Yankeedom Meets El Norte…

In the midst of today’s political turmoil it’s natural to cast about for reasons. How did we get here? In a post-truth environment have we seen the last of civil discourse, reasoned debate, and bipartisan compromise? Are American values outdated? Partisan politics has created dueling parties where tribal nationalism is at war with liberal globalism. Can our constitutional infrastructure withstand the pressure of a president’s autocratic impulses? Is America too big and too diverse to be governed democratically? Do we have an underlying unifying principle?

One of the most provocative books of recent years is Colin Woodard’s American Nations, because of its approach to the American experience. Woodard divides the country into eleven regional cultures in an effort to help us understand local differences – characteristics, attitudes, and preferences. Originally published in 2011, it wasn’t a blockbuster but I’ve found myself referring to it on a regular basis in order to explain origins, political leanings, work ethics, altruism, racial attitudes and Donald Trump’s victory in 2016.

I’m won’t wade into the Trump swamp, but Woodard’s book was very much in my thoughts as we rolled along on our Grand Tour of Texas last month.

Marilynn and I hail from Woodard’s Left Coast while our traveling companions, Gar and Mollie Lasater, have deep roots in El Norte (Texas et. al). We, like most left-coasters, are carpetbaggers compared to our fifth-generation friends from Texas, and though it’s rare to agree with an historian’s neatly crafted categories, I was astonished at the relevance of Woodard’s.

With the exception of indigenous people, everyone in America comes from somewhere else. Texans are no exception. The family dynasties of Texas all migrated from elsewhere – some from Yankeedom, some through Greater Appalachia, and many directly from Europe, most notably a large German migration in the mid-1800s.

To begin with, though our friends were born and raised in South Texas, both went East to Yankeedom (another one of Woodard’s eleven “nations”) for college – she to Vassar, he to Princeton – and the legacy continues with their children and grandchildren. According to Woodard, Yankeedom values education and the common good more than the other nations, while El Norte puts a premium on hard work and self-sufficiency. I see a blending of both in our friends’ family values.

Writers often refer to “old money” when they write about family dynasties of the Northeast like the Morgans, Vanderbilts, and Carnegies. Surprisingly, many of the South Texas dynasties predated the “old money” of the Northeast and are just as generous with their wealth. The original Texas fortunes were based on land and cattle (oil came later) rather than steel, shipping, banking or railroads, but like their northeastern peers the great families of South Texas developed their own culture, a unique blend of frontier grit and mannered gentility.

Our friends, Gar and Mollie, are no exception. Their families, the Lasaters and the Lupes (Mollie’s family), are genuine Texas aristocracy. Over time, through marriages and business ventures their ancestors created an immense spider web of blended families, business interests, and combined wealth in South Texas.

These families began with ranch holdings linking back to an earlier Spanish land grant legacy. Mollie is descended from the Bennett and Armstrong clans, two of the oldest South Texas pioneer families. Her great-grandfather, John B. Armstrong III was the Texas Ranger who arrested the notorious outlaw John Wesley Harding (remember the Bob Dylan album?) and used the $4000 reward to purchase the 50,000 acre plot that became the Armstrong Ranch (the same ranch where Dick Cheney shot his hunting companion in 2006).  During the same mid-19th and 20th century period, Garland’s family was on a mercurial boom-bust-boom ride that saw their holdings go from 350,000-acres with the world’s largest herd of Jersey milk cows, through a bankruptcy that took all but a 200-acre homestead that served as home to their world-famous Falfurrias Creamery, and back again under Garland’s father to a  50,000 acre spread. You’ve got to give it to them, Texans are risk takers who think big.

Garland and I met as young Marine Corps fighter pilots, and in those days we were more interested in raising hell at the Sandpiper Lounge in Laguna Beach than building a better world. Today, after successful careers in law, business and public service, Gar and Mollie are doing their part to build that better world.

It’s true that their ancestry is an asset in Texas, but the Lasaters are a hands on couple when it comes to building a better world, and ancestry will only be part of their legacy. When I visited them in Fort Worth 25 years ago, Mollie had just retired as Board President of the Fort Worth Independent School District and was assuming a leadership role in the Fort Worth chapter of the I Have A Dream Foundation. IHAD’s mission is to empower children (“Dreamers”) in low-income communities to attend college by equipping them with the skills and knowledge to succeed in postsecondary school and removing financial barriers. She managed that program for 14 years and helped hundreds of students from low income families achieve their college dreams.

Not satisfied that they were making a big enough difference, the Lasaters embarked on an even more personal project in 2007. Their close affiliation with Phillips Academy Andover (where Gar went to boarding school and Mollie served on the board) acquainted them with a program called (MS)2, Math and Science for Minority Students or MS Squared for short. The Andover program gives scholarships to low income students who exhibit an aptitude for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math), disciplines often under-emphasized in these communities.

Using (MS)2 as their model and relying on Mollie’s experience with IHAD, they designed a new program called (HS)2 (High School High Scholar). They recruited faculty and used the facilities of the Colorado Rocky Mountain School (CRMS) in Carbondale, Colorado, as their campus. Students selected for (HS)2, from low income communities across the country, spend three summers at the school immersed in STEM studies with personal counseling to prepare them for the college experience. Many are the first in their family to attend college. To date (HS)2 has enrolled 210 students from low income communities, including 75 currently in the program, and 135 graduates, all of whom have gone on to college–74% of them STEM majors or graduates.

I love my friends’ wide-ranging interests and civic involvement. In addition to (HS)2 the Lasaters are involved with a number of other programs. Garland’s interest in astronomy led him to partner with the McDonald Observatory, a West Texas research facility and home to the world’s 3rd largest telescope where they underwrote the science exhibit in the main hall of the McDonald Visitors Center.

And closer to home, Mollie serves on the board of the Fort Worth Symphony, the Museum of Modern Art (where another modest plaque celebrates their generosity), and The Cliburn, a non-profit that honors Fort Worth’s most famous citizen, pianist Van Cliburn.

Since reading Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, I’ve been intrigued by families and new research underlying the Nature vs. Nurture debate. Pinker argues for evolutionary psychological adaptation. The data is not conclusive but whether it’s nature or nurture my friends in Fort Worth combine the best of both worlds with a nod to Yankeedom’s emphasis on education and the common good and El Norte’s brand of hard work and self-sufficiencyAt a time when the political environment seemed gridlocked it was a treat to hear reasoned opinions on everything from Tex-Mex to Trump from friends with such a different heritage.

We loved traveling with the Lasaters – arguing politics, discussing books, looking at the stars, and listening to Beethoven’s Piano Sonata #1 – we’re lucky to have such good friends. Good in every sense.

 

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Along the Borderline…

On our recent Grand Tour of Texas, just upstream from this spot there was a boatman offering to row us across the Rio Grande so we could have our passports stamped in Mexico. It’s a novelty, of course, but the Boquillas Border Crossing is one of the 48 official crossing points on the US-Mexican border.

I didn’t bite on the boat ride or buy a handmade trinket from the young Mexican sitting in the shade of a spindly tree along the trail, but it felt surreal to be there on the dusty edge of the Chihuahuan desert peering into the mouth of Boquillas Canyon while hearing in my head the mean-spirited chatter about rapists, drug dealers, and other criminals swarming toward the US border determined to steal our jobs and destroy our heritage.

Despite its geopolitical importance, the Rio Grande is disappointing as rivers go – shallow, muddy, and barely a trickle at points – though the canyons it’s cut through the Chisos Mountains on its way to the Gulf of Mexico offer a dramatic landscape barely known to most Americans. Located midway on the 700 mile stretch of West Texas highway that links El Paso and San Antonio, Big Bend National Park is an amalgam of rugged mountains, limestone canyons, desert savanna, and the all-important borderline river.

Big Bend gets its name from a big S-curve the river makes along that stretch, and it’s mountainous terrain an exception to the otherwise flat, barren topography of West Texas – beautiful in its way but difficult to appreciate until you’ve seen it up close.

I went through advanced jet training in Beeville, south of San Antonio, and flew that expanse between Corpus Christi and El Paso many times. In the summer, there is always a line of towering cumulus building on a north-south line just west of Fort Stockton. I’ve looked up at the tops from 44,000’ knowing I couldn’t get over them and wondering if I’d ever find a way around them. Would anyone ever find me if I had to eject there in the middle of nowhere?

Those days are behind me and driving that stretch of highway today my thoughts are decidedly different. I was struck by how wasteful, almost criminal, it is to see our government expending vast resources to keep desperate exiles from crossing this scrubby waterless plain in search of a better life. Their lives must be truly intolerable if the West Texas desert looks like a better choice than the homes they are leaving.

The Rio Grande marks the US-Mexican border from east of El Paso all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. US 90 angles along, 20 or 30 miles to the north but roughly parallel to the river until the two meet in Del Rio. Alongside that highway for 174 miles from Marathon to Del Rio there is a bulldozed strip of white limestone dirt that plays the same role as the old Berlin Wall. There are literally hundreds of armed Border Patrol agents in vehicles combing this barren strip for FOOTPRINTS.

Every day these agents, in green and white patrol cars, pull tires behind their vehicles to rake and smooth the strip so they can check later for the fresh footprints of “illegals.” Never mind that the border is 20 miles south or that the Chihuahuan desert is so inhospitable that it would be an act of pure desperation to attempt a crossing. In the picture above, the Mexican border is beyond the flat line of the horizon. Is this really an intelligent, viable solution to illegal immigration? It must seem so to USBP and ICE given the number of cars, trucks, and Border Patrol facilities we saw along these 174 miles of US 90, but it’s hard to believe there isn’t a better way to deal with the problem.

Today’s New Yorker magazine (April 23, 2018) has an excellent article by Nick Paumgarten about his recent canoe trip from Boquillas del Carmen to Brownsville, the history of the Rio Grande, and how ridiculous it would be to attempt to build a wall along the Texas border. See:

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/04/23/a-voyage-along-trumps-wall

Nick’s article is worth reading, not only for the perspective it gives on the border wall but also as a call to action for the preservation of our natural treasures. We don’t need a wall. We need smart people working together to craft intelligent human solutions to difficult problems. Are we going let immigration issues continue to divide us or can we come together, acknowledge the issues, and start crafting a legislative solution that protects our country as well as the lives of the 11,000,000 undocumented immigrants now living in fear of deportation. We have solved more difficult problems than this one but it takes solid intelligent leadership and a bipartisan desire to find solutions.

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Texas Vernacular…

This is Confluence Park, a public/private enterprise, at the juncture of San Pedro Creek and the San Antonio River near downtown San Antonio. Designed by Ted Flato of Lake/Flato Architects, the park is designed to teach students and neighbors about the water and native plants of the area in addition to giving them respite from the residential density surrounding the park. More about that and Ted Flato later, but this was one of the many surprises of our Grand Tour of Texas.

When we left Seattle, we thought the Austin music scene could be a highlight of The Tour. As luck and timing would have it we didn’t hear a lick in Austin, but that’s the thing about Texas; it’s so big and there are so many things to see, hear, and do that they can’t all be done on a three-week road trip. Instead of 12 Bar Blues, our highlights were the surprising three A’s – Astronomy, Architecture, and Art. I wrote about astronomy and “dark energy” last week and Donald Judd’s art in Marfa the week before. Today I want to share what M and I learned in our up close and personal course on Texas architecture.

Until we started across the Lone Star State, we didn’t know there was a regional architecture called Texas “vernacular.” Usually one-story, Texas vernacular evolved from other regional styles like Prairie and Bungalow but was adapted to the warm southern weather, local traditions, and the availability of local materials. In the mid-20thcentury, a native Texan named O’Neil Ford undertook the modernization of this indigenous style and became a local legend. In his later years, Texans often referred to him as “the most famous architect nobody knows about.”

This is his “Little Chapel in the Woods” at Texas Women’s University in Denton, Texas, where he blended local materials – wood and two kinds of limestone – in a modern Texas vernacular building but maintains traditional church-like elements of arches, vaulted ceiling, and an altar-chancel area.

Ford died in 1982, but not before his vision was implemented in designs for the campus of Trinity University, the campus of St. Mary’s Hall, the University of Texas (San Antonio), several buildings at Skidmore College and many of the facilities used by Texas Instruments.

The firm he founded still exists and when our friends Gar and Mollie Lasater were planning their Fort Worth house in 1993 they chose a young protege of Mr. Ford’s named Ted Flato to draw up the plans. As they told me the background story, it’s clear that the young Mr. Flato didn’t know what he was in for or who he was dealing with when he undertook the commission.

The last time I visited Fort Worth, the Lasaters were just breaking ground and we walked over to the site to see the hole that would become their dream house. It was on a beautiful wooded piece of sloping land in a residential corner of Fort Worth and they were anxious to keep it as natural as possible. They both have great taste and deep roots in Texas, and I knew the house would reflect those things. They also have a large extended family that gathers frequently and wanted creative creature comfort rather than a show horse, so I was anxious to see what they came up with.

In the beginning, Ted drew up two complete sets of plans and both were rejected as too conventional. At that point, Garland suggested they all go to Japan to see how Japanese architecture might influence their design – and off they went to look at Japanese gardens, shrines, and houses. The trip was a success in all respects – the Lasaters ended up with the house they dreamed of (I think the final count was 8 sets of plans) while Ted’s architectural reputation soared and his vision was forever influenced by what he saw there. The Lasater house is the only Fort Worth residence ever honored by the American Institute of Architects for design at the national level (1997).

We had lunch with Ted in San Antonio and he took the four of us on a walking tour of the dramatic Pearl District redevelopment project he and his firm, Lake/Flato, designed around the iconic old Pearl Brewery and Hotel Emma.

Later, in Austin, we visited Lake/Flato’s Austin Public Library (below). In all of these projects – the Lasater House, Confluence Park, the Pearl, and the Austin Library – Japanese elements marry seamlessly with Texas vernacular in a way that ultimately expresses itself as a transformational modern style. We would never have known any of this if it hadn’t been for our friends’ involvement with Ted and his high regard for the history and integrity of the Lone Star State’s architecture.

We may have missed the 12 Bar blues and music venues of 6th Street in Austin, but we were treated to a more personal experience with Ted’s hands-on tour in San Antonio and a close look at his projects in Austin and Fort Worth.

Often, the best parts of a trip are the unexpected things that happen. For example, at Confluence Park a young man on a skateboard overheard Ted describing the project to us. He shyly asked if Ted was involved with Lake/Flato in some way and was nonplussed to find out he was talking to Ted Flato himself. He, it turns out, is an aspiring designer and had been brainstorming about how to get an introduction to the firm. Ted gave him his contact information and invited him to apply for a job. I hope he did. We’re all rooting for him. That’s the serendipity of unexpected encounters and our own experience on The Grand Tour.

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The Stars at Night are Big and Bright…

Our Grand Tour of Texas continued last week, but never in my wildest dreams did I imagine it would include a cosmological dialogue about “dark matter,” “dark energy,” and the Magellan Giant Telescope. I had forgotten about Garland’s interest in astronomy and that years ago he and Mollie had given the McDonald Observatory some money to underwrite its operation.

I’ve spoken of this before, but my friend Garland is larger than life. His interests span a broad spectrum that includes Garcia Lorca’s poetry and Bruch’s Violin Concerto, the evaluation of insurance risk and mathematical puzzles like the Collatz Conjecture. He loves Mollie, math, astronomy, cosmology, politics and his beloved Texas.

When we began planning this Grand Tour, he was excited to share the McDonald Observatory with us. It was on our route, a short drive from Marfa, and the prospect launched him into a monologue about how looking at the stars is all about looking back in time – billions of years back in time – in some cases. He was energized and told me he would give the observatory a call to see if something could be arranged. He wasn’t sure they would go out of their way, but he would call and see.

I could have predicted it, but the folks in charge at the McDonald pulled out all the stops. The director arranged for a personal tour, dinner (green enchiladas) at the Astronomers’ Lodge, an overnight stay at the guest residence, and reservations for the outdoor Star Show that night.

On our arrival, under a perfectly cloudless night sky we were treated to the director’s laser Star Show followed by an opportunity to view different sectors of the heavens through smaller telescopes set up to show us what an astronomer might see – quite a remarkable experience.

The following morning, after a good night’s sleep at 6,790’, we woke to a stunning view of the West Texas landscape. Really beautiful from our perch atop the Davis Mountains.

I could have stayed there all day, but after breakfast it was on to the next event, a two-hour tour of the Hobby-Eberly Telescope with one of the astronomers and the chief engineer. While the Hobby-Eberly is the smaller of the two McDonald telescopes, it has been upgraded to probe the furthest reaches of the universe in order to unravel the mystery of “dark energy,” a theoretical force thought to be responsible for the accelerating expansion of the universe. I don’t understand it but apparently I’m not alone. Astronomers posit its existence but don’t know much about it.

Touring Texas has been revealing. It’s a world unto itself. Everything about it. In many ways it’s still the Wild West, but within its boundaries are natural wonders, elite universities, cutting-edge art installations, a world famous musical competition, and scientists reaching for the stars. Later on, in Austin, Gar and Mollie invited Dr. Frank Bash, the former director of the McDonald Observatory and current Professor Emeritus of Astronomy at the University of Texas to join us for dinner.

I know almost nothing about astronomy, so it was a intimidating to sit down with him. He couldn’t have been nicer. It turns out he knows a lot about airplanes and wanted to know which ones I had flown and whether I knew the story behind the design of the 747. I did… and so did he. He’s a huge fan of aviation and over dinner, much to my relief, we talked airplanes and never probed the mysteries of outer space.

Frank’s friendship with Garland began 30 years ago and was based on a mutual interest in astronomy, but it eventually led them to an off the grid “scientific” adventure in South America. At the time, Gar and Mollie were planning their own adventure by flying their Cessna Caravan around South America. In the process they agreed to pick up Frank in Peru and fly him south to Chile to reconoiter sites for a REALLY BIG telescope.

Today, the Giant Magellan Telescope in Las Campanas, Chile is under construction with an expected completion date in 2025. When completed it will be the world’s largest telescope, a joint venture with partners ranging from the University of Texas to research institutions in Australia, Brazil, South Korea, and Chile.

M and I feel privileged to have met Frank and jointly share a friendship with our larger than life friends, Garland and Mollie Lasater. Texas is big – in land mass and personalities.

Next stop: Marathon, Texas

 

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Marfa, Texas

Following the Civil War, the west was untamed and expanding. On the Texas frontier the saying was “West of the Pecos there is no law. West of El Paso there is no God.” This was the wild west of Judge Roy Bean, the Buffalo Soldiers, and Quanah Parker and his Comanche warriors.

Today, little more than 100 years later, the biggest little attraction in this vast high desert landscape is Marfa, population 1747. Lying 400 miles west of San Antonio and 200 miles east of El Paso, Marfa is a magnet for fans of the cutting edge minimalist art of Donald Judd, the New Yorker who came here in 1971 intent on taking his art out of the galleries and museums in order to implement a larger vision.

Last month, on our Grand Tour of Texas, we pulled our big white Suburban up to the Hotel Paisano after a disappointing visit to Huecos Tanks State Park where we waited for hours to see what turned out to be graffiti-covered pictographs. Nevertheless, undeterred, the Lasaters and Bernards were ripe for a couple days of modern art in the middle of nowhere.

It seems Marfa was destined to be an artistic destination from the beginning. According to Darwin Spearing’s Roadside Geology of Texas, the town was given its name by the wife of Southern Pacific Railway’s chief engineer. She was reading Dostoyevski’s Brothers Karamazov as she passed through town, and Marfa was the name of one of the Karamazov servants. If you don’t like that one, other sources claim the town was named for Marfa Strogoff, a character in Jules Verne’s novel Michael Strogoff. Either way, this little West Texas town has an established literary pedigree.

For a small town with literary antecedents and world famous art, it’s not surprising that its hotel has a star laden past as well. The Hotel Paisano broke ground only days before the 1929 stock market crash and it’s history is full of boom/bust stories. In 1955, it was headquarters for the cast and crew of the classic movie Giant starring James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson and today its hallways are lined with large photos from the film’s archives. Shortly after the Giant crew left town, the Paisano fell on hard times but was saved from demolition in 1978 when it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places .

Today, the hotel is completely renovated and restored to its original state with tile floors, a courtyard fountain and lots of cowboy and Giant movie memorabilia.

On our first morning in town, following coffee in the lobby , we met our guide, Sterry Butcher, a local who works for the Chinati Foundation and writes a column for Texas Monthly. She’s the real deal, and because the foundation is closed on Monday and Tuesday we arranged to have her give the four of us a private tour of Donald Judd’s world at Chinati.

The town’s modern day reputation is due to Donald Judd, the New York artist who “discovered” Marfa in 1971 and moved there permanently in 1973. There, he partnered with a non-profit foundation to purchase an abandoned Army base, including its buildings, as the locus for his art – first, a series of 15 concrete boxes arranged along a north-south axis in the field adjoining the Army barracks and then 100 milled-aluminum boxes arranged in two remodeled artillery storage structures nearby.

Donald Judd died in 1994, but by then he had established his site plan and begun populating it with the art of his expansive vision.

While it’s true that Marfa’s artistic reputation is due Judd’s vision, that vision was not entirely self-referential. He admired the work of many other artists and envisioned an environment in which his friends could exhibit their work in discreet spaces on the same property. He accomplished that by renovating several U-shaped barracks buildings and inviting several friends – Dan Flavin, Bridget Riley, Carl Andre, Robert Irwin, Claes Oldenburg and others – to each take a building and create a work of art.

Here are examples from Bridget Riley, Dan Flavin, and Robert Irwin:

The founder’s work has been carried forward by two cooperating foundations – The Donald Judd Foundation displays his work in two downtown buildings known as The Block, and the Chinati Foundation, located on the former D.A. Russell Army Base at the edge of town is where the concrete boxes and barracks installations are located.

As you might imagine, in a town devoted to high concept art there are also a couple of good restaurants. On the day we were there, Anthony Bourdain was filming his Parts Unknown series on CNN. We just missed him at the Hotel Saint George bar and later at the Chinati site where M heard his crew was considering us as extras.

Anthony Bourdain obviously knew Marfa had food worth chasing down, and though we didn’t cross paths with him again we found a local bistro called Cochineal that I’m sure he visited. It’s a busy place and we were turned away on the Night One but able to get a reservation for Night Two. They serve main courses too but most of the diners choose to share tapas plates with an assortment ranging from duck breast to chili shrimp and roasted beet salad. Delicious.

I hadn’t paid much attention to the hype, but as we were leaving the restaurant Gar suggested we drive out of town to a location where locals claim an atmospheric phenomenon known as Marfa Lights can be seen on special occasions. I thought we would pull off the road somewhere and scan the horizon but was surprised to find a parking lot full of cars and a structure in place to accommodate the many curious viewers. We were unsuccessful that night but Sterry, our guide, claimed to have seen them many times. Maybe we’ll get lucky next time.

Next stop – McDonald Observatory just north of Fort Davis for a tour and Star Show.

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