Tyler, Texas: Biopsy of a Red, White, and Blue Cancer

Believe me when I say that I don’t really want to write these words—and I most certainly wish that the events behind them had never happened.  But they represent what’s on my mind to the point of crowding out other thoughts… and this reflection as a whole poses a contrastive kind of bookend to the promise of independence that my new residence held out during our July 4 visit. I usually like contrasts. I wish this one weren’t so stark.

We returned to Tyler, Texas, for one last span of packing and waiting.  At some point, a bad dream degenerates into a nightmare… and it is along that seam that our present lives appear to be unfolding.  Ever since an “inspector” stuck his nose into every corner of our 50-year-old house, things have been malfunctioning.  The oven’s light fades in and out according to cryptic rhythms.  A strange wet spot has appeared under the bathroom sink.  Now we find that one of the hot water heaters (no, I don’t know why we have two, and nobody can tell us) will not keep its pilot light ignited.  Perhaps the man who charged me $370 to replace a “faulty part”—only to leave the tank in the same cold coma as had gripped it before—was a con artist, or perhaps he was simply no more competent than I at knowing how to resuscitate this mysterious model.  I wish I’d never met the guy…

And I wish the “inspector” had never whirled through our house.  In the light of all the failed lights, etc., I picture his time on our property as a re-enactment of the scene in the Tain Bo Cualnge where Cu Chulainn first takes arms.  Seventeen spears are rattled to splinters before the frightful lad finds one to his liking, and seventeen chariots are shaken to shambles before one finally withstands his “inspection”.  Our “inspector” must have some ancient Celtic DNA in him.  The paces through which he put our old warhorse left her more dead than alive.

And why an inspection?  We never had to jump through this hoop before, though we sold three houses within ten years as I struggled to generate some kind of career out of the Ivory Tower slaughterhouse.  I think it’s because the buyers in this case have no interest in actually inhabiting our digs.  Though a few years shy of thirty, the couple seems to me far less concerned about starting a family than about being the next pair on Flip or Flop.  Because they seek a loan not just to buy the property but also to gut and transform it—for a regal profit—the bank is insisting on ironclad assurances that its money is being well invested.

I can understand that—and I’m not unappreciative of the realtor for reaching out to this couple immediately rather than slapping a lockbox on our door and forcing us to bail out of the house every time some home-hunter wanted to take a little fantasy voyage through it.  But my wife and I have begun to feel somewhat “played” on several occasions since the all-too-easy deal went down.  At this very instant, a squad of roofers is pounding and hammering just above my.  The roof doesn’t leak anywhere… but the “inspector” decided that it needed to go.  That’s another $1,700 of deductible before State Farm will pay anything.  (The property is worth nowhere near the almost 200 grand that SF plugged into its formula to ratchet up what we have to pay: I’ve never received an adequate explanation of the figure.)

This has to be what a wildebeest feels like as it lies dying and watches the first vultures peck at its ribs.  What I hate most about the feeling is not knowing if I’m being hoodwinked or if, after all, I’ve just grown a little paranoid in the flurry of activity.  The poor fool who “repaired” the hot water heater was probably just in over his head.  The “inspector” was probably just a bit overzealous in shaking joints and stressing connections.  The realty/roofing/insurance complex… there I start to assume a “cornered prey” posture.  And while I’m sure that the two future stars of Flip or Flop Tyler have no particular flim or flam in their young minds just yet, their relationship with our realtor strikes me as extraordinarily cozy.  He negotiated the price… will he, perhaps, stand to benefit in some way when they put the face-lifted Taj Mahal back on the market?  I wonder.  I can’t help but wonder.

For this is Tyler, Texas.  Without money, you don’t exist—and everybody wants to exist, to be somebody.  Twenty years ago, my humble family was quickly assessed (by various “inspectors”) and cast into the bone pile.  Actually, frugality has left me better-heeled than many of the city’s distinguished citizens… but they don’t know that, precisely because I don’t advertise it.  On the contrary, an old guy who mows his own lawn, cuts his own hair, drives a second-hand car, and wears his clothes until they fall off… who would consider him advantageous to know or enviable to contemplate?

I would have liked to sell the house to another young family—for it has a generous back yard which I modeled into a pretty passable playground for my son.  (The buyers want to dedicate half of it to a pool.)  As I was digging up my movable trees in a bid to save them from the impending purge, I sometimes got a little choked up.  Three of my apple trees, and certainly my two almonds, have prospered far too well this past year to endure uprooting and transport.  I raised them from seeds and sticks… as I did my son.  In this back yard, we fashioned baseball contests, one against one, that we played with tennis balls (until he was consistently knocking those over the fence).  The ghosts of a boy and a young father linger about permanent bald spots where we had a pitcher’s circle and a home plate.

And then the boy played Little League… and his love of the game was almost destroyed by a man who ordered him to stand up on the plate and try to get hit by pitches.  I dared to gather a few of the team for a practice at our local school one afternoon… and then I, too, was issued orders: stay away from The Man’s team.  He had a cabinet full of trophies and a dream of big scholarship money for his grandson, whom he was pitching in alternative tournaments—against the rules—over weekends.  That’s why we never practiced.

So the boy played in another league the next year—Tyler’s “Negro League”, the YMCA.  For one year, we had the time of our lives.  The following year, the league was forever ruined when its organizing elite decided to arrange games all over East Texas, the plan being to draw families onto the field (a series of fields) right at supper time and rake in big bucks from the concession stand—cold cash, money in a form that could go missing from the drawer without a trace.  Same venality, different cultural approach.

Then the boy played high school baseball—very successfully, until his senior year.  We were unwise enough to secure him a college scholarship at that point and to let our success be known.  The money-bags dad to whose son the coach had often promised Division I scholarship offers was furious, especially since his golden child encountered arm problems (another case of gross overuse in tournaments) and received no offers at all.  The coach, infuriated in turn, took it out on our son, bullying him for a while and finally benching him for good.

All of these adults, by the way, are active in their churches.  All profess that they have given their lives to Jesus Christ.  Same for the headmistress of my son’s first school—she who kept a Bible prominently centered on her desk.  When I transferred the boy in mid-spring to another school because of an abusive teacher whose snarling, glaring practices were not being modified, the staff were immediately told not to buzz in any of my family under any circumstances.  At the time, I was giving Spanish lessons gratis to several grades.

Tyler, Texas.  A predatory hunt for profits in every nook and burrow of the forest, coupled with an ostentatious but skin-deep piety that magnifies mere money-lust to a different category of depravity… how could I ever miss anything about this place?  I want to miss something.  I raised my son here; we spent the twenty most important years of our lives here.  Yet every time I trap a moment of nostalgia as I box up the house’s contents, the bittersweet pleasure is at once murdered by assassin recollections that surround it.  I would like to be able to bundle up a few fond memories… but all of them would conceal the bug of an infectious and fatal disease.  And so I leave them lying in empty closets and worn-out carpets.

As an academic of thirty years, I wish I could make the proponents of conservatism see that every problem in our society cannot be reduced to a) the propaganda of a progressive left and b) the grotesque dreams of that progressive left.  We have a sickness.  The rise of leftism has exacerbated it by distracting us from it and forcing us to treat superficial varieties of progressive lunacy… but it was a preexisting condition, that disease, and it cuts to the heart of our national soul.  Boys should be able to play a game without adults circulating sordidly around its edges to turn a profit.  Old men should be able to retire without packs of young jackals descending upon them to nip at their life-savings.  Government intervention isn’t the answer: we can agree upon that.  Practiced manipulators will always figure out ways, not only to skirt around the rules, but even to collaborate in making rules that favor their interests.  We’re all enduring an evolutionary stage now wherein we have to fight off the intrusions of a do-gooder Nanny State—intrusions that only leave the poor poorer and the rich richer.  We haven’t enough energy left over to address our impoverished spirits.

For what we really need is an uplifting of the spirit—something such as might be provided by… oh, I don’t know.  Maybe the Christian faith? But where is that faith?

Middle American Pharisees: A House That Is No Home

After spending twenty years of your life in one place—especially when the span overlaps your son’s childhood and your career’s most cherished project (a tax-exempt educational charity)—it seems like moving out should be a somber occasion.  Seems like you should be watching fond memories dissolve as you box up or throw away books and toys.  Seems like the now empty, strangely echoing rooms where you passed so many Christmases should haunt you almost unendurably.

And when virtually none of that happens… isn’t the absence of sadness itself cause for sadness?

I haven’t enjoyed living in this town (which I’ll allow to remain nameless).  Implicated in recollections of my boy’s very young childhood is the incredibly rude treatment my family received when I shifted him to another school in the fourth grade.  The old baseball gloves and trophies and the pitcher’s mound and backstop I built in the back yard darken a little when memories of cutthroat Little League competitions (rigged draft nights, instruction in how to cheat, even purloining petty cash from the concession stand) drift over like clouds.  A should-have-been gilded succession of high school achievements was tarnished by the wantonly vengeful spite of one powerful man during my son’s senior year.  Just when I start to get choked up with a touch of nostalgia, I recall these episodes… and all the painful pleasantness of looking back vanishes, leaving only a black thread of smoke from diehard embers.

The worst of it all—the thing that keeps a fire in the dark heart of the ember—is that all of the people in question made much show of their Christian faith.  They played it like a brass band.  It was as much on display as a Fourth of July fireworks celebration.  As a Christian myself, I find that especially infuriating.  This town appears to be full of such types: whited sepulchers, clean and bright on the outside but stinking of death on the inside.

And how often was I told here that salvation is a “free gift” from God—that it isn’t compensation for good works, as if one might rape the whole wide world and then run to the “safe” circle like a kid playing a game?  It is because I am a Christian that this kind of behavior among Christians so disgusts me.  And this town, during my twenty years here—more time than I’ve ever spent in any one place—has abounded in such examples.

The man who poisoned my son’s senior year in high school probably felt some remorse afterward, though his pride would never let him volunteer anything so humbling as an apology.  From him we drew a reference when my son needed a person “of the cloth” to speak on his behalf as part of the admission process at a Christian university; for the man is apparently a minister of some variety at his church, and I myself stopped taking my family to any church in this burg a while back.  This, too, immensely bothers me about current Christian practice: the presumption that one’s faith is manifested by one’s attendance at some designated “house of God”—for it is an extension of the same kind of Pharisaism that induces people to mouth formulas without adjusting their conduct.  Nevertheless, I will credit this fellow with wrestling down his devils to some degree from time to time.  From the others I’ve referred to obliquely, I wouldn’t accept a sponge if I were on fire.

For I will not frame “tolerance” and hang it over my mantelpiece because it looks good there: I will not make a show of a virtue whose reality is spiritual laziness and cowardice.  What I hate about the Left is the penchant of its minions to display virtues like medals on their lapel.  I lately used the example of protesters on behalf of mustangs whose advocacy for free range must eventually starve out every damn horse on the prairie—but they have their precious cause on prominent display in the curio cabinet, and nothing else matters.  So for fake Christianity; its practitioners let slide a foul deed whose perpetrator will now repeat it again and again, always with assurance of “forgiveness”, because the little saints must burn the candle of Tolerance at their altar of Self.

This town is full of such hollow humility, such hypocritical fraud—and so, increasingly, is our whole society.  A Selfie and a Tweet send out into the cosmos the image we wish to project… and to hell with truth, consequences, and responsibility.  That sickness has eaten away our moral fiber here, in my backwoods, bourgeois American enclave, ever since the first “exclusive” residential section rose out of the sweet potato farms and oil derricks.  Now, however, the cancer has spread from our real estate into our pockets, and our hands.  We carry it everywhere we go.

So… time to find some more boxes.  I’ve bought twenty-five acres to raise my orchards… and the dust on my heels isn’t good for anything but shaking off.