Nepenthes aristolochioides

A Vegetal Compulsion

I am overcome with regret because two Google searches I just made turned up bad news. Firstly, there are no Nepenthes aristolochioides available for sale anywhere in the United States right now. There were two available on Sunday, but at that time, the price they command did not seem reasonable or prudent for someone in my position to spend. Now there are none.

Secondly, Amado Vazquez is dead.

Of course, no Nepenthes are native to the United States, or North America, or any of its contiguous continents. And Amado Vazquez lived well into his eighties, his death was not unexpected or what some might call unfair; our timing was simply off. We were on the earth at the same time for a spell, in fact when I was most knowledgeable on his life’s work, over a decade ago, he was still tending to his orchids with a rare and perfect fanaticism.

His Malibu was not one of multimillion dollar houses and swimming pools filled with rosé, but rather one of opaque greenhouses filled with multimillion dollar plants. In a way, it would seem foolish to put so much stock in living things. In another, it would seem foolish to put so much in the manmade. When Joan Didion interviewed Amado in 1976, he said, “A plant a hundred years old will show no signs of senility.” The same cannot be said of houses or jewelry.

I have watched my meager postgraduate savings evaporate into thin air paying rent and buying espresso to lease desk space and the lonely company of others in East Austin. Dire straits have led to much restraint. I’ve restrained from buying the second blind to match the first in my bedroom. A cardboard box blocked out the sunrise before I felt guilty for not recycling it. Now I wake up earlier. My car’s windshield remains heartily cracked from the ceaseless construction on I-35 (which, interestingly, was colloquially referred to as “Segregation Highway” for the way it divided the city’s ethnic populations in the 20th Century) because that repair expense seems somehow extravagant.

And yet, I am nauseous with remorse because I did not buy a Nepenthes aristolochioides when my preferred vendor had them in stock for the first time in months. They were there for two days, now they’re gone. We have to wait months for the next shipment from Borneo, then the re-acclimatization in upstate New York, then the shipment to Texas, then the re-acclimatization, then the long, slow growing process begins. A vendor I have no experience with had one for another day or two, but now even it is gone. And so I must wait. A hundred dollars seems a small price to pay for these half-dollar sized plants, plants so fickle that watering them with mineralized tapwater might kill them and if they were on the ground you could step on them without even noticing.

What is beautiful about these plants? What makes them worthy of the money and demanding care that makes a dog seem easy by comparison?

For one, they are carnivorous. That fascinating perversion of the food chain is worthy of endless contemplation. God has a sense of humor. And our salads are more sentient than we thought. Though Amado Vazquez’s orchids do not eat flies, ants, and baby monkeys, they also are endemic to regions so wholly inhospitable that they will die if you provide them the traditional idyllic environs. Too many nutrients in the soil, too much water, too consistently Mediterranean a climate will spell the demise of all carnivores and orchids. These fascinating little rosettes produce what we’ve universally christened “beauty” in the face of growing conditions that would kill Mother in Law’s Tongue (itself a famously hardy and aptly-named unkillable houseplant). Give them an accommodating environment and they don’t thrive, they wither. This lesson in asceticism is rather poignant when a Phalaenopsis is in full-bloom or a Nepenthes finally produces its first mature pitcher. Both occasions require a maddening patience. Garden-variety flowers may have gone through three or more generations before one of these tropical plants produces its first flower or sign of maturity. They operate on a calendar entirely their own, that encourages us to forget what we know about seasons, years, and cycles.

Amado Vazquez came into the orchid world by happy accident and came to be known as one of the top-five orchid growers and experts in the modern world. I cannot quite remember how and why I originally found myself in the bourgeoning world of carnivorous plant collecting in the very early ‘Oughts, but I can remember being so enraptured that I read the first edition of The Savage Garden, the Bible of carnivorous plants, cover-to-cover dozens of times before I was a dozen years old. I filled out CITES import permits to be one of the first five Americans to own a newly-discovered Nepenthes species from the first round of seed-grown plants cultivated from the species’ initial discovery in Borneo the year prior. I opined on internet forums with peers who are now considered the Amado Vazquezes of Nepenthes and Cephalotus and Heliamphora. Instead of following in their footsteps, I grew self-aware and embarrassed and sold my entire collection on eBay for what felt like a princely sum to an early teenager. It’s a classic case of “Wow, if only I’d held onto those,” as the additional decade of growth time and rapid rise of the plants’ popularity means I could collect twenty-plus times as much today. Not that I’d want to.

As I’ve finally hung up the fly rods I bought with that firesale for good, I find myself starting over with a rather modest collection of carnivores. My flytraps were all-but-murdered while I was on a five day vacation; their few but strict requirements proved too much for my plantsitter. I will not get to enjoy their strange, hyper-alive beauty much this season, but have patience and hope for the next. My Nepenthes are all extraordinarily small and have been quite patient with me as I remind myself just how particular they really are. The bass and trout of the American Southwest are pleased that I’ve seen the light; common houseflies are not. The formerly top-of-the-line carbon fiber flyrods and made-in-America reels that I purchased with the money made from my plants have depreciated and been rendered virtually irrelevant by a decade’s worth of technological innovations, while the plants I sold have grown to be famous specimens in some of the great collections in America. There are some that I could barely buy back if I sold my bikes.

My life has changed a tremendous amount since I sold my Nepenthes jacquelineae and rajah to the highest bidders and packed them painstakingly to be overnighted to Colorado and Virginia and God-knows-where. Whatever series of events that led to this vegetal compulsion came nearly full-circle when I found myself fanatically landscaping my rental house that I can barely afford. Every time I had a rough day, I’d rush off to one of the local greenhouses to pick a lantana or salvia plant that might fit into a bare space in the front beds. Something about purchasing plants brings me a deranged and incomparable peace. When I move out in March, the next tenant will be the benefactor of my frostbite from a mid-march deep freeze while I was building flower beds and my thorn-filled hands from pruning prickly pears and tending to century agaves. In-ground plants define ‘sunk cost’ in a particular way that seems wholly lost on my landlord, and was wholly lost on me when I believed that pouring everything I had into a garden would force me to stay home more, or at least make my self-imposed isolation more bearable.

Since then, I’ve seen the restorative power of community and the priceless value of shared experiences in a new light. I’ve found myself barely even home for eight hours of sleep as I dive headfirst into a world filled with people and places and newfound things. With that busyness came a necessary explanation for my frequently dirty hands and bloodied legs. Without wincing, I could say, “Gardening.”

One day it became obvious that I needed a tank full of highland Nepenthes in my bedroom so that I’d have a garden I could take with me when I leave and roommates who never made messes that drew flies. A week later, it was so. And now I am shaking the dust off necrotic neurons that had conceded they’d never be activated again. I can feel my brain working in ways it forgot how to, remembering scientific names and native habitats and care requirements. And I have achieved something through a long and quite painful process that I didn’t realize I’d been longing for. Joan Didion put words to it when she said of Amado: “It seemed to me that day that I had never talked to anyone so direct and unembarrassed about the things he loved.”

The same me who once sold all of my plants because I was mortified of what being a pre-eminent expert in anything but flirting, flyfishing, and skateboarding did to my reputation is now fiendishly scraping together spare change to expand my collection as quickly as possible. This concept is strange, because we are never the same as we once were. Our skin cells are totally regenerated every 27 days and our minds change at consistently unpredictable intervals. Still, my name is as it ever was and my hopes and dreams are, too. Amado Vazquez did not come to America from Jalisco seeking to become a world-renowned orchid breeder. But he had all of the right sensibilities and desires. That he found his separate peace among moth orchids and achieved his American Dream selling designer flowers to the rich and famous from LA to Taipei is only logical for a man who possessed such a singular desire to be comfortable with himself and his wife and his kids while engaging with the natural world at the highest level possible. This did not mean that he ended up a migrant farmer in the Central Valley, but rather that he became an orchid grower and land owner in Malibu’s Zuma Canyon. Though Amado is no longer living, his son runs the business which is still regarded as one of the world’s best. And plants that Arthur Freed inherited which were given to Amado will now be given to his grandsons. They have no regard for their age or the age of their slavish caretakers.

I read an op-ed on the ecological impact that catch-and-release flyfishing has on our planet, and I finally admitted that I had no business awkwardly pursuing something that made me feel guilty even before I pondered the consequences of commercial fisheries and the tourist attractions that are “Blue Ribbon Trout Streams.” Flyfishing is a beautiful sport that gives us an excuse to clamor over rocks and stand in leg-numbing water for hours on end, squinting at riverbeds and watching mayflies hatch. It’s also wholly incompatible with my refusal to swat even a housefly. Growing plants that eat them probably is, too, but the one consistent thread in my life is that I seem to have a penchant for paradoxes.

Songs You Know by Heart: An Epitaph for Innocence

The plaintive echo of steel drums is reinforced by the Coral Reefers’ horn section. That particular melancholy of timpanis we’ve come to know as “tropical,” the soundtrack of so many sunburnt days and adulterous nights, is cancelled out by the audacity of the brass. The intro to ‘Cheeseburger in Paradise’ is so well-executed, it almost makes me want to amend my herbivorous habits. It’s as if Jimmy lives entirely on this thin line between irony and simplicity, a line much thinner than Seven Mile Bridge appears on a map as it reaches out to the Keys. Perhaps that is why he is regarded as a great songwriter rather than a Hawaiian-clad bozo. Because those who are wont to give credit to the ironical can give credit where it’s maybe due.

But I am not here to talk about Jimmy Buffett’s intentionality. Instead, I am struck by the way I finished a very long, very hot bike ride yesterday and wanted nothing more than to hear his drunken pirate’s anthems, to lament a nautical past I never quite had. Songs You Know by Heart is a greatest hits album released a full thirty years ago, and it ranks among the greatest greatest hits albums of all time. It is a veritable hit parade, a string of songs that serve as a gateway drug for every modern Parrothead.

This longing came from somewhere primal. It has been roughly three years since I last heard the CD in its entirety, spilling from the waterproof speakers of a boat on Possum Kingdom Lake. It was just like Jimmy intended. Splishin’, splashin’, sweatin’ out our worries, fidelity be damned. These were the most deliriously happy days of my life, where nary a rope hopelessly wrapped around a prop or a million sticker burrs lodged in my feet could wipe the sheen off of life. At The Lake I was happy and free to believe that the world worked as I thought it did.

I discovered my spirit animals (first the Great Blue Heron, then the Nine-banded Armadillo) and caught every freshwater fish species in Texas. I lived in a bathing suit for two, three, four days at a time. I forgot every ounce of resentment I had for my ill-fitting and homogenous upbringing and even embraced people who would be found cloying in their master-planned native settings. I could sit in a very weathered wooden Adirondack chair and play guitar until it was almost dark, then ride a wakeboard until it was more than dark. On The Lake, life made sense.

Jimmy is singing ‘Come Monday’ as I drop frozen bananas into a blender, but I’m not making daiquiris. Instead, I resolutely prepare a recovery smoothie and find, for the first time ever, exactly what it is that hurts so badly when I think about The Lake. It is no secret that my stomach hurts when I describe the patriotic bunk room and the formative years I spent driving to far-flung antique malls in the way back of my mother’s old Mercedes station wagon that smelled like leather and seaweed. I can picture every piece of furniture, each tchotchke in its rightful place, the way things always seem frozen and free of time at lake houses.

What hurts more than the way all of those memories and decorative plates were heartlessly boxed and sold to the highest bidder in a down market is the way that past can never be revisited. Relegated to the mind’s eye, a tour of The Lake becomes an endless series of “What if?”s. How can I know if that amount of happiness will ever be possible again if I can’t go find out for myself? Are these people my new best friends? Will they sneak out to the lake for the afternoon with me, only to be terrified by the sight of a flood-ravaged house with furniture askew and follow me room-by-room as I clear it of fearsome Palo Pinto County squatters by entering every doorway with a pistol drawn like I always saw on cop TV shows? How many hours can we sit in silence on that back porch, the closest place to Heaven on God’s Great Earth?

The world will never know.

Jimmy’s brazen claim is not unfounded. I know all of these songs by heart, though they sound different now. On the surround sound of my too-expensive house’s stereo, the poignant steel drums are louder than I remembered. The prospect of high rent in Texas did not exist when I rode the inner tube and gained a bloody nose and lost my swimming trunks. The minor chords ring a little longer, and the dark undertones are illuminated a little bit more. Perhaps some things are best hidden in the bright July sunlight of our minds.

There is no one here to listen to me now, and if there was they would not care. Even now, I feel nauseous and have prickles running through my nerves. I mourn the place whose phone number I can still remember, whose rhythmic cattle guards en the route used to trigger more elation than any other frequency in the world. There was a time when you could find joy by riding a banana boat with friends and strangers alike and a nose full of water was the worst thing that could happen to you. There is a place where this is still true, but I cannot go there anymore.

They say you can never go home, but this is a complicated claim. It is less nuanced when that home belongs to somebody else, somebody you’ve never even met, somebody who has permanently altered the built and natural landscape of the place you once knew. I will probably never be able to afford a lake house, but even with all the money in the world, I won’t be able to buy the only one worth owning. Innocence is as priceless as a floorplan that you can navigate in the pitch-dark after sneaking out and stargazing all night, and no career I choose will ever be able to buy either back.

Yes I am a pirate, two hundred years too late. Though skulls and crossbones have never been my thing, something about that line feels more right and true than anything I’ve ever heard.

The Jurassicre: An Epitaph for Our Tastes

Last night I saw the new Jurassic World, a movie whose very name implies its essence; it’s like Jurassic Park, but twenty years newer and predicated on the idea that the massacre at the original theme park—The Jurassicre, if you will—called for a name change out of respect for the dead.

The producers and voracious audiences seem to have decidedly less respect for the dead than the Park—er, World—management, with an uncanny penchant for creative demises and bursts of hilarity as they occur. A ditzy British nanny is tossed from flying raptor to flying raptor as she writhes and fights for her life. A gigantic water beast that feeds on great white sharks the way sharks feed on herring then leaps out of the water and enjoys the airborne beast and the squirming woman in the pencil skirt. A quivering blue collar maintenance worker hides from a genetically modified Tyrannosaurus rex behind a pickup truck only to realize that the beast has dragged his hiding place away from him and subsequently picks him up in its toothy maw. The crowd goes wild.

As is the case with most box office hits and number one singles, I find myself at a loss. At least with songs, there’s a certain benign catchiness that I can use to explain their popularity in spite of their banality. No such luck with movies that break box office records and the spines of most of their stars. The escapism theory is as close as I can get to understanding the minds and appetites of the masses and their taste for the macabre. Whatever depression I feel at the on-screen deaths of likeable characters is intensified tenfold by the elation that all of my theatremates feel as they watch the blood splatter and the flames grow higher.

What about the way we live calls for such mindless self indulgence? Is gratuitous violence even indulgent?

There’s a sobering reality at play in the box office numbers here, a commentary on entertainment and those who want to be entertained. Every time the next installment in an endless superhero series is released, it ups the ante on its antecedent. In that way, Jurassic World is almost a meta-commentary on humanity and its insatiable thirst for bigger, better, bloodier.

The premise of the movie is that the park has been revived but that our fellow humans have tired of seeing normal dinosaurs. T. rex feedings and Stegosaurus petting zoos are only entertaining for so long. What’s a revenue-driven, mundane-dinosaur-laden theme park to do? Create a genetic mish-mash T. rex x velociraptor x cuttlefish x tree frog hybrid that dwarves all other dinos, of course!

Inevitably, that hybrid monster goes wild and sends Jurassic World spiraling into chaos. The supersaur then forces its creators to contemplate the consequences of humanity’s inevitable sense of blasé as it chews them up one by one. That poesy seems to be lost on most of the audience, though, as we find ourselves with a strong case of CGI fatigue by the movie’s end. What was a believable suspension of disbelief is cracked in the final minutes when dinosaurs talk to each other and decide to spare our four (human) protagonists in spite of their insatiable reptilian bloodlust.

The movie’s real star, though, is the aforementioned Indominous rex, created in a lab for entertainment’s sake, eerily similar to the movie in which it stars. It eats its way to the end, feasting on so much human and dinosaur flesh that it’s a wonder it doesn’t explode like so many gorging Vikings before it. Of course, even though it kills its creators, it ends up killed at the hands of its non-GMO dinosaur peers (the same ones who ultimately spare Chris Pratt, et al). Will it be so with the beasts we create to entertain ourselves, or is it really all just harmless fun?

There Aren’t Any Good Books About That

I was in my favorite book store in Texas the other night. It’s one of the biggest remaining in America. On that particular night I was looking at the bicycling section. Austin is one of the biggest bicycling cities in America. Bikes are probably my biggest passion outside of reading and writing, and yet not a single one of those books appealed to me. I fanned through the pages of several, from the one my friend who works there said is the most popular bike book to the one that had the most appealing cover. Every one of them seemed to be missing something, or had something that it shouldn’t have.

It seems largely true to me that people who act on their passions are subpar at art. Art depends on a certain torture that acting typically eliminates. Perhaps it’s that books about things are too often really about them, which breaks an unwritten rule of good writing. If all you’re going to tell me is that Campagnolo’s 1980’s-era bar-end shifters are superior to any other gear shifting mechanism, ever, I fear I have precious little to learn from your book. Except for an unearned opinion to espouse to others who will then counter me with an opinion they read in your competitor’s book who swears by Shimano.

gravel grinding

The overwhelming thing about browsing a well-stocked book shelf on your favorite subject and finding nothing of interest is that it feels like the collective niche is rudely pointing a finger at you. The dearth of great bike books feels implicating, and I feel underqualified. But these are the types of realizations that lead to greatness, or ill-advised debt assumption and artistic ruination. On the one hand, you are rescuing your fellow junkies and enablers from the writings of wholly satisfied people; on the other, perhaps you are finally justifying your crippling addiction to yourself. A noble cause. That seems to lack a certain prompt or narrative arc.

The funny thing about hobby writing and sports writing and special interest writing is that audiences have certain expectations. Not just for an entertaining story or whatever vague promise the stamp “New York Times Best Seller” carries, but for a reaffirmation. If you do not confirm their long-held opinions, you are a shit writer. If you do not hand them some authoritative esoteric knowledge, you might as well give up. And so, when you want to really write about something, the best place to start is by not writing about it at all.

group ride

It’s hard to pinpoint what it is bikes mean to me, especially when I look at other people and see them loving them harder, better, in different ways. Maybe I’m just an underqualified middling hobbyist who has found my calling doing something that requires only patience and deep pockets to succeed at. I have one of the two. Casually alluding to hundred mile rides impresses in the same way that toned calves and soft stomachs disappoint. Nota bene: there are much easier and faster ways to get ripped than by riding your bike for dozens of hours per month.

Then again, there are few things that grown men can do that return them to that childlike state of joy, of sprinting at random and chasing each other up and down hills, of looking at trails and saying “I can probably ride that,” of finding out whether they actually can or not. And in a world that takes everything too seriously except for the important things, these are all welcome respites. I’m reminded of a proverb I used to subscribe to that still holds true:

A bad day fishing beats a good day at work.

Well, a bad day on the bike beats a good day fishing.

Two wheels are the trump card, a formidable suited ace. I’ll resist the urge to use all my best analogies here, since apparently the world needs a better bike book. I wouldn’t want to spare everyone the trouble of finding a way to illegally download that book for free once it comes out by writing it out here. If bikes make me too happy to be a great writer, at least the realities of the publishing industry make me just sad enough to keep trying.

cliffs of texas

Reptile Husbandry

Small rats aren’t that much bigger than large mice, right? I think I remember Dr. A saying he was eating rats. Yeah, put the heating pad under one log and keep the lamp shining on the other. It’s not warm? Is it sticking to the tank ok? Maybe the adhesive is worn out.

I can only imagine what my side of this phone conversation sounds like to innocent bystanders. I’m racking my brain to recall the general specifics of keeping Python regius, the Royal Python, alive. On the one hand, it doesn’t take much. Occasional rodents and a happy stasis of humidity and temperature. On the other, this ease makes them rather easy to forget, or at least for us to forget how rodent sizing works and whether 83 or 85 degrees is a good ambient temperature for their enclosures. They are so pedestrian for pythons that we’ve largely phased out their blue-blooded name in a cold-blooded gesture. Most everyone knows them as Ball Pythons, so named for their defense-mechanism-cum-resting-state that results in a tight serpentine ball that you could play pok-ta-pok with.

I stress that the frozen rodents must be thoroughly thawed and warmed, NOT IN THE MICROWAVE (they’ll explode) before being presented to Slinky, the six-foot-long Ball Python. Pythons have heat sensors that run the length of their faces above their upper lips which give them that ponderous stair-step appearance. It’s not motion or fur that looks appetizing to them, it’s warmth. Whatever we can do to make those sterile, lab-rat-white, mousesickles warmer looking increases the odds that the snakes will eat them so we don’t have to buy the particolored living versions just across the aisle at the local PetCo.

Slinky takes well to mousesickles which makes me happy. As it stands, my python eats a lot more meat than I do. So does Alby, my bigenarian albino Leopard Gecko.  Albino reptiles are not pure white, but simply lack the dark pigments they are normally associated with. Albinism is surprisingly common, but rarely observed in the wild because they are such easy targets without their well-designed outfits to hide them. She, too, has been trained to consume a freeze-dried facsimile, as crickets’ expressiveness and strident, manic chirping make them both a sad and supremely annoying food source for the lip-licking lizard. Even though all of our meat is also pre-killed and pre-frozen, I have a harder time justifying grilling a ribeye steak than I do placing a serenely dead rodent in a Zip-Loc and a bowl of piping hot water (which you usually have to change halfway through to get it warm enough). I suppose we can’t teach snakes to eat Field Roast Veggie Sausages, no matter how warm they are.

I recklessly walk into my high school bedroom and flip on the lights. I’m greeted by gigantic and unamused pupils looking quizzically towards the offending intruder. Alby is lounging on her heated faux rock, soaking in the glory of the night. I wince and turn the overheads off, apologizing to my nocturnal friends. I stumble and stub toes searching for the bedside lamp. I leave it on its dimmest setting and watch Slinky perform aimless acrobatics in the jerry-rigged Seran wrap that covers half of his tank’s lid. He loops endlessly, making clumsy crashing noises and stretchy Seran sounds like some sort of Jungle Book sleep aid cassette. Alby nods at me in contentment and I smile remembering the days when I passed my dimly-lit nights ruining my eyes so my reptilian friends wouldn’t ruin theirs.

I wish I smoked cigarettes so I could lie on my bed and chainsmoke and watch them make their rounds. Snakes can be so edgy or so nerdy. Much depends on what you’re smoking. Leopard geckos are much less polarizing. The stuff of middle school science teachers who are too quotidian to correct the parents who refer to them as “lizards”, or worse, “newts.”

Reptiles have a unique quality among the animal kingdom in that they are completely mute. They have neither croaks nor squawks. No bark, just bite. You could share a space with them and offend their greatest need, even starve them to death, and still they’d stare silently, perhaps unblinkingly.

We could learn a lot from this most admirable asceticism. Left to their own devices, reptiles don’t raise a racket, they simply act and move on, seeking neither accolades for their adaptability nor pity for their plight.

Their amphibian cousins can be tricked into an awful tolerance, the ol’ frog-in-a-slowly-heating-pot trick, but they also raise all manner of self-indulgent hell when the rain comes or whatever unknowable changes goad them into cacophonous collaboration. You can go years without seeing a frog or a toad, but if you live where they do, you’ll surely hear them.

The caged bird rarely sings, and so it goes for the caged tree frog. Legs and Kermit, my childhood White’s Dumpys, made no noise but their clumsy thudding as they leapt after crickets in their vertical terrarium. Their generically-gendered names were most amusing when I often discovered them stacked, one clinging to the glass and the other to its back. How anything clung to that cold, moist skin is beyond me, but how anything climbs glass is, too.

On a warm night in Puerto Rico, the coqui reminds us that the world isn’t really ours as they serenade with that syncopated refrain. Co-qui. Co-qui. “If you build a hotel here, expect us in your showers and swimming pools and patios.” Co-qui. Co-qui.

Slinky is dangling from the Seran Wrap by his midsection, looking up awkwardly like he’s been caught in some sort of act. I am carrying a Styrofoam cup full of hot water with a frozen rat in a small Ziploc bag thawing inside of it. It is dinner time for Slinky, of no one’s accord but my own, and once he frees himself from his bizarre indulgence, I’ll slide open the cage and make an air drop like a C-130 over the parts of the world that we’ve decided need to be fed from ten thousand feet.

I have no regard for how the food lands. No matter. He’ll eat it. It’s warm and furry and smells of rat. I am the benevolent dictator, the not-quite-invisible hand that inserts food and water and removes shed skin and excrement and hopes I don’t get nipped when I clumsily reach for the water bowl.

Royal pythons regally laze about in the wilds somewhere in northwestern Africa. More famously, they are relegated to designer pets named after their defensive position and sold for truly absurd prices depending on their coloration. Patterns that would spoil their perfect camouflage in nature are most prized in captivity. Some go for dozens of thousands of dollars, rivaling only orchids as expensive terrarium-bound mortal investments.

As my tenth grade honors chemistry teacher and infinitely trustworthy good steward of everything, Dr. Aldridge was perfectly qualified to take semi-permanent custody of my reptiles as I abandoned them for college on the west coast. They crossed my mind often, sitting there in that classroom that never got fully dark, being gawked at by younger mes while I was out doing anything but being responsible for the lives of others.

Dr. A placed labels on both tanks, glorifying Slinky as a Royal Python and noting that Alby is indigenous to the unfathomable region that is Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan. I remember being young and wondering how many of her cousins were killed by drone strikes.

When I got the news that Dr. Aldridge had dropped dead while teaching an SAT prep class for promising students from area public schools, I was in the middle of assuaging an ex-girlfriend’s concerns about something pedantic. I was forced to swallow the horrifying news in silence and wait for the inevitable call about my reptiles. I never got to cry for the unfairness of the world or receive the comfort I so needed from someone I was comforting solely to have that facsimile of companionship.

The call did come, of course, and that is why I was coaching my relatives on reptile husbandry from fifteen hundred miles away. When I got home and saw the tanks I had picked out over a decade ago with labels Dr. A had placed on them a few years prior. Alby regarded me with the genial gaze she always has. Slinky stared leerily from his preferred half-log hiding place.

When I flicked on the lights the first night I shared my space with them again, I felt a million thoughts shatter my synapses as my pupils raced to catch up. I turned off the lights for my sake as much as theirs. Every time I’d cautiously traipsed through my own room, a prisoner of my nocturnal roomies, every time I’d forced my parents to drive me to some suburban hotel lobby for a herpetology convention, every late night phone call or contemplation they’d ever been audience to. The fact that Dr. A’s demise was captured by those very eyes that looked at me now, without complaint in spite of the luminous disturbance. They knew him better than I did. They knew me better than anyone else does. They don’t even need to shed light on things to see them.

I recently dropped Slinky off in a subsidized Catholic charity housing project on the west side of Fort Worth with a chainsmoking Vietnam veteran who’s found his peace in pets. I met him at PetCo when I inquired if he knew anyone who could provide a great home for a ball python.

We carefully hauled Slinky’s massive haunt through the remnants of a December snow storm, Jerry’s cigarette in the middle of his mouth filling in for the jacket he did not wear. I worried for my snake’s lungs and wondered if he would bear witness to another untimely demise, or meet one himself.

“PetCo pretty much saved my life,” he said as we set the sixty gallon glass tank on his dining table. A cat lept up to survey its new roommate. A chameleon watched us with one eye while following the soap opera on TV with the other. “I don’t have many friends anymore, ‘cause most of ‘em are dead or still drunk and homeless. But these guys are all my friends.” He gestures around his modest one bedroom, which is full of terrariums and cigarette smoke. I walk away, unsure of what I have left behind, or why. I was sure to tell Jerry that Slinky prefers medium rats, thoroughly warmed.

Why You’d Want to Live Here

It is only fitting that I return to Los Angeles hastily and under grey and cloudy skies. I have lost whatever ancient survival instinct drives us westward ‘til we run out of roads to drive, lost the need to merge on the 10 Freeway Westbound until it ceases to be and forces you to turn north or south on the famous Pacific Coast Highway. Perhaps because my own westward jaunt did not offer me such an innocuous three-way intersection. Whichever direction I turned when I got there, things went decidedly south. But I never ended up in Tijuana.

Los Angeles was, for me, always the place you settled on if San Diego didn’t work out. If Malibu was too out of touch with reality for you. It was the place with yellow skies and burnt hills, palm trees and traffic jams. It is New York with ten times the space and one tenth the seasons. And yet, I spent many years in its eastern sprawl, tangled between freeways like a fly messily caught up in a vacant spider’s web. Like those bugs, there was nobody there to neatly wrap me up and slurp out my guts with a proboscis. So I flailed among the 10 and the 210, the 57 and the 91. It’s always “the,” as if California is the only place to use numbers as naming conventions. The hubris.

I giggle hysterically when I see the gas prices at an Arco station in a bad neighborhood. This shortly after the car I’m riding in nearly snaps in half from the pothole it just hit on Sunset Boulevard. We merge onto the 101 South, click-clacking arrythmically over expansion joints and holes repaired with a dozen different concrete recipes. I look through darkly tinted windows at the amorphous skyline, points of light bleeding together into LA’s other famous yellow glow. If it’s not greenhouse gases, it’s incandescence.

It’s hard to fathom that the dizzying solitude of Mount Baldy is a mere forty miles east of here, that I watched whales porpoise me out of my melancholy a short thirty miles southwest. Distances are measured differently here, meted out in commute times and places you actually, like, go instead of miles or kilometers. Precise measurement is avoided at all costs, unless you’re measuring the cost of a three-thousand square foot one-bedroom bungalow in the Hollywood Hills. In which case, the cost is a lot.

I no longer fit in, having lost my ability to mute passions and wear costumes unsmirkingly. Comfortable jeans have no place in my old haunts. Neither do I. If place and disposition are not innately linked, they are certainly vaguely intertwined. I recently happened upon a piece of art by a girl I dated while I lived here. It was a colorful, stylized print that read: Never Have I Ever Seen Two People in Love in LA. Come to think of it, neither have I.

That is the problem with Los Angeles. Couples are always preoccupied, wondering how long it will take to get from the bar to the bedroom if their exit is closed again or if the studio will ever call them back. There is a distinct aversion to commitment because it comes with a high opportunity cost, like signing a yearlong lease in Los Feliz only to discover two months later that the only place worth living is Atwater Village. Exclusive relationships are harder to dissemble than security deposits and lease agreements. Exes are far more cunning than debtors and collection agencies.

Never Have I Ever Seen Two People in Love in LA.
She still lives there.

I do not.

As I sat in one of the recent-import coffee shops in the recently-hip warehouse district, I couldn’t shake the feeling of being a high schooler back on my elementary school playground. “This place used to entertain me,” I think with equal parts wonder and dread. The monkey bars used to seem high and deliriously fun. No more.

Everyone seems to be wearing a costume, making it hard to take the whole scene seriously. Then again, most of the warehouses in the neighborhood no longer house metallurgists but instead film studios. Rent is cheaper here than Hollywood, but more expensive than everywhere else except Manhattan. So maybe the costumed patrons of this Portland-based café are actually actors and actresses, and I’m simply not up on the latest A, B, and C-List celebrities. Perhaps the man who pulled my espresso shot and poured my macchiato’s convincing milk rosetta is the next Bradley Cooper. In a photograph, my drink and its perch look positively Portlandia. This aspirational mimesis is vaguely unsettling, though. Los Angeles attempted to build its own coffee culture just down the street, but that space and its roastery failed and were bought out by one of San Francisco’s big craft coffee chains. That Angelinos prefer brands made hip elsewhere to homegrown marques is the telling half of the story. That their own fascination with flashiness led to bankruptcy is the other half.

I watch a young man who is reading a Christian devotional book stand up to open the door for the milkman. It warms my heart and feels dramatically conspicuous. The warmth contrasts with a shiver of coldness as I think that I was going to live here, where good deeds stick out like sore thumbs. That I was so easily tricked, so capable of tricking myself. I never left the playground so I was willing to frolic on the monkey bars even long after my feet could touch the ground.

Later, I am walking to or from another acclaimed coffee shop that earned its hard-won reputation elsewhere and was tidily imported to LA. I’m accosted by a modestly grandiloquent homeless man. After all, this block of imported coffee shops and juiceries is less than a mile from the heart of Skid Row.

“My, what a beautiful Friday,” he says as he catches up to me on the sidewalk. Today, LA is doing its best impression of San Francisco in the summer. “And I just pissed my pants. Can you believe that?” He laughs to preempt shame. Perhaps the best way to avoid judgement is to beat wandering eyes to the punch.

“Happens to the best of us,” I offer by way of commiseration. It is true that pre-bike ride espresso shots often lead to what I euphemize “peemergencies.” Of course, that is a decidedly bourgeois take on his predicament.

“This part of town, ain’t nowhere for a homeless man to use the restroom. I was trying to hide myself as best I could and a parking lot owner ran me off from the alley. It was too late.”

We walk in silence, then he refrains about the beauty of this grey, low-ceilinged day. We halt in front of the car I am about to get into. He introduces himself as Green Eyes, which suddenly cements the implacable enchantment this man possesses. He has striking greenish-yellow eyes, which seem unnaturally human the same way a Weimaraner’s do. They contrast subtly and powerfully with his coffee-colored skin.

“Life is different when you have scars on your face,” he says. At that moment, I also notice the scars. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

He tells me of his recent evictions from alleyways and backlots, of the ways he can’t catch a break. Finally, he says, “I’m just looking for a place to—what’s the word?”

A pregnant pause so long and weighty a director would never approve.

“Belong.” Silent tears streak his scarred face, and he walks away to hide a shame much deeper than the wet spot on the front of his jeans.

The next morning, I sat on the beach in Laguna. In light of the waterworks of the day before, the Pacific seems decidedly prosaic. I am not upset when it is time to head to John Wayne Airport. Never have I ever seen a person in love with LA.

Laguna

Post Scriptor: Ben Gibbard was right.

Hello to a River

The idea that a river has a character distinct from all other rivers seems impossibly provincial. If someone had said it to me before yesterday, I may well have laughed at the quaint half-truth the way I do when reading Mark Twain. That was before the arms of the Brazos wrapped back around me.

John Graves bid the Brazos farewell in 1960, when he published Goodbye to a River. He wasn’t leaving, but it was. Two dams had already been built; thirteen more were proposed. He started his trip in the very tailwaters that formed my childhood affinity for fishing and thorns and paddled the same waters that I did some forty years later. He knew things were changing around him and took the chance to see them as they once were one more time, with a writer’s eye and a pre-nostalgic heart. We are rarely given the same complicated gift of a pre-planned farewell.

IMG_7520

When I left Texas I was so sure it would be for good, so positive that the metaphysical and physical were correlated that a departure meant more than just a lack of Whataburgers and whitewashed Wranglers. That shortsightedness is quite typical of a teenager, but it’s also quite a strange way to move on. To regard your home with a cold eye and a shuttered heart, thinking that you can escape your personal problems with a change in location is to bid goodbye to nothing. There’s no good in this bye. Good riddance, then.

To be homesick is not simply to wish somebody would do your laundry or make your favorite family recipe. It’s to be removed from the smells of dust and honeysuckle and creosote and the sights of dip can rings and sports team shirts that match your own. It’s a general specific that says no matter how well I master this recipe and how many maids I hire, this is not home. All my revulsions are being replaced by new ones, and I liked the old ones better. John’s were usurped by a time, mine by a place. Would you rather be branded a pussy for not hunting or a provincial proletariat for having faith and saying ya’ll? Have space to shoot cans and catch bass or a new movie theater and fashionable next door neighbors? Much depends on your perspective.

The way most authors do, Mr. Graves offered a profoundly personal, timelessly universal take on the state of affairs in 1960s Texas:

“I would be annoyed if I were any more in tune with modern sensibilities. I was shaped differently. The world in which I grew up was Texan and Southern, and it had many, many failings. I think I’ve gotten rid of most of the bad things in myself from that earlier age, but I don’t adjust to the way things are progressing now.”

This same progressive curmudgeonliness colors many of my favorite works. From Travels with Charley to No Country for Old Men, we see narrators who have a healthy case of Things-Used-to-be-Better Syndrome but know it. We all fear change. We don’t all possess a tortuous self-awareness that accompanies our preference for the known. But we all grow weary when the things we know are replaced by things we don’t. “Things were better then,” we’ll always say. Except for those of us who love new things. The disappointment of watching the new become old is certainly more constant and empty than the wistful twinges of rose-colored hindsight.

IMG_7533

So when I found myself on the Brazos River again, amid my first real spring in four years, I was taken aback by the way it had waited. Though nothing was the same, everything was. The colors, the currents, and the vegetation were all just as I left them. The weather was abysmal by most standards, but the flowers were ecstatic. The latent moisture in the ground and air lent everything a high-contrast look. Greens were greener, plant cells turbid with water. Darks were darker, trunks and soil soaked full of moisture. Only the strongest smells could muscle through the thick, damp air. The cow patties and sagebrush were turned up to eleven, freed from the mingling of weaker scents. When I landed the first largemouth bass of the day, a singular, purposeful joy superseded all of my long overwrought vegetarian conundrums.

When I landed the largest sand bass I’ve ever caught, it dawned on me that these were not the cliché fish that everyone said we should dream of catching. These were my fish, in my backyard. And if nobody ever writes a narrative in which redneck trappings like bass and sunfish are highbrow rewards for heady pursuits, all the better. When Graves floated the Brazos, his keen eye soaked in the hidden beauty nestled up and down the river. Nothing so obvious as a pre-labelled SCENIC OVERLOOK along a road with countless tourist maps and guides would do. If someone tells you something is good, can you ever really decide for yourself?

 IMG_20150321_112422386

To notice red tail hawks silently presiding over their territory is to truly interact with nature. They’re always there, but only a keen and willing eye will routinely spot their mottled plumage so perfectly matching the branches on which they perch. To realize that Great Blue Herons are as exotic as anything at the zoo is, again, to reject the fairy tale notion of some beauties being better than others. There is nothing pretentious or prescriptive about the beauty of sandy red cliffs and golden ochre cedars reflecting in dark green water. Everything waits patiently for its visitors to understand that, sometimes, beauty educates beholders. This place was not designed by Someone who thought Big Sur was inherently better than Big Bend, so why should we?

Texas is wrought with thorned vegetation. Cacti are the most obvious and easily avoided. It’s the insidious vines that intertwine with the innocuous bushes that’ll get you when you least expect it. The process of avoiding these painful plants is part of the meditative whole that is the pursuit of fish. To access the Brazos River, you must circumnavigate nature’s booby traps. Thorns and holes and slick shores do their darndest to protect the ultimate prize. Perhaps by writing off places that are difficult, we’re missing the point.

The Brazos’ distinct character was most clear to me because it stood in high relief against the other rivers I’d visited the week prior. The Colorado, The Guadelupe, The San Gabriel, The Pedernales. What a difference a few hundred miles make. What’s in a name. These rivers are all so profoundly different I could identify The One out of a lineup.

As I stood in the chilly knee-deep water, focus and reverie duked it out while I stood by gladly. My fishing buddy and I were the only two people on the river that day, because we could see beyond the thorns and the grey skies. In the mist it became clear that this was home.

I should add that only two of those proposed dams were ever built, thanks in large part to the awareness Graves raised with his poetic take on a unique place. And the lakes they built are drying up. My nostalgia is for a time when one could waterski without fear of impalement and lakehouses were actually close to lakes. Before I was away, before the droughts and fires came. That was a better time.

IMG_7557