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 lines up with your memory, 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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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On Style, Substance, and Selling Out

“hey dude,” the first Facebook message read. “your writing is hysterical. not a fit for what we are looking for,” says the second. “keep being funny!” This is rejection in the 21st Century. From someone who allegedly has a prestigious portfolio and track record. Who definitely has a catawampus profile picture that makes it seem as though his head is peeking at you from the side of the frame. It leers aloofly, unprofessionally, self-unawarely. This is the CEO of a company who still believes that hipness is won by breaking all the rules of social media engagement. By having a profile picture that goes against every rule of Headshots 101. By messaging job candidates via Facebook. That not capitalizing or punctuating is more real and more sincere than ascribing to the oppressively conventional rules of good grammar.

When pressed for what he was looking for, I was given the following answer: “your writing was funny but a bit too fluffy and not enough meat[.]” This is the plight of writers in the Buzzfeed and blog era. Though the prompt was comically brief and implied that it wanted a blog post worth sharing, that wasn’t what it wanted it all. It wanted someone who could tell and not show, who could prove that they’d spent longer than anyone else browsing the company’s website and regurgitating that information. The CEO wanted to be told “Yes, your ideas are all perfect. Let me retype them to show you how much I believe that.” In short, it wanted substance without style. In the case of a generically informational content marketing blog, substance is all-too-easy to come by. Read the company’s website and turn bullet points into two-sentence paragraphs. Insert pop culture jokes and YouTube videos and witty subheads. Repeat. To execute with style that rewards the few people who actually read them (instead of simply sharing on social media because they were paid or strongly encouraged to do so) is rare and cannot be taught or Googled.

Then there is another job that I do have, one whose style guide is wrought with pictures of bourbon bottles and Chuck Norris and a list of quaint, ‘gnarly’ words that we are encouraged to use liberally. The style is prescribed and the bonuses are insultingly arbitrary. Pop culture references are given preference over helpful information, speed is rewarded while careful consideration can only be exercised at your own risk. In short, it rewards style without substance.

One thinks about great works of literature and philosophy, and pieces of great writing that may not carry the same universality as lesser writing with greater ideas. Dostoevsky is imminently more readable than Nietzsche and no less profound; Fitzgerald’s worst is still more lyrical than anyone else’s best. Protagonists and poesy make philosophy bearable. Gatsby is remembered and taught because its style and substance cooperate in timeless alchemical bliss. Kierkegaard was smart, but gosh dang is he droll. Hemingway told his blunt ideas bluntly and his poignantly vulnerable ones similarly. To say “everything is nothing” is unconvincing. To end a riveting love story with “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” is rather more powerful.

If we want people to listen to our ideas, we must show and not tell. And if we want employees to be helpful and honest, we should not ask them insulting Catch-22s like: “Are you going to be equally excited whether you’re writing unattributed banal, programmatic content or creative longform pieces with your name on them?” The upwardly-mobile schmoozers are great liars. The honest folk with artistic integrity get fired. Fun times in Babylon, indeed.

One of the most painful realities for writers in the 21st Century is the conflation of heartwarming or Nihilistically-affirmative stories and ideas with good writing. 20 Things You Have to Do in Your 20s is almost inevitably poorly-written. And yet it will get more shares than the greatest piece of creative writing published this year. East Austin Man Discovers One Weird Trick to Get out of Speeding Tickets—Cops HATE Him! will get more clicks than something titled Pulitzer Prize-Winning Short Fiction: Read it Here for Free. So it goes.

Because I am known, at least in some vague sense, as a writer to those who still know me at all, I’m constantly forwarded things that I am told are great writing that I simply have to read. Sometimes they’re right. More often than not, they’re petty pieces with pretty ideas. Or at least ideas that I can understand why the person who shared them with me enjoyed. Never mind the difference between its and it’s. Damn the subject-verb agreement. Forget meter and rhythm and word paintings that make you want to bust out the pen and do some underlining. We want our untested sensibilities to be reaffirmed, not challenged. If Thought Catalog says we shouldn’t get married until we’re at least thirty and we’re sitting single and twenty six and full of bravado masquerading as cocksureness, their staff writer is the wisest sage of our times. If one of the rare Contrarian Conservative Blogs for Millennials says Being Married to Your Best Friend at Twenty Four is the Epitome of Bliss and we’re sitting next to our boo in a clean, modern home in the safe, bland suburbs, we’ve just discovered our new favorite author. Pandering sells, poetry gets forgotten, and Baz Luhrmann picks up the pieces.

Nota bene: there will always be a place for sentimental poetry sure as there will be a place for poetical self-loathing and unintentionally ironic embroidered pillows.

The ease with which one can cheaply imitate listicles and receive accolades from employers is deeply unsettling, to say the least. So is the revelation that your first employer achieved their professional stature not with preternatural competency but with ravishingly good looks and, by all accounts, even better sex. Your career is built on a foundation of sand. Then again, the pawns of a major tech company’s CEO approved the interview you ghostwrote on his behalf even though you’ve never met him and never will. Is that good writing or a pyramid scheme built on one-night stands? Is there a difference?

It’s easy to reassure ourselves that anyone who contacts you using Facebook Messenger and believes that regurgitated substance trumps rare style is not someone we want to work for. Or that artistic integrity ‘matters’. It’s especially easy to believe while enough of our helter skelter side gigs pay the bills and buy us hours in coffee shops. Surrounded by beautiful people and insulated from our unsympathetic bosses by the internet and thousands of miles, it’s easy to be self-important and defiant about what we will and won’t do. When we have to start drinking our coffee at home and our only human interaction is with cashiers working the graveyard shift at bargain-basement grocers, the notion of selling out loses its dreadfulness.

Post Scriptor: Lest you think me unfairly cynical, compare the sales figures of James Patterson and John Steinbeck.