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The Houston Marathon and The Human Spirit

Howdy! I’m working on writing a book of stories and observations like these. Would you read it? Why or why not? It’s either that or another sophomoric, sardonic attempt at The Next Great American Novel. Cheers!

The human spirit is irrepressible. I’ve spent plenty of time thinking otherwise, laying on the floor or the couch seemingly feeling the earth’s orbit inside of my cranium, dizzied by the overwhelming realities of ultimately meaningless problems. Based on the more candid, autobiographical things I’ve read from fellow writers, some personality types are more prone to these cynical reveries than others. There are a lot of people on this planet, each one of them unique in their wiring and particular rendition of God’s image. You doubtlessly know someone who is so perpetually, effusively bubbly you wonder if they swirl lithium and cocaine in their morning coffee. And you also know somebody who seems to carry the weight of the world on their shoulders, never looking quite at ease with themselves or the world around them no matter what’s happening. And lots of people in-between.

I spent this weekend among people who span the gamut of innate personalities, as most people do when they hang out with a group of fellow humans. But, there was something different about the atmosphere among this group of people. There was an infectious, overwhelmingly positive energy buzzing about us everywhere we went. The average level of commitment and determination amongst us was quite high. And this is an innate trait, but it is not dependent on personality type. We are born resilient and decide whether we want to accept or reject that reality. We can dedicate ourselves daily anew or shirk the triumph we’re born with in favor of despondency. This is something I think about often and struggle with even more, and is a large part of why I’m so into cycling and running. They are irrefutable physical reminders of our capabilities, measurable accomplishments of the intangible mental grit we use to get through days and across distant finish lines alike.

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And so Saturday night’s pre-race dinner was familiar to any endurance athlete; small, fixed menus filled with big plates of bread and pasta, some double fisting water and some sipping wine to take the edge off and ensure a decent sleep in spite of the very imminent alarm clocks. But it was also unfamiliar to me. Gone was the silent, somber sense of an upcoming challenge. In its place, a sense of pre-race victory. The room was so full of folks who were dialed in to that innate resilience in the human spirit that it felt like we had already finished the Houston Marathon even though it wouldn’t start for another twelve hours. I was at a table with Mark, an above-the-knee amputee who’s bound for Rio in 2016 to compete for the United States in Paralympic triathlon, and Ashley, the nineteen year old girl from small town Illinois who I’d be running with the next day. I was discussing training strategies for increasing wattage on the bike with Mark and talking about shooting guns with Ashley. In other words, just another casual dinner conversation. She and I were undoubtedly the most country people at the table; I recognized the .270 in the picture she pulled up on her phone from across a large round table. I should add, only as a very brief aside, that Ashley is blind. So were five other athletes in the room, who were all running the Houston Marathon the next morning. Two of them were gunning for times that absolutely slaughter my fastest marathon. Ashley was hoping to qualify for Boston, and silently had a goal that was a full fifteen minutes faster than the one she’d shared with me and Caroline, her other guide for the race. #relatable.

The first time I heard about a visually-impaired category for biathlon, I figured it was a mistake and they’d meant to say duathlon, which is two-thirds of a triathlon. But no. What Caroline said was what she meant: cross-country skiing and target shooting. It sounds so preposterous, but people laugh harder than I did when I first heard about it than when I tell them that they, too, could run a marathon or bike a hundred miles if they so choose. People believe that I am somehow fundamentally different from them, that I was born running and biking. I am not and I was not. I won’t even begin to pretend that these sports are the ultimate solution, but they are an at-hand example of the way in which we can all do the things we decide to, should we commit to them with a staunch faith that ignores the contrarian desires that will inevitably plague us along the way.

But back to blind people with guns. Something that might sound like a joke but certainly isn’t, which should be said of more dreams and goals that people quickly write off as unattainable out of some world-won cynicism. To spend five minutes with Ashley is to realize that she is keenly aware of the innate power of the human spirit, regardless of the hand she’s been dealt. She knows she can win if she plays her cards right, and she always seems to play her cards right. We discussed target shooting with various rifles and with unflinching seriousness I said that I’d guide her in biathlon, never mind the lack of snow in Texas. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Another blind runner, David, focused so much more on his granddaughter who was born with an incurable disease that it was very easy to forget that he’s run over forty marathons and from Seattle to Nova Scotia to raise money for finding a cure. You don’t have to put an asterisk on those accomplishments, or those of anyone else who was in the room that night. Everyone’s story was unique, but they all had a common theme—that this was about so much more than running or the typical clichés about disabilities and capabilities.

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Ashley, Caroline, and I took the starting line in the dark and chilly air and took off with one goal in mind—make sure Ashley qualified for Boston in her first ever marathon, all before her twentieth birthday. We started with some pep in our step to get out of the start gates. The visually impaired category got to start fifteen minutes before the rest of the twenty-something-thousand runners, which meant the first mile was eerily silent and empty, save for the amazing spectators and Elvis impersonators who were already lining the streets.  At mile 1.98, I spotted a vizsla puppy, which of course meant we pulled over to stop and pet it. After that, we didn’t stop or walk the entire time. The miles poured by and our photos look remarkably similar from the start line to the finish. When you’re hanging out with somebody whose spirit is so infectiously positive and evident at all times, it’s impossible to not smile. And when you smile for a full 26.2 miles, you beat your goal time by fifteen minutes.

What’s far more significant than the finish line and numerical accomplishment is the sense of camaraderie and teamwork present on a marathon course. From the first few packs of runners to pass us, which were the elite men and women on track to low-two-hour finishes, to the folks who we kept stride with later in the race, we received an overwhelming amount of encouragement. On the marathon course, every friendly word is returned and every step brings you one closer to creating something tangible out of a commitment. Whether being handed Kleenex and cupcakes from spectators or receiving encouraging mid-race visits from familiar faces, it felt as though the entire city of Houston and much of the national running/triathlon scene was with us in signs of admiring solidarity.

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And the same was true of every person on the course. If you’re running a marathon, everyone watching you or running with you is your friend. And we had friends make five hour drives simply to spectate and offer encouragement, and I’ve never received so many Facebook notifications or likes in my entire life as when I was tagged in photos with Ashley and Caroline. But that’s what happens when you surround yourself with people who have been honest about their failures and humble about their successes, and who, above all else, exude that belief in themselves that I keep alluding to. It was interesting to hear Ashley talk about herself in the context of her two sisters (who round out a batch of triplets)—let’s just say that most nineteen year old girls are not interested in running more miles than they are old, or setting any number of other ambitious goals. We could dive into a discussion about how much or little genetics play into all of this, but I found it to be quite affirming of the notion that, ultimately, attitude is something we choose. As someone who suffers from acute decision paralysis (it sometimes takes me five minutes to decide which strawberry preserves I want to buy), I’ll be the first to admit that making choices is not always easy. But it is something that we can do, that we do multiple times a day, and that we should be aware of when it comes to our attitudes and outlooks.

Back to running for a minute. To be in the midst of twenty thousand people striving for the same expression of the human spirit is one of the most energizing feelings in the world. Here’s the deal with marathons; they’re just one way to prove to yourself that hard work and belief in something pays off. So whether you want to get into knitting or hacking or watermelon seedspitting or backpacking, there’s a way to set a lofty goal and put in consistent work that will help you achieve it. So long as you don’t let the ambient noise of the world distract and discourage you.

It’s so easy to dismiss all of these grand stories as one-in-a-million examples of people who are simply much stronger and greater than we are. My friends don’t believe me when I say that they can run a marathon, too, or that it really isn’t easy for me. It’s not. Two days later, I’m still the most sore I’ve been in my entire life. But that soreness reminds me that I did something that sounds unappealing and ridiculous. And that when I sit down to work on a book or wake up in the morning with a fuzzy ringing in my head that tries to tell me that getting out of bed is pointless, what I am doing is not out of the realm of possibility. Some things come easier to some people than others, but that’s far from the point. We have to recognize that we are all succeeding at something that is not easy, even if it feels that way to us. You may think that the chords you effortlessly play on piano or the ease with which you learn a new coding language is par for the human course and thusly never pursue it more seriously. Neither of those things are easy for me. That won’t stop me from trying if I ever feel so inclined, but I think we’re as wont to reject ease as we are to reject challenge. I often assume that because what I’m writing hasn’t come with a great degree of agony and toiling and fifty drafts that I must not be doing a very good job, but that sort of thinking has a way of preventing us from ever reaching the second draft, let alone the fiftieth. One of the biggest disservices we do ourselves is compare, upwardly or downwardly, and assume that we are simply middling. It’s tempting to focus on the small picture, to wonder how someone picks out their marathon outfit if they can’t see, but in so doing you lose out on the important details about our collective abilities.

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Everyone is doing something extraordinary, however big or small it is and no matter the obstacles they do and don’t encounter along the way. When I reflect on my story now, I often talk about how signing up for and finishing Ironman Louisville probably saved my life. It reminded me that so many of us need absurdly extreme reminders that we can do this. From my first exposure to visually impaired triathletes to the double-amputee veteran who covered 140.6 miles using his arms to the seventy six year old man who told me mid-race, “I can either do this or sit on the couch ‘til I die,” I realized that I had finally found my people. We’re all just sick enough to call races that last several hours “fun” and all healthy enough that we can pick each other up and dig deep to offer some form of encouragement that steers us towards the finish line. To watch the human spirit at work is a wondrous thing. I think it’s why we like music and all other forms of art so much. Someone made that thing out of thin air and imagination and it tickles our fancies in implacable ways.

And so, when another blind runner, Jason talked about what running did for him as he came to terms with losing his vision, I almost started crying sitting at the dinner table. He described a struggle and a way to defeat it that resonated with me on a level I couldn’t have imagined. For him, vision was a relatively minor detail in the actual challenge at-hand. Running is a metaphorically rich endeavor that has countless physical benefits, but above all, it is a way to say to everyone around you that you can do this thing. So many of us imagine that losing our vision would be a crippling blow to our already tenuous wellbeing, but we aren’t giving ourselves enough credit. As I’ve been writing this, I’m also texting Ashley jokes at a rapid fire rate that rivals my high school flip phone T9 glory days. And, thanks to the encouragement of an amazing community and the individual benefits of all my endeavors, the real glory days have just begun.

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The Unsung Praises of Pop Music

Somewhere along the way, most of us forgot that the “pop” in pop music is a de facto abbreviation for “popular.” Or perhaps we didn’t, and that’s why it is such a complicated force in modern culture. As much as popularity is the only thing that matters in middle school, as we age, it becomes a complicated word that often takes on negative connotations.

For much of my life, pop music was regarded as taboo in my circles. It is uncool to like something that is so easy to like, it implies a certain simple-mindedness that cannot see through the machine that has produced this music that was predestined for popularity. We must resist its perfect formula of verse-chorus-verse-bridge-chorus or some variation therein, we simply cannot admit that we derive earnest pleasure from something that was designed to do nothing but please us. As I sit in this coffee shop in east Austin which doubles as my office most days, I can read everyone’s ironic t-shirts and forehead tattoos. They would rather admit they kinda like professional sports than be caught rocking out to the Black Eyed Peas or Taylor Swift. And for much of my life, I was the same way.

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Popular music is regarded as the antithesis of seriousness. And we all want to be serious. And taken seriously. How can we speak authoritatively if we can also mindlessly bop along to songs that offer no insight into the human condition or the latent pseudonihilism that haunts our jocuserious daydreams? I spent several years of my life believing that we cannot do both, and that I was glad to have realized my seriousness. I only rarely envied the earnest, typically preferring to smirk sardonically at people who enjoyed the “easy” stuff. We spend a lot of life burying simple, earnest joy beneath complicated oxymorons like the idea of the “guilty pleasure.” This phrase is most often connoted with songs that we somehow “shouldn’t” like but secretly do, anyways.

Of course, one can only resist the allure of a perfectly crafted beat for so long, can only maintain a stoic façade for a finite spell before something cracks. I cracked before my outward insistence on curation did, but those cracks have since been repaired. Part of that repair process was removing the façade and replacing it with a giant wall of windows. It is astonishingly easy to be happy when you don’t care what people think; when you stop caring about things as trivial as resisting popular music, you open yourself up to deeper connections.

I have since met a girl who looks like a pop star and has created an elaborate joke based on that doppelgangerness. Not wanting to miss out on the joke or the joy de vivre was enough to move me to buy the album (said artist refuses to put her music on Spotify) and listen to it in all of its perfectly-crafted poppyness. I have unironically posted on social media about my joy upon hearing that a Nineties girl group is reuniting and been met with staggering enthusiasm by the unlikeliest of people. But to call someone’s love for happy pop country unlikely is tragically based on the expectation that someone who looks a certain way or does certain things could never be tickled by the refrain, “Some days, you gotta dance.” Sharing sincerely in love for the Dixie Chicks has only strengthened our friendship and proven that we both believe in the importance of choosing joy and honesty over calculated bitterness.

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And so, now it feels obvious and even ridiculous to reflect on something as simple as pop music and think it worthy of contemplation. But what a blessing that is—because there was a time when earnestness and enjoyment in the simple pleasures seemed distant and entirely impossible for me. Even among those who fancy themselves musically savvy, there’s much to be said for pop music. And it is so liberating to realize that there’s no reason why you can’t say it. The craft of a truly transcendental pop song is every bit as artful as the polyrhythmic, time-signature-shifting work of your favorite alternative rock band. Music is an essential component of humanity, it is an extension of the spirit and soul that make us unique among animals. As soon as we have food and shelter covered, we start making art. It’s always been that way.

Not every human holds music in equal regard, but those who know the value of a song can attest to its personal and communal power. Songs provide solace in the same way as stories, with the additional immutable power of melody. Melody is a bit more suggestive than the written word—it can impart a feeling on its listener with a heavier hand than words can the reader—who may, if they so choose, ignore the lyricism and cadence on the page before them.  Writers can learn a lot from music, if they are open to the idea.

And humans can learn a lot from their attitudes toward music—enjoying it freely is essential to enjoying life without reservation. In the least Oprah-tic way possible, I find it important that we free ourselves from the idea of music as ‘guilty pleasure.’ Because there is no guilt nor shame in thinking that popular music of all description is catchy and does positive things to our psyches. Even music that’s often dismissed as base and degrading  to the moral fabric.
Rap music is most often accused of this blasphemy, but I also think it occupies a strange place in the pop-vs.-serious music conversation. Last year, some random guy who loves crunching numbers made a chart comparing rapper’s vocabularies to Shakespeare—and a lot of them ranked much higher than ol’ Bill. Take Eminem—who I consider to be the paragon of a poet.  I won’t even delve into the complexity of his lyrics, which are hilariously often taken at face value. He once gave Anderson Cooper some of the most incredible insight into the mind of an artist that I’ve ever seen. He notes that people always say nothing rhymes with the word “orange,” which distinctly aggravates him. So much so that he then goes on to demonstrate how he can use internal rhyme and cadence alteration to make six or seven lines in a row rhyme with orange. He has an obsessive drive towards command of language. And towards conquering of all his demons by facing them head on. There’s also the fact that science has proven that his music helps people workout harder than literally anyone else’s. Even in the same genre.

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But I digress. The anecdote about Eminem is most apropos because it reminds us of something essential about music at-large. That, like all art, it is firstly an effort to share something deeply personal in order to start a dialogue and offer a sense of community among otherwise disparate people. Reductionist thinking assumes that he’s vile and obscene beyond redemption. But closer inspection reveals him to be deeply artistic, thoughtful, and as poetic as any writer I studied in those droll literature classes I took in college. It’d be easy for me to bury the memories I have of listening to Toby Kieth and NOW 3 and the Dixie Chicks in my mom’s station wagon, to only reminisce on those moments and lyrics among my sisters when I know there are no cameras in the area. Because all of those artists allegedly represent things that are far from the calculated cool that we ought to aspire to.

But instead, I love nothing more than cranking the blink-182 and T. Swift and stringing together a life full of windows-down, volume-up moments that we all have in our respective histories. It’s all too easy to focus on the negative and think that we have nothing to laugh about and no right to yell along to mindless pop punk and not-quite-country and hip hop. But, it’s all too important that we do just that. The more often we remind ourselves that art and laughter make us human, that moments are worthy of enjoying for their own sake, that complicated thoughts and social constructs are no reason to cease enjoying the simple things, the better off we’ll be. Some days, you do gotta dance. And the notion of popular music should be staggeringly encouraging—there are some things that almost all people can agree on! In this day and age, what a treasure that is. We should reflect on the anecdote about the Beatles’ appearance on the Ed Sullivan show. They say that New York City went 8 minutes without any recorded crime as the boys from Liverpool bobbed around in their suits on TV sets everywhere. Maybe if Taylor Swift would go back to making country music, that could happen again.

Town, Country, Action

There is a popular movement in the urban epicenters of hip in this country that romanticizes the great outdoors. Like any movement that starts with genuine trailblazers, it gives way to a wider swath that imitates the most outwardly visible traits of those purveyors of cool while entirely missing the point. In this case, our latest infatuation with rugged individualism spawned the lumbersexual. Someone who looks utterly prepared to fell a tree and roast a salmon over an open fire he started without a lighter or matches, only those activities might scratch his boots or tear his designer waxed canvas coat.

But I don’t intend to sardonically pick apart the nature of mimetic fashion and the ironical disconnect between appearance and reality in most aspects of modern culture. My distaste for such thought exercises grows stronger by the day. And if you crave it, there are thousands, if not millions, of other aspiring journalists who will glibly sell you on the fetishized exoticism of witch hunters in Papua New Guinea while feigning superiority to other journalists there to sell you on the same thing. Can we not highlight the things we notice without traveling to far-flung locales, is there not much to learn about our condition that could be gathered from simply doing that which is at our disposal rather than ruminating on that which isn’t?

The problem with romanticizing the outdoors and this whole Pacific Northwest-y movement that’s so big on the internet is not that it creates a hypocritical standard for adventure, but that it makes it awfully easy to become an excuse-making armchair quarterback. “Those guys are crazy,” or, “Well, I don’t live close to anything that looks like that.” But if you sit in your living room or coffee shop dressed like something out of a Carhartt catalogue, you’re clearly communicating your appreciation of the outdoors to everyone who’s around you. Only, it’s not an aesthetic or idealistic appreciation that we need. It’s a practical application.

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The outdoors are not always picturesque. Not every hike or bike ride is postcard-worthy. Those that are ridiculously scenic provide great inspiration and wall art, but they do not provide an excuse to only go when the conditions are right and the stars align. Much of what we get from simply going and doing is the discomfort, the need to zoom way in or even further out to find the nuanced beauty in any place on any day, the conscious, tangible choice to act instead of to not. And perhaps that truth goes beyond going outside, though that’s an easy non-abstract example of what can quickly become quite an abstract concept.

Action versus well-defended inaction is what defines the urban-rural divide that continues to get revisited in the back pages of the LA Times. It’s what rescued me from the throes of what felt like an inescapable battle with depression and unhealthy, cyclical ‘classroom thinking.’ When we sit around and ponder things that are wrong, things that we could do, the infinitude of subtly different outcomes of every decision we have to make in our lives, we allow reality to begin to weigh more than it actually does. And we become weak because we never use our minds or our might for action. That perceived weight becomes even more unwieldy as our ability to act atrophies.

So in a literal sense, going on a hike, or repairing the roof to the chicken coop in a snowstorm, or fixing a flat tire on your bike when you’re fifty miles away from home is the type of action that trumps thought spirals. In rural life, business and pleasure alike do depend on a certain type of quick-thinking, sprawling savvy. Looking at a problem, acknowledging that it requires immediate and practical attention, and executing a solution is such an essential skill that is so lost on the majority of our alleged problem-solvers. Because they’re insulated from everything, by everything, and they even get from their apartments to their offices to the bar on those damn hoverboard tilting Segway things. There is so little practical difficulty in the day-to-day of most of us that we have to create solutions to nonexistent problems for our own entertainment, to provide that sense of accomplishment and satisfaction where none can be found.

But this is not a manifesto against cities or cityfolk. I live in an American metropolis, albeit one with an exceptional amount of public greenspace and rural land easily accessible without ever hopping in the car. It’s not even an insinuation that everyone needs to take up the same activities that bring me daily joy, that remind me in condensed form that we can experience the gamut of human emotion in five minutes, five miles, five days, five rides, five years. When we make ourselves averse to the challenge of climbing a hill and dismiss those that do it as “nuts,” we decide that we are incapable of doing something that we absolutely, positively are capable of because we are definitely not “nuts.” And that may be the most nuts thing of all.

That endeavor may be learning an instrument or training a dog or restoring an old car; each may sound nuts, but that is only because it hasn’t sufficiently piqued your interest or you’ve yet to discover that we are all supremely capable at whatever it is we decide to do. I deeply believe that anyone is capable of anything, but we have coddled ourselves into forgetting that by building worlds so void of tasks-at-hand that we have to constantly hit refresh so we can be force-fed by news feeds. The greatest danger of city life is not getting hit by a bus or choking on smog; it’s slowly becoming so comfortable that we are rendered powerless against our own problems.

To be sure, the lines between urban and rural are much more blurred than they used to be—the internet is everywhere and machines can do pretty much everything nowadays. Perhaps I only invoked that dichotomy at all because I have read much about it lately and it does strike a chord when I realize how few of my peers are interested in my snapdragons. Because, like, how do you even figure out how to keep those things alive?

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In comfort, so few demands are made of us that we can sit and pontificate until we unravel. We don’t have to do anything, so we are free to think about everything. This is extolled as a virtue, but so often it’s anything but. Sitting and thinking that learning a new skill is “hard” and that there are so many contradictory “facts” that the only thing we can be sure of is nothing is hardly the epitome of civilized society. And every day that I grow more comfortable being candid and transparent with people I’ve met for the first time, the more I realize that we all thirst for connection and agency and self-assuredness. And we’re not going to find them if we don’t ever get up and go look for them.
It is this inactive thinking that leads to political extremes; it is quite easy to hate something you’ve never met, to pass final judgment on an incident you’ve never come close to experiencing. It’s inevitable that if you sit for long enough, you can imagine the worst-possible-outcomes of something and decide that it’s not worth doing. That sweeping changes in the status quo must be made to suit your current mood. But what is being safe and ideologically placated if you are fundamentally stymied?

These questions are big and require much more examination and discussion than anyone feels like reading right now. But in light of so many recent events and revelations, I can finally feel my pent-up energy for creating a full-length book concretizing into a clearer vision. I don’t have to wallow in sorrow and self-loathing to be at my artistic best—maybe I’d write a more poignant novel in the Modernist style if I allowed myself to keep feeling as I did two years ago—but I can be informed by that knowledge of high art as I create something filled with high hope.

I’m excited to hold two ideas in my mind with equal regard and genuinely believe in what I’m doing. Can we not see the beauty in the city and the country alike? Can we repair the fence in our backyard on a silent street while mockingbirds sing and squirrels store, then hop on our bikes and ride ten minutes to a thriving city center? Of course these are literal, practical dualities, but you have to start the conversation somewhere.

I’ve come to accept lately that when people have positive feedback about my writing or words that brushing them aside is not humble, it’s disrespectful. And so, recently, while offering the most emotionally taxing words I’ve probably ever had to speak, my main audience’s girlfriend remarked afterwards, “I’d read everything you’ve ever written.” I assured her that wasn’t true, but I also felt profoundly called to write something that I’d actually want her to read, that reflects the truths I communicated to her and her boyfriend, that I emphatically believe in but so rarely articulate in written and public ways.

And I’m reluctant to parse it all out at once, because as this piece demonstrates, as soon as I try to include too many ideas at once, it becomes overwhelming.  But it’s my hope that we can start a conversation here about why I do what I do and how, really, I’m just like you. We’re all just like each other. But I’m stricken by how surprised people are by what I consider basic words of comfort and candor. As if they’ve never been told, “Hey, I actually have felt that way, too, and this is what I did and now I am doing much better.” Of course it’s more complicated than that, but we should all be more encouraging and more honest with each other! After the last post I wrote, I got a lot of really nice notes that genuinely humbled and inspired me and made it clear that it’d be a disservice to not be honest and intentional with people at every opportunity. I may be nuts, but it’s not because I ride my bike fifty to a hundred miles fairly often. That’s what I do to prevent myself from going nuts. And it may not work for you, but I am absolutely positive that something will. We just need to talk about that and be honest about where we’ve been and where we’re going.

As for the lumbersexual question—I don’t think I’m good enough at color coordinating to qualify, but I’d definitely rather be lumber than metro.

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The Mountains are Calling and I Must Go: On Escapism, Instagram, and Road Rash

The mountains are calling and I must go. I’m an avid outdoorsman, and yet I hate that phrase—an overused and misconstrued John Muirism that has been sewn into patches, overlaid on all manner of Instagram photos, and pinned to a million Pinterest boards. I don’t think I simply despise it because I have a particular connotation of it—on a patch made by one of the very cliché Pacific Northwesterners such things epitomize, a fellow who also made rings out of vintage spoons he found, one of which rings I bought for a lady friend far too prematurely, aware of the latent symbolism of rings and unconcerned because this one cost less than a decent dinner and drinks, only to watch that fling implode magnificently less than 48 hours after gifting her said ring. The patches and rings all shared space on his Etsy page, which should have been my first red flag.

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Anecdotes aside, the mountains are calling and I must go. The twenty first Century has wanderlust-lust. We thirst for scenic overlooks that can be cropped at a 1:1 ratio and filtered just-so, we believe that we can find the answers backpacking in Thailand or glamping in Yosemite, we eat foreign cuisine, pray to other people’s gods, love places we have been for one week, never leaving the safe tourist districts. The aesthetic du jour is vaguely vintage, gentlemanly, much coordinated waxed canvas and plaid, beards when possible. Thus the instacred that quoting John Muir provides. In the context of the letter he wrote his sister, that phrase (which, as it happens, is actually the first clause in a much longer sentence) has more to do with work and duty than it does with this vague idea that going somewhere else, preferably somewhere dramatic and photogenic, will fix whatever problems we’re having here. This idea is not new, but it seems to ring more true every day that we cease to believe in other things that might solve our problems without requiring stylized escapism.

There’s something about the mountains, though. And the ocean, and canyons and redwood sequoias and humpback whales. Regardless of our explanatory schema, humans do have an innate need to be reminded that we are not omnipotent or omniscient, that there are things much bigger and more mysterious than us. This is where the mountains come in. One of the better sermons I’ve heard lately alluded to this fact—that we go places like the mountains precisely because we cannot look at them and think, “Look how awesome I am!” Man has accomplished lots of ridiculous feats of engineering, and still the most mindboggling things on earth are well beyond our capabilities. Mountains also typically represent an escape, not just of mind, but of surroundings. The realities of grade and altitude mean that most mountainous regions are sparsely populated, low in cell service, somehow more open and free than other locales, with crisper air and more ideological integrity. I believe that all humans should embrace the need for a respite from self-absorption and city centers alike, but the prepackaged phraseology and mimetic photography get rather cloying.

Still, I recently found myself being called by the mountains. More specifically, by an incredible off-road bicycle race called Grinduro (I wrote about it here) that takes place in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in far northern California. As the date drew nearer, I became impatient for the time when I’d be sleeping alone in a tent with nothing but my bike, boots, and a wool blanket over my Texas-weight sleeping bag. Life around Austin felt weighty and relentless-yet-monotonous. Of course, this is a mindset that can’t be escaped geographically, but the mountains do promise to do their darndest.

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The race was grueling, the company refreshing, and the scenery as recentering as one might hope. Conifer forests and rocky peaks are undeniably photogenic, and the air up high does have a particular cleanliness. Sleeping on the ground and getting wounds full of grit and dirt is often exactly what the doctor orders, and this trip was no exception. It is of utmost importance that we remind ourselves that we’re tougher than our climate-controlled, Tempurpedic environs make us out to be. As I used a borrowed bar of soap to rub the scree out of an enormous swath of road rash on my right shin, I had to smile in light of the reality of the situation—my first shower in nearly three days, tepid water flowing in a dirty campground stall as the outside temperature dropped into the high forties, blood and dirt pooling in the hair-clogged drain. I was just as alive as I am every night when I shower at home, maybe even more so. My Chakra was more aligned than it ever gets when yoga instructors encourage us to forget our anxieties and just be present. We don’t all have to bleed or travel to postcard-worthy places to remind ourselves that we are more capable than we think. But grabbing your dusty Coleman tent and a couple of WalMart special sleeping bags and heading to a state park is a worthy way to get outside and remind yourself that we are not the biggest things out there, but we’re capable of sleeping and living among them.

I must be self-aware about my vitriolic indictment of embroidering Muir’s words on everything and super-matchy hiking excursions in the Pacific Northwest. I am an avid Instagram user; it helps me spread my personal brand as a freelance journalist and connect with like-minded people. It encourages folks to be creative with their smartphones instead of falling for clickbait titles and mindlessly reading each other’s political opinions.  A popular article by one of my favorite outdoor writers, aptly titled Please Continue Instagramming Your Amazing Life, summarizes my justifying opinions quite well. As long as we maintain perspective and remember that we don’t have to have a ridiculously cool vintage SUV, plaid wool everything, and fog swirling through stately pine trees to have a good time outside, we can and should be inspired by whatever imagery gets us off the couch, out of our slumps, away from the status quo that sucks us into dangerous compliance. Another cliché darling of the overly-stylized fauxlksy outdoors types is #outsideisfree. Free has a couple of meanings here, and both are quite apt. I’ll grant them a pass here, too, then.

Another aside on the beauty of Instagram as a channel for good—I’ve met some of my favorite people via Instagram in one way or another. Some are great photographers, others unabashedly take portraits and share their stories, and my personal favorite uses her feed to promote the positivity that ensues from what’s often perceived as a selfish sport (triathlon), but more on that at a later date.

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A long weekend hardly seems enough time to escape what ails us, so I extended the trip to last a full week and planned to stay in the Bay area so the ocean and the rhythm of a stranger’s city could do its part for me, too. Much of my best writing comes from these times, when I feel quite anchorless and capable of sitting in a coffee shop for six hours at a time, typing ‘til it hurts for lack of a viable alternative. In the woods we feel solitude; in cities we feel alone. Sadness brings about good art. And so, a trip to the mountains would help fill my mind with focused thoughts, an epilogue in San Francisco would madden me to the point of artful thought-spilling.

To a degree, it worked. I made no progress on any of my numerous barely-finished short stories. I did not update this usually-neglected blog. I wrote the above-mentioned coverage of Grinduro, which has been pleasantly well-received. But, more than anything, I drifted from café to café, biked through one of America’s iconic cities, and found myself supremely grateful that I live on a quiet street in a much smaller place. I fell asleep on an uneven couch to the sounds of sex in the other room and dumpsters banging in the alleyway below. I caught myself drifting off to dreams that started with receiving a lethal injection and fought my way back to consciousness, only to hear trollies whirring by and more sex. I have heard New Yorkers who move to quieter towns often buy city soundtracks to help them sleep at night. I cannot relate.

I missed my plants, indoor and out, which I knew were being utterly neglected. There was nobody turning off the fluorescent lights on the Nepenthes terrarium, nobody watering the bougainvillea, no one to deadhead the daisies so they’d keep blooming well beyond their natural inclination. I missed my other bicycle and its intense focus that becomes apparent the moment you lean down to its slammed handlebars. I wanted to make smoothies in my own blender and eat tacos at my favorite lunch spot, to get through an entire day spending less than twenty dollars without trying to be frugal. I needed to see some of my friends, to be alone in my home, to pet a dog. That relentless monotony I resented is peppered with meaningful things and people. I do not know how things will play out, but there are plenty of plotlines at home to keep things interesting. I made new friends in California, but I did not need to fill my life with kismet to fill it with intrigue. I was able to reconnect with an old friend, to stand by the ocean and stare at all of its unfathomable depth and breadth and remember a time when he and I would sit by the ocean often. I felt happier this time than I did most of those times before, so content to sit by the sea side and contemplate the hard questions I’m grappling with, that after days of wishing my flight were sooner, I was sad that I had to leave Half Moon Bay for the airport at 11 AM.

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I don’t love the use of phrases so cliché that many people forget who said them, let alone why. I especially don’t love mimetic imagery that fills Instagram feeds that are much more popular than mine. If only I was willing to have someone jump in “that pose” in front of a generically-unique background, if only I could write surface level “honest captions” that made everyone like me, then I would have enough followers that my personal brand might be worth something and I could charge a little more for each article. And yet, as I’ve been writing, I’m texting two great friends here in Austin who I can say I met through Instagram. And the wounds on my leg are almost healed. They still itch and burn like hell, which makes me a weird kind of glad, like my connection to feeling isn’t as muted as I think it is some days. I still have a lot of shit to deal with, but at least I can go ride my road bike and see my favorite familiar roads in a whole new light on this cloudy, rainy Thursday. Maybe Mr. Muir was a little more right than we realize. Not because he provided a conveniently stylized phrase that fits every typography and square formatted image so perfectly, but because he framed the need to go be made small by nature as a duty that he was obliged to fulfill. Whether we let gravity have its way with us or stand in the shadows of giants, it’s good to experience things that we cannot take credit for, no matter how delusionally grandificent we may become. Whether we paddle a surfboard into the mystery of waves, hike up mountains, or ride our bikes down tree-lined streets, we enter a compact with the natural world that admits we are but a part of the whole. To neglect this is to deny ourselves reminders of our own resilience and perspective. The mountains are not calling me today, but Mount Bonnell Road most assuredly is. And I must go.

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Aging Artfully

I have seen a lot of sixty-plus-year-olds put on concerts. Not painful orchestral affairs at senior centers, either. From my early teenage years, all of my musical heroes were the great rockers who invented the genre and recorded albums that will never be topped. The only problem was, I was born some twenty years after most of my favorite solos were recorded in the perma-haze hanging over London and San Francisco.

Thankfully, by the time I was a teenager experiencing generational diaspora, most of my guitar heroes were sober, broke, and back on the road. Of course, this meant that I was always in crowds surrounded by people old enough to be my grandparents who were neither sober nor broke. While the sense of novelty was mutual, I was hardly concretizing my place in musical history by being there for seminal shows or breakthrough tours.

What’s worse, I felt the need to lie to my dad when I’d get home and he asked, “Can he even really sing anymore? They had a lot of high notes…” I thought that maybe if I said it sounded the same as it did on the album, it’d be a little more true, make me a little closer to an era that wasn’t mine at all. Plus, the cavalcade of backup singers and auxiliary musicians on stage masked most of the old frontmen’s shortcomings. I’d leave the shows certain that The Who never had seven members, or that Paul McCartney didn’t used to tour with two drummers. But to admit these inconsistencies is to admit that I was disappointed, that I didn’t belong to the generation these jovial grandads came from.

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Of course, in the intervening years I fell for the bands more of my era, though I caught them one album cycle past their perceived peaks. I touted the 2004 album as my favorite, though it was their 2007 effort that served as my gateway drug. The 1996 stuff was more raw, more in-tune with my emotions and sensibilities and less in-tune with my temporal reality.  At least the people at their shows looked and acted a little more like me and cheered the most loudly for the same songs as I did. I wasn’t there for a greatest hits parade with a sprinkling of painful new stuff, as I’d grown so accustomed to. I was there for a catalogue-spanning show that pulled from whimsical deep tracks and still-good new stuff alike, and so was everyone else. My disappointment in not hearing that one song from my favorite early album was more realistic, somehow more probable because it’s only twenty years old instead of fifty.

So the situation I found myself in recently was familiar in a same-but-different kind of way. I walked into the Austin City Limits Moody Theatre fifteen minutes after Jerry Jeff Walker took the stage. I felt unhurried, unconcerned, and totally excited. There’s no sense in clinging too tightly and missing the life that’s in front of you. So my lovely date and I savored the 45 minute wait for our pasta (carb loading for a road bike race the next day) and only checked the clock once the whole time we were eating. I digress. There he was, sitting down at center stage, with a cowboy hat sitting so low I wondered if he could even see. I knew he was hiding something. Sharing the stage with him was a simple three piece band—lead guitar, bass, and drums. Nobody to hide behind, in fact, fewer instruments than he had with him on my favorite Live from Luckenbach album. I admired his honesty but had to laugh at the contradiction that was his wrinkle-hiding hat. Ten minutes later, after laying on the hysterical anecdotes and playing sentimental retrospectives, he burst into Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother. The crowd rose to its feet. He opted to skip strumming essential guitar parts so he could lift his hat high and bare his balding head and hard-worn face to the crowd. He grinned an enormous grin when he showed his hand—er, face—to his fans, many of whom were his age or close to it, and everyone cheered raucously. Jerry Jeff was not hiding behind Just for Men and backup singers.

He told stories about how his rambling ways had been halted dead in their tracks by love, shared lessons learned the hard way, and played sentimental songs that were neither new nor old. Without a new album to sell, nor a desire to play a Greatest Hits World Tour, he was free to call audibles and play whatever his free-form ramblings best segued into. I realized that I was being treated to something quite special. I forgot I was in an audience of a few thousand and felt more like I was sitting across the table from a wizened old man who had been tasked with sharing his life’s wisdom and reaffirming my decisions to-date.

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Just yesterday I conducted a telephone interview with legendary Texas artist Bob Wade, best known for his highly imaginative found object sculptures. Now 72 years old, Wade quipped that the giant cowboy boots he built 36 years ago were half his age and now pushing forty themselves.  Officially, I was conducting an interview for a story on one of his newest public art projects, but I was also having a one-on-one conversation with an accomplished artist who has the gifts of hindsight and experience to share.

“If you shoot me an email, we’ll get you on the e-vite list for my next gallery opening. Of course, it won’t be me, I don’t really do the whole email thing. My wife takes care of me like that.” This was a common refrain from Bob and Jerry Jeff, that they had surrendered the stubborn insistence on independence that all people, especially all men, possess. That is, before they recognize that suppressing it leads to something greater than the sum of its parts by way of subtraction. Whether it’s sparing yourself bona fide brain damage by handing over email correspondence duties or it’s letting someone else do things you could easily do yourself, like tie your tie before a black tie event, that willing humility is a recurring theme in the longest-tenured unions.

As we wonder how to age well, how to make it to our seventh generation and sit on the stage with our hats pulled low not as a display of hubris but for dramatic effect, it’s easy to wonder if we can learn from the mistakes our predecessors have made, or if we can only learn from them that mistakes will be made. In either case, it seems that what matters most is not what we do but what we do with it. How we figure that out is an entirely different question.

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Never Forget

In my most aimless of days, I was briefly registered as a Psychology – Spanish dual major. I learned just enough to pass tests, but never enough to be dangerous. Perhaps the most powerful memory I have of my time in half-empty lecture halls and grimly-lit clinical study rooms is the idea of the flashbulb memory. I don’t have any flashbulb memories from that part of my college experience, though. I’d rather forget it all.

flashbulb memory is a highly detailed, exceptionally vivid ‘snapshot’ of the moment and circumstances in which a piece of surprising and consequential (or emotionally arousing) news was heard.

And there is no better example of a flashbulb memory this century than the morning of September 11, 2001. In an era where Moore’s Law is hopelessly outdated, nothing has surpassed the way that date and its imagery imprinted itself on all of our psyches.

I was sitting in the back seat of my father’s car as it idled in the driveway, waiting for my sister to join so we could head to school. It doesn’t matter what radio station was on, the singing or strident chatter was interrupted by a somber but unknowing bulletin. “Apparently, an aircraft has collided with one of the World Trade Center’s twin towers. We will update you when we know more.” At that time, the radio was silenced, and we were driven to school as normal. Mrs. Thompson’s classroom never got more than half-full, and by math period almost everyone was gone. My parents had been at a funeral, so I was one of the last to be picked up. The principal had distributed a letter, which we were instructed not to open or read. Which meant that I opened it and read it immediately. It was the first time I had ever read the word “terrorists,” the first time I conjured up a mental image of men in ski masks committing vague but terrifying crimes against people who looked a lot like my parents and their friends. I remember getting in the back seat of my dad’s black sedan, silently sliding in as the radio murmured and my parents looked at me lovingly in their funeral garb. The road in front of my elementary school looks nothing like it used to. There are no longer cattle or turkeys or barbed wire fences there. Instead, there’s a subdivision. But in my mind, there will always be that family of wild turkeys, the babies following the mother in an expand-and-contract motion that reminded me of a beekeeper’s billows or a slinky falling down stairs. They had no idea what had happened that morning, but even they seemed to be following extra close as I looked out the window while we drove away from school.

We watched a grainy tube television in the living room, talking heads guesstimated that twenty thousand people had died. My dad cried. I tried to imagine twenty Fort Worth Country Day Schools and my brain ran out of capacity at three or four. I switched to the Ballpark at Arlington. That place was so big, though. Three Country Days seemed more nauseating. There was live footage of businessmen jumping out of the hundredth floor of the towers that I had seen only a few months before on our first real trip to Manhattan. There was a picture of a man whispering to George Bush while he spoke to a bunch of kids like me in Florida. In fact, there were over a dozen angles of the planes running into the towers, one after another in surreal little puffs of metal and fire and smoke. It’s funny that we can remember grainy TVs with crystal clarity. I used to always imagine my grandmother’s childhood occurring in out-of-focus faded colors and black-and-whites.

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I have lived more than half of my life in the post-9/11 world, a world in which resilience was a value quickly replaced by a resurgence of race politics and approval ratings that fall faster than the men and women who jumped from those towers. Two nights ago I had a gripping nightmare that was vaguely specific, invoked by glancing at a headline about ISIS as I fell asleep. I saw an Instagram post about two hours ago of my cousin and his friends in Afghanistan, a place I didn’t even know existed before this day fourteen years ago. It is easy to wonder what it all means.

What it doesn’t mean is this: that all hope is lost, or that evil won, or that an incomprehensible act of violence that went far better than its planners ever could’ve dreamed was the final blow to a fractured nation. Three days after the towers fell, George W. Bush gave his famous bullhorn address at Ground Zero, after the embers were cool enough to safely stand on, after the rescue efforts slowed because it had been three days. A rescue worker in the crowd shouted “God Bless America!” We aren’t really allowed to shout that anymore, especially not at the President. But that doesn’t mean that He doesn’t.

Books have been written, wars have been waged, movies have been made. But that would’ve happened anyways. Two days ago, Bretagne, the last “9/11 dog” celebrated her sixteenth birthday. She was a canine first responder who helped search the rubble for survivors, one of the countless tear-jerker stories of heroism in the dusty aftermath.

Today, flags are planted in parks all across America. Gravestones and memorials are polished and pilgrimaged. Some will dutifully observe that sacrifice or mourn those they knew. The people in this coffee shop might not notice at all. Sometimes we can observe the passage of time best by a certain lackadaisical observance. Then, a Google Maps car drives by the front windows and records this moment in excruciating 3D detail.

We are exhorted to “Never Forget.” Except now it’s one word with a pound sign in front of it. Perhaps we can observe the passage of time best through a linguistic study of recurring phrases. Happy All Hallows’ Eve.  Merry Yuletide. #NeverForget.

I will never forget September 11th, 2001. It created a flashbulb memory that psychology tells us will last as long as I do. But as I move forward and grow healthier by the day, I will forget some things. Or at least let their sting fade into more of a dull awareness, an informing aversion like the first time you touch a hot pan and know to never do that again. Of course, most of us burn ourselves more than once in our lives.

I have experienced things before, but now, I can earnestly say I am feeling them for the first time. It is easy to turn on the TV and watch the iconic footage on repeat all day today and feel a poignant penitence. It is somewhat more difficult to regain the innocence that I started losing that day and lost a little more every day afterwards. But, with the help of God and good people and bicycles, the tides have turned. And, perhaps for the first time since 9/11/01, I feel better than I did the last time we were told to never forget.sunset

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.