FRANKLIN IS GOD

The Fourth of July is the best day to show off what is, for many Texans, our secret super-power: barbecuing. On the outside, we look like ordinary citizens. But, give us a hot grill and some hamburger patties and, buddy, prepare to be dazzled. And people love us for it. What else can you do for family and friends that makes them as happy as cooking up a mess of BBQ?
But for the more devoted of us, that’s not enough. We seek to ascend to a higher realm. So, we graduate to smokers. And smokers inevitably, tragically lead to that most thorny of all barbecue riddles: brisket.
Now, we find ourselves waking before dawn to light the fire and lovingly massage our brisket with the latest sure-fire dry rub from HEB. All day long, like a punctilious steelworker, we stoke the fire in the blazing Texas sun struggling to keep it at the exact temperature recommended by the latest internet guru, and, in the process – as our spouses love to remind us – wind up smoking ourselves as much as the brisket.
And then, after way too many hours of toil and trouble, the great moment finally arrives when we cut into our beloved, only to find that it’s edible, but just too dry, too tough, too fatty, too smoky, too whatever. But rather than do the sensible thing and quit, we grimly accept the faint praise of our guests as they glumly saw and gnaw away, and silently resolve that next time we’ll lower the smoker temperature two degrees and try that new rub with the pineapple tenderizer.
Some of the more devout among us have made the barbecue stations of the cross by journeying to Central Texas to sample Smitty’s, Kreuz’s, City Market, et. al. hoping to discover their smoke-ringed secrets. You can easily spot us; we’re the ones poking at the moist brisket slices with our knives and studying them from different angles, like a desperate doctor in search of an elusive diagnosis. We’ll occasionally even hold one up to the light as we wonder how they managed to achieve such excellence.
And so things remained in the barbecue world for many years, until one day – like a bolt of lightning from a clear blue sky – Aaron Franklin, The Chosen One, appeared.
Several years ago, rumors began spreading out of Austin about a new barbecue joint that was serving the brisket of the gods. The story was that because Franklin’s closed as soon as the food ran out, scores of acolytes lined up every day before sunrise to wait for the place to open at 11:00.
I scoffed and dismissed the reports as mere hipster hysteria. That is, until I watched a cooking show about Mr. Franklin. During the interview, he tossed one of his smoked briskets onto a cutting board, and – I swear this is true – it jiggled like a water balloon. “No way!” I shouted as I replayed it, “That’s not possible!” If you did that to one of mine, it would jiggle nearly as much as a slab of granite. I immediately resolved to make a pilgrimage to Austin.
I got to Franklin Barbecue at 6:15 AM, and there were already twenty people ahead of me. At first, the waiting isn’t so bad. The whole thing has the cool, analog vibe of lining up to buy Zeppelin tickets in 1977, and it’s kind of fun to commiserate with your fellow postulants: The young, foodie couple behind me had flown from Kentucky just to try the brisket.
But, by the time the doors finally opened, I was completely over it; no barbecue could ever be worth this much time and trouble.
As the line slowly progressed through the ordinary looking dining room, I carefully examined the plates of the customers who’d already been served. After five hours of waiting, I half expected the brisket slices to be levitating and have halos around them, but they pretty much looked just like mine.
I finally made it to the counter, got my slices, and beelined for one of the communal tables. Filled with skepticism and feeling duped, I finally tasted The Chosen One’s brisket.
I’ve only eaten at one three-star Michelin restaurant; I splurged on lunch at Eric Ripert’s Le Bernardin in NYC. What I remember most about that remarkable meal is the moment I realized that if a supremely talented person devotes their life to it and brings a manic attention to detail, cooking can approach the level of an art form. I was struck by that same realization at Franklin Barbecue.
My advice: Get on The Pilgrim’s Trail.

GREETINGS FROM MERKEL, TEXAS

They say our beloved Lone Star State is so big that somewhere in Texas there’s a town with your name on it. I had my doubts, until one sunny vacation day I was headed down some lonesome highway west of Abilene when I came upon it: a large, green exit sign for Merkel.

It’s a funny sounding name which easily lends itself to derision: “Merk the Jerk” and “Jerkl” tormented me through grammar school. Poor Fred Merkle’s infamous baseball boner and Steve Urkel’s urkelness both harmed the cause. My Aunt Angie, over in Germany, elevated the name somewhat, until recently. But overall, it’s been something of a minor affliction which brides in my family are usually happy to get rid of.

But there it was in big white letters taking its rightful place alongside Houston, Austin, and San Antonio. So, I skidded the car to a stop and asked my wife to take photos of me standing proudly by the sign as passing drivers honked their horns, pointed, and laughed.

Back behind the wheel, a previously unknown feeling of ancestral pride swept over me, and I realized I had to take the off-ramp.

I pulled into a gas station, and, while fueling up, asked my wife to go inside the convenience store and see if they had any Merkel souvenir T-shirts for sale. She still hadn’t come out after I’d finished pumping, so I joined her inside.

The store was packed, and my wife had just managed to get to the front of the line. They didn’t have any shirts, but she was asking the cashier if he knew where we could buy some.

“Why would you want Merkel T-shirts?” he asked suspiciously.

“Because my name’s Merkl, and I built this town!” I jokingly proclaimed.

Suddenly, a customer pouring herself some coffee shouted, “You built this town? I hate Merkel! It’s given me nothing but misery! I keep leaving and it keeps hauling me back!” Then she scowled and advanced toward me brandishing a cup of steaming coffee.

“He didn’t really build Merkel,” my wife added helpfully while dragging me toward the door.

“The T-shirts?” I implored the cashier over my shoulder.

“There’s a dollar store in town that has them.”

As we rushed out the door, the woman hooted, “What kind of name is Merkel anyway?”

If I had any sense, I’d have beelined for the freeway, but I was determined to wear that shirt and finally show the world my surname was legit.

While driving around looking for the store, I noticed that the tiny town could’ve used a coat of paint, but that only endeared it to me because, frankly, so could I.

The dollar store was crowded as my wife and I scoured the aisles looking for our prize. We soon found a stack of purple shirts with “Merkel Badgers”, the high school team name, proudly emblazoned in gold lettering across the chest. I grabbed six of them and headed to the lone cashier where I proudly placed the shirts on the counter in front of her.

“Why are you buying so many Badgers shirts?” she asked.

“Because my name’s Merkl, and…”

“No,” my wife hissed in my ear, “do not say it.”

“… I built this town!”

The cashier laughed and asked if my name was really Merkel. I showed her my driver’s license and said, “I think we lost the second “e” at Ellis Island, but my name is Merkel.” We talked briefly, and she told us she’d lived in Corpus Christi for several years, but she loved her hometown and had recently returned.

I noticed there was a long line of shoppers behind us by then, so I whipped out my credit card and swiped it through the reader with a flourish. “I’m sorry Mr. Merkl,” the cashier said, “but it was rejected. Try again.” I swiped it again, with the same result.

“Let me try another card”, I croaked, as I swiped a second one, which was also promptly rejected. Palms sweating, I asked the next person in line to go ahead of us, but she smiled sweetly and said, “Oh no, Mr. Merkel, you built this town. You take your time. I can wait.” All the customers behind her nodded in hearty agreement.

I fumbled in my wallet for my third and last credit card, but it was also rejected. At that moment my wife remembered she had a stash of vacation cash in the car, which she ran out to retrieve. We quickly paid for the shirts and hustled out of the store as everyone cheerily wished the Merkels safe travels.

Back in the car, I picked up my beeping phone from the console and found that all three credit card companies were texting me that a suspicious charge was being made and asking me to verify that I was making the purchase.

I can’t say I had a great time in Merkel, but I’m definitely going back someday. I want a Badgers baseball cap.

FIRST RATE FIRST MAN

Every late ‘70s college kid had a story about the night of July 20, 1969. Most were like mine: Our parents woke us up, told us something momentous was happening, and carried us in front of the TV. We watched the miracle of men in bulky suits climbing down the nine steps from the lunar module and hopping along the surface of the moon until we fell back asleep.

One friend had a different story. She told me that after years of scrimping, her parents had finally saved enough to buy their first home. It was in a new Texas subdivision, and to save money her father decided they’d put in the lawn themselves. That night, after being allowed to marvel for a few minutes at the giant leap for mankind, her father took her outside, gave her a small gardening trowel, and told her that since she was up, she could help him plant St. Augustine grass plugs in the front yard. She begged to keep watching the miracle on the moon, but her father insisted.

She told me that as she knelt in the mud digging with her little shovel, she’d gaze up at the crescent moon and cry.

I never forgot that story, because it shows, in a small way, how our perceptions of earthly affairs are transformed when viewed through the prism of another world. That bright, new perspective was very powerful, and many of us remember it vividly. Many are also confused by what has happened since.

There was a lot of talk in the ‘60s about our destiny being among the stars, and that the moon missions were only the first of many great adventures soon to come. But in the years since, our manned space program has languished, never venturing beyond low-Earth orbit.

Incredibly, America can’t even transport its own astronauts to the International Space Station, relying instead, ironically enough, on confiscatory taxiing by our space archrival, the Russians. Which is a bit like a fleeing Bugs Bunny suddenly skidding to a stop and turning to ask a befuddled Elmer Fudd if Bugs could help him reload his shotgun.

What was it that gave us the guts in the protocomputer ‘60s to rocket to the moon with mechanical, manual winding watches strapped to our wrists? Finally, we have First Man, a great new movie that provides answers to that question.

 The reason it’s the first Apollo 11 movie in 49 years is the same reason they’ve never needed a fundraiser for wayward astronauts: Perfect self-control at all times was in the astronaut job description, which doesn’t normally make for the most compelling movie characters. But, Ryan Gosling unforgettably portrays Neil Armstrong – the prototypical steely-eyed missile man – as a man in full, struggling to maintain his stability as he copes with the passing of his beloved two-year-old daughter, the fiery deaths in preflight testing of his friends on the Apollo 1 crew, and his doomed marriage, all while being stretched into impossible shapes by his otherworldly responsibilities at NASA.

And for us space nerds, it’s fantastic that Hollywood is finally using its latest special effects wizardry to create something that dazzles people over the age of twelve. The Gemini and Apollo mission scenes perfectly capture the rickety, almost Jules Verne-like, we’re-never-gonna-know-if it-flies-unless-we-light-the-candle-on-this-darn-thing nature of those spacecraft. The portrayal is so realistic that you can easily imagine yourself strapped in alongside our intrepid astronauts as they’re violently thrown around inside those tiny, creaking capsules.

But, the movie really rounds into its own when Neil Armstrong opens the hatch of the lunar module and stares down on the powdery brilliance of the moon’s surface.  At that moment, he knows, along with every sentient being in the audience, that our future really is among the stars. It’s great to have that spirit of 1969 back again.

Once in a great while, and probably by mistake, Hollywood makes a terrific movie for intelligent adults. Please see First Man.

 

T-BALL COACH AGONISTES

Why are the MLB playoffs one of the few remaining American civic rituals not ruined by our current, culture-swallowing obsession with partisan politics? Maybe it’s because we realize that, like Lincoln’s “Mystic Chords of Memory,” the game’s legacy still helps bind our fractious nation. Lou Gehrig’s courage, Hank Aaron’s power, Willie Mays’ grace, Jackie Robinson’s heroism, Cal Ripken’s grit, Roberto Clemente’s magnanimity comprise much of what’s left of our unquestioned American pantheon.

I’ve never played a down of organized baseball, but I’ve always loved the game for its heroes and also because so many of my own indelible memories are wrapped around it: My father and I in a cheap Dallas hotel slapping each other on the back as Reggie hit homers on three consecutive pitches from three different pitchers in the ‘77 Series: Standing at Shea Stadium in reverent silence as an aged, pigeon-toed Say Hey Kid slowly trotted out to center field: Our beloved Astros defying their carved-in-stone choker heritage and pulling off an incredible win in the seventh game of the ’17 World Series.

While I never played organized ball, I did have a brush with it almost 25 years ago when I volunteered to announce my five-year old son’s T-Ball games over the field PA system.

Matt was on the Braves, so I’d always welcome the fans to the friendly confines of Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium. Because the games were only five innings long, I instituted a second inning stretch, and my eight-year old daughter, Erin, would lead the fans in a merry rendition of Take Me Out To The Ball Game. I also gave each player fearsome nicknames as I announced their at-bats: “And now, striding up to the plate, Matt “The King of Ding” Merkl!” There were also “The Princess of Power”, “The Baron of Bonk”, “The Czar of Far”, and my personal favorite, “The Ayatollah of Bye-Bye Ballah”.

The next year, the league called asking if I’d volunteer to coach T-Ball. I told them I didn’t know the first thing about playing baseball, but they were desperate, so I reluctantly agreed to coach Matt’s Dodgers. Panicked, I made a beeline for the library where I spent hours researching how to properly swing a bat, field grounders, slide, run the bases, and, well… play baseball. Wisely, I also asked Jim, a world-weary friend who’d actually played Little League, to be my assistant coach.

On Opening Day, the Dodgers all showed up looking very professional in their brand-new uniforms and stiff gloves. I noticed, however, that for some reason their baseball shoes all seemed to be levitating just above the ground, like Luke’s Landspeeder. Apparently, none of them weighed enough for their cleats to penetrate the sunbaked Corpus Christi ball field. I pointed this out to Jim, who mumbled, “If we lose today, it’s not going to be for want of traction.”

As the game settled in, I began to imagine myself as Billy Martin managing the mighty Yankees. I casually slung my arm over the dugout rail and worked a chaw of Dubble Bubble while plotting intricate game strategies. But, my reverie was shattered when I noticed that all my outfielders were running around together in crazy circles, then piling on top of each other, only to get back up and repeat the process, like a flock of deranged birds.

I turned to Jim, who was sitting on the bench with his head in his hands, and asked, “What the heck is going on out there?”

                Through his hands, Jim muttered, “Butterfly.”

“Oh.” I stopped chewing and removed my arm from the dugout rail.

                The game turned out to be a tight one. With 2 outs in the bottom of the fifth and nobody on base, the score was tied.

Our next batter somehow drilled a line drive into right field and jetted around the bases sliding just under the tag at third for an amazing triple. The crowd exploded, and the other team’s coach rushed out from their dugout to argue the call with the ump. Meanwhile, their third baseman and my runner – completely oblivious to the tumult surrounding them – were happily showing each other cool Hot Wheels that they had both somehow managed to sneak onto the field.

                I knew that Billy Martin would have charged toward third and maniacally joined in, arms flailing and feet kicking dirt on the ump. As I shot off the bench, Jim, staring straight ahead, hissed,” If you take one step out of this dugout, you’ll never see me again.” I sheepishly sat back down.

                Somehow, we managed to finish second that year, a fact that was completely lost on the Dodgers who were only interested in goofing around with each other in the dugout and free ice pops after the games.

                It may not seem like much to people who actually played baseball, but it’s a rare week that I don’t smile remembering my time coaching the mighty Dodgers.

ROTTEN ROTTEN TOMATOES

There’s a problem with The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. There’s also a problem with Rotten Tomatoes. And it’s the same problem: They overthink movies.
Last week, the Academy announced a new award for outstanding achievement in popular film, the so-called “Popcorn Oscar.” They had to create this condescending category because a top 10 box office movie hasn’t won a best-picture Oscar since 2004. For most people, this makes tuning in to the Oscars about as much fun as watching American Idol without actually getting to see the contestants perform.
Before 2004, popular movies used to win best-picture Oscars regularly. Academy members now seem to view popular success as an absolute disqualifier. Which is clearly loony because most great American movies were also box office gold.
The unwatchable, irrelevant Oscars can go the way of the dodo for all I care. What really worries me is Rotten Tomatoes, a new cultural force that seems intent on forcing Hollywood to make only the kind of dreary movies that would have a real chance of winning a best-picture Oscar.
Rotten Tomatoes is a website that gathers movie reviews from hundreds of critics; determines, using their own in-house process, whether each review is positive or negative; and then assigns them a Tomatometer score. Any movie at or above 60% positive reviews gets a “Fresh” score, below 60% gets a “Rotten.”  Simple enough.
But the Tomatometer scores have become so crazy powerful that most movies adjudged rotten usually don’t make much money. Which means movies similar to those they deem rotten are less likely to be made in the future. That’s way too much cultural clout for a dinky website with 36 employees.
 The problem is that most movie critics are of the tendentious, virtue signaling variety. They like movies that most people would only watch if they were strapped to a chair with their eyelids pried open, like Alex in A Clockwork Orange. The forgotten best-picture winners for the last four years, all of which received over 90% Tomatometer scores, pretty much give you the flavor.
By and large, Rotten Tomatoes doesn’t like comedies that are unironically funny. And they hate action movies if Americans are unambiguously the good guys and the bad guys are truly evil. You know, the kind of movies people actually like, reminisce about with their friends, and watch on TV over and over again.
I bring all this up because I saw Mile 22 last week which received a whopping 21% Tomatometer score. And, I’m almost embarrassed to admit, I liked it.
It’s a Mark Wahlberg, American hero, shoot ‘em up also starring the very dangerous Ronda Rousey; Ika Uwais, the baddest martial artist in movies; and John Malkovich, who coolly delivers the only cool line of the summer. In other words – and this is very high praise for a movie – it has absolutely no shot at winning a best-picture Oscar.
If you could use a little break from your seemingly unsolvable problems, and if, like most South Texans, you’re sick and tired of it being as hot as the devil’s instep outside, then Mile 22 just may be the movie for you.
Best of all, if you see it, you get to poke at the exquisitely delicate sensibilities of our cultural overlords at Rotten Tomatoes.

 

AIR CONDITIONING IS LIFE

If you flit from one air-conditioned space to another, you can forget that, from April through September, South Texas is uninhabitable. I’d managed to forget, until a recent Thursday night when my wife intruded on my Astros stupor and asked, “Is it hot in here to you?”
I reached up to a vent; it was blowing hot. And suddenly, all hope was swept from the universe, because I knew from bitter experience that this could cost me as much as $8,000.
After a long, sleepless night marinating under a languid fan, I located an AC repair company that could send a tech at 10 a.m.
A smiling Bernie (not his real name) arrived right on time and disappeared into the attic. I paced the floor beneath him like an expectant father as I awaited the verdict, pausing only to stare intently at the ceiling each time he moved around or dropped a tool.
After 20 minutes, he reappeared and said everything checked out fine, but he needed to see the condenser unit. We went outside, were immediately attacked by a thousand ravenous mosquitoes, and hastily retreated into the house where Bernie doused himself with repellent. As he bravely stepped back outside, I felt like Katharine Hepburn watching Bogie slide back into the leech infested Zambezi.
Fifteen minutes later, he came back inside and told me he’d tweaked a few things, but the condenser checked out OK. I reached up to a vent; it was blowing cold.
“What did you do?” I asked.
“Nothing, really,” he answered.
That weekend, the conditional condition of my air conditioner loomed over me like a sword of Damocles.
The AC worked until Monday at 8 p.m., when a telltale heartbeat sound began emanating from the attic. Because no air was flowing from the vents, I turned the AC off and the sound stopped.
I called the repair company and a still smiling Bernie showed up a half hour later. I told him about the heartbeat, and he climbed into the attic. After ten minutes, he shouted, “Turn it on!” I did, and it worked fine. As he descended the ladder, I asked what he’d done?
“Nothing, really,” he answered. “Tell me about the sound.”
I told him it went THWUMP every second, just like a heartbeat. He raised an eyebrow and said he’d never heard an AC THWUMP. I called my wife over to testify that she’d heard it, too. He gazed at us for a moment, said it was working fine now, and left. A half hour later: THWUMP, THWUMP.
I hustled up to the attic, made a video of the THWUMP, and texted it to the repair company.
We spent another long, sleepless night sautéing under a sheet.
When I called early the next morning, the office manager happily told me that all the techs had watched my video, were convinced it was the motor, and Bernie would be there at 3 to change it out.
I rushed home by 3, and, just for grins, turned on the AC. Naturally, it ran fine. When Bernie showed up at 3:45, he explained that because my motor was under warranty, he could only replace it if the AC wasn’t working. He waited a while in my rapidly cooling house, but eventually went out to his truck and returned with the bill. Just as I was about to sign it: THWUMP, THWUMP.
He hurried for the attic but stopped when he remembered his tools were in the truck. I told him I’d get his tools and ran to fetch them. After 5 minutes, he climbed down the ladder and announced it was definitely the motor. He changed it out, and I thanked him profusely for his hard work and perseverance.
That night my wife and I were luxuriating in the wonder of conditioned air when at 8:10 p.m.: THWUMP THWUMP.
Despairing, I called the repair company. The office manager practically wept when I told her the heartbeat was back. Forlornly, she said she’d call Larry (not his real name) and hung up. Who’s Larry, I wondered?
An hour passed and no one called. My wife and I agreed that if Bernie had abandoned us, we needed to buy a new system.
Then someone knocked at the door.
“I hate your house,” Bernie said as he stepped inside.
“So do I,” I admitted. “You came back!”
“I couldn’t leave you like this,” he said.
He climbed into the attic and came down a few minutes later holding a tiny electronic box.
“I changed this part out,” he said. “I’m going home”
“You’re not leaving!” I protested. “When you leave, it breaks! We’ll make up a bed for you!”
“No, this time it’s fixed.”
“Alright, but if you see someone running down Rodd Field Road chasing after your truck screaming, ‘It’s THWUMPing again!’ pull over.”
Here’s to my AC that’s been running for two weeks (knock on wood). But most of all, here’s to heroic Bernie and his fellow AC techs who make South Texas somewhat habitable.

 

AIR TRAVEL AS CATTLE DRIVE

With one word, one of my fellow passengers perfectly described the experience of modern air travel.

I was recently waiting to board a 737 in yet another cookie-cutter terminal located somewhere in the USA. The flight had already been delayed three times, so when it was finally announced we’d be departing shortly, all 150 of us rushed expectantly toward the boarding area.

We stood there for another 20 minutes in an angry, sweltering mob with no explanation for the additional delay from the harried gate attendant. I locked eyes with the guy next to me who smiled wanly and said, “Moo.” That pretty much sums it all up.

Ten years ago, airlines sold 73% of their seats. Today, thanks to algorithms, they’re filling 84%. This increase has led to higher profits, but at the price of customer sanity. More passengers mean overcrowded boarding areas, slower boarding times, less room in overhead bins, stressed-out flight attendants, and a general, dehumanizing feeling of being herded.

My recent flight delay caused me to miss the last late-night connecting flight to Corpus Christi. As I stepped off the plane at DFW, an airline employee hurried by and handed me a boarding pass for a flight at 9 the next morning. “What am I supposed to do for the next 10 hours?” I asked as she rushed away. She shouted over her shoulder that she’d try to find me a hotel, and then promptly disappeared for a half-hour.

When she finally came back, she said the only nearby hotel with a vacancy was located in another terminal inside the airport. I told her that sounded great and asked for directions.

The hotel was hard to spot because it was just a retail storefront among many others in the terminal. As I approached the front desk, the pretty, perky clerk gave me a big smile and asked,”Are you planning to take a shower?”

After a hard day on the road, I figured I probably didn’t smell great, but still the question struck me as odd. “Why do you ask?”

“Because it’s $20 more to take a shower.”

“How would you know if I took a shower in my bathroom?”

“There’s no bathroom in your room. There’s only one shower, and it’s located down the hall.”

“What if I need to use the restroom in the middle of the night?”

“There’s a men’s room in the terminal.”

There’s a men’s room in the terminal?

She gave me another big smile, and said, “We’re not really a hotel. We’re more like a place to take a nap.”

Suffice it to say I spent a sleepless night in a tiny, frigid room curled up on a five-foot-long plastic upholstered couch shivering under the kind of blanket they give you for free if you subscribe to Sports Illustrated. The long night was interrupted only by my middle of the night, sleepwalking, sleep-haired trek through the terminal to get to the men’s room, which greatly amused everyone in the vicinity, except me.

The next morning, I was sitting bleary-eyed in my tiny window seat on a tiny jet to Corpus Christi watching as a very nice, very huge man was shimmying his hips like Shakira to try to fit between the armrests of the tiny seat next to me. It soon became apparent that this was impossible, so the stewardess reached over and raised the armrest between us. As he crashed into his seat, I was smashed up against the bulkhead like a swatted fly. For the next hour and sixteen minutes, our bodies were in constant, intimate, sweaty contact. As I finally deplaned, I thought the least the airline could have done was offered me a cigarette.

Believe me, I appreciate the speed of air travel and its relative affordability. And I also understand that narrow seats and full planes help keep ticket prices low. I’m just suggesting that the airline industry keep in mind that the cold, hard numbers in their algorithms represent human beings who deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.