"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


the texas in africa year in review

I thought about doing best-of lists in all this blog's categories, but, well, it's too much trouble. Besides, if you want long lists of the best albums of the year, you can look here or here, and if you want to know what you should've read this year, you should find someone who reads books in the same year they are published. Instead, I thought I'd just cover some of my favorites from the year, with full recognition that they may not be the "best" in anyone else's opinion. With that, it's time to take a stab at choosing my favorite stuff and events from 2005:

Texan of the Year: Craig McDonald at Texans for Public Justice. If DeLay goes down this year, it's due almost entirely to McDonald and his staff's push for more transparency, less big-money influence, and less corruption in government. He doesn't get much credit for all his work, although Rolling Stone did a nice piece on him in their year-in-review issue.

Man of the Year: Jack Abramoff, for taking sleaze to a whole new level and then getting caught. Mark my words, he's going to cut a deal and it's going to shake Washington and state-level politics in a way that nothing has since the Iran Contra Affair. People who could be indicted or in serious trouble when he talks: Tom DeLay, Lamar Smith, Ralph Reed, and many, many others. People who probably haven't done anything illegal but who will have some serious 'splaining to do: John Cornyn.

Albums I Loved:

  • Anna Coogan & North 19, Glory - This is actually a 2004 album, but it didn't get airplay until this year. A classically trained opera-singer, Coogan sounds like Kelly Willis with a bluegrass band and the overall effect is stunning. I love, love, love the title track and listened to it throughout SXSW.
  • The Greencards, Weather & Water - We used to go see the Greencards play on the deck at Mother Egan's Sunday bluegrass brunch. Now they're famous and opening for big-time acts. Glad to see them succeed, sad that they're not at brunch anymore. This album is their real national breakthrough and they have earned success.
  • Calexico & Iron & Wine, In the Reins - Technically an EP; nonetheless my favorite album of the year. See my old review here.
  • James McMurtry, Childish Things - McMurtry takes it to a whole new level with this fantastic collection of musings on everything from the Bush administration to losing your innocence.
  • Kaiser Chiefs, Employment - Totally cheesy Brit-indie-post-punk-pop and I loved it. How can you not love a song called "Na-Na-Na-Na-Na"?!?
  • Sufjan Stevens, Illinois - It's a concept album! And he's a Christian! And there's hype in every single direction! And all the indie kids loved him! And Pitchfork picked him first! And it actually was really good.
  • Los Super Seven, Heard it on the X - Great compilation album/tribute to border radio. My daddy used to listen to Wolfman Jack on the X, and I owe my love of music to him. A great album from lots of famous artists.
  • Various, A Tribute to Billy Joe Shaver Live - Excellent live album from last year's birthday tribute to one of the best songwriters ever.
  • Macon Greyson, Translate and Miles From Here - Macon Greyson is one of my favorite Texas bands. While Translate was their real release this year and was good and all that, one less-noticed thing that happened was that they finally released an album-length version of their old EP, Miles From Here. And it is amazing. I've loved the EP for awhile now and all its songs with their alt.country-history-acknowledging lyrics are here (including the fabulous "3 AM" ("no depression is harder than your own"), "Life of Riley,""You Will Be," and one of my all-time favorite songs, "Picture in a Frame." The rest of the album is live tracks and demos, and, okay, so it's cheating to call it a 2005 album, but I don't care. Listen to "PCS" and "Patchwork Alibis" (both of which are on Translate) and tell me it doesn't sound like what would've happened if Jay Farrar had been born in West Texas.
  • The New Pornographers, Twin Cinema - The opening track is SO much fun. This has been my make-a-bad-day-good album all fall.
  • Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives, Souls' Chapel - Old-school gospel from one of my least-favorite country singers. Who'd've thunk, but it's such a great album. The best track is "Lord, Give Me Just a Little More Time."
  • Chip Taylor & Carrie Rodriguez, Red Dog Tracks - It was such a pain to try to find this in DC when it was released in May, but wow was it worth it. Taylor & Rodriguez deliver a perfect blend of duets in a unique style that develops into something better and better with every album they release.

Albums I still don't know what to think about:

  • Bright Eyes, I'm Wide Awake It's Morning - Back and forth, back and forth. Is Conor Oberst a genius/future Bob-Dylan, or just a pretentious Nebraska punk with a big head? Either way, "Land Locked Blues" and "First Day of My Life" are great songs.

Ryan Adams - Three albums in one year is overdoing it, even if you are a youthful genius. Rather than pick one, here's the album I would've liked to have seen, concepts be darned:

  1. Magnolia Mountain
  2. A Kiss Before I Go
  3. The End
  4. Let It Ride
  5. Rosebud
  6. Friends
  7. September
  8. PA
  9. Elizabeth, You Were Born to Play that Part
  10. Voices
  11. Now that You're Gone
  12. How Do You Keep Love Alive

The only Podcast to listen to:

  • Fulmerica Radio on Drive Like Hell. Say what you will about anyone who designs a website around fictional characters from his book, the alt.country/indie rock mixes are fantastic and well worth the six-week wait between sporadic postings.

Best shows I saw:

  • Concert for Tsunami Relief, Austin Music Hall, January 9. An incredibly varied evening of fantastic music for dirt-cheap ($25) and all for a very important cause. Where else will you see Joe Ely, Alejandro Escovedo, Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison, Natalie Maines, and Spoon all on the same stage? Willie and Patty Griffin's duet on "Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground" was so beautiful it should go down in the record books.
  • The Old 97's live album taping, Gruene Hall, June 17. It's unfortuante that the album didn't capture the evening's energy, because the show rocked in the sweltering heat that caused a guy in front of us to pass out. Worth every bit of sweat and exhaustion.
  • The Arcade Fire, Emo's, January 21. Incredible, energy-packed show for the hipsters-in-the-know. It was perfect until they played a Talking Heads cover and we realized how much TH influence is in their music.
  • Calexico's SXSW set, Antone's, March 18. It took an hour to get inside and another hour of enduring the Frames to get there, but getting to be on the front row was worth it. Bonus when Neko Case arrived to sing along on a couple of songs. Fantastic show.
  • Son Volt's SXSW set, Stubb's, March 19. Front row at Stubb's for one of the revived Son Volt's first performances. What else can I say? Except that the set list is hanging on my wall, not much.
  • Billy Joe Shaver, Nutty Brown Cafe, July 9. Shaver says he's either all-there or not, and it was the former for this show. The highlight was when he sang "When the Fallen Angels Fly" and started pretending to fly himself before kneeling in prayer, then segueing into my favorite song, "Live Forever." Beautiful, transcendent, and exactly perfect.
  • James McMurtry, Waterloo in-store, September 8. An in-store is not a show, but McMurtry captured something in his brief performance that left an impression. This was the first time I heard the incredible, "We Can't Make it Here Anymore," a song about America's working rural poor - if you haven't heard the song, go download it now. Wow.
  • Best ACL sets, September 23-25 - Steve Earle & the Dukes, Leo Kottke & Mike Gordon, Split Lip Rayfield, The Weary Boys, Buddy Guy, Rilo Kiley, Wilco
  • Iron & Wine and Calexico, Stubb's, October 30. Wow. Wow. Wow.
  • Walt Willkins, Cheatham Street, November 11. He sang "Poetry" and "I Chose This Road." And I was happy.
  • Jeff Tweedy, Ulster PAC Kingston, NY, November 18. Yep.

Worst Show:

  • David Allan Coe, in a field in Smithville, April 30. So bad I can't even come up with a description. But the free KVET tickets and the fact that it was my birthday convinced my sister to come along and we had a ball mocking it all.


  • October 9 vs. Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl. Vindication was so, so sweet in the first place. Getting to enjoy it on the 50 in the OU section and on the OU Alumni Association bus was even better. Thanks, Aunt Becky!!!
  • October 22 vs. Texas Tech. GameDay Live in the morning, tailgating with a bunch of friends, and the energy in the air on a beautiful Saturday made for a great day of the best sport there is.
  • Big XII Championship vs. Colorado, Houston, December 3. Not because the game was interesting (it wasn't), or because we were seated on the roof (we were), but because it was like a big, vindicating pep rally for the Longhorns. The roses were nice, too.

Random Life Things
Wonder Products of the Year

Best random run-ins:

  • Karl Rove. Skye thinks it's our destiny to have something to do with the man down the line. First there was February and the inadvertant renting of his vacation home for our annual girls' weekend. Then in May while meeting friends at the Willard, who should come prancing down the stairs but the man himself? Then, Skye manages to be seated between his aides on a flight to Texas while the man himself sat up front. I hope our destiny doesn't have anything to do with his potential indictments.
  • I was waiting for a bus in Bukavu, DRC, and this guy saw the Texas flag on my Nalgene bottle and said, "Texas! LBJ!" We got to talking and it turns out that he's an English teacher there who went to the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago during the LBJ administration. On top of that, he's a Baptist, and I have an invitation to services when I return.
  • Bill Clinton. July in the lobby of the Intercontinental Hotel in Kigali, Rwanda. Enough said.
  • Dinner with a whole mess of famous-for-DC types in Washington including this one, this one, and this one.

Best Things I got to Do:

  • Developing and running the first-ever Christian Life Commission Summer Public Policy Institute for high school students who are interested in the intersection of faith and politics. I feel like this was something I was meant to do - it was an opportunity to combine so many personal interests and skills and the kids we had were so great and we had such wonderful conversations about vocation, life, and calling. On the last night, we sat outside watching an electrical storm in the distance and sang some songs and took communion and it was just one of those perfect moments.
  • Getting to talk with the Wilton youth about poverty and policy while sitting at the Village Market cafe in Nairobi in August. These girls come from one of the wealthiest places in America and were in a little bit of shock, but it was great to talk with them about what difference they can make in the face of such overwhelming suffering.
  • The GA Campout at Enchanted Rock in April. So much fun to get out there with the kiddos and have an adventure. Some of them had made it to ten years old without ever going camping. We had a ball.
  • My first trip back to Connecticut since moving away over Memorial Day weekend. I went to Wilton Baptist for church on Sunday and we sang my favorite childhood hymn, "Blessed Assurance." I was sitting with Susanna and seeing so many familiar faces and thinking about God's grace when we sang, "echoes of mercy / whispers of love."
  • Moving to the ranch this fall. The light and the nature and the quiet were exactly what I needed.

There's much more because life is a constant wonder, but it's New Year's Eve and time to go. The rotten year of 2005 is finally over, Ginger has declared 2006 "The Year of No Crying," and I'm going with "It Can't Be Worse than '05." Hope you and yours have a wonderful new year. Thanks for reading my blog and see you next year!



Oh, the hype is in full swing. And I cannot WAIT to get to Pasadena in 5 days. Here's some of the best stuff I've seen lately:

last week in live music: pam tillis

Ah, Nashville. If you live and work there, chances are you're either a professional musician/Industry type or a professional Baptist. My dear daddy, who is the latter, and mom, who is neither, have adopted a student who wants to be one of the former through their church's adopt-a-student program. She's a sweet girl from my favorite Southern town, Oxford, Mississippi, and she happens to have a job that got us half-price tickets to the Gaylord Opryland Hotel's Christmas spectaculare, the Pam Tillis Christmas Dinner Party.

So last week we ventured over to the hotel for a lovely dinner and the show. We got nice seats and had started to enjoy dinner when another group was seated at our table. In one of those only-in-Nashville moments, it turns out to be none other than a country star from another age, Jeannie Seely, "Miss Country Soul" and the first woman to wear a miniskirt on the Opry herself. And her friends. What are the odds? Another couple was seated at our table right after that and everything from there on out was just too funny for words. One interesting part of the conversation centered on who bought Johnny's house. We never actually said who Johnny was, but we all knew it was the Man in Black. His house recently sold but no one knows who bought it. Good times.

As for the show itself, well, it was a good reminder of how capable Nashville is at overproducing everything. Pointless storylines and precocious children dressed as dancing elves got in the way of Tillis's strong voice, which was unfortunate but not unexpected. The overall effect was a Branson-in-Nashville feel, which was fine, but not something I'd probably choose to go to again. Tillis mostly sang holiday standards and songs off her new Christmas album, and a medly of several of her hits, including "Maybe it Was Memphis."

I don't usually go for this slick Nashville stuff, but there's a soft spot in my heart for Pam Tillis since she and her sisters went to our summer camp and her sister Carrie was the president of the alumnae association a year or two ago. At camp, it's tradition to sign your name on the walls of your cabin with the year. The year I was fourteen, I spent the summer staring up at the ceiling at "Pam Tillis '72" and thinking that was pretty cool. At the 45th reunion, my sister and I somehow ended up sitting with the Tillis girls. We like them. They're sweet girls. And for a nice evening that was a gift from a family friend, an hour of dancing elves isn't so bad.

(Photo: That's Jeannie Seely's hair blocking your view of Pam Tillis.)

all nature sings

You know, I was going to mock this new "outdoor Bible," but then I got to thinking about the time I paddled the Santa Elena canyon at Big Bend with some teenagers from church. It was an amazing trip, except on the last day, the kid I was with turned over our canoe (Okay, so there's some dispute as to whose fault this was. But it's my blog, therefore it was his fault.) and the seal on my so-called waterproof bag wasn't sealed and all my stuff, including my travel-sized Bible, got soaked by some icky Rio Grande water. It was so gross I had to throw it away (and there was a report two weeks later about the release of nuclear waste into the river by Los Alamos something like thirty years before - ooh, a radioactive Bible!), and I felt so guilty about tossing it. So maybe this isn't such a bad idea, really. But 12.8 ounces is waaaayyy to heavy to take for six months in the Congo.

What am I saying? The NASB on trail maps? This is a terrible idea. Going to visit Santa Elena canyon and the Big Bend, however, is a terrific idea. It's one of the most beautiful places in the world and is very empty most of the time because Big Bend is the least-visited national park.

corner of 6th & where do I get

This is such an interesting article on teenagers who go to one church with their family and another church for their youth group. I don't know what to make of the phenomenon. It's something I would never have been able to get away with, but I knew lots of kids who came to our youth group from other churches precisely because we had cool youth ministers (all six of them in six years) and programming. There's also the issue of kids who are at small churches that don't have youth groups or a minister specifically working with teenagers. It's so important for teenagers to have a positive community of friends and supportive adults-who-aren't-their-parents in the years when they're making big decisions about who they are and what they want to become. Kids who don't fit in in their youth groups don't thrive, so it seems like it's better for them to find somewhere to go.

And yet. It just seems strange for kids to be going to two church services every week. If this is really a growing trend, it's clearly the result of churches marketing a product to churchgoing families -- including teenagers. Preachers who denounce church-hopping as resulting from a consumer mentality should remember that the next time they're printing flashy brochures for their seeker-friendly services.


husker du-da-day

Last night was the Mastercard Alamo Bowl, and, thanks to the wonderful vice-president of Mastercard for whom I babysit, once again this year I had club-level seats, nice parking, passes for dinner beforehand, and passes to the endzone club throughout the game. So San Antonio it was. We had to run by the hotel to pick up the tickets beforehand, and it just so happened that we arrived right when the Nebraska team was boarding their buses. There's nothing quite like riding up a glass elevator while hundreds of Nebraska fans are chanting "Go Big Red!" below you, let me tell you.

I managed to run that gauntlet and my friend Mark-not-the-Methodist and I got over to the dome for dinner. While we were sitting there, the v.p. comes over and says, "Hey, do you two want some field-level seats on the 40-yard-line?" Hmm. Let me think. We snapped them up and headed down to the most amazing seats I've ever had for a football game (excluding my time in the Baylor Line/student section. Lessons we learned from that? 1) Take a knee, 2) Take a knee.). Right behind the Michigan bench. Right by the game. Right by the cameraman. I was on the jumbotron for about 2 seconds. It was amazing.

And also a really good game. I was excited to get to see two teams with such history and tradition take one another on. We didn't know who to cheer for. When I asked the Smartest Twelve-Year-Old I Know who we should cheer for, he said, "I'm cheering for Michigan." How come? "Because we're staying in the Nebraska team hotel. And I want to sleep." Can't argue with that logic, especially given that last night would've been a really good night to rob houses in Lincoln, because it appeared that the whole state of Nebraska had decamped to the Alamo Dome. But there were a decent number of Michigan fans as well. Our section was mostly full of people who didn't care (I spent most of the fourth quarter talking to a high school coach, who was busy trying to help the Wisconsin fan sitting behind me who'd bet a lot of money on the game, who was watching the twelve-year-olds beside us make a "Sportscenter is next" sign.), so it wasn't weird that we weren't super into it for one team or the other. Mark was definitely not the only one in Longhorn gear, and, like most of the Texas fans there, we decided to cheer for the conference. Goodness knows the Big XII needs to look good this year. (Do you see how close to the field we were? Wow!)

The game itself was exciting and interesting, and ended on an absolutely crazy play that should have resulted in a defensive penalty. You can watch it here. We were totally stunned - it was just the wildest thing ever, and the ultimate tackle finally happened about fifteen yards from our seats. The officiating throughout the game was pretty bad, and there should've been a penalty on Nebraska for having too many players on the field -- meaning that the game wouldn't have ended because you can't end a game on a defensive penalty. No penalty was called, though, and Nebraska won, 32-28. We stayed through the trophy presentation and slapped hands with every member of Nebraska's team for kicks at the end when they took a victory lap. If only it was our team! But it was such a great evening and it made me even more excited about next week. Six days!

tenure in the big leagues

The Times ran an interesting piece yesterday on the unceremonious removal of an associate professor of anthropology at Yale. Seems he believes his personal politics (namely his support for anarchy) are the reason for the removal. Now, I have absolutely no reason to know why he got fired. But I would point out two things:

1) The anthro department at Yale is full of extremists and people with, shall we say, unusual views. Their grad students (who take a LOT of African studies classes) never failed to drive the rest of us crazy by using obscure, polysyllabic words just to prove that they are smarter than everyone else. So I find it hard to believe that he would've lost the job just because of his politics.

2) This whole episode casts a glaring spotlight on just how unfair Yale's tenure and promotion policies are. Only 25% of associate professors ever get tenure there. The university takes the best years of the best brilliant young minds' lives, uses their labor, and sends them on their way. They've fired all kinds of wonderful people, including the professor who inspired me to teach. What's needed more than anything is a reform of that process.

But, hey, the guy thinks that anarchy works. I'd love to have him come visit me in the eastern Congo. There's nothing like springtime with the Mai-Mai, I'm sure. Viva!

i fear...

...that this is actually kind of like my stories.

Baby count update: TEN. Ten babies. Between next Monday and August. How are so many of my friends pregnant at exactly the same time? It's great, don't get me wrong, but what are the odds?!?


family values

My friend Emily links to the Chronic(what?)cles of Narnia skit from SNL a couple of weeks back. So funny!

And Lauren Winner (author of Girl Meets God, one of my favorite books on spirituality, primarily because she starts by recounting how she and a friend were in Oxford, Mississippi on the day my favorite author Willie Morris passed from this life. They were sad to hear the news, so they went and drank bourbon at Faulkner's grave. Which is exactly what Morris would've done if it had been someone else.) has a nice piece on the megachurch view of family and how it differs from the New Testament view of family, all in the context of the Willow Creek et al decision to not have services on Christmas Sunday. While she's probably not right about everything she says, Winner has a point. It seems to me that very conservative Christians have long been tempted to worship two idols: family and the Bible. Neither one is unimportant, but neither is more fundamental than Jesus.

Brett Younger has another really good piece along those lines.


simple, decent places to live

Hooray! The New York Times reports on one of my favorite things anywhere, the Rural Studio in Alabama. The Rural Studio is a project in which Auburn University architecture students (including, once, my friend Jennifer) move to rural Hale County (where Evans and Agee lived to write Let Us Now Praise Famous Men during the Depression) and build beautiful, sustainable structures for those who live in poverty housing. They build houses, but they also create community spaces like churches and picnic pavillions. People's lives change, their communities become stronger, and the students get the chance of a lifetime to build unique structures.

This is what the world should be like. I love it because it deals with poverty issues, which are my passion, and architecture, which is a side fascination. To learn more about the Rural Studio and see more photographs of their lovely buildings, check out this great book.

carve the turkey, turn the ballgame on

Report from the holidays:

1. The current count on my friends and family for 2006: 3 weddings, 9 babies.

2. My sister sat next to Ted Nugent at the Thai place in Waco a couple of weeks ago. Apparently being a gun nut doesn't preclude you from appreciating diverse cuisine.

3. There is this super-cool newish record shop on 8th South in Nashville, Grimey's. FINALLY. For years and years, the only purchasing options in Music City USA were the chains. The great thing about Grimey's is that they have tons of used discs as well as the usual indie-record shop fare. Being all of 4 blocks from the Row, most of this used music consists of cast-off advance copies of all kinds of music. The Industry being what it is, those Nashvegas types cast off a lot of really great music. I found a whole mess of great stuff, including Okkervil River's 2003 Down the River of Golden Dreams, and a cd by songwriter extraordinaire Jimmy Webb, Ten Easy Pieces, that I've been wanting forever. Webb wrote everything (and a great book on the craft of songwriting) and it is so neat to hear hits like "Highwayman," "Wichita Lineman," and "If These Walls Could Speak" in his voice. It was sooooo tempting to buy advance copies of just about every Steve Earle album for the collection, but self-restraint prevailed. I'm trying to downsize before the Congo and we do not need copies of albums we already own.

4. The Country Music Hall of Fame is running a couple of fantastic exhibits, one on George Jones and the other on the history of soul music in Nashville. Daddy and I went on Christmas Eve to check out the whole museum (which I hadn't done since they moved into their spiffy new digs a few years back). It's great. Just perfect. They've done a great job of presenting memorabilia in such a way that it doesn't overwhelm the music. You can step into about eight listening booths to hear songs you haven't heard in forever (which made us want to two-step in the middle of the museum). The focus is on the early performers and classic songwriters who began the country, western, bluegress, and rockabilly styles, along with people whose legacies have really endured. (You don't see Faith Hill or any other garbage until the very last exhibit.) Much to my surprise, there were also cases dedicated to people like Gram Parsons and other pioneers of what we now call Americana/roots music, to Southern rock like the Allman Brothers, and even to some alt.country types - Gillian Welch is featured in the next-to-last exhibit, albeit alongside Brooks and Dunn.

What's really amazing is what you get to see -- everything from Hank Williams' boots to the actual first draft of Don Williams' "Good Old Boys Like Me." The special exhibits are also good - someone gave George Jones a pistol with the notes to "She Stopped Loving Him Today" inlaid in the handle. Kinda makes you rethink the meaning, huh? Since it was Christmas Eve, we also were lucky enough to catch part of the continuous screening of Johnny Cash Christmas on the Road, a 1984 special with Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, and Waylon Jennings. Hearing Willie Nelson sing "Pretty Paper" live on the show and then do a duet of "I Still Miss Someone" with Cash was the perfect way to end the visit.

Night Train to Nashville closes December 31. The George Jones exhibit is there through May.

5. When I got into the car on Christmas Day to go get the tickets for our family movie, here's what came on the radio. In this order. 1) George Strait, "There's a New Kid in Town" 2) Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers, "Christmas to Remember." Sometimes I love Nashville.

More holiday fun soon, including our incredibly random evening/brushes with celebrity at the Opryland Hotel.


love's pure light

It's time for another tender Tennessee Christmas, so I will not post for the next few days. Go home, find out what your family and friends are up to (As of 10pm, next year will bring three weddings and eight babies among mine.), watch a lot of football (the best matchups will be the Peach Bowl, the Fiesta Bowl, the Alamo Bowl, the Cotton Bowl, and, natch, the Rose Bowl), take some kids to look at lights (37th Street in Austin; George Jones's house in Franklin), help your mom bake cookies, light a candle and sing a carol on Saturday night, and be thankful for this precious silence that comes just once a year. Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, happy holidays, and lots of love, y'all!

last night in live music: robinella

Nashville is a music town, but not in the same sense that Austin is a music town. It is, instead, a company town, which means, among many, many other things, the live music that gets played here is usually performed by those who have hopes of getting involved in The Industry, or those who already are. So there are a lot of open-mic nights and collaborations by session players. On your average Tuesday night, though, you don't have a choice of six bands you'd like to hear like you do in Austin.

That said, there are some newer venues in town that are attempting to create and maintain a more interesting live music scene to support touring artists who have few, if any, connections to Nashville. Last night, my sister and I headed over to one of those places, the Mercy Lounge (it's in the same building as the old Cannery Ballroom), to see Robinella. The venue is fantastic - Calexico and Iron & Wine played there last Friday and my gosh I wish I'd been there to see it. The room can't hold more than 300-400 people.

But enough about that. On to the music. What a show. The great opening set by Jay Clark featured his song "Regurgitate" ("about the only Yankee I ever dated") with the memorable line: "I'm gonna regurgitate all this pride that I have swallowed" and then moved on to some songs with the CC String Band and Robinella herself.

Robinella's set was really good. Her stage banter is limited and silly, which gives one the impression that she's a fourteen-year-old girl, but then she starts singing and you'd swear you were in some smoky jazz club in the West Village circa 1941. Her songwriting is incredible, and you get the feeling that this is what would happen if that jazz club were dropped in the middle of the Smokey Mountains and made to listen to WDVX for twenty years. Which is, more or less, what happened. She has a new album coming out in February that is supposed to be more pop-based, but everything we heard was the same unmistakable sound that's made her name in the past.

Robinella has not, as the new name would suggest, dropped the CC String Band. They're still there and the group backed her with its unmistakable blend of jazz and east Tennessee mountain bluegrass influences. The "CC" stands for Cruz Contreras, Robinella's husband and mandolin player. His brother, Billy, plays fiddle. After the introductions, my sister leans over and says, "You know. I went to school with Candice Contreras, and she had a kid brother who was a fiddle prodigy." We went up and talked to Billy after the show and sure enough. He's an incredible musician who's played with Mark O'Connor, the Texas Playboys, and Blue Merle, all at the ripe old age of nineteen. It was the perfect ending to a great night of live music. Definitely check out Robinella if you get the chance; they play every Sunday night in Knoxville and tour a bit as well.

eat a lot of peaches, try and find Jesus

Underwood's speech sets up the words of theologian Stanley Hauerwaus as a sort of foil -- that's who he quotes on the issue of community and interpretation. It makes for a pretty good basis for a counterpoint. Except. My pastor points out that that's not really a correct reading of Hauerwaus's thought, because Hauerwaus intentionally overstates his point to emphasize that Enlightenment individualism has totally taken over, at the expense of communal faith identity. The quote comes from a 1993 book entitled Unleashing the Scripture: Freeing the Bible from Captivity to America that deals with just that.

Someone who knows more about this stuff than me (ahem, Brian) needs to comment on Hauerwaus, but I still think Underwood said what needed to be said. There are definitely people at Baylor who are part of this growing trend in very conservative evangelicalism who do not accept the priesthood of the believer. Many of them are natural law theorists, and, much like the former ultraconservative Episcopalians with whom I have dinner once a month, they tend to follow a path away from Protestantism altogether. If you believe that scripture can only be interpreted in light of 2,000 years of tradition, it's almost inevitable that you have to convert to Catholicism, because not doing so (in that framework) becomes an exercise in intellectual arrogance. And countering that trend is so important if Baylor is going to remain true to its Texas Baptist roots.

God gives us minds for a reason. The ability to speak directly with God and to follow God's call in one's life does not mean that we are not faithful to Christian community. It does mean that we are free, as Underwood points out, to challenge great injustice, even (and perhaps especially) when church hierarchies accept and defend injustice. It's always dangerous to limit God's right to speak and to reveal. I think it's also dangerous to attempt to live outside the tensions of our faith - that's why fundamentalists are so disagreeable to the rest of us. It's too easy. Faith -- real faith -- only thrives in the space where community and the individual, mercy and justice, love and anger, and peace and the sword are all present and in tension with one another, because it's in the tension that God gets our attention and that we start to hear our calling. Thanks be to God for that amazing gift.

wonders never cease

Well. A student I helped advise for her Plan II honors thesis (mainly because the supervising professor didn't know a thing about Africa) won a Marshall Scholarship. She was definitely one of the most goal-oriented and ambitious students I've ever met. My goodness.


orthodoxy without questions

Outgoing interim Baylor President Bill Underwood gave a magnificent commencement address last week. And I wonder how the Baylor family reacted to this - it's a dead-on analysis of what the tension at Baylor is about, and a well-aimed shot that explains the importance and centrality of the priesthood of the believer, the value of intellectual inquiry, and the nature of truth in determining what Baylor's identity will ultimately be.

Message to Graduates, Baylor University, December 17, 2005

Your years here at Baylor have been years of personal growth. They have been transformational for each of you. They've been transformational for our University as well. Certainly there has been a transformation in the face of the University, with the addition of splendid new facilities like the Sciences building, the Mayborn museum, the North Village and the Umphrey law center. You have witnessed Baylor athletics rise out of the ashes of the Patrick Dennehy tragedy to experience the greatest period of success in the history of the University, including the first two NCAA national championships in Baylor's history - in men's tennis the year before last, and then that thrilling national championship by the Lady Bears in basketball earlier this year. You have even witnessed Baylor beat the Texas A&M aggies in football.

Even more significant than new buildings and success in intercollegiate athletics, you have witnessed and perhaps participated in a fascinating conversation about the nature of Christian higher education. A conversation among good people that should occur at a place like Baylor.
  • A conversation about how truth is sought.
  • A conversation about individual freedom of thought, and about responsibility to the community.

You have witnessed a conversation that has captured the attention of much of the Baylor community and even the world of Christian higher education. A conversation about two ideas that throughout history have been in endless antagonism.

Representing one of these ideas, a prominent, provocative and influential theologian at another university recently said: No task is more important than for the Church to take the Bible out of the hands of individual Christians in North America. Let me repeat that: No task is more important than for the Church to take the Bible out of the hands of individual Christians in North America.

This theologian continues:
"I certainly believe that God uses the Scripture to help keep the Church faithful, but I do not believe, in the Church's current circumstance, that each person in the Church is thereby given the right to interpret the Scripture. Such a presumption derives from the corrupt egalitarian politics of democratic regimes, not from the politics of the Church. The latter . . . knows that the right reading of the Scripture depends on having spiritual masters who can help the whole Church stand under the authority of God's word."

Consistent with this view, a colleague here at Baylor has described the idea that individual believers have the freedom to reach their own conclusions regarding the Scriptures as "incoherent or simply a bad idea." Taking this idea from churches to universities, others have suggested that there is no place in a Christian university to advocate contrary to what university authorities choose to declare as orthodox. Taking this idea to an extreme, a prominent Baptist denominational leader has declared that if we say pickles have souls, then our schools "must teach that pickles have souls." Under this idea, we would have spiritual masters to tell us what to teach, what to learn, and what to believe.

Of course, there is nothing new about this idea. There have always been those who have claimed the status of spiritual master over others -those who have taken it upon themselves to decide what others must believe. The scribes and the Pharisees fancied themselves experts on what the Scriptures meant. They set themselves up as the spiritual masters for others. Yet Jesus specifically warned his disciples to"beware" of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Indeed, in what would prove to be the last public sermon of his ministry, Jesus rebuked the spiritual masters of his day in Matthew 23 saying:

"Do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. Do not be called leaders, for One is your Leader, that is,Christ."

What Jesus taught us in Matthew is fundamental to understanding individual freedom of conscience and self-determination. You see, God has given us intellects. God has given us the gift of reason. And Jesus has commanded us to use our minds - to love God with our hearts and our souls - but also to love God with our minds. Surely, keeping this greatest of all commandments requires us to think for ourselves and come to our own conclusions. Indeed, when we stand before God on judgment day, it would hardly be a defense to say that we just believed as we were told. You see, we are responsible for our souls. It is this responsibility that requires us to think for ourselves and come to our own conclusions.

This does not mean that there is no objective truth - that just anything goes - that one person's conclusion is just as valid as that of another, no matter what it might be - that we embrace some sort of "radical subjectivity" - that we are "cultural relativists," as some have asserted.

There is truth. There is right. There is wrong. And sometimes we are wrong. Sometimes our ideas are lousy and ought to be rejected by others. Our great theologians are sometimes wrong. Our philosophers can be wrong. Even our university presidents are sometimes wrong. We know andacknowledge that no one of us is perfect - that no one of us has perfect knowledge. How, then, can any of us be so certain that we have discovered truth that we would discourage others from continuing to inquire, from continuing to question, from perhaps even daring to disagree? How can any of us be so arrogant? At the same time, the fact that we are free to think for ourselves does not mean that we should ignore the thoughts of others. There are many great thinkers among us. And there have been many great thinkers who have gone before. It would be equally arrogant for us to ignore their ideas. Indeed, given what is at stake, it would be foolish.

Our responsibility to use our intellects, to think for ourselves, to come to our own conclusions has important consequences for Christian higher education. As centers of learning, Christian universities must be committed to the pursuit of truth. This pursuit of truth requires exposing our students to the great thinkers of today and yesterday. Not so that they will blindly accept the conclusions of others. But instead to aid them in their search for truth. Christian universities must also equip our students with the critical thinking skills needed for a lifelong pursuit of truth. This requires encouraging our students to think for themselves and then to test their ideas in free and open discourse with others, even ideas that are controversial - even ideas that challenge prevailing viewpoints.

This free exchange of ideas is most likely to lead to the discovery of truth. That's the idea behind the First Amendment. A great thinker named Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. put it best when he wrote that "the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market." Consistent with this metaphor of a free marketplace of ideas, the United States Supreme Court has recognized that our future as a people "depends upon leaders trained through wide exposure to that robust exchange of ideas which discovers truth out of a multitude of tongues, rather than through any kind of authoritarian selection." If we are to be a great Christian university, we cannot be afraid to pursue the course of truth, wherever that course might lead. Indeed, if our pursuit of truth leads us to question our existing view of God, it may just be that God is trying to tell us something.

You are entering a world where you will be discouraged - sometimes even repressed - from thinking for yourself. You will be discouraged from challenging what you see, hear and read in the media. You will be discouraged from challenging political authority. You may well be accused of being unpatriotic if you do. You will be discouraged from challenging ecclesiastical authority. You may well be accused of being a heretic if you do.

Let me suggest that you owe it to yourself not to give in. Your responsibility to yourself demands that you not be discouraged from thinking for yourself. Your responsibility to yourself demands that you exercise your individual freedom of conscience. Let me go further. Let me suggest that your responsibility to others - to your community -demands that you exercise your freedom of conscience. Just during my lifetime, too few Christians in the South resisted community orthodoxy when it came to segregation of the races. When Baylor refused to admit African-American students on religious grounds as late as the 1960s, what this community desperately needed were more free thinkers who would exercise their individual freedom of conscience - free thinkers who would challenge the prevailing orthodoxy - free thinkers with the courage to say "this is wrong."

How many other beliefs at one time firmly held as true have been proven false with the passage of time? What so-called "truths" that we hold dear today will the passage of time prove false? And how will we know if we accept what others declared as orthodox without question?

Let me close - not just this speech but my term as your president and my tenure on the faculty of this great university - by charging you to think for yourselves. Use the intellect that God has given you. Think critically. Have courage. And acknowledge - no embrace - the right of others to disagree.


monkey see...

A ruling finally came down today in that Dover, PA intelligent design case. U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III finds that intelligent design is not science, nor can it "uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents." He contends that the assumption that evolution is inherently opposed to belief in a supreme being is unfounded, and that it is a violation of the Establishment Clause to teach ID in public school classrooms. The ruling is here.

Very interesting and I think a correct ruling. The problem with the way the Discovery Institute with intelligent design, Texas AG Greg Abbott with the Ten Commandments stuff, and others have been going about their business is that they're trying to deny religious intent when clearly their motivations for pursuing certain goals are clearly religiously motivated. They're almost forced to debate that way since they know that the Constitution forbids establishment of religion, but in the course of doing so, they try to frame their intents otherwise.

The real debate in this country right now, though, is over what role religion should have in public life -- in other words, over whether we should stick with that part of the First Amendment or not. There are a lot of very powerful people who don't think so. And that's fine. People are free to believe what they want.

Now, I think they're wrong that we should take down that barrier of separation that, as Justice O'Connor put it so beautifully last year, has served us so well for the last two centuries. Why? Because I believe that we need religious liberty for everyone to ensure that religious liberty for everyone will stand in the face of changing demographic patterns and social mores. I want my children and their children's children to be free to worship as we believe, not as a government tells us we have to believe.

My point here, though, and the point that Judge Jones' ruling suggests and that Justice Scalia noted in the oral arguments over the Ten Commandments case last spring, is that we ought to have the debate over the real issue at hand. That would save a lot of time and money and get to the heart of the question that divides our society. And it would be a lot more interesting than the constant, context-specific, back-and-forth things that we have now.

open up her gifts or send them back

So much Christmas shopping not done, so little time, so just a few musings for today:

1. Melissa shares this gem of "real estate advertising." Oh. My.

2. Anybody want to watch Michigan crush Nebraska next week? The Alamo Bowl is next Wednesday, December 28 and I've got extra tickets (definitely one, maybe three). No box this year, but parking, dinner, and endzone club passes. It should be more interesting than last year's game ... we hope. Let me know.

3. Ryan Adams' third album in six months, 29, arrives today. To buy or not to buy? To iTunes or not to iTunes? Have you heard "Elizabeth, You Were Born to Play that Part" yet? Or "Voices"? (Listen here.) Wow. Inconsistent, yes. Overkill for an already prolific year, yes. Pitchfork-approved or no, it'll be a keeper.


and all i really want is some justice

Who doesn't love amazon.com? They sell everything, you can maintain years-long shopping carts and wishlists for your mom, and they still store the shipping address from my intern dorm room back in the day. I was on there tonight looking up some things and for some reason decided to click on that "see your recommendations" link on the sidebar. Wild. As it turns out, based on the things that are on my wishlist, they've come up with a random list of other things they think I'd like. And in some cases they're right -- because I own a lot of the books and albums they suggest. But in other cases, oh, my. Here's a list of:

Amazon-Recommended Items in Which I have No Interest Whatsoever for Reasons that Should Be Obvious:
  1. Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not So Wild) Places, by Steve Brill
  2. U.S. Army Survival Manual FM 21-76, by the Department of Defense
  3. Puttin' on the Grits: A Guide to Southern Entertaining, by Deborah Ford
  4. A Guide to Endemic Birds of Ethiopia and Eritrea, by Jose Luis Vivero Pol
  5. Wilt [that would be Chamberlain]: Larger than Life, by Robert Allen Cherry
  6. Life Lessons from Little League, by Vincent Fortanasce
  7. Plans, Death Cab for Cutie
  8. The Natural History of the Rich: A Field Guide, by Richard Conniff
  9. Earth Knack - Stone Age Skills for the 21st Century, by Bart & Robin Blankenship
  10. Entre-nous: A Woman's Guide to Finding Her Inner French Girl, by Deborah Ollivier

Now I realize that I buy some crazy stuff, but come on! What did I do to deserve a book about trust-fund babies? And a guide to living as a hunter-gatherer?!? Don't even get me started on Death Cab...

i'll take former pagan rituals for $400, alex

Christianity Today's leadership blog has the response of a number of megachurch pastors who are upset that people think it's tacky to cancel services on Christmas Day. They've also pointed out that it's especially ironic to do this in a year when many other conservative types are making such a fuss about the so-called war on Christmas.

Meanwhile, leave it to Rob "Jeopardy!" Marus to beautifully sum up all the holiday nomenclature nonsense.

i don't see any connection to vietnam, walter

Did anyone else think that the President sounded like LBJ last night? I've always thought there were a lot of parallels between the two Texans in that they ran on being plain-speakers and outsiders who wanted to get things done. The fact that neither were really outsiders in Washington and that W's ranch was purchased for the 2000 election doesn't matter - public perception does.

But I digress. Check out LBJ's 1968 State of the Union address. He says:

"Since I reported to you last January:
--Three elections have been held in Vietnam--in the midst of war and under the constant threat of violence.
--A President, a Vice President, a House and Senate, and village officials have been chosen by popular, contested ballot.
--The enemy has been defeated in battle after battle.
--The number of South Vietnamese living in areas under Government protection tonight has grown by more than a million since January of last year.

"These are all marks of progress. Yet:

--The enemy continues to pour men and material across frontiers and into battle, despite his continuous heavy losses.
--He continues to hope that America's will to persevere can be broken. Well--he is wrong. America will persevere. Our patience and our perseverance will match our power. Aggression will never prevail.

"But our goal is peace--and peace at the earliest possible moment."

Now, look at that against President Bush's speech last night. He talked about Iraqi elections, the formation of the new Iraqi government, the defeat of insurgents, the optimism of Iraqi civilians, and the American commitment to staying the course.

Iraq is not Vietnam. History does not repeat itself exactly in any sense. But living with a sense of denial is always dangerous for a president. I hope that the President is serious when he says that he hears the honest criticisms of those who disagree with him. I hope that my friends who are fighting over there are not risking their lives for something we'll all look back on with regret.


falling stars & feathered wings

The BEST news tonight. Some of you know that I get the great privilege of working with teenagers at church. I absolutely love youth ministry and am so lucky to get to hang out with amazing kids. Anyway, one of the teenagers from my church up north and I got to be really good friends when she was in middle school. She has been through the most miserable five years, but she kept at it and just got the news that she's been accepted to her dream college program. It's hard to believe she's all grown up! Congratulations, girl! I'm so proud of you and all that you've achieved. (Okay, you can have Jorge. But Poindexter is still mine!)

ain't got nothin' at all

There's a great piece on child soldiers in the Congo in today's Statesman. I read the article and looked at the pictures before realizing that it was written by my friend Eddie Sanders at the L.A. Times. Wally (of the Rose Bowl tickets)'s pictures are great, too. They were working on the story in Goma in August. We talked about this at dinner at the Nyira one night. All the kids they'd met that day said they were eighteen, even though some were clearly closer to eleven. It's a good analysis of a sad issue, and it's kindof cool to have gotten to talk this over with them in the field.

hear the angels sing

One of my jobs out here on the ranch is to go check on the main house after a party or gathering. There was a big Sunday School party at the ranch house this evening, so after the party at my house and getting packed to fly out tomorrow, I had to go out into the cold, dark night to check on the big house. It's a good thing, too -- someone left a candle burning and that could've been bad. There was a lot of trash to haul down the hill, too, which is never fun, especially if you are wearing party-appropriate shoes.

But then when I was halfway down the hill, I looked up at the sky and saw the clear, bright stars and started remembering, and it was like time stopped for a moment. I've always loved to look at the stars and think, and this year there have been so many places to do that - in the wide Texas skies last spring, at our old summer camp in the mountains with my sister in May, in a garden the Congo in August, and smack in the middle of East Capitol Street (Southeast, Northeast! Southeast, Northeast!) a few weeks ago with a really good friend.

And last July during the CLC camp, I stood on that same hill and looked at those same stars. There's been so much on my mind lately. This time of year especially, I think it's easy to get caught up in all the things we don't have and to forget about the things we do have. With the rotten year I've had with the dissertation nightmare and the D.A.'s nonsense, I've definitely been guilty on that count. And I have so much - a wonderful family, great friends, beautiful music, tickets to the big game, and the chance to go have an incredible adventure on the other side of the world and see a whole other set of stars. There's so much grace.

"O rest beside the weary road, / And hear the angels sing." Edmund Sears


it's hard to rule the free world

If for nothing else than the site of Harriet Miers being shot out of a cannon, Jib-Jab's "2-0-5 in Review" cartoon is worth a look. The Tom DeLay scene is an added bonus. As is the fact that the music is a combo of "Auld Lang Syne" and "Turkey in the Straw."

whatcha doin' next summer?

One of the best things I got to do this year was participate in developing and running the first-ever Christian Life Commission Summer Public Policy Institute for the BGCT. We had a great group of high school students and young leaders meet in Austin in July for a week of talking about the intersection of faith and politics. From the day we started planning to the closing session, the event was so much fun. I would have loved this kind of thing when I was a high school student, as would most of the rest of the staff, and that's how we planned the event. We talked about everything from campaign ethics to religious liberty to immigration to poverty issues, all in a nonpartisan, faith-based context.

We are gearing up for another institute this summer (July 9-16), and this time we have a fancy website. If you know of any high school students who would benefit from this experience, please encourage them to visit the website, download an application, and join us in Austin this summer. Kids who are interested in politics, nonprofit work, education, policy, and ministry are all great candidates. They should be committed Christians and currently in grades 10-12.

"holiday" means "holy day"

Congressman Dingell is retiring, apparently to become a professional poet, seeing as he left this gem in honor of Christmas, the holidays, and Bill O'Reilly. Some people have a name for the day when you're so close to retirment that you don't care anymore, but I won't print it here. Suffice it to say that the Congressman has clearly reached that point.

take the pomeranian bowling

Finally the Statesman stops contributing to the hype and gets down to some serious game analysis. There's no question that it's going to be the toughest team the Horns have faced in several seasons. That said, the Notre Dame game showed that SC is vulnerable, and they haven't faced anything like our defense all season. And I maintain that the Pac 10 is an even less challenging conference than the Big XII was this year. At any rate, the boys were out practicing on Tuesday evening as I was headed over to the building committee meeting. They're going to have to work really hard these next couple of weeks to be up to the challenge.

In other news, ticket prices are finally starting to fall below $1000. Clearly the market of people who'll shell out a grand for tickets at the top of the endzone has tapped out. But (thank goodness), there are still suites available for a cool $67K.

when Santa crosses over the border...

'Tis the season for 24-hour holiday music marathons on all three country stations and endless iterations of "Sleigh Ride" at the mall. Luckily, there's much better stuff out there that will have you rocking out like Santa's elves in no time. Some Christmas albums I like, in no particular order:

  • Amy Grant, A Christmas Album - There's no excuse for this. But the lead track is "Tennessee Christmas," and I always listen to it first every year. "Well they say in L.A. it's a warm holiday / it's the only place to be. / But a tender Tennessee Christmas is the only Christmas for me." (And no, the Keith Whitley version is not the one to listen to. Amy Grant's breathless 80's teen Christian pop is the only appropriate way to enjoy something this cheesy.)
  • Various, Elf soundtrack - Not only is the film hilarious, the soundtrack rocks. It's a crazy mix of everything from Ella Fitzgerald's cut of "Sleigh Ride" to Jim Reeves (yes, the "Four Walls" Jim Reeves) singing "Jingle Bells." Leon Redbone and Zooey Deschanel's duet on "Baby It's Cold Outside" is one of the best versions of the song out there.
  • Various, To Kate: A Benefit For Kate's Sake - I keep talking about this because it's good and because it benefits a great cause. That's it. No more posts involving the CD or its tracks.
  • Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison, Happy Holidays - Lots of fun from Austin's cutest music couple. Highlights include Kelly's solo on "In the Bleak Midwinter" and the duet of "Baby, It's Cold Outside," especially towards the end there where they keep trying not to laugh.
  • Ella Fitzgerald, Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas - The perfect Christmas party CD. I always put this on first for holiday gatherings and it never fails to get things going. Jamie the Law Clerk would also point out that this is a "taint of ivy prep" kind of album. No apologies. Ella's "Sleigh Ride" is the version to have.
  • John Denver and the Muppets, A Christmas Together - The soundtrack from the 1979 television special (not to be confused with the Rocky Mountain Holiday special from 1982). What's not to love? The Muppets sing "Silent Night" in German and it turns out to be beautiful rather than heretical. Their "Twelve Days of Christmas" is hands-down the best ever recorded, especially the Bunsen/Beaker part. My daddy knew John Denver in college, he and I always went to see the Muppet movies in the theater together when I was little, and I've loved the Muppet Show my whole life. It just wouldn't be Christmas without this album.
  • Willie Nelson, Pretty Paper - Of course. My favorite tracks are "Blue Christmas," "Silent Night," and the instrumental "Christmas Blues."
  • Chris Rice, The Living Room Sessions: Christmas - Rice is a contemporary Christian singer-songwriter who writes a lot of cheesy music that gets recorded by people like Michael W. Smith. But. A few years ago he sat down at the piano in his living room in Franklin and recorded two instrumental albums, one of hymns and this one of Christmas carols. It's imperfect and rough and absolutely wonderful. "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" and "Welcome to Our World" are particularly beautiful.
  • The Cambridge Singers and Orchestra, Christmas Star - The perfect album when you need some beautiful, high-church music. Directed by composer John Rutter, whose Requiem is one of the most lovely pieces of music I've ever heard.

Finally, a few tracks to download from iTunes to make your holiday mixes complete with sad country songs and Irish rock stars:

*U2, "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)"

*Adam Sandler, "The Chanukah Song"

*Alabama, "Christmas in Dixie"

*Dolly Parton, "Hard Candy Christmas"

*Merle Haggard, "If We Make It Through December"

*Elvis Presley, "Blue Christmas"

*Loretta Lynn, "To Heck with Ole Santa Claus"

*Robert Earl Keen, Jr., "Merry Christmas From the Family"

*George Strait, "There's a New Kid in Town"


hip trip

Thanks, Paul, for pointing out something else to worry about. Crazed Zimbabwean crocs got me thinking about other possibilities for disaster/things that might be unpleasant, like:

  1. Hippos. They're more deadly than lions, and you're way more likely to run into one while spending a day at the lake. Which I will be doing a lot since there's nothing else to do in Bukavu.
  2. Accidentally being legally bound to marry someone since Josh decided to have some fun last summer by negotiating my dowry with a couple of taxi drivers. Apparently my "brother" had the authority to do that on behalf of the family. (And, for those who were wondering, my market value is 15 head of cattle and 40 goats, with the suitor having the responsibility to transfer the livestock to my daddy.)
  3. Earthquakes.
  4. Not getting to go along with the UN to disarm some rebels.
  5. Nothing but six months of ESPN International's extensive coverage of motocross racing and cricket.
  6. Running into the Mai Mai, a gang of teenage boys who worship water and go into battle wearing faucets around their necks. (I'm not kidding. They have a lovely website. Does that general look older than 18 to you?)

Other thoughts on this?



In preparation for the big trip, today I had to visit the travel clinic. It's a little scary when you manage to shock those people with the places you're going. I mean, this is their job. But, the good news is, after checking everything over the nurse declared that they have no more shots to give me. Happy day! I'm finally invincible with respect to third world diseases ... or something like that.

At the travel clinic, they give you a long compilation of the travel warnings from the U.S., U.K., Canada, and Australia that lists everything bad that could possibly happen in the countries you're visiting. I read the 28 pages of panic on "my" countries tonight during the building committee meeting. Here are some of the less-than-typical-even-for-Africa things you're supposed to worry about if you're visiting the DR Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, Kenya, Tanzania, Sudan, Zambia, and/or Zimbabwe:

  1. Kidnapping (Burundi/DRC border)
  2. Not stopping your car when passing a national flag being lowered at 6pm (DRC)
  3. Volcanic eruptions (DRC and Rwanda)
  4. Train derailments (Kenya)
  5. Pirates! (Sudan)
  6. Fundamentalist armies (Uganda)
  7. Getting arrested for carrying prescription meds outside of their labeled containers (Zambia)
  8. "High-density suburbs" (code language for slums(?) in Zimbabwe)

This is why we take government-issued travel warnings with a grain of salt - it's rarely this bad so long as you stay out of contested areas. In four trips to the continent, I've seen a train derailment and been to slums and neither were unmanageable situations. Things can go horribly wrong, of course, but in general, I've found that most people in Africa are generous and kind, and that a little common sense goes a long way in avoiding lava flows, rebels, and pirates.

last week in live music

It's Christmastime in Austin and the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar is in full swing. One does not go to the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar to shop. (No one you know really wants a pink-and-turquoise painted glass cat. Trust me on that.) No, one only ventures to the Austin Music Hall this time of year to get a fix of high-quality live music for a low cover charge.

Saturday, I took a break from holiday shopping and stopped by the bazaar to see one of my favorite live acts, Chip Taylor & Carrie Rodriguez. Chip Taylor is a famous songwriter who heard Austin native Carrie Rodriguez playing fiddle at Cheapo Discs one day four years ago and the rest, as they say, is history. I love their music. The Trouble with Humans is one of my favorite albums, and Chip's songwriting mixes with Carrie's fiddle and vocals in a way that creates totally unique, fantastic roots music.

The last time I saw Chip & Carrie live was at their live album taping at the Cactus in May 2004. Paul and I had the table right up front and got to watch Chip and John Platania play guitar from literally about three feet away. The evening was so good, even considering the fact that Paul forgot where he'd parked his new truck/what his new truck looked like such that we had to drive around West Campus for half an hour while he held his remote out the roof of my car while trying to set off his alarm so we could find the thing. There's just something about the combination of their voices and the incredible songwriting that makes for a great show.

Their Saturday set was, in a word, awesome. Once again backed up by Platania and bass player Kevin Smith, they didn't try anything fancy, just a straightforward run through some of their best songs, including "Let's Leave this Town," "Don't Speak in English," "Keep Your Hat on Jenny," "Angel of the Morning," and the get-me-back-to-Austin song that everyone loves, "Sweet Tequila Blues." An extra-special treat was the fact that Carrie's grandmother was in the audience, so she sang the rarely-performed "Memphis, Texas" in her honor. It's hard to explain how great that song is - the lyrics perfectly capture what it is to be from, and of, a small West Texas town ("I'm a dusty old road/by the back of a barn/with the wind blowin' cross me/on this Panhandle farm/I'm a sky with no end/just tryin' to rain/and the ground's gettin' thirsty/ -- that's who I am") It's pretty close to perfect.

The rest of the lineup for the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar is pretty good as well, starting with The Greencards tonight, through Christmas Eve.

is mike leach right?

Well, now they've gone and done it. Some high-falutin' Berkeley econ professor has determined that it is in fact better to go for it on 4th down, at least if you're 1) in the NFL and 2) in the first quarter. Story here. Uh-huh.

I hate academic economics, primarily because economists's rational actor models are all based on the assumption that all other things are constant (ceteris paribus is the Latin term). Problem is, all other things are never constant in the real world. A model can account for players' skill and the probability of kicking a field goal from a certain distance. It cannot account for intangible, unpredictable things like crowd noise or Vince Young. And I'd remind everyone that Tech is not playing for a national championship this year.

on the straight and narrow

This is hilarious. And kindof wrong.


coming up roses!

So I've been a little, um, concerned about the Rose Bowl as tickets get harder and harder to come by. One by one, the backup plans have been falling apart. The draw only had 2600 student tickets. Ticketmaster sold out in 5 minutes. HGTV gave their awesome grand prize (6 nights at the Ritz with game tickets) to someone else. And my Congo connection seemed to have disappeared.

But my gosh, it might actually happen. I just heard from my friend at the L.A. Times about those sideline passes for the Rose Bowl. He's been out of town. But now he's working on it. Just when I was thinking we might have to pay real money for these things.

wonders never cease

One of the disadvantages of big, scary research universities is that undergraduates don't enjoy the same level of access to their professors that kids at liberal arts colleges and smaller universities get. Case in point: rec letters. When I applied for study abroad/big fancy fellowships/grad school, my letters came from my professors and my deans. At a place like UT, though, the vast majority of students can't expect more than one or two letters from a professor for applications to anything less significant than law or professional school. So who writes the letters for the little things? The teaching assistants.

I write letters of recommendation whenever a student asks. And I've gotten used to not hearing what happened unless I happen to run into the student in the union or at a show. Thank-you notes are unheard of (why anyone would not write a thank-you note is a topic for another time). I've generally come to grips with the fact that it's a tacky world and that my students have succumbed to low standards.

But the most remarkable thing happened today: A student actually wrote me a thank-you note. AND let me know the results of the competition (he won). Wow. I don't even know what to think. He is a church kid. Maybe that explains it.


"We do not have too much advocacy for Christian principles in government and politics. We have a highly selective and hypocritical application of Christian principles in government and politics."

Former Lt. Governor Bill Ratliff in yesterday's Statesman.


music & the movies

After Wilco's ACL aftershow at Stubb's, I had a long conversation with a near-stranger about Ryan Adams. He'd been to one of the whacked-out shows on the Cold Roses tour, during which Adams seemed determined to create a train wreck. The interesting thing, though, is that in the midst of all the drugs and mental health issues, Adams comes up with some pretty amazing music. That he probably wouldn't be able to write if he weren't so messed up. And we agreed that he just seems doomed to die young.

What is it about the people who are in the worst shape being able to create incredible art? Last night we saw a movie about someone else who seemed destined to die young -- or at least that's how filmmaker Margaret Brown sets up the story. The story of Townes van Zandt's life is tragic - drug abuse, the miserable effects of shock therapy, and a series failed marriages all took their toll. But wow could he write songs. Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes van Zandt explores the tension between the artist's life and his music, with the recognition that making truly great art often requires sacrificing family, stability, and normalcy.

The film is wonderful. It's going to end up being one of my favorite music documentaries ever. The cinematography and footage of TVZ throughout his life is perfectly matched with interviews with the people who knew him best. It's just amazing.

What I liked best was the sense of place in the film. Van Zandt spent much of his life migrating between Austin and Nashville and Colorado, but there's something about the film that gives you the sense that he was from somewhere - and nowhere at the same time. A lot of the footage was shot in his homes: a trailer in Austin's Clarksville neighborhood, or an old sharecropper's cabin in Franklin (which will be tracked down over the holidays). The sense of place permeates the whole movie. People aren't interviewed in the normal way: J.T. van Zandt talks about his dad while fly-fishing on a quiet bend in an unidentified river; Guy Clark gives his interview in his home studio while doing shots of tequila. One of the funniest, and most poignant, scenes in the film occurs while Townes is sitting on the porch of his trailer in Clarksville. He's dressed like a Texas boy - boots, a cowboy hat, a shearling jacket, and a denim shirt - and talking about the time he was pronounced dead-on-arrival at a hospital, only to have another doctor try one more thing that kept him alive. So while Townes is sharing this story with undertones of meditation on the whole meaning of life and death, his friend is standing over him on the porch doing target practice with a 12-gauge. It is so funny, and so sad, and somehow sums up a life.

Another great, if painful, moment occurs when Ralph Emery interviews van Zandt on Nashville Now! (wow, we used to watch that on TNN -- the studio was part of Opryland) and points out that his records don't sell and aren't even in circulation anymore. Emery's doing that awful thing that Nashville does to really talented people, but then he has van Zandt play a song and it's as though you can see the fog lifting for the host and the audience. Beautiful.

Be Here to Love Me: A Film about Townes van Zandt opened this weekend at the newish Alamo South in Austin and will be at the Belcourt in Nashville either this coming Friday or on January 6. You can watch the trailer here. There's a great story/interview about the film's production in this week's Chronicle.

For those of you not familiar with van Zandt's work, there's this amazing recording of a live show he did with Guy Clark and Steve Earle in Nashville a decade ago when I was a senior in a high school 15 miles down that exact road and not old enough to get into the Bluebird and too naive to know what I was missing, Together at the Bluebird Cafe. There are three tracks in a row (13, Clark's "Dublin Blues," then 14, Earle's "I Ain't Ever Satisfied," and then 15, van Zandt's "Pancho and Lefty") that just sum up the three artists, their relationship with one another, and their music. Listen to that, see the film, and be glad that you and I are so lucky that we get to listen in on this amazing grace.

reaganomics is hot

I must have one of these for Christmas!

And they're serious: no non-American orders allowed. Classy compassionate conservatives!

like bob stoops for politics

If this is true, Karl Rove should be indicted. Novak's comments here; Post story here.


hurry down the chimney

Fun things to give and get, organized by the alleged themes of this blog:

Stuff: The 2005 Austin Live Music Capital of the World Christmas ornament. I can't find a picture online, but it's really cute this year. Available at Goodwill and Hallmark. That's not a sentence you write very often.

Book: All Over the Map: True Heroes of Texas Music by Michael Corcoran. On my wishlist. Corcoran writes a history of Texas musicians whose work hasn't been widely recognized, especially early African-American performers.

DVD: Lubbock Lights, the great film about Lubbock music reviewed here a couple of weeks ago.

Tickets: to the Rose Bowl. Of course.

Book: The Last Coach: A Life of Paul "Bear" Bryant by Allen Barra - Yes, Vince, I cheered for Alabama growing up. My friend Molly's dad played for Bear's late 60's/early 70's teams who won all those national championships. This looks like a fantastic read.

Book: The Courting of Marcus Dupree by Willie Morris - I just got this and am so excited to finally read the story of Marcus Dupree's college recruitment by OU and others. Morris is one of my favorite authors; his insight into the interaction between all the competing social forces in the South and his incredible ability to write should make for a great read and a great gift for anyone you know who's interested in football, race, and Southern history.

Book: The Best of No Depression: Writing About American Music - A good overview of the last few years of some great subjects, including Wilco, Lucinda Williams, and Johnny Cash. I enjoyed it.

Gadget: Bose SoundDock for iPod - I got one of these for my birthday in May and love, love, looooooooovvvvvvve it. The sound is incredible and it's portable -- it's goes everywhere with from youth camp to the mountains to parties at the ranch.

DVD: Johnny Cash: Live from Austin, Texas Why they're waiting until 5 days before Christmas to release this is beyond me.

Tickets: to Jeff Tweedy's solo tour, part 2. If you or someone you love can make it to the West coast this winter.

Gadget: Shure Ec3 sound isolating earphones These are so cool. And so out-of-reach.

Stuff: A fun t-shirt. Or two.

Book: Active Liberty: Interpreting Our Democratic Constitution by Stephen Breyer. I saw part of an interview with Justice Breyer about his book over the Thanksgiving break and have been wanting to read it ever since.

Stuff: Anything from Amani ya Juu, a women's workshop in Nairobi. They do mail-order online. I love, love, love their stuff, like the awesome rag baskets that Genie and my sister snapped up, sparkly napkin rings, super-fun jewlery, and their beautiful quilts, one of which I will one day have in my home.

DVD: Amandla!, a fantastic documentary about the role of protest music in the dismantling of the apartheid regime in South Africa. So good.

Book: American Jesus by Stephen Prothero, reviewed here the other day. Not targeted on Baptists per se, but there's a lot in this that has to do with the denomination's history and the recent unpleasantness.

Stuff: A Landover Baptist license plate frame. You know you want one.

Stuff: And a funny t-shirt.