From all the cars and trucks and freeway lights
To see the torches flick’ring on their heights.
Such torches can remind me of the sun,
or of olympic torches. Either one.

The highway is alive at ten o’clock
With people driving home from who knows where.
They’re driving home just so that they can chalk
Another day, another easychair.
Another shirt or shoe or skirt to wear.
Another glass of milk, another kiss,
Another glaring irony to miss.

In daytime, the refineries seem dull,
Their imperfections highlighted by day.
But in the night, they easily enthrall
The dirty outsides showing rank decay
Are minimized by dark, and slip away.
And all remaining are the points of light
Which mark refineries’ places at night.

These points of light are little summer stars
That hover near the ground to see the rush
Of people zooming quickly by in cars
Too busy to appreciate the hush
Of gray-on-black and silver’s gentle blush,
Of silent martyrs burning at the stake,
Petroluem and gasoline to make.

It seems a tiny city, I observe,
With skyscrapers and highways through downtown.
I whistle with a joy that I reserve
For solitude. It is a joy I frown
Through business meetings with their suits of brown.
But here, alone, at ten o’clock at night,
I’m free to whistle at the twinkling light.

I know that the refineries pollute,
And bill’wing clouds of smoke rise from the stacks.
It is a charge that I cannot refute,
Except to tell the viewer to relax
Enjoy the landscape that routinely packs
A city in a semi-acre space,
And gives off fumes of filthiness and grace.

The fumes, I hear, are horrible to smell.
The smoke can cover complexes in soot.
And yet it is a knowledge I bear well,
Full knowing I will never cross on foot
The spaces that in air filthiness put.
I’m happy to remain inside my car
Admiring danger, beauty from afar.

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WARNING. This is a personal site, and all the opinions expressed are based on those of me, me, me. In fact, some of the thoughts, opinions, and feelings expressed in this site come out much stronger than they ever were in my own head. In that way I think of writing as the process of distilling one’s thoughts, strengthening and condensing them. All resemblance to persons real and imaginary is probably not coincidental.

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Vapors: a sestina

Distracting myself from the possible,
I concentrate instead on what is now:
The pale dawn, skin, warmth,
Your sun-burned back and arms,
Trying to coax my premature expectations
To dissolve back into whispering vapors.

It’s too easy to trust vapors,
To force on them the form of the possible
By clothing them with expectations
That fly in the face of the now,
That make a pair of sun-burned arms
Lose all their comfort and warmth.

And yet there is some warmth,
Hiding in the vapors,
Inherent in your sun-burned arms.
But when I compare the fiery possible
To the feeble flicker of the now,
I burn to reach those expectations.

But I can’t live on expectations.
Their razzle-dazzle offers little warmth,
Fireworks serve me little now.
I close my eyes to feel the vapors,
I close my eyes to block the possible.
I close my eyes and kiss your sun-burned arms.

I am tempted to burden those arms
With my brightening expectations,
My promises of the possible,
But I fear my present warmth
Will be lost here in the vapors.
Nothing to comfort me now.

Fireworks serve me little now.
Around my shoulders your sun-burned arms
Whisper to me, “Vapors,”
Your skin derides my expectations.
Frenzied, I claw for the unfailing warmth
That exists only in the possible.

There is no road between Now and Expectations.
Your sun-burned arms still give me warmth,
But anything more than vapors is impossible.

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The numerologist of Route 131

Something really weird just happened. I was on the bus, and this little old Indian-looking man turned to me and said “Are you a student?” When he found out that I went to Yale, he got me to come up and sit with him (he was right in front of me) and tell him how to help his son get in. That’s not all that unusual, really. But then he told me his hobbies included palmistry and numerology. First he did numerology but I wasn’t that impressed because most of what he told me was either really general or something I had told him already. But when he read my palm he said some really interesting things. He said I’d probably get a master’s degree but not a PhD, and that I’d probably marry in my early thirties. The really freaky thing is that he said that although I’m generally thought of as “nice” or “friendly,” very few people feel like they can get to know or trust me well. He also said I’m emotionally weak and easily hurt in relationships. That’s all pretty true. Weiwd.

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Encyclopedia of failed relationships

I realized that there’s still nothing under “Love,” so I decided I might as well rehash all the stunted and failed romantic experiences of my life, in other words, all of the romantic experiences in my life.

The earliest entanglement of any significance that I can remember was the off-and-on, long-standing crush I had on a good friend of mine from elementary school until…well, present I guess, though it’s not active now. He’s basically a safe fallback crush.

I was pretty antisocial in elementary school. During recess I would make up complicated arithmetic problems and solve them. I remember he would often hang out with me working on similar projects.

In middle school I had a huge crush on a very popular boy who probably spoke, cumulatively, about two sentences to me. He played the violin in the school orchestra where I played the viola, and I believe we had a few classes together too. I basically liked him because he was an attractive boy and a good violinist.

In seventh grade I also liked a (much more intelligent) boy who was in my alegbra class and my SPIRAL class. I can’t for the life of me remember what SPIRAL stands for, but it was the gifted/talented program in my school district and SPIRAL class was a three hour english and history block. So basically, I got to see this boy a lot. I remember watching the muscles in his arm ripple as he drummed his fingers on the desk. Mmmm.

In eighth grade I had one of those “almost boyfriends” that are pretty typical of eighth graders, or at least eighth-graders in the fifties. When I went to middle school, the really popular girls were already giving the really popular boys head in the school restrooms. Guess I missed the boat on that one.

In ninth grade I had virtually no romantic activity, despite the fact that I was probably at my cutest in ninth and tenth grade. The summer after ninth grade I went on a cruise with two of my friends from middle school. On the last night of the cruise, there was a big dance party and I ended up making out with a guy from LSU. I was fifteen and I’m guessing he was 21 or 22. That was my first real kiss. Charming.

Tenth grade was another big romantic dry spell. I went on a trip to Costa Rica, and I was hoping for a fling on that trip, but nothing happened. It did make me realize that I wanted to date someone, so I started working on that at the beginning of my junior year.

The fall of my junior year I had a brief relationship with a guy who is a really good friend to me now, so I won’t go into detail here.

Senior year of high school was another big romantic dry spell.

And then I went to college. And I’ll be fair to everyone in my life and stop right here.

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Gentle breathing

This is a new poetic form I just made up. It’s a cross between a sestina and a Steve Reich phase. The content is based on an emotional fantasy I’ve had since eighth grade: of sitting somewhere with someone, just feeling each other breathe.

I remember the night we sat on your bed,
I lay down; you came and began to stroke
The soft hair running between my neck and back.
The unexpected touch of your hands
Was so uncharacteristically, startlingly gentle
I almost couldn’t breathe.

How heavily you used to breathe,
Heaving on the narrow bed,
When you had more urgent things to stroke,
Rather than caress my back.
Then, the power and skill of your hands
Never quite seemed gentle.

The night, though, was gentle
And I lay feeling you breathe
There with me on the bed,
Absorbing the metronomic stroke
Of your fingers caressing my back,
The languid waltz of your hands.

Meanwhile, I folded my hands
Feeling the warmth and gentle
Swaying of your chest, in breathing,
Weighing in and out of the bed.
I wanted so badly, then, to stroke
Your quiet form reposing on my back.

I tried to reach across and back
But only stillness found my hands
The silence was overwhelmingly gentle
I noticed that I couldn’t breathe,
Couldn’t spill my warm breath on the bed,
Couldn’t release the air that felt your stroke.

But soon you slowed your peaceful stroke
And let your head rest upon my back.
In their pattern continued your hands.
In largo it was even more gentle,
And on my neck I felt you breathe,
Two figures sighing on a bed.

For miles around stretched the bed.
Your wearying hands soon ceased to stroke
The hairs between my neck and back.
The halting motion of your hands
Was so uncharacteristically gentle,
I almost couldn’t breathe.

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