Sonnet, in hopes of being the last

I’ve learned I love as poets love – to dream -
And in that dreaming lose all hope to act.
For acting is all prose – or baser seems;
Where song is all imagined, love is fact.
Did Petrarch more than dream of Laura’s kisses?
Or Dante, Beatrice chase and wed?
Would Muses, of the wandering Ulysses,
Let Homer spy his flawless lover’s bed?
For this is in the balance of our art,
That thought should capture us; and in that snare
Retain us, kept from luck and love apart,
Held back from rocky paths where lovers dare.
So never fear your love is false or true:
Fear only that you love as poets do.

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SWAU’s Magnolias

I am not a theater critic.  I believe I am qualified to criticize a few things in this world – films, political arguments and myself, mostly – but theater is not anywhere near the list.  But today, I think, I am willing to make the attempt.  After all, I’ve been in a few. So I think I might have just enough qualifications to say something about the one play that just premiered in Keene tonight, and will have three more showings over the course of the weekend.

Steel Magnolias simply has no place in the pantheon of English-Language theater. It is, if anything, merely promising: four acts that manage to disastrously misplace the ending.  Written by Robert Harling, a theater director from the agonizingly unpronounceable town of  Natchitoches, Louisiana (trust me, I’ve tried, and it didn’t end well), it is a tableau of characters that are pleasant enough to watch, and a plot that isn’t in any way difficult. But it not only isn’t satisfying; it isn’t confusing enough to get away with it.

I have to ask here if these characters are stereotypes. Do real women understand and identify with them? I watched the play with a woman who was decidedly unmoved by them.  Are they really as overdrawn as I thought they were, or do I just not understand southerners?  The play confirmed for me that Texans, after all, are very different indeed from our fellow ex-confederates. Especially South Texans.  Ironic for being so much farther south than The South is.

All of that being said, I believe it was performed admirably.  Anne-Marie Jacobs cut an early lead and held it for two hours, pushing everyone else to stay in the moment and remain deeply southern.  Alex Avila was transparent and perfectly readable the entire time she was on stage. And Chelsea Evans managed a particularly scalding emotional breakdown that gave the play the climax it didn’t deserve. I was particularly impressed by how much hair was actually being done on stage while I watched, and that they continued to  act while doing it, or at least having it done.

But in the end, I have to admit that I belong almost entirely to things like Hemingway and Spaghetti Westerns, so I am probably not well placed to see the play as it is meant to be seen.  But then, I like Sophie’s Choice and Billie Holiday, too, so I’m not completely blind to this sort of thing.  I have to conclude no landmark in the repertoire of American Theater could ever end with a group hug.

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The swab chooses the Best Films of the Decade

Let me begin by saying that I do not agree with the current consensus among the chattering classes that the 2000′s were the worst decade in memory.  They certainly make a convincing argument, pointing accusingly at a long list of disasters, of wars, and of economic ruin. But their accusations fall flat when one considers how different our lives were in 1999.

The nineties – perhaps to a greater extent than even the eighties – was a decade of kitch, largely driven by boredom. Frankly, I’m surprised art managed to survive the 90s at all. The greatest television shows of the decade were multi-camera sitcoms that relied heavily on standard plot conventions and our pre-conceived notions. Music was bouncy, beat-driven and sickeningly cheerful.  Perhaps worst of all, film languished in the awkward youth of digital effects, but nevertheless fell hopelessly in love with it. It wasn’t until quite recently that the digital revolution began to bear fruit, and until then, Hollywood’s love of CG would go largely unrequited.

I am a little proud of this first decade of the 21st century. We were pretty damn cool. We began doing everything ironically.  Humor has become the chief characteristic of our heroes. We stopped paying attention to the inane and demanded intellectual rigor from our media.  Our greatest television shows – Lost, Firefly, House, CSI - tried their hardest to lose us in their use of high-brow artistic conventions, and their writers were kept busy inventing new and obscenely complicated plots that involved philosophy, science and logic.  Our music was sullen and poignant, and the best of our songs were intellectual statements and free form poetry. We subdued ourselves to once again become civilized – we can now trust people over 40, wear dress-casual, or even drive carefully, if we so desire.  And, as if this wasn’t enough, we pried the internet, kicking and screaming, out of the kitch-stained hands of the 90s, and turned it, too, into a platform for intellectual expression.

I think it was a pretty great decade. But past all of these reasons, tonight, as the 2000s end and we trek further into the fog of the 21st century, I want to point out that film is back. The last great age of film was the 70s – before the rush to be bigger, more expensive, and more explosive. The 70s represented the classical height of pure film theory, the destination of a road that began with the first cameras.  Well, after walking in the shiny, colorful wilderness of the 80s and 90s, we have taken up the tradition again. Even bad films looked good. Hitman was a terrible movie, a lame script with frequent pauses for strained action sequences, but it looked beautiful, a real testament to moving photography. Sin City and The Spirit were overblown, confusing and sometimes just stupid, but they inhabited an intoxicatingly beautiful world that represents a high point in visual design.

And of course, there were extremely good films. The swab hereby proudly presents our picks for the top ten, with the hope that it proves the point that we are living once again in a brilliant age:

10) Pirates of the Caribbean series (2003-2007)

Sometimes, even Disney gets it right. What began as another chance to hock merchandise and shuttle yet more people to Disneyland developed into an (admittedly campy) gem. Orlando Bloom created what might well be his best character – which doesn’t say much for his soft-spoken, heart-stealing career.  But it was Johnny Depp who brought the disparate elements of a swashbuckling adventure story together with his iconic post-modern anti-hero who instantly stole every scene he was in.  The series, of course, must be taken as a whole, where it doesn’t shy away from the great themes that transform it into a true epic – or, perhaps, a miniature epic.  It incorporates the old, beautiful lore of a sea-faring world – fighting sea monsters, slowly becoming part of the ship, venturing ashore only once a decade – with the proven, eternal themes of classical literature – impossible quests, journeying to the land of the dead, the eternal torment of star-crossed lovers.  And, perhaps best of all, it is always fun.

9) The Fog of War (2003)

Errol Morris’s interview with Robert McNamara, the former Secretary of Defense who oversaw the Cuban Missile Crisis and some of the worst of Vietnam, quickly expands into a discussion that pierces through our national fog of memory to speak clearly of an unclear time.  It is perfectly cold and polished, thanks to Morris’s flawless editing and a score made up entirely of some of Philip Glass’s best. Certainly one of the most perfect documentaries ever made, it is also vastly therapeutic viewing for a nation that still hasn’t fully healed from the terrible wound of Vietnam.

8 ) 12 (2007)

Nikita Mikhalkov, returning to directing for the first time since winning his Acadamy Award 13 years before, delivers a knock-out.  It is almost certainly the greatest Russian film of the decade, and a heartfelt discussion of what it means to be Russian in a post-Soviet world.  But on the top layer, it is a very fine jury-drama, in which 12 men are forced to decide the fate of a Chechnyan boy accused of murder.  It features spectacular acting and beautiful photography, definitely the work of a great film maker who deserves far more recognition in the west.

7) Napoleon Dynamite (2004)

This film is simply painful, an unprecedented feature-length helping of shame.  Its characters are moronic, barely palatable. And the plot – or lack of it – is simply inane. But for all of this, and even because of it, Napoleon Dynamite is perfect. The baby boomers had The Graduate - we have this. Made for less than half a million dollars in rural Idaho, it is one of the most polished and pitch-perfect films of our time. With the exception of a sequence of quick zooms, the camera never moves throughout the entire film. Every shot is a perfectly built tableau, and a lot of the film’s surprising immediacy comes from the recognizable reality of the background.  The result is an unexpected patchwork portrait of America, and a brilliant window onto our times.

6) Finding Nemo (2003)

Nemo remains the jewel in Pixar’s crown. It may well be the most re-watchable film of the decade, two hours of joy framing a truly great script and inspired voice acting. Its animation is polished, and one of the great testaments to Nemo is that it has barely been improved upon, even by its own studio. This film will be a staple for children for the rest of time.

5) Shaun of the Dead (2004)

Edgar Wright’s loving send-up of every Zombie movie ever made has set the bar for cross-over and quirk.  It is an unorthodox comedy that is not afraid to transform into a real movie, and delivers quite a few moments of genuine horror, sadness and beauty, lead through it all by Simon Pegg, who I think is the best comedy actor of our time.  Wright then followed up with 2007′s Hot Fuzz, which, if less perfect, included what I consider the greatest action sequence any comedy has ever had. These films are something more than mere comedy, but are nevertheless always entertaining.

4) The Fall (2006)

It only made 3 million dollars, and was accused of being pretentious, but I consider Tarsem Singh’s epic fantasy film to be a masterpiece. Lee Pace provides the film with not merely one, but two heroes: a down-on-his-luck Hollywood stunt man of the 1920s, and the irascible bandit-hero of the breathtakingly beautiful story he tells to an immigrant girl from his hospital bed.  Somehow, Singh managed to recreate the world of childhood on film, weaving together the twin threads of the strange, uncertain world around us, and the rich nether-world of color and light that we imagine. Shot at locations around the world – but mostly in India – it is one of the most emotional, relatable, and visually stunning films ever made.

3) The Dark Knight (2008)

Hollywood has made precious few films as absorbing, well-written and achingly real as this noir masterpiece from Christopher Nolan.  The superhero film – a recurring theme of the 2000s – becomes null and void in The Dark Knight‘s nearly three-hour runtime.  It may be a batman movie, with all the familiar characters, but it gathers new shadows and features, then escapes from the fantasy of the comic book world entirely, and manages to inhabit our own. It was, perhaps, the first great film of the 21st century that would be incomprehensible to the 20th – dealing, as it does, with our modern problems of security and liberty in a digital world.  At Batman’s birth, Gotham was the metaphor for an America struggling with the violence of its dark, urban fringe.  But Nolan turned Gotham into all of the developed West, the battlefield between Law and Terror, Freedom and Fear. And I highly doubt that we will ever have a more exuberantly flawless screen villain than Heath Ledger’s Joker.

2) Hero (2002)

Jet Li rises above the Hollywood action flick and becomes a truly fine actor as Zhang Yimou’s Hero. Set at the end of the Warring States period in China, the film tells its story with a beauty that is simply heartbreaking, and also becomes one of the best written, best shot, and best directed films ever made.  It deals with Chinese issues that rise into great universal problems of the human experience, simply by their telling. Americans have never been able to properly express nuanced political philosophies in film, but Zhang presents a truly great thesis in the middle of a mind-numbingly beautiful story.  It rewards anyone who watches it, from any intellectual or artistic field. Hero is simply one of the great artistic achievements of our time.

1) No Country for Old Men (2007)

By far the most perfect film of the decade was created by the Coen brothers.  It belongs in the great opus of Minimalist art, not only for its sparse landscapes, sparse dialogue and long takes, but for its agonizing sense of reality, and its flawless construction in time. In fact, it’s exactly what would have happened if Tarkovsky had gotten a hold of a good script and shot a film in Texas. And it is almost certainly the most beautifully Texan film ever made in its love of silence and wide vistas.  Tommy Lee Jones and Josh Brolin also infuse the film with true Texan grit and stiff-jawed, squinty-eyed stoicism.  But it’s Javier Bardem who turns this into a flawless post-modern noir thriller with his villain that will be remembered as one of the great performances of all time. It is odd that this perfect film actually won an Oscar as the year’s best – so uncharacteristic of the Academy to realize a true masterpiece.

With this list, the swab completes the first decade of this brave new century, and looks forward to the greatness yet to come.

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White Christmas

I hope that most of you know that Keene is a college town.  Or, at least, what a college town used to be - temporary. Its life flows away when school is out, leaving behind little but the true natives.  It becomes truly quiet in a way that a real town can never be; it is because the gods love Persephone that they mourn her when she’s gone.

Well, Persephone is gone, in my metaphorical sense and in the original Greek idea. Keene is both empty and cold.

Now, anyone with a connection to Keene knows by now that it snowed on Christmas eve, and the stuff was still down on Christmas morning. But here’s the thing: I have this terrible feeling that I did it. Not in the “I accidentally mixed too much eye-of-newt in with my dragon’s-tongue” sort of way, but in the “I always kind of really, really wanted a white Christmas” sort of way.

Western Civilization has come to us by way of some terribly cold countries. It may have learned to walk in sunny Athens and Rome, but it had to spend an awful lot of time huddled over fires in Stockholm and Edinburgh.  The houses we tend to build are built for warmth – sturdy squares with vaulted roofs to let the snow shuffle off.  Our dress clothes are variations on the warm, layered suits of the 18th century. But Christmas is our civilization’s greatest cultural link to the true cold of Europe. It was only ever nominally about Christ’s birth; it was always about keeping your sanity in the worst of it, a little bit of light in the irreconcilable dark of late December.

All of this is maddeningly out of place in Texas.  The worst thing is that for the most part, we maintain the illusion, still feel the phantom limb of snow and cold.  We have moved on in someways, of course.  Texans pioneered a new sort of dress that shed the heavy vests and coats that the Victorians – and most Americans – still wore. They built flat-roofed houses with open spaces that let the breeze in.  But even in such a hot country, no fair-weather reform ever became universal.  Houston oil executives can wear three-piece wool suits in July, and our mass-produced houses are more often vault-topped Nordic boxes than flat prairie dog-runs.  And somebody will always have an inflatable snowman on their front lawn at Christmas time.

I hope you have some idea of how frustrating all of this was for me growing up in San Antonio.  I have always been a sucker for the trappings of civilization: I hadn’t yet read Homer and Shakespeare, but I loved them all the same. And I felt that I was the only one being left out in the warm, while the rest of the world had snowball fights and skated on frozen ponds. I loved the movies, the cartoons, the songs, all of which showed me pristine whitened worlds in which snow was a sacrament of Secular Christmas.

I yearned for a White Christmas.  I could have done without Santa Clause and the decorations if it would just, for once, oh please, oh please, if only it would snow. It got close a couple of times, but the persistent failure of the dry, Texan grass and chilled Cacti to transform into a winter wonderland produced what may well have been the one searing resentment of my childhood.

Well, it couldn’t last. I got older, and I made my peace with Texas’ stubborn warm shoulder.  I got an idea of winter in other places – Colorado, Britain – and moved on with my life. Soon I’d forgotten I had ever dreamed of a white Christmas.

And then – this is the strangest thing, I still can’t believe it – it happened. I heard another cold front was coming. Bad weather too – probably most of it to the east. And then strange words were thrown around, words that almost cracked through the ice that all those years had formed around my childish hope – snow, winter storm, one to two inches. My subconscious kept it mostly hidden underneath, but I was fighting the old battles somewhere.

And then I woke up. It was Christmas Eve. And it was confirmed – a lot of snow, coming right for us. It snowed all day, and I could just sit at the window and watch as it slowly began to pile up – first on the roofs, then trees and bushes, finally covering up the grass.  So I did what I had to, to save my sanity. I didn’t respond as a child.  I responded as a man of the Internet, trained in the basics of Journalism. I grabbed a camera.  And I went out into it, to see the things I knew were there, but see how they had changed. I went to see the places I knew, and not know them; because Keene would be white, I would be visiting it for the first time.  Keene would belong to the imagined northern homeland of Christmas.

I had never seen Christmas decorations in the snow before. It was a revelation. Suddenly, they seemed to fall into place – everything had been there but the canvas, the background. And now, it was a complete picture. I found a wire frame of Texas on some one’s lawn, lit up with the words, “Merry Christmas, Y’all”. And it was standing in the perfect white of the snow. It was so beautiful I could hardly stand to look at it. Another person had written, “Happy B-day, Jesus” in the gathered ice on the back of their car. Perfect.

And then something else happened, something I hadn’t expected, and wasn’t prepared for. It became normal. I became bored with it.  There wasn’t anything particularly odd or interesting about snow.  It just was. It’s a fact of life, of weather, of the world. And it wasn’t long before I thought that it was better, after all, to live in a mostly warm place – perhaps even a very hot place – than to live under snow for half the year. But perhaps that was merely a reaction.

It’s all gone now, although little clumps in shaded gullies stayed for quite a while. But that doesn’t change the fact – we, we Texans, we who have to weather such vicious summers, and never see the snow – we had a white Christmas. And in case you were wondering why, I think it was me. So be careful what you wish for.

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Avatar and the Noble Savage

I was told many things about Avatar. I was told that it was outrageously expensive, and invented a retinue of technologies to achieve a new, undreamed of beauty.  And I was also told that it was liberal.  That it brutally chastises America for three hours by opening the old wounds of Vietnam, and rubbing salt in the new wounds of Iraq; and that it endlessly lectures us on our lack of respect for our planet and its inherent value.  And let me tell you, as someone who was brought up in public schools in the 90′s, that I have heard all of these songs before, ad nauseam.  Of course, for some of my generation, a certain nostalgia may exist for all of it.  But there’s nothing so tooth-grindingly, knuckle-whiteningly embarrassing as the propaganda of one’s childhood.  Like Barney the Dinosaur and ‘N Sync, it’s something you outgrow, and and then try to forget outgrowing.  Something that, for you at least, never really happened.

Well, I just saw Avatar.  And most of the rumors are true. It is, in fact, a deeply environmentalist, anti-imperialist film.  But it’s also a very good film, and one that should be taken seriously. Too much money was spent on it to allow for it to be merely mindless propaganda; it is fearfully and wonderfully made, and deserves quite a lot of recognition for its quality.

To begin with, it is beautiful. It achieves a simply mind-bending, spell binding beauty.  The landscapes are fine art, reminiscent of the Hudson River School in their painstaking realism and glorification of nature. But the character CG is where the film truly shines. The Na’vi – the native race that inhabits this perfect world – are able to convey such a vast array of emotions that they cease being animated and become real almost immediately.  They are huge and graceful, lightly built but still muscular, a bit like blue Kenyans.  In fact, if our generation invented the barbie doll, it would probably look a lot like the Na’vi.

And the writing was a bit better than I had expected. It rarely came off as hackneyed or lame.  That isn’t to say the characters had any depth, but the film hides it exceptionally well. In fact, the story is extremely good, and navigates the dangerous waters of science fiction admirably.

But there are several points at which the film really grasps for its thesis, and at least one where it fails completely.

First of all, there is a very potent use of 9-11 in the plot of the movie, and it is used in a way that is rather shameless.  In the context of the film, the symbolic tower – actually a giant tree, of course –  is brought down by the western, resource-devouring imperialists, and the natives are the wounded party.  I consider this important, because it means that the filmmakers reminded us of 9-11 purely for its considerable emotional response, to indemnify the westerners and fully endow the blue natives with our empathy. But it’s simply outrageous to portray the worst act of terror ever inflicted on mankind as a crime of western imperialism. 9-11 is nothing if not the product of a dark-age blood-feud, a decidedly uncivilized massacre.

But the film’s main achievement is the beautiful native race, the Na’vi, a great blue tribe of natives that inhabit the planet that the earthlings so desperately want to pillage for its resources.  They are, of course, the Indians; a constant reminder of the peace-loving, harmonious native culture that we so thoughtlessly destroyed just a century or so before I was born.  Except, wait a moment, that culture never existed – it’s a construct of the sixties and a generation that imposed all of its impossibly naive values on those Indians. Never mind any of that now. The Na’vi are something far more important. Yes, they are a naive portrayal of the American Indian, but saying that misses the point. They are an idealized portrayal, an invention that allows us to project our post-modern ideals onto them. They maintain a fierce, horse-riding hunter culture, like the Comanche or Sioux, but also possess the religious environmentalism that no Indian – or any pre-modern, for that matter – ever knew.  Just add a touch of the Vedic religions for good measure, (all is Brahman and Brahman is all, except substitute that amorphous, Oregonian ideal of Nature for Brahman) and we’ve achieved something entirely new.

They aren’t Comanche or Sioux, not Aztec or Inca, Algonquin or Cherokee. To put it  bluntly, they are Montaigne’s idealized cannibals, simple where we are complex and complex where we are simple. A perfect foil to the west.

But then we have a problem. As a rule, the writer who calls forth the Noble Savage never sees how condescending, how childish, how monumentally imperialistic that image is.  It does nobody any favors but you, you who just placed all of your distinctly western ideals onto some entirely different culture that never asked for it.  You just willfully ignored quite a lot of reality so you could have a little ironic fun at the expense of  your audience’s imagined pre-conceived notions.  The Noble Savage is just a silly, useless little invention, a toy that only the smugly civilized can ever play with.

After all of this imagery drawn from the Indians, let’s imagine that the climactic battle that pits the Noble Savage against cold, modern steel is an attempt to re-fight the battle of Culloden. After all, this film was directed by a Cameron.  And the Scottish Highlanders that so catastrophically lost that battle have become perhaps the most Ennobled Savages of them all. That’s not modern liberalism’s fault, by the way, you can blame Sir Walter Scott for that one.  Well, the Scots are noble. But its not because they are savages. The Scots are noble not because they once fought against the encroachment of western civilization, but precisely because they have added so much to western civilization.  Scotland is glorious for its national mind, not for its national sword.

But Avatar unashamedly idealizes unreasoned traditions and vague, communal religion, and pits its heroic natives in a righteous war against the west.  The film has no remorse and no redemption for its western, imperialist soldiers – they wear pedophile mustaches and shaved heads, and nod knowingly when they are told they need to preemptively fight terror with terror, and die gruesomely at the hands of the natives and mother nature. If there was a single soldier in the entire film that wasn’t a grunting, painfully Aryan male, I didn’t see them.

This film is not stupid. It’s not lazy. Even with the complaints listed above, this is a very, very good movie. But it is, for me at least, an oddly and inexplicably old-fashioned movie in its 20th century obsession with empires and resources and trees.  After all the spectacular visuals, for all of its technical triumphs, it remains stuck in a place that that I thought most of us had left behind somewhere in this brave new millennium.

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Blue Norther

It’s just stopped snowing in Keene.  It had been snowing for three hours in a place that rarely sees the stuff, if ever.  I don’t think we had any snow last year, a little the year before. But for hours on end, it was a constant driving white, throwing itself in increasingly large and icy chunks at the ground. It hasn’t even frozen yet this year; none of it stuck.

One has to explain, for some readers, that it comes as quite a shock to wake up and see it snowing in Texas. National news organizations are just as surprised – footage from our Dallas stations made its way around the country this morning, newsworthy for its novelty.  Well, for the benefit of the rest of the country, there isn’t anything novel about it at all.  They used to call them – and some still do call them – Blue Northers, sudden gusts of snow and sleet that cause general misery for travelers and cattlemen.  They’re worse in the Panhandle and West Texas, which lie at the end of the great plain that lets wind wander from the sub-arctic of Canada southward from time to time.

Now, of course, not fifteen minutes after it finally stopped, the sun is shining. The last clause in the definition of the Blue Norther is that it leaves as quickly and unpredictably as it came. It’s supposed to be 50 degrees by this afternoon.

This is one of the many reasons some people hate Texas. They come from places that have climates, a slow and steady progression between known norms. Texas has no such thing. And that is one of the many reasons some of us love Texas – Blue Northers and all.

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Restaurants AA Gill Will Never Visit: El Jardin

The following is intended as satire. For those of you who have no interest in any of that, and just want to read a restaurant review, go right ahead. But if you want to know what I’m really getting at, I heartily suggest reading one or two examples of AA Gill’s truly unparalleled food reviews here.

108 W. Morgan Street, Meridian, Texas, 76665.

♦ ♦ ♦ ◊ ◊

Five Diamonds London Calling Four Diamonds The Clash Three Diamonds Sandinista Two Diamonds Combat Rock One Diamond Cut the Crap

Painting may well be the most brilliantly cathartic job that anyone can make a living at. Legally, anyway.  I don’t mean the kind you do at a class with a bunch of little old ladies, while looking at a bowl of fruit. I mean the sort of painting that makes something a completely different colour than it was before.  Walls, bookshelves, dressers.  It is a process of change, sudden, brilliant change. There is something enormously satisfying about using colour, something that one enjoys in a way that is almost primal.  Try for yourself sometime: find a wall that’s been the same color since Asquith was in Number 10, and then change it.  It doesn’t matter to what. What matters is that it be different. That you make it different.  Roll it on, use a big brush, paint it however you like, and time will catch up to you. The world will have changed, then. And you will have done it.

The thing of it is colour. It’s emotion, perhaps at its most glossed, its most enjoyable, without any of the weight and heft of reality.  It brings thoughts and memories; of childhood, of school, of different times when people used different colours. Or it is the striking modernity, the shock of today, that agonizingly brief shade of tomorrow.

Food, of course, is important for its colour.  There’d be no point to bell peppers, or strawberries, or bananas. Don’t bother making any sort of sandwich. No use in even warming a soup from a can. And there’s definitely no roasting marshmallows.

I rather liked this collection of pictures – national flags made of national dishes.  Brazil is limes, with a spot of good cheese and a grape.  I couldn’t have put it better myself. Japan is the knock out – a bright red roundel of raw tuna on a stunningly whit plate. India is halfway there already – “saffron” is one of its national colors.  And of course, according to old Italian tradition, both pizza and spaghetti were originally patriotic dishes, splashes of red, white and green on a plate.

But the problem is that there are an awful lot of red, white and blue countries. And there’s not much we can do that is red, white and blue, besides some sort of garishly decorated cake.  In fact, America would have to represented by a pie, if anything, and the colour of it would be terrifying. And the Russians have even less to work with. They’d have to make some awful stew. But I suppose its at this point that we can all agree, its much worse to be German in this situation.

If Texas has a national dish, you can have it at El Jardin. Its menu is a nearly complete listing of what people from the rest of the world think of as Mexican food, but is actually extraordinarily Texan. The ingredients may be Mexican, but the mixing pot is just further north, over the Rio Grande.   And its never more Texan than lunchtime, which is when I went. Or a little after, actually.  The place was nearly empty, at any rate. The interior is that terribly uniform farce of walls painted extravagantly with murals of the Latin world.  I’m not sure a good Mexican restaurant can afford to be without them.  I sat next to a rather impressively large bullfight, which I’m fairly certain is Spanish.  But that’s the point, I think, to the ubiquitous restaurant mural: its a fantasy world, a culture taken to its visual extreme.

For a restaurant named “the garden”, its salsa was a slight disappointment. That’s the real test of a restaurant: its salsa. There’s not much else that deserves any worry or care.  The rice and the beans will always be good – impossible to mess with those.  The tortillas? Tortillas are always tortillas.  But the salsa is proof of care, of freshness, of taste.  And they can vary so widely, at the salsa maker’s whim.  This one was more a paste; I can’t prove it was out of a can, but it certainly looked like it.

But I don’t think I’ve had better tamales anywhere.  That’s my vote for our state dish. Fresh tamales, with a little chili over them. Its a social food that can still be enjoyed alone, a utilitarian corn flour that can be filled with whatever suits your taste.  The Mexicans almost uniformly prefer a mixture of meats that you or I don’t normally eat from the pig.  Quite a lot of Texans prefer it with beef or chicken.  Vegetarians can have it with beans.  That last one might actually be my favorite of them all – pity they don’t show up on menus.

Of course, the practical upshot of all this is that its 50 miles from the civilization of the Metroplex, so if you find yourself out here for lunch, El Jardin would certainly not be a bad choice.

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