By Fr. Nick Kotsis - Beloved Brothers and Sisters in Christ, that is the official tourist slogan of the state of Texas. I remember it from the commercials I would see on television as a kid. They are telling the truth.
As I’ve mentioned before, I have cousins down in San Antonio, and we’ve always been very close because they would spend six weeks up here in Michigan after school let out and we were always together during those long, beautiful days of summer. My mom’s sister and her husband (memory eternal) would visit us with their three kids; and each of those cousins are the same ages as we are.
Now, as far as I’m concerned, the heart of Texas is truly San ‘Antone’. I’ve been to Dallas, Houston, Austin, Amarillo, Fort Worth, Waco, even Texarkana, but San Antonio is where the real Texans live (I’ll grant El Paso a close second). And they are different! I mean, come on, it’s where the Alamo is – the whole raison d’etre for the entire state!
We first went there in 1980. I was six. I remember it was May and how hot it was even then. We took a trip to a ranch that belonged to a friend of my uncle. We took a jeep around the acreage; stopping for all the cattle as they crossed the trails and as they moved about the thick brush. I remember my mom checking the beds before our naps for scorpions. I even remember seeing a scorpion and an armadillo not far from the house.
We went back in 1992 over Christmas vacation. My mother drove us down and we spent a week there enjoying New Year’s Eve in shorts. That’s when I realized that in Texas, everyone: has a gun, wears cowboy boots, owns a cowbow hat, thinks those who live on the east and west coasts and in Oklahoma are pansies, thinks those who live outside of Texas and not in the aforementioned areas are slightly less dainty than pansies, and can’t understand why their state hasn’t annexed the rest of the country… (I know, it’s an exaggeration, but run with me for a bit.)
As my cousins and I grew, we went to each other’s weddings (I’ve had the blessing of serving at two of them) and we’ve been able to go to San Antonio on many occasions. At my cousin Penelope’s wedding, I served in the St. Sophia Church in San Antonio the Sunday of that weekend. My son, Harry, was a part of the bridal party and came with me to Texas and caught a little lizard roaming around in the altar!
(FYI – I went to two weddings. That means there is a third I have yet to go to. I have a cousin, 41 years old, Navy veteran, attorney, parish council member of his church, a Texan through and through, and all-around good guy. His name is Philip. He’s the one that had his buns buttered as a kid by my dad in a story I wrote several weeks ago. If anyone knows a nice Orthodox gal looking to get hitched, let me know… I know he reads these messages, too!!)
During Christmas break of my senior year in college (1995/96), my brothers and I all went to San Antonio once again. All my cousins attended Texas A&M University, and as it happened, Michigan and Texas A&M were playing in the Alamo Bowl that year. My cousins got us tickets to the game, and off we went.
The game was horrible. We lost. My uncle also went to A&M and kept bragging about the band and their marching. All they did was march back and forth in straight lines! I thought, “big deal, they’ve been practicing that here in Texas since they were 16 years old after getting pulled over by the cops…” But it was a lot of fun, nonetheless. My brothers, all of whom attended Michigan State University, wore the Michigan maize and blue. We brought a cowbell, wore heavy jackets to the game to show pride in our wintery state, and did all the chants and songs in support of Michigan (well, my brothers didn’t sing the songs, I did, but I appreciated them donning the colors). We sat smack-dab in the middle of the main Aggie section and drew a lot attention. I will tell you, though, the Aggie fans there were great. Genuinely nice, very friendly, and as they teased us pleasantly, they could take teasing with humor.
It was during that trip that my cousins decided to take us to a real Texan dance hall. We knew the place must be special because my cousins got themselves all decked-out. John and Phil wore their best blue jeans, leather belts, huge brass belt buckles in the shape of the state (I think they read, “Don’t mess with Texas”), cowboy boots, colorful button-down shirts, and cowboy hats. Penelope wore a beautiful dress that came to the knee, a leather belt cinching the waist, cowboy boots and a hat. All my brothers and I had were everyday jeans, some lousy sweatshirts and gym shoes – typical dress code for collegians in Michigan in those years.
This place was in the middle of nowhere. I remember leaving sometime after 7pm and driving for around an hour before we got there. It was pitch black outside and there was nothing around this dance hall. As we approached, I remember seeing the lights of the parking lot illuminating the building. It was a large, red barn. Pure and simple. But it was a Texas large. There may have more than two-hundred cars in the lot.
When we went inside, it was packed. The main dance floor was huge; three or four times the size of our social hall, probably more. The dance floor extended from about half-way through the hall to the far end of the building. At the far end was the stage for a live band. There were posts that extended to the ceiling all around the dance floor that held up the roof. Around each post were one or two 50-gallon drums that were used as trash cans. Long, round, simple light fixtures, the kind you see in older gymnasiums, hung from the ceiling and illumined the dance floor well, but less so the seating area around it. There where no disco balls or lasers or colored lights of any sort. Are you kidding me? They would shoot you if you tried to put in something like that…
The seating area was simple. It contained a few picnic tables and slew of tables with chairs around them; enough, seemingly, to seat only half the capacity of the place since nearly everyone was on the dance floor dancing and doing so for nearly the entire time we were there.
We sat down and the waitress, dressed in a dress, blouse, cowboy hat, cowboy boots and belt asked us, “y’all want the big or small?” My cousin said, “the big.” That was it. A few minutes later, she brought us an old washtub-looking, oval, metal bucket that must have had twenty beers in it. My cousin who ordered was carded. That must have sufficed their laws because the rest of us weren’t carded. San Antonio is different, like I wrote…
There was a live band playing. They had guitars, violins, keyboards, drums, brass, and great vocalists. They were great. And just like in the movie, “The Blues Brothers,” they played both kinds of music: country and western.
But I was mesmerized as I watched everyone on the dance floor. Everyone was wearing their Texan best: cowboy hats and boots, belts, buckles, some chaps, some spurs, and some handkerchiefs around the neck. All the girls wore beautiful dresses or skirts with blouses (Texas gals always wear cowboy hats; other southern ladies just put ribbons in their hair – at least, that’s what I was told by a Texan). They all seemed handsome and beautiful.
And as captivated as I was with the look and comportment of the people, I was hypnotized by the dancing. Everyone was dancing, and everyone knew how to dance! They were doing the Texas two-step, waltz, swing, square, Charleston and line dances. Everyone knew how to do the dances. And when they were doing the two-step, it looked like one of those nature shows when you see fish in a large shoal, or birds in a flock, as they circle, dip, dive, spin and turn – all in unison, all a part of the whole. It was very much like a crowded dance floor at an event with Greek music and dancing.
I just sat back and watched, in awe, at this spectacle of art and culture, music and beauty as it unfolded before my eyes.
Several songs later, I was still watching the people - I hadn’t said a word to my brothers or cousins, but I knew that my brothers were likely similarly impressed.
As I was watching, my eyes caught one couple for some reason. They were near the outer edge of the circle of dancers. They came around in the same manner, style, beat and steps as everyone else. As they approached the part of the circle closest to me, the couple began to dance outside of the throng of dancers. Keeping in step and maintaining the twirling of his partner, the man kept his rhythm as he approached one of the columns supporting the roof. When he had come within a few feet of the trashcan that was near the column, he made another turn of his partner. She was to the right and their left hands were together high, and their right hands together low. She began a spin and pulled more in front of his body, leaving his right side now open. He rounded his body near the trashcan, she in mid twirl, and with a singular movement, he picked up the brim of his hat with his right arm, left arm still twirling his gal, turned his neck down and to the right, and let loose of a long, brown, juicy wad of tobacco spit.
In an instant, his hat was back in its appropriate spot, his partner had reconnected their right hands, and without missing a single beat, moved right back into the shoal of Texas two-steppers.
My brothers caught the same image. In unison, we all cried out, “Whoa!” and “Did you see that?!” as we rhetorically asked each other in sheer delight and utter stupefaction. It was hard for me to believe what I had just seen. In the midst of this gorgeous portrait of societal grace, beauty and art, I saw a splash of the vulgar. It would be like taking Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and putting a smiley-face emoticon over Venus’ face!
At the same time, however, I was quite impressed. To pull off such a maneuver, in complete time to the music, with no residual spit on one’s own self or one’s partner, and then return back to the fold as if nothing had happened – that was a sort of art in itself. The comfort level the couple had in each other was indicative of a deep knowledge of one another and sincere love. However, I did feel slightly bad for that pretty gal who would be getting a Red Man kiss goodnight that evening.
But I thought to myself, “now this, this is Texas!”
My friends, when I think of that night, I always thing of what beautiful is. It is true that there is a certain objectivity to beauty based on symmetry and other factors. But ultimately, nothing can be beautiful unless it is seen by someone else. In other words, nothing is beautiful unless it is relationship to someone else.
Botticelli’s painting is meaningless if it were not seen and understood and appreciated by people. The fact that he is one of the greats of Italian Renaissance art is trivial to this discussion. My daughter’s painting is beautiful, and more important to me, because of my relationship to her. I love Botticelli’s work; it speaks to eternal qualities and is important in the history of art. But I love the drawing from a child on a scratch piece of paper that I tape to my office door just as much because of the personal relationship I have with he child.
But what about acts of kindness, mercy and generosity that are said to be beautiful, but not seen by anyone else (for example, someone leaving necessities for life on the doorstep of someone poor)? Can they be beautiful, too? Of course, because the Lord sees them and knows they are beautiful according to the most important standard of all: His standard!
It might be an interesting study to take the most important commandment “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all you mind…And you shall love your neighbor as yourself,” (Mt. 22:37,39) and see how it connects to how the human being views art vis-à-vis relationships.
I hope and pray we can continue to produce beautiful works of art by continuing to build upon our relationships with Christ and with our neighbors.