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?


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.


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.


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.



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.


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.


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.


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.

Songs You Know by Heart: An Epitaph for Innocence

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

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

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

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

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

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

The world will never know.

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

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

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

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

The Jurassicre: An Epitaph for Our Tastes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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