Texas is a mythical place. I learned when I first went to Europe that everyone knows about Texas, and that means most everyone has a preconceived idea of what the Lone Star State is like. When I first went overseas, that Texas myth was helped along by the TV show “Dallas” — and the show also ensured people of every native language knew how to pronounce my name, given that I shared a first name with Pamela Ewing. But, no, I had to tell folks, we don’t all ride horses and have oil wells in our back yards.
Many years have passed since then (thankfully), and I’m much more well-traveled, but I still find that certain myths — incorrect ones — persist. So I thought I’d take this opportunity to explain a couple of misunderstood Texas memes.
First, the ubiquitous “Don’t Mess With Texas” saying. It’s interpreted to mean that Texas is tough, that Texas, as the second-largest state in the union, thinks it’s bound to win every fight. Though there are Texans that think that way, I think it’s important to put the saying in context by understanding where it came from.
As you can see on the little sticker above, “Don’t Mess With Texas” is associated with highways — because it originated as an anti-litter campaign. You may remember that Mad Men episode where the Draper family have a picnic on the side of the road, and just leave their fast food trash lying there.
This scene rings so true to me because when I was growing up, (I’m embarrassed to say) it wasn’t uncommon for us to throw our trash out the window of the car as we’d speed along a highway. It was absolutely the norm for people to toss their cigarette butts out the window as they were driving.
The saying, coined in 1985 by Austin advertising agency GSD&M for their client, the Texas Department of Transportation, is a registered trademark that was originally used on bumper stickers and road signs to encourage people to put trash where it belongs. At the time, according to Wikipedia, the state spent $20 million annually to clean up beside highways.
I have to brag on one of our native daughters, first lady Lady Bird Johnson, who was instrumental in getting the Highway Beautification Act passed in 1965, and deserves a lot of the credit for the wildflowers — including bluebonnets — that we enjoy along highways today. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, which advocates for native plants, sustainability and water conservation, is one of my favorite places in the Austin area.
And, speaking of Austin, there’s a phrase you’ll hear often when the capitol city is referred to: Keep Austin Weird. (Even Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius used it when encouraging the uninsured to apply for health care coverage last week.)
As you can sort of see in the photo above, the saying began as an exhortation to support local businesses — mom and pop shops — which contribute to the character of a place and the local economy, as well.
When I first moved to New York City, I suffered from a bit of culture shock, in part because of the abundance of local businesses. I didn’t see the national chain restaurant and store brands that I recognized, so it took me a while to get accustomed to the place. I eventually came to recognize the vitality that local businesses bring to New York and make it such a great place to live.
People in Austin recognized this long before I did. Long before “shop local” days were a big part of the Christmas shopping season, the Austin Independent Business Alliance adopted the catchy slogan that has come to mean much more.
More conservative forces have come to look upon the saying with disdain, and some other communities have adopted “Keep [City Name Here] Normal” as their own slogan. But, honestly, who can knock supporting local businesses and fostering a unique culture that contributes to the local economy? Every time I see one of those “Normal” signs somewhere, it drives me absolutely crazy. Do they really want to drive local merchants out of business by welcoming the ownership of everything by multi-national corporations? Really?