we’re employee owned

I am now, and have always been an obnoxiously law-abiding person. In fact it goes even further; I am squeaky clean in really anything that involves record keeping. I never once got a detention, I’ve never had a cavity, and I waited to be 21 years old to have my first sip of beer. Because of this flawless record, you can imagine how annoyed I am that my name exists on one, singular blacklist. The saddest thing is that it’s not even an impressive or controversial blacklist: I’ve been banned from a chain of rural, Southeastern Wisconsin grocery stores.

To make the entire situation even less impressive, I did nothing wrong, in fact the manager of the Woodman’s Grocery in Oak Creek, Wisconsin even admitted that. I am blacklisted from this grocery stores of reasons of sheer prejudice and stubbornness. About two years ago I was having a party at my apartment to welcome all of the new graduate students to town, and I had been told by multiple people I needed to go to Woodman’s because their prices were unbelievable. I had heard of this grocery chain through a smattering of miserably produced late night commercials on cable TV. The commercials were of that genre that they were so bad they ended up being engaging and moderately hilarious. Their formula was simple: a scrappy old man named Phil Woodman was followed around his store by a hand-held camera, excitedly fondling items that were on sale that week. He would always end the commercial by explaining his prices were low because “we’re employee owned!”. This didn’t make any sense to me but I was too distracted by the poor lighting, shaky camera work, and awful background music to think much of it. I could just picture the old, bony, Phil Woodman, meticulously producing these awful commercials, like a rural Martin Scorsese. His camera crew was probably made up of oily, pimply, 16-year old deli counter workers looking for an extra 15 bucks and “resume material”.

My first and last trip to Woodman’s turned into quite an event, my car loaded up with my best friends and an empty trunk to fill with discounted beer and liquor. Pulling up to Woodman’s had a certain Disney World feel to it. The parking lot’s lanes had themes to help you remember where you parked, and Phil Woodman greeted you on every sign, like a wrinkled Mickey Mouse. At a first glance, this massive grocery store was quite impressive. They had ever kind of booze you could dream up, and the prices were so cheap that you could develop a booze habit for less than drinking soda pop. Woodman’s also rewarded your alcoholism by giving you free pint glasses and bottle openers if you bought enough. I packed up my shopping cart like a frat boy preparing to get the whole town wasted: beer, cheap liquor, and a bottle of wine for the elitists that felt cooler for drinking pinot while everyone else feasts on High Life. I had a wad of cash burning  hole in my pocket. Earlier in the week I had pulled up tree stumps in an elderly woman’s back yard, and had no desire to let this hard-earned money pay any legitimate bills. After making sure we had secured enough alcohol for maximum frivolity, we headed towards the cashier, a high school kid named Raul. I remember wondering in that moment who names a kid in small-town Wisconsin Raul. Perhaps his parents were Spanish impresarios, or his mother wanted her son to be the token Mexican in a soap opera one day. Raul scanned all of my bottles and six-packs, and then said the words that would be my downfall: “Can I see some ID?”. I pulled out my Texas driver’s licence, which caused him to do a long double take and pause awkwardly. He then went on to study my ID like a fat kid gazing at taffy; bending it, flicking it, and holding it up to the light. After he did this for what felt like 20 minutes he cleared his throat and looked at me resolutely: “This is a fake ID”. I gave him a puzzled look, and replied, “no, it’s not”. Raul smirked at me, with a look of “gotcha” in his brow, “Then where is the hologram?”. I understood his issue now; Wisconsin IDs have a massive hologram on them, and he was looking for this on my Texas ID. I suddenly pondered that Raul had never seen a Texas driver’s licence before, which made me feel wonderfully exotic. I contemplated picking up a sudden southern drawl to heighten his experience but I then remembered he was questioning my age and character at the moment. As calmly as I could I informed Raul that Texas IDs don’t have holograms. Without even listening to me he looked to the next person in line, deliberately ignoring me and asking the next person “Can I help you?”. I couldn’t believe this, even though Raul’s behavior didn’t surprise me. He was obviously an overly religious high school kid, just dying to prove something. By standing up to me he was being a hero, sparing me from Satan in the form of Schlitz and Malibu. He would go to church the next Sunday and get a pat on the back from his minister for putting an end to underage drinking and debauchery.

Since the next person in line was my friend Melissa I cut back into the conversation, “My ID isn’t a fake, who is your manager?”. He again ignored me, until the situation got worse when he asked to see Melissa’s ID. Melissa is from New York, and if you’ve ever seen a New York driver’s licence you know where this is going. New York IDs naturally look like fakes. They are flimsy and cardboard-like, grainy, and look like they were designed by a high school kid in a desktop publishing class. With this background, and the fact that Melissa looks to be about 14 years old, you can only imagine what Raul did. He denied Melissa her six-pack of hard lemonade, and again, looked to the next customer, shunning us. I eventually gave up on Raul and walked into the main part of the store.

I desperately wanted to talk to some upper management, and quickly spotted a large, bearded man wearing a tie. I assumed the tie meant he had more influence and authority than Raul, so this seemed like a start. I explained the situation to him, with Melissa adding details for dramatic effect. I reached to show him my ID when he finally spoke, saying “I don’t need to see that”. I was so relieved, he obviously believed me and trusted me. He then finished his sentence, “I don’t need to see that because I don’t have to sell you anything I don’t want to”. I paused and breathed deeply through my nose, attempting to stay collected as I realized that this manager was as dense and inbred as Raul was. Trying to sound self-righteous I blurted out, “what gives YOU that right?”. The manager then took a deep breath like I had moments before, and pulled up his pants and stretched his neck like district attorneys do on television when they are about to lay down the law: “I have that right because we are employee owned!”

I paused. Did he really pull out that slogan? The same slogan that Phil uses on the commercials to explain his unbeatable prices? I stormed out of the store, causing a scene shamelessly, yelling at him, Raul, and other cashiers we passed. As I left the manager informed me that I was no longer welcome at Woodman’s, to which I replied “your mom is employee owned!”

As we drove back to the city, it wasn’t the lack of alcohol in my trunk that angered me, it was the principal of all of the events that had just transpired. Do we really still live in a world where somebody can choose who and who not to sell to? Last time I checked this was called prejudice in most states, and I had been denied service not for being a certain gender, creed, or color, but for being a Texan. If being “employee owned” is basically a mantra for “we can do whatever the hell we want”, then I’m not sure that is a grocery store I would want to visit anyway. By specifically not being corporate, Raul and the bearded man were even worse to a customer, not because of any issues of fake IDs but because of their urge to defend their right to do what they please. This is the same inflated sense of pride that has caused regime changes in Europe, religious extremism, and much of George Bush’s logic.

On the way home we passed a really dank and depressing liquor store across the block from Woodman’s. We went in and were greeted by two brothers, who smiled upon our entrance and warmly asked us how they could assist. We ended up having a long conversation with the two men, telling them the whole story of what happened. They couldn’t believe it, and told us that they were glad we had found our way to their store. Their alcohol may have cost a few more dollars, but every additional penny was worth it to help 2 men that wanted nothing more than to assist people, not feed their own egos. No matter what we do with our days, as musicians, astronauts, or grocers, it is our foremost job to be good to people. We are the spark in each other’s lives, the catalysts that push each other to where we belong, and we are each other’s reason for living. So often we put on a name tag and an authority role and forget that. If we were good to each other in the first place, there would be nothing to prove. It would be about living, laughing, and selling affordable alcohol to Texans and New Yorkers.


loving fall. falling in love.

Fall is one of the few things on earth that is impossible to be taken for granted. I never will because I grew up in a part of the country where fall doesn’t exist. My parents would tell stories about this season, mentioning it with affection and a hint of remorse, like a mystical long-lost city or a deceased relative. Most people find it impossible to take fall for granted because they know that winter is next, a season where all that is green will die in the most dramatic fashion.

This is an unfair labeling of winter because by the time the snow falls, most plants have already died. In fact, the final weeks of fall, the time of the year that to many is the most scenic, is when most of the dying takes place. Sometimes I wish people acted more like trees when they know that the end is near. People overanalyze, they get greedy, and they desperately try to memorialize themselves. Trees spend their final weeks making their finest creations, fearlessly spilling reds, yellows, and oranges onto broad canvases. It’s like watching a New Orleans funeral, with color everywhere not to mask death, but to celebrate it. Trees everywhere proclaim “let’s spread joy, we’re almost out of time”.

It is ironic that so many of us fall in love this time of year, the months where most life ceases to exist. It would be easy to say we cling to each other for simple reasons: warmth, a lack of interest in going to bars, or Christmas presents. The reasons are far more complex than this. I think we fall in love at the end of fall because love requires that same reckless abandon that we witness in all of the trees as they breathe their final breath. We spill out the red of a yearning heart, the yellow of companionship, and the orange of fiery passion, just as every tree does. We find this in others now of all times because our leaves fall: warm, welcoming, and exposed. This is why we can’t take fall for granted. The earth dies a little as winter strikes, but we continue to live. The reds, yellows, and oranges open our eyes to the hearts of each other, someone to live with and live for when the earth grows cold.

introducing debbie downer.

When I was in graduate school there were two different bus routes that went from my apartment to the university. They were a fascinating study in sociology because they arrived in the exact same place but went through two very different neighborhoods, picking up different kinds of people. The “30-MARYLAND” went through a once splendid neighborhood that had now been infested with stinky undergraduates in search of housing under 500 dollars a month. What were once opulent Milwaukee mansions were now collegiate tenements, packing sometimes over 10 co-eds into once beautiful old homes. If you were to peek through one of the living room windows in 1924 you would have found an adorable, wealthy family, probably listening to their favorite stories on a GE radio. If you were to peek through that same window now you would see a shirtless 19-year old hitting a beer bong while his stoned girlfriend eats peanut butter out of the jar, cruising facebook on a soiled futon. These same exemplary citizens would then join you on the “30-MARYLAND” bus, crowding your personal space with breath that smelled of cheap whiskey and pop tarts.

To quite the contrary, the “30-DOWNER” route was a charming jaunt. First you would pass the old water tower, and then briefly catch a glimpse of Lake Michigan. It would sparkle back at you, saying good morning and wishing you only the finest fortunes for the day. You then passed a locally owned bookshop, a neighborhood hardware store, and a beautifully kept market. All along the way the “30-DOWNER” picked up lovely elderly people from sporadically placed retirement homes in the surrounding neighborhood. I loved all the old people because you could tell the bus ride was the most exhilarating 14 minutes of their day. Since they probably weren’t going to college, I assumed that many of them just rode the bus for something to do, or perhaps a warm place to sit. They were always completely dressed up, and in the winter they wore fur coats, like they were going to the opera. On particularly lucky days one of these elderly women would engage you in conversation, an activity that usually was awkward by the time it was done but was better than just listening to your ipod. The thing that stuck with me about the conversations with the old ladies were how brutally honest they were. It was almost heartbreaking, how blunt and forthcoming a fellow passenger could be about having cancer, or the recent death of a loved one. Sometimes the brutal honesty was quite amusing. One time a woman wearing yellow galoshes and a full neck of pearls told me that her husband was “as romantic as a sack of potatoes”. 5 minutes later she told me that she was so cold she contemplated pissing herself, but this made me jealous because I wasn’t 80 years old and this wasn’t an option for me.

About halfway through the winter a new passenger started catching the “30-DOWNER” at similar times to me. I was fascinated with her because she always dressed very noticeably, but had a look on her face that screamed “please… don’t notice me!”. I imagined it was sort of how a super hero felt when wearing thick-rimmed glasses and an overcoat, desperately trying to blend in with no success whatsoever. She had gigantic eye balls, uncontrollable curly hair, and wore the most massive headphones. There are only two kinds of people who wear giant headphones, people trying too hard to look like a hipster or truly obsessed music enthusiasts. Since I was fond of this new passenger I assumed it was the latter.

I ended up naming her Debbie after she did things that made her first two monikers ridiculously far-fetched. First I called her Vicky, but then one day I noticed ballet shoes over her shoulder. (do you know any Vickys that dance ballet? I didn’t think so.) Her second nickname, Charlese, ended up not sticking because I saw her extinguish a cigarette before boarding the bus once. A Charlese would never smoke, so I eventually compromised and started calling her Debbie.

She became her own 10-minute sitcom every day on the way to school, with some funny smirk on her face or an odd prop she would bring to amuse me. One time for some reason she had a rubber band ball the size of a human head, which she commenced to drop on the floor every time the bus hit a pot-hole. She picked it up and dusted it off in a deeply caring way, like a mother feline and her unsure, stumbling kitten. Debbie wasn’t perfect but she was a caring soul, a combination that made her an easy-to-love heroine.

One day Debbie got on the bus crying her eyes out, something that caught me so off guard I thought about getting off the bus and walking the rest of the way. Because of our similar ages and the fact that we had never spoken before, any attempt to comfort her would come off like a horribly timed pick-up move. But I also couldn’t stand to watch Debbie, my Debbie, sobbing intensely; her massive eyes spilling mascara all over her fair-skinned cheeks. I pulled out a book for the rest of the ride, not to read but just as something to stare at that wasn’t her.

I worried about her for the rest of the day, a feeling that I realized was absurd considering I had never spoken a word to her or didn’t even know her real name. When I tell people this story they assume I was attracted to her at this point, which wasn’t the case. Even if you never speak to someone, you naturally become attached to people who you share experiences with. While Debbie and I hadn’t exactly survived a plane crash together, we had our bus rides, and that was enough for me to invest emotions in her well-being. Maybe I was the only person in the world that worried about Debbie, it wouldn’t surprise me in such a world that is too busy for eye contact, opening doors, and saying hello to strangers.

Despite the snow and frigid temperatures I bundled up that evening and took a run. This wasn’t out of the ordinary: running was my escape from a hard day and because of Debbie I was having a really rough one. I ran north on Lake Drive, the white of the snow and the black of the evening mixing to create a stoic yet comforting grey. It felt more silent than usual, the only sound being a mellow hum of Christmas lights on houses. As I rounded a corner, I saw a small figure running towards me. As the figure got nearer I noticed a massive pair of headphones, probably being used for listening pleasure and insulation. 4 steps later I saw a head of wild, curly hair bouncing in the wind and those giant eye balls. I couldn’t believe it was Debbie, the last person I would expect to see on a late night run in the snow. She recognized me and immediately slowed down, an action that caused my blood to rush and my fingers to shake. Meeting Debbie was like what it would have felt like if Shakespeare had to converse with Ophelia, or Tennessee Williams with Blanche DuBois. “Hi.” she said, meekly. I said “hi in return, and then created an awkward silence by leaning down to stretch. I didn’t know what to say, I didn’t know how to act, my character was now a human being, a living creature outside of her familiar seat on the bus. She began to run away, but I tugged her by the sleeve. “Are you ok?” I muttered out, awkwardly. She looked at the ground, her curly hair collecting snowflakes. She finally looked straight at me, and smiled. “Yeah, I’ll make it”. My heart warmed my entire body as I began to run again, and over my shoulder I called out: “I was starting to worry about you!”

I never learned Debbie’s real name, and the next Monday we were back into our bus routine. Occasionally we would smile at each other, but we never spoke again. As I look back, Debbie probably didn’t want to know my name as much as I didn’t want to know hers. We all need family, lovers, and friends to survive, but we all need a Debbie too. We all need somebody that doesn’t get involved, but still somehow cares enough to smile. It reminds us that people at their core are good, caring individuals, that only want the best for those around them. Debbie could become a ballerina or an astronaut one day, and I know that she will be great at either. The only reason I know this is because I have faith in her ability to make people smile, and with that you can do anything.

living standby.

My mom is a flight attendant, and that is something I’ve always been so proud to tell people. While most people just think she looks good in navy blue and serves a lot of drinks, she is also capable of lifting a 200 pound man, performing an impressive list of first aid tasks, and operating an inflatable dinghy in case of a water landing. And you thought she just handed out blankets and those tiny, uncomfortable pillows. I’ve always been proud of my mom because being a flight attendant is a deceptively blue collar job. She does heavy lifting, has a bizarre sleep schedule, and is part of a tenacious union that can effectively shut down world travel if it’s not being treated fairly. Between her profession and my dad’s rural upbringing, it is easy to see where my grudge with corporate America came from.

The one luxury of my mom’s tough profession is flying for free, a complex and intricate system referred to as “non-reving” (short for non-revenue). What people often don’t realize about this perk is the fragility of the whole thing, and how odd some of the rules behind it are. First of all, you only get a seat if there is an open one. This can get messy at times: I have been on a plane before, drinking a soda and reading a book, when a flight attendant has evicted me from my seat, pulling my lifeless hands from the complimentary pretzels. If you can believe this, there are people in this world with enough money to show up at the airport 2 hours before a flight and say “one ticket to Chicago!” like they are buying a movie ticket. Needless to say, that bastard got my seat, and my pretzels.

The other amusing non-rev rule is that you have to look good on the plane. You have to wear an ironed shirt and a tie, which is a stark polarity to the pajama pants and NASCAR tanktops that people wear these days when traveling. When traveling to tropical destinations, it’s easy to spot the non-revs. 196 people on a flight to Jamaica are wearing flip flops, board shorts, and floral necklaces, while one awkward family of 4 sits in the back row of the plane, dressed for Sunday Church. One time in Raleigh, North Carolina, I saw a miniature fashion show break out in the terminal. There was one seat left for two non-revs, one in dazzling pinstripes and the other in a wrinkled pair of khakis, with the gate agent acting as judge. You can guess who got the last open seat.

When I turned 23 years old I lost my free flight privilege, which was a weird feeling after being a jet-setting infant, toddler, and teenager. The experience proved that some habits really do die hard. Every time I fly I still dress up, and after remembering that my seat can’t be taken from me I slip into the bathroom and change into a pair of jeans. I also get ridiculously excited when my name is called, even though I already have a ticket in my hand. The one habit I’m grateful for is that I don’t take traveling for granted. For some reason, people get on airplanes and turn into the biggest tool-bags on the planet. A first class of 40-year olds can immediately turn into a toddler’s play pen, especially when you throw booze into the equation. Still to this day I don’t get why first class boards the plane first. It’s inevitable that use pagans back in coach are going to bump into you on the way by. I intentionally bump first class people now. It’ s my way of saying “hey you- behave with some dignity today and be nice to your flight attendant, she’s somebody’s mother”. It’s a good thing I haven’t been a paying passenger yet when my mom was working, because if some corporate loser talked back to her after a few too many drinks I’d probably beat him to a pulp.

Human decency should exist in every nook and cranny of the world, no matter how large or small, rich or poor the place. In fact, with so many humans crammed into a small space like an airplane, shouldn’t there be more human decency? Half of us are going on an adventure, and half of us are going home, so what is there to be upset about? If you need something to be happy about, get in to a conversation with my mom. She has lots of good stories.

vocal exoticism.

I’ve always been fascinated by foreign accents, and how far they can get you for little to no additional effort. When I was a kid I did not have the same thick, drawling Texas accent that my friends did. After faking it unsuccessfully I whined to my parents. My dad, the former thespian he was, tried to teach me a Texas accent while my mother just tried to comfort me. “I know it’s hard being different now, but one day you will sound a thousand more educated than any of these ya-hoos!” she’d say, in that comforting mom-tone. My parents would never truly understand, because my mom was from St. Louis and my dad was from a rural community in central Ohio. The accent in their hometowns was a complete lack of an accident, America’s most vanilla linguistics.

The most amazing thing to me is how even if you can’t mimic foreign accents, you can somehow learn to understand them. Teaching in the public schools of Louisiana I became surprisingly adept at interpreting Creole and Acadian slang, which sounds like something you would hear on a Rick Steves special about “Exploring America’s Wetlands”. I’d imagine it would be quite a tustle between Rick Steves and the tribe of woodland Cajuns. He would say, “are you doing something in that shack that would be fascinating to tourists?”, and then Uncle Chubbs would say, “Git awf mah porch”.  To rural Louisianans, the way I spoke was charming, a fact I wasn’t able to grasp because I’ve always equated my voice to what the Roadrunner would sound like if he ever said more than “meep”. Compared to a slow, slurking drawl I sounded like a fast-paced, metropolitan urbanite with “stories from the big city”. I experienced a similar effect when I was 19 and briefly dated a British girl. She was obsessed with all things Americana, and to her every word that dribbled from my tongue sounded like Frank Sinatra, Elvis, and James Dean all rolled into one. I’m glad I had this working to my advantage, because as a chubby, confused, college freshman living in an all male-dormitory, I didn’t have much else to offer her.

When I moved to the Midwest I became enamored with the signature Wisconsin accent. I didn’t realize until I lived here for over a month that most Milwaukeeans despite the accent they are known for. I would sit down at bars and talk with a bad fake accident, meaning it as an endearing impression, not an insult. I thought they all took it for granted really. An accent is unifying and fascinating, and an immediate conversation starter when you leave your home state.

I realized my fascination in the Wisconsin accent had gone too far when I began to find it a turn-on in women. I walked up to the cashier at Pick-n-Save, purchasing some peanut butter and a tube of toothpaste. The cashier was cute but by no means a knockout: a generic specimen of the countless slender, blonde Nordic girls that were five to seven inches taller than me all over the city. When she opened her mouth though, I lost my own ability to speak. “Whhaaat kind of baeg? Paeper or plaaeestic?” Perhaps it was the way she scanned my toothpaste, or the fact that I had just come out of a sloppy breakup, but all I wanted to do was hold this Scandinavian princess close to me as she whispered sweet nothings with excessive “ah” and “eh” syllables into my ear. I had to hear her speak again. “What did you ask?” She spoke even slower and more nasally: “Paaeeeper or plaaaesstic?”. I really wanted to hear the “B” word so I smiled and acted coy. “Paper or plastic what?” She looked at me, annoyed. “Baeg?!”

The thing that makes us all so obsessed with foreign accents is the immediate exoticism they can add to people that are otherwise ordinary. Maybe is this why I’ve moved so many times. I expect the unexpected, and what I find unexpected is often expected by those around me. What makes it all the more special are the things that unify us while still being different. No matter how or what we speak, genuine warmth from soul to soul is universal. This goes far beyond the cliche of “smiling is the same in every language”. This is about people doing nothing more than connecting. If one man’s ordinary wasn’t another man’s mysterious we would have nothing to talk about. Wouldn’t that be a shame?

opus numbers.

So much about a composer’s music can be told by when he or she wrote it. In their early years, composers often make innocent, almost comical mistakes. We forgive them because we know what’s coming, and we are fascinated by this music because of the occasional glimmers of brilliance; subtle harbingers of the amazing music they will make in 20 years. Music written late in a composer’s life has a different message. Sometimes it looks back with a content sense of warmth, while sometimes it questions the afterlife, spirituality, and mysticism. A composer’s final statement to the world can often leave us with more questions than answers, a sign of brilliance that is unsurpassed. What the heck was Beethoven saying to us in those final string quartets? Did Mahler feel any sense of vindication as he left the world? These questions have immortalized the mortal and made mere men into ideals.

We assign compositions opus numbers, a way of watching the composer’s music unfold throughout their years. An “opus 1” would be their first piece written, and so on. I wonder what we would learn about our lives if the landmark moments were given opus numbers. We would obviously be able to watch periods of growth, turmoil, experimentation, maturation, and wisdom unfold. Opus 60 would be all the more special because as painful as Opus 39 was, you needed that experience to arrive, weathered and prepared. Some composers over the years have attempted to retract certain opuses, hiding them from view after the fact. This never works out because somebody out there will always have a copy, and more importantly, you know that it happened. While we can hide some opuses from the ones around us, we know they exist, and even worse that voice in the back of your head know the truth. Opus 42 did happen. It wasn’t wise, and it does hurt. But the fascinating thing is that Opus 42, as tempting as it is to suppress, is single-handedly responsible for the unwritten Opus 214, a moment that 17 years from now will change your life.

Perhaps opus numbers are the reasons so many composers anguished about notions of fate and destiny. When documenting life through creative expression, it becomes very easy to believe that it is all connected together, that it is all planned. Beethoven had to know that those string quartets were to be his last. While God himself may craft the structure and the emotion, it is only man, the individual, that can assign it an opus number. Once Opus 92 has been written, it is there, a part of your story for better or for worse. I believe in destiny but I also believe in doing everything in my power to recognize the moments that will shape me, mold me, and continue to tell a story that I want to be a part of. The opus numbers of our lives are exclusively ours, and they are the one thing that nobody can take from us.

building fences.

There are lots of things that you encounter growing up in Texas that are nowhere else to be found on the entire planet earth. For Texans that move on to greener pastures like myself, you can handle this one of two ways. You can assume that the rest of the world is wrong and sound unbelievably ignorant (example: “Where the Hell are the parking lots?! Parallel parking is for people that live in the slums!”). The other option is to treat every day outside of Texas like a wild, always surprising, super-touristy vacation. (example: “Wow! All the women here have jobs and aren’t pregnant yet! How exciting!”)

One of these uniquely Texas things I was surprised to see wasn’t a national standard was the abundance of back yard fences. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, you have to see it to believe it. Every Texan, no matter how large or small their home is has a towering fence, protecting their back yards from animals, wild teenagers, and people of other religions. As a general rule, the more Republican you were, the taller your fence is. The funny thing about these towering facades is that their sheer presence enticed teenagers to trespass even more. If a person had no fence there would be no reason to hop it: you would be able to see with your own to eyes that your neighbor simply has a herb garden, a barbeque, or maybe an embarrassing entourage of garden gnomes. If somebody builds a towering fence you have to assume that there is something fascinating on the other side. Perhaps your Baptist minister neighbor was growing marijuana, maybe he held cult meetings back there, or maybe his 19-year old, dysfunctional, college-drop out daughter sunbathed in the nude. Either way, through the eyes of a curious, pimply band geek, the fence had to be climbed.

Because my parents are good, honest midwesterners displaced in Texas by the hilarious hand of fate, they were also bewildered by this fence fetish. Every time one of their neighbor’s fences would rot in old age, it would be replaced by a taller, more ridiculous fence. I couldn’t tell if people in my neighborhood were becoming more Republican or more paranoid. My family’s fence was the most hideous in the neighborhood, something my dad saw a resilient source of pride. It had rotted completely through on the north side, and in another spot was being held together by sprawls of stubborn ivy. My mom would complain about it (she was a good midwesterner but also didn’t want to end up as housewife gossip at the local Starbucks) and my dad would come up with new adjectives for its greatness. “It’s rustic!” he would say, “it has that real Pacific Northwest look!”.

About two weeks ago the fence finally died. I was honestly surprised to see that it lasted as long as it did. In the life time of that fence I had lived in 3 states, earned 2 college degrees, and 5 presidents served our country. I told my parents to be bold, stand up to the man, and expose their back yard to the universe, a real symbol of the defeat of suburban tyranny! This sounded like a wonderful battle cry until my mom informed me that because of the bylaws of the homeowner’s association, they would actually evict my parents from a home that they own. This is where my parents and I would differ. In the face of this situation they would compromise, building a fence, but a small one. I would intentionally push my independence to the brink of destruction, enjoying my morning coffee in my underwear while belting “Live and Let Die” into a karaoke machine, for all of the suburban villagers to hear and see.

Often as it is with trifling things, it is the principle behind the fence I wish people could grasp. I worry that the more our society seeks privacy the more we will forget how to interact with each other. A tough day is not cured by a cocktail and watching reruns of sitcoms from decades past; it is cured by the smile of another person, a funny anecdote, a firm handshake. Our self-imposed fortresses have become our biggest source of pride, rather than quality relationships with the people around us. The less we have to hide, the less we have to be dishonest about. Perhaps I’m idealistic, but perhaps one day these walls will come down, and we will do what our ancestors did, smile at each other and lend a hand.