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Friday, October 31, 2008

Real America

This fellow’s All-American. Wonder where he lives?
Suppose you could come to this country and spend a day or two somewhere – one single place – that would fairly represent “Real America” a community that’s a microcosm of the whole, complex nation.

Where might that be?

The notion of a “Real America” has been in the public eye of late. A couple of weeks ago, Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, speaking to supporters in Greensboro, North Carolina, drew cheers when she said that “America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America.”

‘Why, We’re America in Miniature!’

Small towns certainly have a Real America feel. But is any one you come to typical of the nation any longer?
This sent political pundits, opposition operatives, and tourism officials across the nation into in a dither. “Now listen here,” they grumbled, or found words to that effect. “Our little jewel of a community is Real America, too.” People took great umbrage at even an implied hint that just North Carolina, or just little towns, might have a monopoly on patriotism or Americanism, whatever that entails.

Palin backtracked. “If that’s the way it came across,” she told CNN, “I apologize.” And that was that. Political spin doctors moved on to other subjects.

But wait. If you remove the politics and emotionally charged words like “patriotism” from the equation, could there in fact be a place that’s an exemplar of the entire country?

In the Interest of Research, You Understand

This conundrum applies to any country, of course. To experience the “Real France,” would you make a whirlwind trip to Paris? Or to a provincial center like Toulouse, away from the tourists? I wouldn’t mind searching for French authencity on the Riviera.

Hey, Washington’s just like any other place in America – once a year on the July Fourth Independence Day holiday.
But I digress. Where might we find the embodiment of today’s America in one locale?

I’d be happy to start with dinner at my house were we not such a far cry from Real America. I live (barely) inside the Capital Beltway, the 106-kilometer highway loop around Washington. If you’ve ever heard the expression “inside the Beltway,” you know that we who live and work here are far too obsessed with government and politics and power to be typical. Since we don’t epitomize much of anything, when our editors want to “take the pulse of the nation,” they send us as far outside the Beltway as possible.

No Bite of the Big Apple

This is impressive America, crowded America, bustling America. But is it Real America?
So you’ll have to take a rain check on dinner. And much as you might like to soak up the dynamism of a great metropolis, New York City or Los Angeles won’t do, either. They’re too gargantuan, too frenetic, too quirky. And, truthfully too rich to be representative. How commonplace could 370-meter-tall New York skyscrapers or 14-lane L.A. freeways be?

And I can’t get you a fun trip to the Disney World theme park in Orlando, Florida, either. I can assure you that wherever Real America is, the people there don’t ride roller coasters and pose for pictures with stuffed mice all day long. Maybe you imagine Texas cowboys when you think of America. Come on, we’re talking typical, representative of the whole nation. There aren’t too many cowboys in Alabama or West Virginia. Texas is entrepreneurial, swashbuckling, cocky, but it’s also five or six different places all in one. There’s not much that’s typical about it.

We can toss out places like New Orleans (too spicy) and Boston (too smart). And towns high in the Rocky Mountains (great views, too far away). Hawaii? Please. How typical could any place be where the locals wear flowered shirts and hang fresh orchids around their necks?

Exotic Won’t Cut It

This place has the requisite white picket fence. Is this Real America?
I’d love to take you sponge-diving off Florida’s west coast (if I could swim), or saunter with you from coffee bar to coffee bar in rainy Seattle, or drink in antebellum history around Savannah’s moss-draped squares. I know that you’d love a hike up to America’s windiest mountaintop in flinty old New Hampshire, and have a blast chasing tornadoes in Kansas or Oklahoma. You’d adore ice fishing in Northern Michigan. OK, maybe not that. These are bracing activities all, and in fascinating places. But their locations are hardly typical.

One of my colleagues insists that pinpointing Real America is a snap, no big deal at all. One need only toss a dart at a map of the Midwest – the “heartland” as we romanticize it – and then rush to the spot where it lands. We’d be sure to find tidy homes with the proverbial white picket fences, and fall leaves skittering past paperboys and girls on their bicycles. What could be more quintessentially American?

A movie about a Christmas angel reinforced Americans’ idea of what the perfect town looked like
Maybe it was – 60 years ago – when we watched a shy, small-town “building and loan” manager, played by Jimmy Stewart, help his neighbors buy new tract homes in the beloved Christmas movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” But a whole lot of the idyllic towns like the movie’s Bedford Falls, if they existed at all, have frayed, lost industries, and seen their downtowns decay as shoppers migrated to the suburbs. Many of the homes and picket fences aren’t so gleaming any more.

Besides, many Bedford Fallses were so incredibly white, demographically, as to be odd in the America of today, just as predominantly black southern towns, or largely Hispanic communities within hailing distance of Mexico, don’t mirror the racial mélange that our immigrant nation has become.

Odyssey Ad Infinitum

St. Paul, the capital of the Northern Plains state of Minnesota, is a lovely, lovely place. But do you see what’s on the roof and ground here? Today’s Real America prototype is probably a tad warmer
Onward, then, to . . . Nevada? Booming, but too empty and deserty, and too glitzy in the gambling enclaves. Arizona? Abnormally hot much of the year, abnormally irrigated, abnormally populated by retirees, and abnormally awash in salamanders. Utah? Changing, but still heavily influenced by a single religious sect, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The wide-open Northern Plains? Any place where the lights of the next town are so distant that you can ponder the Milky Way can’t be typical. Besides, it gets so cold there, and in Wisconsin and much of Ohio and Indiana and Upstate New York and the like that millions of people have just up and left them for warmer climes. While there should be some hardships associated with Real America, it should probably also have a Sun Belt feel.

Virginia? (too gentrified). Arkansas or the rural Deep South (too poor). Sarah Palin’s Alaska? (too rugged – and dark much of the year). Didn’t I say something about the Sun Belt?

There are places with beaches (California, Delaware, New Jersey, the east and Gulf coasts of Florida), craggy hills (Kentucky and Tennessee and West Virginia), old mill towns and Early American attractions (Pennsylvania). But life, even in our miniature Real America, is not a beach, and a lot of the people who live in these places are older than average as well.

Doesn’t Real America Have Bratwurst and Beer?

Chicago’s a logical candidate as the center of Real America. But after a closer look, maybe not. By the way, that windblown fellow in red is our own Mr. Ted
Just a second, my dartboard buddy interjects again. Turn right around and head back to Middle America. How about Chicago, the energetic “City of Big Shoulders,” as Real America? It’s hard-working. Its old ethnic neighborhoods have held together, and new ones that are home to Koreans and South Asians and others, are growing fast. That certainly mirrors what’s happening nationally. The north side of town is largely white and suburban in outlook, the south side mainly black and citified. Chicago, like the nation, is nuts about sports, and its legacy of civic corruption is not an atypical American tradition.

So, we have found Real America!???

Nope. Chicago’s one of those teeming places, not ordinary at all. There’s not much solitude there, or connection any longer to the land that’s still a key node of the national character. Chicago’s ambitious architecture is dramatic but highly unusual. And the city is another of those frigid spots. Blizzards off Lake Michigan and Sun Belt don’t compute.


Yeah. So?

This could be it! Greensboro: right size, right temperature, right amenities, and a lot of the characteristics of a changing nation as a whole
With a reminder that real Americans live everywhere in the land, and that every one of them has its charms, I would submit that America in microcosm – Real America – was under Sarah Palin’s nose after all. I’d stick a push pin right where she spoke that October day – in Greensboro, North Carolina. Consider:

At a vibrant but comfortable quarter of a million people, it is one leg of North Carolina’s Piedmont Triad (the other two are High Point and Winston-Salem) in a prosperous plateau between the state’s steamy lowlands and nippy Appalachian Mountains. Greensboro is big enough, small enough, high and low enough, warm and cool enough, urban and suburban enough. And it well fits that American mosaic: white (53%), black (36%), Hispanic (6%). Four percent is even American Indian. Greensboro is football country, too. It’s home to basketball tournaments of national renown, and it’s loaded with top golf courses. How loaded? If I see one more pair of yellow slacks in town . . . . Still, when you combine “golf” and “warm” – rarely oppressively hot – you’ve got a magnet for corporations and well-heeled retirees.

In 1881, General Nathanael Greene chose the area that is now Greensboro to fight the British in the American Revolution. He lost, but the town took his name – minus the “e”
Greensboro is historic: a vital Revolutionary War battle was fought there; it became the North Carolina’s “Gate City” as a railroad hub; and now Interstate highways cross every which way through and past town.

And the area has more colleges than you can shake a stick at, including one still run by Quakers, one of the interesting groups – German Moravians were another – that first settled the area.

And although Greensboro made an unfortunate name for itself in the turbulent years of the civil-rights movement, it has owned up to its shameful, segregationist past.

Notoriety of the Wrong Kind

Racial lines were drawn, and sides taken, during the turbulent times of the Greensboro sit-ins
Some background: On February 1, 1960 in Greensboro, black students employed a civil-rights protest tactic called the “sit-in.” They sat in previously all-white seating areas of lunch counters in the Woolworth and Kress variety stores, were denied service, and were ordered to leave. When they quietly refused, police were called, and the students were arrested on charges of trespassing and creating a public disturbance.

The sit-in was not a new form of protest, but the one in Greensboro inspired a wave of similar tactics throughout the South. College students and other civil-rights activists, black and white, crowded the jails of southern towns rather than pay fines for trespassing. In September 1961 alone, there were sit-ins in stores and restaurants in more than 120 cities throughout the South.

The Woolworth store where students were arrested for trespassing in 1961 now serves information rather than meatloaf or ice-cream sundaes
Many restaurants were desegregated in the aftermath. Ultimately, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which included a public accommodations section that barred racial discrimination by hotels and restaurants.

The Greensboro Woolworth’s store is now an international civil-rights museum; and the city’s mayor, police chief, and school superintendent are all African American. That is hardly typical, but Greensboro’s transition from ethnic intolerance to racial cooperation is an increasingly familiar American story.

Here and There – or Near

Greensboro’s White Oak Cotton Mill, named for a 200-year-old tree nearby, was plenty busy in 1928, when textiles and tobacco were king that that part of North Carolina
Whatever Gate Citians (I swear: that’s what they call each other; what did you expect? Greensburrowers?) don’t have right at hand is a hop, skip, and a jump away. They’re three hours from Atlantic Ocean beaches; two from beautiful mountains and ski runs and art colonies; four from Washington, D.C.; and five from Atlanta, Georgia, the bustling “capital” of the New South.

But what, in my mind, makes Greensboro a strong Real America nominee is its evolution through despairing economic times – something millions of Americans can relate to today. Greensboro once hummed with textile mills and furniture factories. It was such a swaggering tobacco center that 125,000 cigars – cigars, not cigarettes – were once rolled each week there. Then, late last century, most of those plants closed as their owners moved operations to Mexico or overseas. If you needed boarded-up windows and empty stores for a painting, Greensboro was your palette.

Greensboro’s not a perfect city; no place is. But is has an awful lot of the characteristics of the growing nation
But the city dug in and dug out. It sold companies and families and retirees on the area’s amenities and easygoing way of life. Now, Greensboro is a headquarters for Dell Computers among other high-tech companies; many of America’s gasoline-station pumps are made there; two enormous medical complexes serve the area; the Tri-Cities airport is nearing the end of a nine-year expansion to accommodate a mammoth new hub for the Fed-Ex shipping giant; and old factories and flour mills have been reborn as distinctive apartment and condominium residences.

As Americans are doing and have forever done, Greensboro has re-invented itself.

I’ll Take Two (or Three)

Carol and I have driven through several times, en route to her family reunions in the nearby town of Madison, North Carolina. As much as anything, I remember the stops for yummilicious Carolina diced-pork barbecue sandwiches with cole slaw and hot sauce, and sweet tea. (Yes, I made up “yummilicious,” a word too wild even for Wild Words. To be Real America, you’ve got to have good eats.)

Edward R. Murrow called Greensboro home, but only for the first four or five years of his life. Later, he smoked like a North Carolina tobacco grower, and it killed him
And there’s one last reason why I like Greensboro, though I didn’t know it until a few days ago! It’s the home of legendary broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow, renowned for his dramatic coverage (“This . . . is London”) during the Germans’ aerial blitz of World War II. Murrow later directed the United States Information Agency of which the Voice of the America was then a part.


(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word in today's blog that you'd like me to explain, just ask!)

Conundrum. A difficult problem or dilemma. Nobody seems to know the origin of this curious word. An online sleuth called “The Word Detective” concludes that the most reasonable theory “is that ‘conundrum’ originated as a joke among university students in 16th century England, probably concocted as a pseudo-Latin nonsense word.”

Dither. A confused state. One who dithers is flustered, agitated, all a-twitter. The word comes from a Middle English word meaning “tremble.”

Rain check. A sports term. When a baseball game, especially, must be halted and then postponed because of inclement weather, patrons are issued a “rain check” entitling them to free admission when the game is replayed. I may regretfully decline a social invitation but ask for a rain check – a chance to enjoy another such opportunity down the road.

Spin doctor. “Spin” is the fashionable political term for putting one’s own, highly partisan, interpretation on events. You spin them to suit the best interests of your candidate or cause. And a maestro of spin is a “spin doctor.”

Swashbuckling. Pirates are swashbucklers, and others can swashbuckle, too, thanks to the evolution of the word. The “swash” comes from an old word for tapping one’s foot on the ground, as fencers (and sword-wielding pirates) do when they attack. The “buckle” doesn’t fit around one’s pants; a “buckler” was a small shield, worn (by right-handers) on their left arms for protection. Somehow, this got all smished into a word describing the flamboyantly daring.

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Friday, October 24, 2008


President Bush has frequently vacationed at his Prairie Chapel Ranch near Crawford. Like former President Ronald Reagan at his Western White House, Bush relaxes by clearing brush.
On the January day that he becomes our former president, or soon thereafter, George W. Bush and his wife, Laura, will leave Washington for their ranch near tiny Crawford, Texas, outside the city of Waco. By some accounts, the Bushes are pining for that day, not just out of relief after eight years of crushing responsibility, but also because they "just love the place to pieces," as exuberant Texans would say.

Love it beyond reason, it can seem to others, since Texas is home to killer bees, biting red ants, ill-tempered rattlesnakes, flying cockroaches the size of dirigibles, raging blizzards, blinding dust storms, a coastline routinely mauled by hurricanes, thorny cacti, smelly oil and gas refineries, and entire counties where temperatures average 37 degrees Celsius for two or three straight months each summer. They topped 38 degrees 10 days in a row one year that I lived in Texas, and “I like to have died,” as Texans and southerners sometimes say. Yes, yes, it was “dry heat” up by the Oklahoma line, but Texas endures sponge-wringing humidity anywhere south of San Antonio (or San Antone, as old cowboy-movie heroes liked to call it).

And the cuisine is even hotter. Who wouldn’t hurry back to such a place!?

A Desperate Start

American settlers in the Mexican state of Texas turned the old, limestone Alamo mission into a fortress where they made a heroic but fatal stand for independence in 1836.
The people of this state were called “Texians” back in 1836, when 200 or so besieged Texans died inside the Alamo mission in San Antonio fighting the 5,000-man army of Mexican general Antonio López de Santa Anna. That heroic, though doomed, standoff helped spur the region’s ultimately successful war of independence from Mexico. Texas’s nine-year run as a republic before it decided to join the United States in 1845 still resonates in the Texan character and feeds an almost nationalistic pride you’ll find in those parts. To this day, Texans have a remarkable ability to tune out the drawbacks and latch onto what’s enviable about their whopping state.

Burgeoning Houston, the nation’s corporate energy capital, has bounced back from many devastating recessions in the oil economy. It also features the world’s largest medical center.
This was easier once, before cities like Dallas and Houston exploded into clusters of gaudy skyscrapers. And it was easier to find Texas charm before the state capital of Austin turned into a trendy technology and nightclub scene, and before Texas went nuts building superhighways. More about that in a bit.

Just as bobbing pumpjacks dip into the earth, up and down, day and night, night and day, hoping to suck oil from the West Texas prairie, let’s drill into Texans’ love affair with what a lot of them still stubbornly consider the country’s largest state. (Dismissing remote Alaska, which is twice as large, they snort, “Daggone it, some place that’s one-half ice and th’other half moose bogs don’t count.”)

On the Road – Forever

West Texas is hot and dry in the summer and endures fierce blizzards each winter. And as you see, it can be unforgiving to humans and beasts alike.
Texas is big enough by any measure. Enter it at Port Arthur on Interstate Highway 10 at the Louisiana border and head to El Paso, which is stuck between Mexico and New Mexico way out west – way out west – and you’ll pass 828 mile-markers. Again, that’s 828 separate mileposts on the same highway in the same state – 1,333 mind-numbing kilometers from the first to the last.

That’s no big whoop to a Texan. Thanks to those “westerns,” the state is world-famous for open spaces. (“The prairie sky/ Is wide and high/ Deep in the heart of Texas.”) All by its ownself – another Texas expression – one South Texas cattle spread, the 334,000-hectare King Ranch near Corpus Christi is larger than the entire state of Rhode Island. It’s no coincidence that just about every Texas town sports a business with the word “big” in it: The Big State. The Big Texan. Big Red’s...

And then there’s the entire city of Dallas: “Big D.”

Funny, though. Despite Texans’ fondness for welding first and middle names into a single identity, I don’t remember seeing “Big Jim Bob’s” or “Big Janie Sue’s” in my Texas travels.

A Place Unto Itself

Journalist and fiction writer Pete Hamill once observed, “There is a growing feeling that perhaps Texas is really another country, a place where the skies, the disasters, the diamonds, the politicians, the women, the fortunes, the football players and the murders are all bigger than anywhere else.” But what does he know? Hamill is from Brooklyn.

Breeders did not fashion the exotic longhorn. The breed developed on its own in rugged territory. Crossbreeding nearly wiped out the species, but longhorns are now carefully preserved.
The big goes on in bid’ness deals, as Texans call them, in gushers of oil, lumbering longhorn cattle, and at the nation’s biggest state capitol building. And soon you can add the biggest room without columns in the world: the new Dallas Cowboys’ football stadium, which will seat 100,000 people for certain events. Like the ’Boys’ current home, Texas Stadium, it will have a hole in the roof “so God can watch his favorite team.” Texas brag.

Now let me tell you about what, in the words of the Associated Press, “sounds like another tall tale told by a Texan.” The state has embarked on an audacious project to build superhighways so big and so complex “that they will make ordinary interstates look like cow paths.” Here’s just how adventuresome and outrageous one of these roads, the new Trans-Texas Corridor from the Mexican border all the way north to Oklahoma, is projected to be: Picture a concrete ribbon as wide as five soccer fields, with extra lanes just for trucks and freight trains and commuter rail. The plan even sets aside space along the road for oil and gas pipelines and broadband voice and data cables.

Allow me to reiterate the width of this blacktop beast: five soccer fields. Driving along, will one even be able to see the houses and barns on the other side of the road?

Bird Dogs and Pickup Trucks

Pickup trucks have been a part of the fabric of life in the American Southwest – and especially in Texas – for a long time.
What you almost certainly will see when that mega-highway gets built are lots of pickup trucks. Even though more Texans are city slickers than cowpokes these days, they love their pickups. Each year – at least in the years before the current national financial unpleasantness – they bought more than 300,000 of these small trucks with enclosed cabs and flat, open beds in back. Japanese automaker Toyota even opened a production plant in San Antonio with an annual production capacity of 200,000 heavy-duty Tundra pickups. But in the face of record gasoline-price rises and sluggish demand for gas-guzzlers, even in pedal-to-the-metal Texas, Toyota cut the output sharply. Still, out in the Back 40 – a term I’ll explain in Wild Words below – Texans still haul a lot of barbed-wire fencing, hay bales, bags of unshucked pecans, and hunting dogs.

So Texians find a lot to love about Texas. “Loved is a better word,” says my friend Bob Blachly, an Austin native and former VOA colleague. “Now it’s homogenized, not much different from anyplace else.” “But once,” he adds with a wistful sigh, “we were our own breed: independent, optimistic, self-reliant, friendly as all outdoors.”


Galveston Island is – between hurricanes – Texas’s playland and antebellum retreat, reminiscent of the days when the city was known as the “Wall Street of the South.”
Friendly, indeed. “Texas” traces to Tejas, a Choctaw Indian word meaning “friend” or “friendship.” Texans touring New York or L.A., or Djibouti for that matter, might be detected by the trace of a twang, but they’re even more readily spotted by their outgoing nature. Texans practically own the “howdy” word, accompanying it with a crushing handshake and a hearty slap on the back. For a century now, “Howdy” has been the official greeting among “Aggies” at Texas A&M University in College Station.

Ah, Texas A&M, the onetime agriculture and mechanical school that bears the brunt of “Aggie jokes.” These were all the rage when I lived in Texas. (They’re less politically correct now.) Sample: “Did you hear about the Aggie at a stop sign? He’s still there.”

Antebellum Victorian mansions in what’s left of hurricane-ravaged Galveston may remind one of magnolia-draped Mississippi, and it’s hard to tell North Texas and western Oklahoma apart. But somehow you know when you’re you’re in Texas, perhaps because you’re sure to be addressed as “sir” or “ma’am.”


Down at the end of Texarkana’s Stateline Avenue, shown here in a historic postcard, a federal post office and courthouse straddles Texas and Arkansas. So do lots of tourists, for their vacation photographs.
Well, maybe it’s not so easy to tell when you’re one place in Texas. Up in the northeast corner, the city of Texarkana is actually a twin of another city in Arkansas, also called Texarkana, which butts right up against it along Stateline Avenue. They’ve even drawn the state line down the middle of the post office and federal building used by both towns. Upstairs, the judge’s chair is bolted to the floor so he or she is always sitting in two states.

Texarkansans consider it all one place, where eight railroads and four U.S. highways once converged. Yet the “beer joint” side of town, where it’s legal to sell liquor, wine, and beer, is “wet.” And the other side is “dry.” Shockingly, given the state’s saloon-and-gunfighter image, the dry side is in Texas.

And the Skies are Not Cloudy All Day

Tejas. Friendship. As the song goes, Texans are at “home on the range,” where “seldom is heard a discouraging word.” Their history of relentless entrepreneurship would confirm that Texans are doers. Work now. Work hard. Talk later. After, all, on the open range, far from town, neighbors still need each other’s help stringing fences, raising barns, or mounting posses to chase outlaws. (Well, maybe not the outlaw part so much any more.) Water, long before oil, was precious, and when a stranger stopped at your well after a long, hard ride, you welcomed him and offered a meal. Glad to help. No questions asked. Nothing expected in return.

Texans knew all about “diversity” before it became a buzzword. The flags of six nations, including France, Spain, Mexico, the brief American southern confederacy, and, for nine years ending in 1845, a sovereign Republic of Texas, have flown over the land. The state and the Dallas football team get their Lone Star symbols – and Texas its nickname – from the star on the Texas Republic’s flag.

At one time in Texas, one could count 25 distinct tribes of American Indians, including fierce Comanche and Apache raiders, as well as thousands of African slaves. “Seminole Negroes,” the product of escaped black slaves and renegade Seminole Indians who hid together in Florida swamps and later settled in Texas and Oklahoma, became legendary scouts for the U.S. Army during the western Indian Wars of the late 1800s.

We’re Rich! We’re Rich!

When Anthony Lucas, an Austrian-born mining engineer, struck oil on Spindletop Hill, the gusher spewed for nine days until the well was capped.
The “discovery” of oil with the eruption of the 60-meter-high Lucas gusher, at the Spindletop oil field near Beaumont on January 10, 1901 at 10:30 a.m., turned Texas into a boom state and changed it forever. I put “discovery” in quotation marks because oil had lain in plain sight in pools, under the very noses of Texans, for decades. Indians used it for potions, and it annoyed settlers who, searching for water, had to drill through it. But “black gold” would bring fortune, international fame, and larger-than-life characters to cities like Dallas and Houston, which became shooting stars in the exploding Sunbelt.

Spindletop ushered in an Energy Age, a population explosion, and a dramatic spike in Texas’s political power. Texans soon ran big energy companies (that “big” word again), the Congress of the United States, and the White House after Lyndon Johnson succeeded to the presidency following John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas in 1963. And in 1992, H. Ross Perot, a billionaire Texas businessman, ran the most successful – in percentage of popular votes – third-party campaign for president in American history. (Gasp! He is a Texan who is not so big. Perot stands just 1.68 meters tall.)

You Want Variety?

Each spring, “bluebonnet trails” in Central Texas attract thousands of wildflower enthusiasts. The flower (or its cousin) also pops up in a cheery red in some places.
One could certainly carve up Texas on a map the way we draw the cuts of meat on a steer: piney woods in the humid northeast, tallgrass prairies along the Oklahoma border, flatlands and mesquite-scrub plains west of the Pecos River and in the “Panhandle” that reaches northward to the Colorado Rockies, enchanting hills ablaze with bluebonnets each spring in the hills around San Antonio, Louisiana-like bayous to the southeast, brush country and vast rangeland in far-south Texas.

Out of graduate school, I lived for two years in Wichita Falls, across the Red River from Oklahoma. It’s a sister city of Fürstenfeldbruck in Bavaria. That’s apropos of nothing, but it’s fun to write “Fürstenfeldbruck.”

Wichita Falls is a military town (Sheppard Air Force Base) – kind of down on its luck andrough around the edges – but God-fearing. Lubbock, to the west, may have the most churches per capita in the nation, and Houston the largest church, but Wichita Falls holds its own with the Lord. Its nickname is “The City That Faith Built.” And it’s a good thing, since some of the meanest tornadoes in U.S. history have dipped out of roiling black clouds to level parts of the town. One twister in 1979 left 20,000 people – one-fifth of the city’s population – homeless. When I lived there in the 1960s, we got only hot, relentless winds from the west, carrying what seemed like half of the Panhandle’s gritty soil. These red-dust “blows” turned our car and house and hair a hideous salmon hue. Wichita Falls was also the first and last place in my life where a fist-sized tarantula spider walked across my kitchen counter.

Flat, Dry, and Far Away

A quirky sight on the Cadillac Ranch along historic U.S. Highway 66 near Amarillo is a graffiti artists’ delight called the “Ant Farm.” Beyond it is nothing but Panhandle flat land.
A quick word about the Texas Panhandle. As big as the entire state of Indiana, it remains unabashed cowboy country. Cowboy hats, trophy belts, and boots are as thick as grasshoppers in Amarillo. In the logo of the city that calls itself the “Real Texas,” two boots take the place of the double-L’s in Amarillo’s name. And little wonder: In 1893, its population was officially listed as “between 500-600 humans and 50,000 head of cattle.” One-fourth of the nation’s beef is shipped from Amarillo, and at the city’s Big (what else?) Texan steakhouse, diners eat free if they can finish a two-kilogram steak the size of a small roast, plus bread, a salad, and a small dessert in an hour.

The historic sign outside, and the steaks inside, the Big Texan in Amarillo live up to the name.
Almost no one succeeds. I’m a big guy, was plenty hungry, and had deliberately skipped lunch the day I gave it a shot. I got about halfway through the hunk of steer before capitulating with a groan. It was little comfort to learn that it’s little old grandmothers and tiny young women, mostly, who have polished off the whole slab of meat. My internist will have to explain that one to me.

So the Panhandle is cowboy-real. For cowboy chic, you’ll need to hit Dallas or Austin or the Fort Worth line-dancing clubs I mentioned a couple of posts ago. The only similarities between today’s edgy, pulsating “alternative cowboy” music and the gentle old western yodels of Gene Autry or the Sons of the Pioneers are the boots and hats.

Playin’ With the Big Boys

Shimmering Dallas is the economic hub of a 12-county “Metroplex” that also includes the legendary “cow town” of Fort Worth, about which I wrote a while back.
Today’s Texas cowboys have plenty of company when they get to town. Six of America’s top-20 cities are now in Texas: Houston (4), San Antonio (8), Dallas (9), Austin (16), Fort Worth (18), and El Paso (20). And three of them – Houston, San Antonio, and El Paso – regularly rank among the nation’s fattest cities as rated by Men’s Fitness and other magazines.

They have large Latino populations for whom homemade tamales and enchiladas prepared in lard and covered in cheese and rich, fatty gravy are everyday, irresistible fare. Irresistible to gringos, too, I can attest. And there’s a paucity of public parks for exercise. Little wonder: these are stifling-hot places where a “run in the park” has a great deal less appeal than a brisk trot through the Boston Common.

The River Walk provides a respite for conventioneers. A full story beneath street level, the enclave was created over several decades along the San Antonio River.
Word from the U.S. surgeon general that 30 percent of San Antonians are obese prompted that city’s director of health to launch a “Don’t Super-size San Antonio” campaign. (Super-sizing is a term for ordering Texas-big portions of fattening fast food.)

The beautifully shaded River Walk, San Antonio’s biggest attraction save for the historic Alamo, looks like the ideal, relatively cool strolling paradise at which to get some weight off. But it’s more of a fairyland – a Venice of the American West – festooned with lounge chairs and umbrellas.

Mexican mariachi bands serenade as tour boats glide past its cobblestone walkways, and tourists sip Shiner beer and stiffer drinks,
Space Center Houston is a showcase for America’s space program. This interactive visitor center for NASA’s Johnson Space Center includes this shuttle mock-up.
including prickly pear margaritas made from the fermented juice of the cactus pear. In times like these, who wants to jog?

Texas leads the nation in oil, beef, and cotton production. And you surely know about its vital role in the space industry: doesn’t every astronaut’s call from space begin with “Houston . . . .”?

Look under “Texas crops,” and you can hardly see an end to the list: Beets. Spinach. Oranges. Pistachio nuts. Marijuana. (Just checking to see if you’re still with me.) Texas has more floral varieties than any other state, and a greater assortment of reptiles than anywhere else in the land.

Meet Dasypus novemcinctus

In San Angelo, “Jalepeño Sam” Lewis raises armadillos for racing. Not that they move very fast. One wag called the little burrowing animals “anteaters on the half shell.”
That brings me back to my friend Bob, who grumps, “They’ve commercialized everything in Texas.

Even armadillos are tourist attractions. We knew them as road kill.” (Some, even more unkindly, call them “Texas speed bumps.”)

Stop! Don’t write to remind me that armadillos are not reptiles. They’re homely little mammals with pointy snouts and leathery skin.

(Their scaly likenesses do make cute stuffed animals, though, Bob.)


And getting back to the Bush family and their love of the Texas lake country: Just as Lyndon and
Big Bend National Park includes the most scenic portion of the Rio Grande River, which forms more than 1,500 kilometers of the border between Mexico and the United States.
Lady Bird Johnson could not wait to get home to the LBJ Ranch on the Pedernales River down hill-country way, it can be noted that Texas has not a single snow-covered peak, no incredible waterfalls, no rain forest or particularly memorable babbling mountain stream. There are striking red-rock canyons down along the Rio Grande River in Big Bend National Park, but that’s forever from anywhere. Carol and I found it once and photographed it, and I think we’re still paying for the gasoline it took to get there.

No doubt the Bushes and the Johnsons, and even my friend Blachly when he’s in a better mood, have been drawn not to the grandiosity of Texas, but to its “small packages,” as photographer George Oxford Miller wrote in 1991. He found “fields of flowers unblemished by footprints, air unadulterated with human additives, stars undimmed by city lights, and the uninterrupted sounds of nature.” Simple pleasures in a brash, beautiful – and big – place.


Did you ever read a Zane Grey western novel or see an American western movie? What impressions did it leave?


On my last post, Giang commented:

"Dear Ted,
"I like your blog. I also like to make blog but I don't know some technic to make a nice blog like yours. So, would you like to show me some technic.
Thank you."

Here's what I told her in reply:

"Thanks, Giang. I created my blog using Creating a blog using doesn’t cost money. You simply need to set up a Google account and choose a name for your blog. offers several templates for you to customize your site. You can pick the color, theme and layout of your blog. You also can add extra features like photo slide shows – check out my wife’s photos of Texas on my current homepage. We have modified the basic Blogger template using HTML code. This takes some time to learn, but you can find out about HTML by searching the Web or checking out the help center for suggestions. Good luck with YOUR blog, and please tell your friends about MINE!"

Keep those questions and suggestions coming!



(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word in today's blog that you'd like me to explain, just ask!)

Back 40. Undeveloped land next to a cultivated spread. The “40” refers to acres, though the actual size is often smaller or larger. Why 40 acres – about 16 hectares? The use of that figure may trace to the “40 acres and a mule” promised to freed African-American slaves at the end of the U.S. Civil War of the 1860s. Very few former slaves ever got such land or mules.

Dirigibles. Slow-moving, lighter-than-air craft filled with a lifting gas and steered by rudders and small propellers. Those without skeletal frameworks are called “blimps.” Rigid, hydrogen-filled airships such as the massive Zeppelins of the mid-20th century all but disappeared following several terrible explosions. Today’s dirigibles are filled with inert helium gas.

Festooned. Lavishly decorated. The word traces to the noun festoon: a garland of leaves or flowers. So if you want to literally festoon something, string a pretty chain of petunias or pine branches along it.

Paucity. A scarcity. Usually people understand you better if you just say you don’t have very many of something.

Posse. A group of citizens called together, usually by the local sheriff, for a common cause like chasing down desperados on the run. The word derives from the common English law posse comitatus, or the right to conscript male citizens 18 years and older to assist in keeping the peace.

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Friday, October 17, 2008


It’s been 23 years since I left New Orleans, and still, to quote the Eddie De Lange and Louis Alter song of half a century ago, I know what it means to miss “New Orleens.” Oh yeah, I know.

This old postcard view captures the Pontalba Apartments, built by Baroness Michaela Pontalba, who also convinced city officials to turn Jackson Square into a European-style pleasure garden
Louis Armstrong sang it more soulfully than I can tell it:

“I know I’m not wrong... this feeling’s gettin’ stronger / The longer, I stay away.”

As have others across the generations who have dashed under the block-long balcony of the Pontalba, North America’s oldest apartment building (1850), to skirt a Jackson Square downpour, I was smitten beyond redemption by languid, decadent New Orleans. Even one-time tourists commonly fall in love with the Crescent City – so named because the Mississippi River wraps so outrageously around it that the sun actually rises on the west bank, and South Rampart Street finds itself upriver of North Rampart.

Those downpours – which can be a mere block long while the sun shines brightly down the street – have carried sorrows ever since, in a death roar, the breached levees of Hurricane Katrina drowned the city two Augusts ago.

Town of Tribulations

Strip-club lights illuminate Bourbon Street in the French Quarter. In the distance, Hibernia Bank tower lights approximate the Mardi Gras colors of purple, green, and gold.
But sorrow was no stranger even then. New Orleans knew it well from yellow fever epidemics and Civil War occupation and mournful “jazz funeral” processions, when brass bands en route to the cemetery would play the St. James Infirmary Blues, then cut loose with joyful, high-stepping riffs on the way back home.

On the streets of the French Quarter, and in a few clubs like Preservation Hall, they still play Dixieland jazz, but, to my ear, with not quite the conviction of old. The musicians, and the wounded city, are going through the motions for the tourist trade.

Legendary Dixieland clarinetist Pete Fountain is not a national landmark, but comes close. Now 78, he still performs but no longer leads his “Half-Fast Marching Band” in parades
The St. Charles Avenue streetcar line, one of only two U.S. National Landmarks that moves – San Francisco’s cable cars are the other – is running again, and visitors mill anew among the cemetery mausoleums in the New Orleans’s creepy, above-ground “cities of the dead.” Habitués of Gallatoire’s Restaurant (founded 1897) are busy buttering crunchy French bread to dip into their sauce rémoulade over shrimp. Others agreeably wait their turn for a table at Antoine’s (1840), gaily sprinkle Tabasco sauce onto eggs à la hussarde and sip brandy milk punch during breakfast at Brennan’s (1946), guzzle sweet and potent “hurricane” drinks in plastic souvenir glasses at Pat O’Brien’s bar (1933), and warily check out gris-gris dolls on Dumaine Street at New Orleans’s Historic Voodoo Museum. (I’m not sure when that place opened; I’ll let you go in and ask.)

Cursed Katrina

This was what the floodwaters loosed by broken levees during Hurricane Katrina left behind in the Lower Ninth Ward
But sadness hovers still. A third of the people who fled in a hurry after Katrina remain elsewhere and are not likely to be back. Businesses by the hundreds, large and small, are gone as well, especially in the Lower Ninth Ward – the city’s poorest district – which Katrina floodwaters obliterated down to cinder blocks and a few staircases that lead to nowhere.

As my middle daughter, Juliette Landphair, dean of Westhampton College at the University of Richmond, wrote in an article about “the Forgotten People of New Orleans” in the December 2007 Journal of American History, “As the weeks passed and the water drained away, rotting corpses, shattered houses, and muck-caked tricycles rested in the silence.” A Tulane University graduate in history, Juliette, like the rest of the family, had lived in and loved New Orleans, which we all likened to America’s Paris, or at least Marseilles.

The Lower Ninth Ward is a wasteland still. Relief tents remain all over town, and you see kindhearted volunteers from across America still hammering and drywalling and whistling optimistic tunes. New Orleanians parade and stage festivals again, but not more of them than there are days in the year as they once did. But the City That Care Forgot may never again be the place where laissez les bon temps rouler – let the good times roll! – was a way of life. Cares blew in with Katrina and stayed.

Infiltration of Influences

Ronnie Virgets prepares to indulge in a favorite New Orleans activity – eating, in this case oysters (he pronounces it “ER-sters”) on the half shell – at Casamento’s Seafood Restaurant
Nor, any longer, does New Orleans “simmer in its isolation” as my friend, the legendary New Orleans raconteur and racetrack regular Ronnie Virgets, once put it. Ronnie lost everything in Katrina, most poignantly a lifetime of wonderful essay scripts and TV commentary tapes, and barely escaped with his life. He was among those rescued from the Interstate-10 highway overpass above the deluge.

New Orleans has been changed in other, subtle ways. The arrival of northern transplants like me, the imposition of syndicated radio formats and TV anchorpeople from Illinois and Oklahoma and the like, and the influx of contractors and aid workers – including many Latinos into a city that had known very few of them – have overwhelmed many of the city’s cherished idiosyncrasies, including these:
  • Nicknames like “Moon” (Landrieu, a mayor), “Pud” (Jones a legendary jazz musician), and “Ruthie the Duck Girl,” (a French Quarter wanderer). In New Orleans, “You don’t want your friends’ children to call you by your first name, but ‘Mr. Marrero’ or “Mrs. Schexsnaidre’ seems too formal,” writes S. Frederick Starr in a book I will describe later. “So you become ‘Mr. Pud’ or ‘Mrs. Banana.’”

  • Strong coffee laced with chicory – an herb so bitter that New Orleans’s brew must be served with frothy milk to be palatable.
The elegant Garden District, where many sugar plantation owners built homes in the 1800s, came through Katrina with relatively minor damage
“Yat” accents (as in “Where Y’at?) that sound more Brooklyn, New Yorky, than French or deep southern. In the blue-collar West Bank across the Mississippi from New Orleans’s elegant Garden District, people “woik” rather than work, change the “earl” in their automobiles, and “make groceries” at the Piggly Wiggly store, sometimes on the day that they pronounce as “Sundi.” They don’t call it New ORR-lee-uns, as does the Uptown crowd, or New ORR-lins the way tourists and I do, or N’Awlins, as many black folks in town prefer. In Harvey and Gretna and Marrero on the West Bank, it’s “New-WALL-yunz.” And by the way, nobody anywhere in town, save for some executive chefs and university dandies, speaks French any more. Nor is New Orleans “Cajun” French. Acadian French is spoken well to the west, cher, in the bayou country of Southwest Louisiana.

The long causeway between New Orleans and the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain used to be more of a commuter route than it is today.
Those streets that wind so crazily with the curve of the river that, try as you might, you can’t go east or south or north or west. You can get somewhere only by heading river-bound or lake-bound – the lake being Pontchartrain, a brackish body second in size among America’s saltwater lakes to Utah’s Great Salt Lake. The world’s longest causeway over water runs 38.5 kilometers from New Orleans to Pontchartrain’s woodsy North Shore, to which thousands of people from Orleans and St. Bernard parishes scrambled ahead of Katrina. Many, many stayed put, congesting highways and shopping centers and schools.

Spearmint is one of the best-selling flavors of New Orleans sno-balls, not to be confused with sno-cones. Sno-cones are made with crushed ice; special machines shave the ice for sno-ball
A cardiac disaster of a diet, including fried-oyster “po-boy” sandwiches slathered in mayonnaise; praline candy that is little more than crystallized sugar, and “sno-ball” shaved ice cones doused in sticky-sweet flavored syrups.


(Gastronomic aside: Elsewhere in America, people talk about the weather. In New Orleans, people talk about food. There’s an old saying in town: “When you go to breakfast, you talk about lunch and think about dinner.” Even basic peasant food like slow-cooked red beans and sausage over rice is so delectable that people travel hundreds of kilometers to taste it. I know that I do, every chance I get. Ask me about muffulettas sometime.)


And as long as I’m interrupting myself, I should note that that jaunty chapeaux that you see in my photo is no “cowboy hat.” Having stuck a fleur-de-lis, the lily-flower symbol of New Orleans, smack in the front of it, I prefer to think of it as my “Louisiana swamp hat.”

A Piquant Gumbo

But bruised, diminished, and dejected though it is, New Orleans is still seductive, still a mélange of international backgrounds and tastes and sounds, still a “checkerboard city” where blacks and whites and now Hispanics live cheek by jowl, often eying each other warily but mixing like long-lost relatives at a family reunion any time there’s a festival or parade.

The Queen City of the South seemed destined to be colorful. Peaceful Choctaw Indians eked out a living on the little high ground they could find above steamy, mosquito- and gator-infested swamps until the remnants of a Spanish expedition passed by in retreat from the upper Mississippi in the 1500s. More than a century later, René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, sailed the length of the river from the Great Lakes, came upon the fertile land near the Gulf of Mexico, and claimed it – and all the territory drained by the Mississippi clear to Canada – for France. He named it all “Louisiana” in honor of Louis XIV, the Sun King. Two other sieurs (sirs), Bienville and Iberville, founded and named the first settlement, La Nouvelle Orléans – New Orleans – for which they are remembered with street names in the French Quarter.

The Vibrant Vieux Carré

Fire destroyed much of the French Quarter during the 38 years of Spanish rule in the late 1700s. Rebuilding ushered in the Spanish style, including ornate wrought-iron balconies
That little quadrant of narrow streets; lacy, wrought-iron balconies; beer halls and imitation-jazz joints; fine-art galleries as well as topless/bottomless tourist traps is less French today than Spanish in architecture, owing to the days when Spain ran the town in the 1700s before turning it back to France. Then in 1803, Napoleon Bonaparte gave up on his colonial Louisiana outpost as well. For a territory that instantly doubled the size of their young country, Americans paid $11 million in U.S. bonds.

So you see, New Orleans drips with history as well as plump drops of tropical rain. And a lot has transpired since rowdy Americans moved in: the rise to prominence and wealth of mixed-race “Creoles of color” despite the thriving trade in black African slaves at Congo Square; Yankee occupation during our civil war; the growth of brazenly corrupt political machines – white and black; an oil boom more than 160 kilometers downriver, out in the Gulf of Mexico, for which Orleans and surrounding parishes supplied most of the boats and crews and gear.

Cotton was king in the Deep South in the 19th century, and New Orleans was a boom port. In the first half of that century, one of the imports was human beings during the slave trade
Eventually someone figured a way to sink pilings into the city’s soupy soil. That made possible office towers and chain hotels and the mega-enormous Superdome stadium, whose squalor as the Hurricane Katrina evacuation site in 2006 earned the city worldwide disdain.

Jazz was a back-o’-town New Orleans creation, too, though most artists had to go to New York or Chicago or Nashville to find someone with the money and studio to record it. Jazz began as music of the streets and small clubs. The first sensational personas of the sound were Buddy Bolden and his African-American ensemble in 1895. But plenty of white musicians, especially Italian and Sicilian immigrants, also played “ratty music,” “gut bucket,” and “ragtime,” as they called it, with flair and distinction.

New Orleans Dixieland-style jazz used to be a fixture in clubs through the French Quarter. But as tastes change, one can find everything from country to heavy metal there as well
This improvisational, unscripted style of music, where musicians often do not read from a sheet but memorize their parts and embellish them in wild solos, was quite different from the intricately scripted ragtime of W.C. Handy up the Mississippi. Many Dixieland-jazz musicians were and are superb readers of music, but the “faking” style became so popular that some skilled players had to “unskill” themselves and learn to improvise.

And let us not dare to omit Mardi Gras, or “Fat Tuesday,” the culmination of New Orleans’s month-long Carnival, a phantasmic celebration unmatched in North America. That Tuesday is “fat” because it’s the last day before the forty-day Christian Lent, with a thin tie to the ancient times when a fatted calf was slaughtered and everyone feasted while the feasting was good.
In New Orleans (and Mobile, Alabama, and Galveston, Texas, which stage smaller Mardi Gras fests), this thin pretext for a party morphed into amazing pageantries and spectacular overindulgences that end precisely at Mardi Gras midnight, upon which the city turns magically somber – and clean – for the Catholic Ash Wednesday holiday.

This photo gives you a good idea of the time and expense involved in preparing Mardi Gras floats and costumes. Some floats become crowd favorites and reappear almost unchanged every year
Anyone who has absorbed America’s greatest free show will describe the elaborate New Orleans Carnival parades and floats – some of them three decks high and blindingly illuminated – with fanciful themes such as “Gypsy Revelers”; masked riders throwing cheap beads and doubloons and other trifles; elegant coronation balls; several degrees of naughty and flamboyant displays of French Quarter nudity; a separate “gay Mardi Gras,” also in the French Quarter, where it’s not unusual to see such creative triumphs as a marching box of Crayola crayons; and “truck parades, where ordinary folk deck out flatbed vehicles in their neighborhoods, putter along behind the official processions, and toss out used beads and trinkets from yesteryear.

The organizations, called “krewes,” including Bacchus, Endymion, Zeus, and Orpheus, that sponsor the most lavish Carnival processions, love to flaunt Homeric symbolism. They fund every shred of their extravaganzas, down to paying the marching bands and flambeaux carriers whose torches brighten the path for the nighttime parades.

Masked riders prepare to toss trinkets to the crowd from an elaborate Carnival float. In the early days, mules pulled the floats. Now, tractors or small trucks do
My particular fascination with Mardi Gras stems from the make-believe aspect of it all – the suspension of ordinary mature reason and refinement, and the eagerness of grown adults to engage in dress-up childs’ play. Almost from the moment that next year’s Mardi Gras ends, at midnight February 24, krewes will set to planning, building and redecorating floats, and picking their fantasy kings, queens, dukes, and masked parade captains and riders for the 2010 month-long Carnival season. And every detail will be eagerly recorded in the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper and in broadcast reports. Recession? Foreign wars? Who cares?! Muses – one of the few all-female Krewes – is announcing its parade theme! (It would be hard to top “Muses Reach the Terrible Twos” from 2002).

One prominent citizen, usually a wealthy businessman, gladly slips into tights and a crown and a bejeweled jacket to ride the streets of New Orleans as Rex, King of Mardi Gras. The exact date moves around between early February – when even a rare snowflake is possible in New Orleans – and springlike early March. The fluctuation is due to the wanderings of Ash Wednesday, which falls 40 days before the ever-moving Easter Holiday.

A New Orleans business leader may be a reserved and private person. But if he’s – and it’s always a man – chosen to be Rex, King of Carnival, he leads the city in revelry for a day
“Hail, Rex!,” the masses will shout. And, more cravenly and often, “Throw me somethin’, mistuh,” with arms held high in hopes of snagging beads, doubloons, a cheap plastic cup, or a prized Krewe of Zulu painted coconut. The time-honored best strategy for bringing home booty is to plant an adorable toddler or a busty beauty on a ladder along the parade route.

If you thought you had business in New Orleans, Louisiana, next February 24th, you don’t. Half the city will be out on the streets in colorful masks and bizarre costumes, parading and picnicking and drinking – it’s allowed from plastic containers, any day of the year – and hollering for beads. The other half will be out of town, avoiding the tumult.

Mass Catharsis

“Mardi Gras is the best thing for the psyche since the long defunct but now partially resurrected local soft drink, Dr. Nut,” wrote Frederick Starr in New Orleans Unmasqued, a series of insightful vignettes that is one of my treasured possessions. Already a fine clarinetist in Cincinnati, Ohio, Starr was riding the riverboats and playing his horn at age 16, all the way down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to New Orleans. He ended up there and was writing New Orleans Unmasqued as a Tulane University vice president when I was there in the early 1980s.

Check out the rest of his paragraph about Mardi Gras:

“Is it not vulgar and tasteless nonetheless? Some learned professors of revelry answer yes, yes, a thousand times yes. They wallow in the sleaziness of the streets, the tawdry masques, the drunkenness. All vulgarity is not equal, they say. Mardi Gras is the genuine article, true-life vulgarity rather than the fake and sanitized version dished up to American homes by television. It’s real, and therefore good.”

Or if not good, still a useful release from the daily woe in a city that care forgot but has lately visited too often.


Have you seen a street spectacle comparable to Mardi Gras? Carnival in Rio, perhaps? Tell me about it.


(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word in today's blog that you'd like me to explain, just ask!)

Gris-gris. Voodoo charms or talismans. They are usually small cloth bags, sometimes made in Voodoo rituals when the bags are filled with herbs and spooky stuff like hair and bone bits. Louisiana Voodoo is a folk religion, steeped in the traditions of Africa and French Haiti, and full of mysterious rituals. Having a gris-gris handy is supposed to keep evil spirits and bad luck away. However, “putting on the gris-gris” is said to have just the opposite effect. It casts a spell on the unsuspecting.

Muffelettas. Pronounced muffa-LOTT-uhs, these are tasty, often toasted, sandwiches in rounded bread loaves. Invented by a New Orleans Sicilian grocer, they are filled with authentic Italian meats and a spicy olive salad. Note: While New Orleanians spread mayonnaise on just about every other sandwich, including roast-beef po-boys, they recoil at the thought of mayo on a muffuletta.

Parishes. The French divided Louisiana into parishes, in the fashion of the Roman Catholic Church. When Americans took over, they never bothered to change the arrangement. So Loo-see-anna is the only U.S. state without counties.

Phantasmic. Dreamlike, illusory. If you see a phantom, you’ve had a phantasmic experience.

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