Monday, November 28, 2011

On zombies and chili.

I'd like to tell you about my experience at the Terlingua Chili Cookoff, but first I need to explore America's current love affair with the brain-eating undead known as zombies.

Zombies: your loved ones back one last time to make that one horrible Thanksgiving in '83 that lives in family infamy look like game night in the church basement. 

There are two sides to the zombie narrative, if you will. The zombie side: the mindless, gore-fueled grossness of something that was once beautiful, now rotten. And the human-running-for-one's-life side: the side that must grab a sawed-off shotgun or a Waterford crystal paper weight, whatever's convenient, and send those mofos back to whatever netherworld first summoned them. The human side definitely has a pissed-off air about it, doesn't it? And that's where I begin.

We're at the end of 2011 here. The sun spots are going nuts (confirmed by a lovely tour of the McDonald observatory telescopes the other weekend- everyone should go!), people are out of work and protesting and being pepper sprayed for it (which makes them more pissed-off), and to top it off, we're going into an election year. But not just any election year, oh no! This election year has once-dead politicians and/or unnaturally immortal individuals (Newt, Perry et al.) grabbing headlines. Meanwhile the image of the Shepard Fairy "Hope" poster seems to be tattered and torn on a building's plywood facade somewhere on the wrong side of tracks of Detroit, just after the apocalypse hit town. No one's buying a cool graphic design of change this time around. Shit's about to go down, y'all. 

I'm just saying people are angry and they're not going to take it anymore. 

Which leads me to the Terlingua Chili Cookoff. 

So, in the zombie equation, when it comes to politics and protests and law and order, I think most people would imagine themselves on the side of the humans-- the ones fighting the brain-eating zombies. Makes sense, right?

Down at the Terlingua Chili Cookoff, I'd say the folks there would find themselves having more in common with the undead numbskulls emerging from the dirt. 

Things I saw at the Terlingua Chili Cookoff: a modified Astrovan, it's top removed to resemble a driving boat with the words "SHOW US YOUR TIT" spray-painted on the back (just the one?); a sleepy-eyed drunk guy named Manny driving a Hummer in a circle handing out mini-beers; someone's great-grandma topless, fat oozing down and around her flaccid boobs, dancing and posing for photographs with strangers like it was baby's first day at school.

Thing I didn't see at the Terlingua Chili Cookoff: Even one bowl of chili.

Let me try to explain, if I can get this right, how this whole cookoff fiasco started and maybe then I can paint the picture of how it became, in my own words, the world's foremost "Skankapalooza."

So the Terlingua Chili Cookoff has an illustrious history. At least if you are a Phelps kid from Dallas, HOME OF THE WORLD'S FIRST CHILI'S RESTAURANT! (which was located IN LAKE HIGHLANDS. A point of pride for Lake Highland-ites), and you frequented Chili's as often as we did (mostly because they allowed gaggles of teens and pre-teens to pile into hunter green booths under faux Tiffany lamps and get free refills on soda all night, and because IT WAS IN LAKE HIGHLANDS, parents didn't have to go to far to pick up said teens to make curfew). There in that WORLD'S FIRST CHILI'S was row upon row of what may now be referred to as, but at the time was revolutionary, "flair," most of which had to do with this weird chili cookoff out in the desert of East Jesus.

The real story is that a humorist H. Allen Smith challenged a chili aficionado, Wick Fowler, to a chili cookoff in the desert of Terlingua in 1968. The two wacky guys were having fun! And it just happened to get covered in a major magazine.

From a chili website: "The results of the first cookoff were reported by Gary Cartwright in an article in Sports Illustrated, February, 1968. According to the legend, there were three judges. One declared in favor of Smith, one declared in favor of Fowler, and the third judge declared it a tie and required everyone to return a year later to repeat the contest."

Oh, ho ho ho! Hilarity and hi-jinx! Nothing to see here, officer! It's all perfectly silly and tame fun with chili... or so you would think. 

It's just, I'm pretty sure no one was prepared for the reckoning of Krazy Flats.

First of all, of course it's "Krazy" Flats, right? Because the "C" in crazy makes it NOT CRAZY ENOUGH. I wish it were "Krazee" just to fuck with me. Like it wanted to pick a fight. Bring it, Krazee. Bring. It. 

But anyway, Krazy Flats. 

According to the Krazy Flats website, (where you will not see any topless senior citizens, which I think is a LIE and MUST BE STOPPED) the Flats are were the spectators of the CASI Cookoff go. (There are 2 cookoffs, 4 miles apart from one another that weekend. CASI is the one I attended.) The actual chili cooks retreat to a place called the Old 320 area by the stage, just beyond the EMS tent. 

The rest of the folks, the ones who are there to take their tops off (only if you are a woman) and drink themselves silly (open to both sexes) retreat to this circle of hell I now know as "Krazy Flats." 

Please keep in mind that as a spectator to the spectators of Krazy Flats, I did not spy any chili, nor did I see anybody else spying anybody else's chili, either. So really the "spectator" moniker is a bit overblown. I think I heard the term "Chili Heads" and I think that suits the crowd I witnessed much better. Like, you know, they love chili and they probably even cook up a batch during the couple days they are there, but they are really more connoisseurs of chili cookoff environment. They are there to espouse the traditions of their fellow chili brethren, with or without a bowl of red nearby. In other words, these are people who like to get drunk, drive around in Mad Max-modified vehicles and tell girls to take their tops off in the desert near Mexico. Chili Heads.

I'd like to say here that no one, not once, violated me in any way and 100% of the people in attendance seemed pretty darn happy about the nuttiness around them. I am obviously a prude, white-bread rookie when it comes to this brand of fun. I'd also like to say that I'm sure there are plenty of respectable, gastronomically-gifted folks who cook chili fully-clothed when they attend each year's cook off, and then retreat to their giant motor home of luxury when the going gets weird. And I'm also sure these same behaved party people also make chili that will knock your socks off and praise Jesus at the same time. I did not see said people. I can only report on what I saw. And what I saw sure did feel pretty rapey to me. 

(Rapey: the atmosphere portrayed in such cinema classics as "The Accused" or "Taxi Driver." At first it just seems seedy, but at any moment it could change and be a nightmare for any women involved. See also: college bars, the creepy West Stacks of SMU's Fondren Library, and wherever Ben Roethlisberger hangs out.) 

One example of this adverb would be the gentleman who assessed (correctly!) my bra size and said I could have a t-shirt if I just took off my current shirt. "Nothing's gonna happen that you don't want to happen, ok? You just go back there and we'll help you get into a t-shirt. My wife takes off her top. It's no big deal. All breasts are beautiful, we like to celebrate them here." 

Or the fact that I was wearing a shirt and refused to take it off caused cat-call after cat-call and so much commotion that at first it was comical, until it just-- it just really wasn't. 

There was also the incident, that I did not personally witness (thank god) but saw later in a photograph, of a young chubby topless woman suckling the breasts of the aforementioned senior citizen topless woman while men stood around and cheered. 

So back to zombies.

You live your life. You do good. You make people laugh and then you leave this world a little better place. Mr. H. Allen Smith and Mr. Wickford Fowler cooked some chili 44 years ago and I'm sure they got rip-roarin' drunk and everyone had a great time! So a tradition begins, innocently. Then it all gets turned around and the next thing you know, people are invoking your name as the reason they must party like the metal cover band talent at a Bat Mitzvah in the wilderness. 

Alas, we do not know how things will permutate through time. 

One year there are guys hootin' and hollerin' about how there's "no woman qualified to cook chili," and the next thing you know, the women have gone done taken off their tops to show you what they're really qualified for! Which leads to the idea that it would be super cool to alter cars for party surfing (put chairs on the roof! make it half a convertible!) and let's get out the ATVs (I cannot trace the timeline on how this evolved, please don't ask me to), which leads to an EMS station where the workers explain that "this year's pretty tame compared to other years. A couple of years ago, two brothers got really drunk and started beating each other with hammers." Then, BLAMMO! You have the chili cookoff of today that resembles very little of its roots and yet remains...alive...somehow.

But really, is this chaos any different than our current reality of arresting journalists, hiding secret bank loans and Congress declaring pizza a vegetable? 

I'm telling y'all, as Kim Catrall's character famously said in "Big Trouble in Little China" when she was being held captive in an underground lair by Chinese mafia-slash-dragon sorcerers, "All is strange."

So zombie lovers, get your fix! Now is the perfect time to indulge in that genre! Because here we are, a nation in the midst of great change with a population on the verge of something if not big, then definitely noteworthy. 

The zombies are HERE, folks!

It's just that some just might be a little less metaphorical than others. 

Monday, September 19, 2011

Pardon our dust.

I moved to the desert in the middle of a drought.

The old-timers are saying this might be like the drought of the 1950s and it might not rain again for five more years. All I can think about is my friend Jim who told me he hadn't been out this way in years, "And of course, back then the desert was a rose garden."

Last night my friend Juliana noticed the light is changing. "It's got that golden tone to it now," she said. Summer's ending, today it was in the 80s all day, and that means the rainy season has passed.

"Oh yeah, that's it. That's all the rain we'll get," Juliana said. 

"What does that mean for us?" I asked.

"I means to pray we'll get snow."

Oh, I know this feeling.

Growing up in Dallas I was two classes ahead of my brother in school. When I went to elementary school, I remember road construction expanding lanes, adding bridges, causing headaches. It ended when I went to Junior High, where it began again in front of that school. Of course, the same thing happened in high school and in college. When I went to SMU, they tore up Central Expressway for all four years of my university experience. 

"God, Paige. Construction just seems to follow you," I remember my brother saying. 

My brother always seemed to catch the tail end of it, when things were beginning to come together, the plan was apparent and the whole thing was practically wrapped up in a bow. Not me. Potholes, traffic backups, the concrete clutter of all the debris; all the flotsam and jetsam that occurs from tearing up one road to build another right on top of it and all the delays those bring, they were always- have always been- right in my way.

The big news is, right on cue, they're tearing up the streets in Alpine. Steamrollers, tar trucks, flag men, gravel and dirt, it's sort of second nature to me now. I guess you could say I'm an early adopter-- most of the time against my will.

So, I don't know, the drought, the construction, this all seems second nature to me: Make due. Be resourceful. Wait a little longer to bloom. Conserve. Reserve. Protect. Proceed with caution.

What will it be like when the desert is a rose garden? God knows if I'll ever see it, even though my friends and family tell me to just believe it will. That seems like a bunch of hokey shit that is based on no empirical evidence to date. But what the hey! I'm a dreamer who loves pink and glitter, right? (Yes, but

I think part of the problem is this congested mindset keeps me from acting decisively, unless it's an act of defiance or desperation (like this little move of mine). I keep waiting for everything to line up just so. It seems that's when I've got it in my head that it'll be OK to pounce like a kitten on my prey. All this makes me a late bloomer. I don't jump in unless forced. I was never that tweener in the bikini at the pool party, plugging her nose and giggling, "You *better* not push me in, boys! You better not!"

I've always assumed, perhaps mistakenly, that if someone wants to push you in, they don't need encouragement from you to go on and do it.

You know, when I lived in New York, it was maybe a year after 9/11 and my sister had died and I was just not doing well. Just not at all. I was working for this horrible woman with a bad weave and a bipolar mood disorder who would scream at me constantly and my eyesight started to blur in my left eye. Then it just stopped working & I pretty much went blind on that side. So I went to the doctor and they immediately ordered me to get a CAT scan. "You have all the signs of a brain tumor," the doc told me.

"Yeah, I don't have a brain tumor. I'm just seriously stressed out."

"Well, still, you should prepare yourself."

"Sure I should," I said with a roll of my eyes (eye). "Whatever." (I was most likely hungover.)

It turned out I did not, in fact, have a brain tumor and I was just seriously stressed out. (Vindication!)  

And, by the way, the doctor told me, did I realize I lacked peripheral vision?

You know the phrase, "what are you waiting for? An engraved invitation?" This was the universe's engraved invitation.

Of course I lack peripheral vision! Anybody who's known me for 10 minutes can tell you that! 

But I gotta say, it was nice that it was being pointed out to be so literally because I was pretty confused and without direction at the time. You're my boy, universe! Fist bump!

Makes you wonder about those guys in the Bible who saw a hand writing on the wall. Old-Testament God wasn't exactly subtle (burning bush? tacky!), but the disembodied hand story is almost like he threw in the towel and was like, "JESUS, MARY AND JOSEPH (WHOM YOU HAVE NOT MET YET), WHAT I'M TELLING YOU NOW IS THAT YOU ARE SERIOUSLY FUCKED. DO YOU GET IT OR NOT? CHRIST!" 

My strange diagnosis was a good reminder that I have a tendency not to take in the whole picture and just zoom in on the one option in front of me and if I can't have that, I go wonky (or, in some cases, blind). There's more than what I can see. There's more just to the side of me, just out of my reach, and it could be vast. I keep forgetting that.

A couple years ago, after watching this couple, who are friends of mine, weather a million storms and come out on top, I told the wife, "God, you know, you guys make me see that you don't really have to have your shit together to be in a good relationship." (In hindsight, that didn't come out as complementary as it sounded in my head.)

But my friend was a good sport and knew what I was trying to say. 

"God no, Paige! You've just got to jump right in and hope for the best!"

You know, just outside Alpine there are hours and hours of roads untouched still by construction. And luckily, out here, the vista views always surround me. From the tip tops of the clouds to 30 miles in every direction and not always in my sight lines, I am enveloped in the experience.

I don't necessarily need to see it to know that it's there. 

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The tarantula that loved me.

Tarantulas and Love. While it's not peanut butter and jelly, they go together better than you think. 

Try and move past the fact that they are hairy monsters the size of a grown woman's palm and weigh as much as a damn hamburger patty. No, let's forget that for now. Let's think about love. 

See, tarantulas live most of their lives underground. Except once a year when something clicks deep inside the males' furry, creepy little hearts that says, "I gotta find THE ONE." It's like a Sex and the City episode without the bad puns. 

In fact, says some scientist on the Internet, 

"The males will continually search for mates until they run out of energy or until a female eats them."

Ain't that the truth, sister. Ain't that nothing but the dang truth.

So, yeah, these male tarantulas, they start out on a vision quest, searching for something to complete them, something hidden somewhere in the vast, arid desert mountains. Something that drives them to ramble on with no clear ending point and no guarantee of success-- they just know they have to go. It just feels right. 

Wait a second. That sounds a little like me. 

Oh shit.

So apparently me and the tarantula guys are simpatico; which is real sweet and all, but this does not make me feel any better reflecting upon the fact that I walked into my house at 1:30 a.m. last Saturday to be greeted by a crab-sized tarantula hanging out on my living room wall. 

Now let me tell you a little something about the movies:

In the movies Jason Bourne jumps from a bridge, sprains his leg, winces, gets up, and continues his chase. 

In real life, Paige walks in her Dallas condo's courtyard at 8 a.m., falls between two stupid, flat rocks, and sprains her ankle so bad that she can't hear or see straight for about 10 good seconds. Then her breathing goes shallow as her vision returns and, this is when she's like Jason Bourne, she hobbles up the stairs to elevate her leg and call her mother crying. 

What I'm trying to tell you is you may see something in the movies or maybe you imagined something in your confident, precious little head, but it doesn't mean that's the way it will go down in real life. (Tell this to your children, my pupils. Let the generations learn.)

For instance, just a few weeks ago, when I walked into my new home and realized I had not called to turn on the electricity or water and that the place was filthy dirty even though my landlord swore up and down he paid someone $100 to clean it, my mother began to worry. And at some point that weekend she asked me, "Aren't you nervous about finding a tarantula in your house?" 

This is almost an exact quote of what I answered back:

"A tarantula? No way. That won't bother me! They're harmless! They don't bite. No big deal."

Cut to a week later. I had just driven in from Marfa where I'd seen David Garza play (who kept coming up to me to talk. "I think he thinks you're someone else," said my friend Kirsten, especially after he says he's sorry he didn't bring any CDs he could give me. "I don't care. Shut up and go with it," I told her.) and afterward we headed to The Museum of Electronic Wonders and Late-Night Grilled Cheese place, where vintage TVs glow and gourmet grilled cheeses abound. There I met a lovely woman named Tigey, who is known for wearing silver horses' asses as earrings and never shies away from voicing her opinion. Basically, I was having a terrific night, and the drive back to Alpine was so pretty and clear and easy that I was feeling pretty great about life in general.

Then I walked in.

I immediately spotted Mr. Tarantula because he was like a new thing in my living room; a painting or a sculpture, and that was unexpected. I certainly didn't remember leaving a HUGE, BLACK ARACHNID when I left earlier that evening. This was a welcome-home surprise and he was taking up a shit-ton of wall space. It took me approximately .08 seconds to identify the humongous spider and assess the situation. So here's what I did: I screamed.

Petey, my dog, btw, was just chilling on the couch. I think he was happy to have a friend to potentially play with. For Christ's sake, the thing was just big enough to get away with playing tug-of-war with my dog & his toys and maybe even win. 

So I screamed, then I hyperventilated. Then I picked up the phone and woke up Genie in Dallas. Because that was a rational thing to do. Then her husband got on the phone and tried to talk me into getting it down with a broom, but I was scared it was going to scurry off under my couch and I wouldn't be able to live here anymore. I would have to abandon my furniture and my home and take my dog and leave West Texas forever, never to return. And during all this the tarantula and I were kinda staring each other down, and he was saying, "Your move, bitch." And I was like, "nuh-uh." So I hung up the phone and did the only thing I could've possibly done at the moment: I went next door and woke up my neighbor so he could catch it.

Please keep in mind this is Alpine. The restaurants close at 9. Really late-night gas stations close at 10. My neighbor was sound asleep and peaceful when I knocked on his door, close to tears. 

"What's going on?" he said, the door cracked.

"I'm so, so sorry, but there's a tarantula in my house and I'm terrified. Can you help me? Please?"

There was a pause. "Yeah, now's about the time they migrate," he said. "I'll be over in a minute."

Now, the rest is pretty simple and this post is much too long as it is, but suffice it to say that my neighbor Jeff is my hero. He caught the tarantula in a big, plastic cup and released it outside and didn't point and laugh at me (or even yell at me for being a sissy) once. He did say this, though, "You know, in all my 30 years out here, I've never once seen a tarantula in someone's house!"

That struck me as odd. Then, when I told my dad the next day about it, he said something similar. "In all my years in Laredo, I've never heard of one inside a house!" (This was after he laughed and told me he used to love to catch tarantulas as a kid. Weirdo.)

The next day my hero neighbor explained to me the details on the male tarantula's love migration. 

"So the females live their entire lives underground, but the males will come out and, about this time of year, they'll start walking. And it's like an internal compass is guiding them because they'll walk almost in a perfectly straight line looking for their mate. So what I'm guessing happened is that he was on his path in a straight line and it led right up to your door and he walked right in and was headed out the other side but he couldn't find the exit, so he crawled right up the wall," he said. 

"By the way, I'll be by to fix the weatherstripping on your door today." 

So I've been thinking about this, this strange phenomenon of a tarantula hiking its way in a straight line through the desert simply to land at my back door (and then under my door and up my wall). Listen guys, let's face it, I moved out here to change my life, and part of that change meant the hope for meeting new men, but this is NOT what I had in mind. I bet the tarantula and I are of similar minds on this one. That is, if they think, and god help me but I cannot deal with the idea of them thinking. My friend Janie said this of the tarantula, "He was looking for love in all the wrong places."

It's all so silly, but still, it's odd, no? So I'm taking it as a sign that I'm charmed. Or bewitched. Something like that. That little (HUGE) guy found me while on his life's quest. I wish he hadn't, sure, but he did. So let's reframe the horror and make it into some teen goth girl's Wiccan dream. Hooray! Love spiders! Maybe this is foreshadowing of a real love that is also headed for my door. Someone who also is looking for love, doesn't bite, and is sufficiently huge. Spider Man, where are you?!?

And as my neighbor Jeff left my house with a cup full of tarantula at 2 a.m. that Saturday morning, I asked him, with no uncertain sense of panic and urgency, "So what do I do in the meantime to keep other tarantulas out??" 

"Put a towel up against your door stop. It'll keep the bugs from getting in."

So, to the magical love of my life that will one day appear at my door: I hope you don't think it's too weird that I've got about eight towels shoved up against each door in my house at the moment, and probably always will. 

Just consider it West Texas weatherstripping to keep out crawly wayward souls and lovesick desert spiders. Consider it charming. And DON'T EVEN THINK ABOUT TOUCHING IT.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The dirt and the sky.

I've been trying to figure out what to write since I got here. I can feel another post coming, but until then, there's this: what I have learned so far, is that in Big Bend you can look up at the beauty of the sky, but you can never, ever take your eyes off the ground.

First off, opened-toed shoes here are a joke. I don't know how you could walk around in them without your feet becoming completely gray from dust. And oh! The dreaded goat head thorns! They are like beige Medieval mace hiding under rocks. Petey is still trying to dig one out of his paw. And today the plant that grows them was described to me. Holy cow! I've seen a couple! I thought they were vines growing melons*, they are so big. But they do look sinister. What's a lush, green sprawling plant doing way out here? It's up to no good, I tell you. Beware.

And then you must look down because the red ants, which are about the size of your knuckle, and they are everywhere. What might be mistaken for bike tracks in the dead grass in a city are actually trails made by these fuckers. THEY MAKE TRAILS. And they don't make mounds, oh no, not in West Texas. That would be too easy. They burrow deep into the earth and emerge from sinister looking holes that, dad says, go three and four feet down into the colony. It's like the fucking matrix underworld down there. He and I walked around with Amdro killer when he was here and sprinkled their nests with tiny yellow nuggets that they'll deliver to the queen to kill her.

And it makes me wonder, what on earth is down there, beneath my feet, beneath this dry dirt? Because all I can imagine are millions of long, red ants. But it doesn't seem to bother anyone else, it's just normal occurrence here. And, truth be told, I'm getting used to it. Plus I have my Amdro. "Now, your job isn't to kill every red ant in Alpine," dad said. (That's what he thinks.)

And of course there are snakes and scorpions and for all I know, chupacabras out there, so you must always be looking down as you walk. Always. I told my mom that the landscape is insane out here and it makes me wonder how humans ever were able to settle in this place at all.

Then you look at the sky.

When it rains, the storm rolls across the horizon like a wall cloud of dark smoke and, especially on the first rain, the wind kicks up more dust than water, so a giant ball of orange dirt forms in the atmosphere and slowly rolls across acres and acres with a definitive beginning and end. It's an awe-inspiring to see. And the rain here smells different, too. It's a mix of dirt and water that hangs in the air for hours, even if the rain is miles and miles away.

Then there's the night sky. Night here literally drapes down like a velvet curtain over everything. And it happens at such a pace, it's like a parent who has quietly shut the last bedtime book of the night, whispers goodnight, and exits the room of her dozing child. The blackness seeps in through a sieve at the tip top of the rounded globe straight up above your head and the inky darkness slides down the sides of your periphery vision very slowly, like a cracked egg. And as it drips down, it eats away at the dark navy hue that was the night sky (the color most of us city dwellers would consider midnight), and continues, engulfing the deep purples until it has spilled over the last of the light the sun left behind.

Maybe I can describe nightfall like a the puff of a picnic blanket as it's shaken out to its full size, then gently glides down to the grass below-- if that makes any sense. It's the most calming transition I've ever experienced and it's stupefying to think I've spent so much time on this planet without ever seeing the night fully make its entrance. That guy is a scene stealer. Not to be missed.

Which reminds me, in a way, of those ants. Because they also move down, down, down into their dirt labyrinth below us, filing in and spreading out below ground. Really, they're just a mirror image of what's happening overhead. In this landscape, it's all about the sky above and the ground below, and you best not forget either one.

I'm getting a great refresher course in Life 101: there can't be beauty without ugly, just like there can't be light without the dark. You cannot move forward without first figuring out where you stand. Apparently it's easier to grasp this out in the country because you see it on display everywhere. Remember, we're told that the devil fell from grace because he loved god so much he lost himself. This desert reminds me you cannot lose yourself for a moment if you want to survive. I think we forget this stuff in the city. We're too busy running around on concrete that we forget the basics of how the world works, the next thing you know, we've created Hummers and Affliction t-shirts. And didn't the Bible warn us of this too, my children?

Yes, beauty surrounds me, so much so that I haven't quite stopped gasping or saying "Wow" on my long drives to the center of nowhere. But danger is out there too, and the combo is making for a very powerful, present experience so far.

"Everything out here will either sting you, bite you or poke you, including the cowboys," said Ty. "So watch yourself."

Warning heeded. Now get rid of those sandals.

*later I learned I was looking at coyote melon, not the deceptive sweet fern-like plant that produces goat head evil.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Fear: Now with solar flares!

Two nights ago I settled myself into bed, exhausted and ready for sleep. And just as my head hit my pillow, I realized I'm actually doing this. By "this" I mean, leaving my family and a group of friends it took me seven years to accumulate to move to a place I've been to once. And then I almost threw up.

So much for sleep.

This also happened last weekend. I was in Deep Ellum and my group walked to a bar through the urban setting, I looked up at the Dallas skyline lit up and framing everything I know, everything I'm used to, and for a millisecond I couldn't breathe. My heart skipped a beat and I felt like I was drowning.

Tonight my mother asked me, "So, have you had any 'what am I doing?' moments yet?"

I just laughed maniacally. I guess this is what it feels like to run away with the circus.

Listen, I am full-steam ahead on this decision to point my wagons west but still, I can't help but be occasionally and violently felled by waves of fear.

But that's to be expected, right? (Can I get an amen?)

And yet I don't remember these stomach drops I'm experiencing, the kind you get when you ride over that first crest of a roller coaster, back when I moved to Atlanta or New York, even London. So what the F, already? I love to sleep! And, additionally, I hate to throw up! So....?

Welcome to my life. This has been happening to me pretty much since my new boss told me I got the job a few weeks ago. "I guess you feel like the dog that caught the car, huh?" He said with a laugh over the phone, and I looked down and noticed my hands were shaking.

"Do you think it's because I'm older now, that's why I'm so fearful?" I asked my friend Genie.

"Well, I do think as we age, we tend to have a greater understanding of risk," she said.

As a teen I couldn't wait to go on roller coasters. I spent entire summers at Six Flags upside down and backward, in the air and plummeting back to dirt. And my absolute favorite was the tower that took you up to the top and paused, then with a click, dropped you straight down. And Lord, if I didn't love a spinning pit that stuck you to the wall.

Well, guess what? I hate that shit now. In fact, a couple years ago I went to the State Fair with my friend and her boyfriend and the b.f. convinced me to go on this horrible loop roller coaster, kind of like the pirate's ship that swings back and forth, but this one went upside down. There was nothing cute about the heaving yell that rose like a dark incubus from my gut. Instead of a light and giddy feminine "squeeeeeee!" the sound that I emitted was more like a flat and sustained "gahuhuhhhhhuuuh." I couldn't look at my friend's boyfriend in the eye after that. I don't think he could look at me either.

Look, at some point my adult risk-analysis gene kicked in, and it would really rather prefer a nice Malbec than dance with death in the hands of a carny.

And yet, that's exactly what I've done, isn't it?

So everytime my mind settles down, I have those weird Dr. Who moments again, when I feel the past and present and future colliding inside my brain and I realize that I'm moving, as my sweet niece says,"far, far away." Then my head spins and I feel incredibly mortal and I hold my breath so that I don't freak out. And it's terrifying.

What the hell am I doing? Where the heck am I going? Will my dog be bitten by a rattlesnake?!

And I hear my mother's voice again, "I mean, you've only been out there once."

It's in these moments I like to blame the solar flares.

Let me explain.

Genie says she first learned about solar flares in elementary life science class, which makes me a little sad because my own children's life science class will learn about how dinosaurs walked with man on an earth that is only 5,000 years old and be taught that Adam and Eve were always fully clothed, even when bathing, because of Jesus. But I digress.

Now, what we know about solar flares is that they emit something like 1/6 of the energy of the sun and after a couple of days of bouncing around in space, that energy hits our atmosphere and screws up electronics and satellites and stuff.

But let's all put on our hippie-dippy do-rags for a moment (the one you haven't washed since Woodstock, and not the lame Woodstock from the 90s. The real deal, dude. You know the one.) and pretend crystal deodorant works and the smell of  nag champa doesn't automatically put a drug-sniffing dog on edge. Basically, let's be one with the earth, if you will.

Because, lookit, solar flares will blow your mind!

Take this paper from the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta that says, in a nutshell, solar flares make people feel bad, then people decide to dump their stocks because they "attribute their feelings and emotions to the wrong source... Specifically, people affected by geomagnetic storms may be more inclined to sell stocks on stormy days because they attribute their bad mood to negative economic prospects rather than bad environmental conditions." Basically, people thought they were sensing something was afoot in the market and they dumped their risky shares. But they were wrong, it was the solar flares jamming up their systems.
A geomagnetic storm can make people feel bad enough to shake up the system around them permantely. For example, the rates of heart attacks and stroke after a flare increase-- that'll shake you up. And the number of people admitted to hospitals for depression rises as well. Solar flares make people feel sad, or at least pretty icky; enough so they'll actually try to do something about it.

Case in point: February 17 saw the biggest sun storm in four years hit us. Less than 10 days later, a street vendor in Tunisia set himself on fire protesting his government. The Middle East blew up in revolution and I crawled out of my skin and decided to uproot and move to a dusty, West Texas town. Coinicidence? Yes. BUT STILL.

Solar flares.

Think about it.

But it's not over yet..."The sun's 11-year cycle of activity, driven by tangled surface magnetic fields, will hit its maximum in late 2013 or early 2014. Magnetic messiness will peak around that time and prompt nasty solar storms," writes National Geographic.

So for the next few years, don't worry! Just go ahead and bet on the fact that you're going to feel itchy for change and that might lead you to do something radical and somewhat irrational. S'coo. It's the sun's fault. Ride the waves, man. Or as my freshman theatre professor always said, "let it wash."

And when the panic of your future freaks you out, that's OK too. Think of it as a forced meditation. We're supposed to live in the moment, right? Well, nothing puts you squarely in the moment like never having seen the town you're moving to and being too busy to ruminate about the past you're leaving behind.

In Eat, Pray, Love that girl took almost an entire year to center herself, learn to be fully present, and move forward. All this has happened to me in the span of  one month. Bish, please. I got this. Bring it on.

But I will say this, folks: thank god for Epsom salt baths and liquor. Because, let's be honest here, those are pretty much the best things going for keepin' me afloat.

Please do NOT tell that to the sun.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Context is everything.

Let's play a game.

What is this?

OK, how about this?

Give up? I bet it'll all become clear with this:

You guessed it! It's my new home for the next year!

This is pretty much the most I've seen of it. Unless you count this guy:

You may ask yourself, what room is that? Or, where is that built-in located? Or, perhaps, that giant wall of windows, what does that divide? And you would be right to ask those questions and I would also tell you, you've got to stop asking so many questions.

West Texas is on island time, mon. And you've got to go with the flow.

It's like this: I got my job, which I'm super excited about btw, and now I need to find a place to live. But the amount of time I've been given to pack up my life and move to a remote, dusty town is so limited, I have to just pick a place based on pics from the Interweb. Except that most places in Alpine and Marfa don't really post their pictures on the Interweb.

So I ask a local, hey, where do I go to find a good apartment? And she points me to the Alpine Avalanche, which rocks, and I find this listing for a two bedroom apartment, $500 a month. Listen, at that price I'm already sold. So I ask my friend, "Will you go take pictures for me? I'll bribe you with anything you want." "Yeah, sure, no problem!" And a couple days go by and back in Dallas, some thirty-thousand dollar millionaire has already lost and regained his fortune and now has an Astin Martin and a prostitute, but I still don't have pictures.

"Hey, so, any chance you got to take those pictures?" "Oh! Yeah, totally gonna do it."

But this woman is an artist and she's busy in her studio, as she should be, so that's her priority- which I totally get. And a few days go by and we have a tornado warning here in Dallas and a wall cloud pretty much forms over my house so I have to take my dog to the Equinox gym, where the VIP locker men's locker room has retina scanning technology (thank god! When, I ask you, will they install DNA testing technology?? That inner sanctum must be protected!), and I huddled with strangers in the women's locker room as the power went out and they told us to cover ourselves with the hand towels. But-- exciting news!-- we survived.

And yet, still no pictures.

So now I turn to my future co-worker, who is also so awesome and willing to help and he says "no problem!" But a couple days go by and there's no pictures and I ask again, so he goes out and shoots the front of the place for me.

Hey! It's cute! An adobe duplex, not so bad. But what about the inside?

"Well, the landlord's phone was down all day, so I couldn't get in."

Oh well! My pal Nancy inspects the photo and declares it perfect. I'm at peace... sorta. I still would really like to see that interior.

So I ask the landlord to take pictures. He's so nice, and he goes to do it, but when he gets to the house, his camera's not working. I get a call, "Hey Paige, I tried to take pictures for ya, but my camera was out of batteries." His son is totally going to take the photos for me though, he says.

So days go by and I write to my future co-worker "I'm never going to see this place, am I?" And he says, "Oh ye of little faith, I'm sending you photos right now!" WHAT?! I'm nervous and excited (which seems to be my perpetual state of being at the moment) and in come the photos.

They are terrific on detail, but detail of what I'm not quite sure. Does my kitchen actually have cabinets? That remains to be seen. How big is the living room? Who knows! Is there even a toilet? It'll have to be a surprise!

But none of that matters. Honestly, it doesn't. I'm sure it'll have all the requisite home amenities. No matter what it is, it's mine. Remember, I rented it sight unseen. "You know what? I've got to live a little!" I told my landlord when I pulled the trigger on my deposit. Hell, I'll make it cute. And my co-worker did tell me "it has a lot of potential, it just needs a woman's touch." Guess what? I'm a woman! I have a touch! As Tim Gunn has been known to say, "make it work." This apartment is just like I'm on Project Runway and I've been given three yards of felt and some duct tape and I have to make a dress for Pippa Middleton. GO! I can do it!

So, yeah, I have no clear picture of where I'm moving in a couple of weeks. But once I get it fixed up I'll take pics (preferably full room shots) and show you guys. Then the mystery of that glass wall will be solved, once and for all.

But my poor landlord. I've called him so many times so far. My fear is I've terrified him already. So I told him, "I'm so sorry to keep calling, but I'm really stressed out and the pace of life here in Dallas is just so much faster. I'm sure once I get down there I'll chill out."

He laughs and says, "OK." Which I'm finding is standard answer whenever someone like me baffles you down there.

So the moral of the story is this: despite the fact Far West Texas is in an extreme drought at the moment, and surrounded by raging wildfires from all sides, the people really are on island time. So chillax, won't you? Grab yourself a Lone Star. Shit'll get done when it needs to get done. And people are happy to do it for ya in the meantime.

Just don't expect it tomorrow. Or possibly ever.

But it's all good in the meantime, folks. Just look at that view.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The couch-surfing cowboy.

It all started with the cowboy on my couch.

Ty Mitchell, a complete stranger to me at the time, had told his friend Ginger, who told my friend Nancy, that he was headed to Dallas to audition for (yeah, I know) Dallas.

"Welp, I guess I'm gonna haveta get a motel room," he said.

But Ginger was having none of it. In West Texas friends bend over backward to help a guy out, and that's exactly what she did. Though backwards bending was really unnecessary in the case. Because Ginger called Nancy and then Nancy called me and she asked me if I wanted a cowboy on my couch. And when Nancy Newberry offers you a cowboy on your couch, you better damn well do it.

Only problem: the man was a complete stranger (city people are taught as children about "stranger danger," a lesson I have never forgotten, nor allowed me to move past my fear of windowless vans.)

Oh, and the other problem: I only had one bedroom. Hence the couch-crash idea. Which is really uncouth for a Southern hostess to allow. Guests, we are taught subliminally from the time we are tots, must be pampered just so; it is particularly lovely to set a carafe of water by their bedside, for example. Couch surfing does not offer itself up to chilled carafe-ing.

Nancy could tell my hesitation. After all, she's a nice, Southern girl too.

"Listen, he's a cowboy! Cowboys don't care! He'll be fine on your couch!"

*shudder* *crickets* What would the neighbors think?!? (P.S. My neighbors? A waitress, a truck driver, a hoarder of Whataburger sacks, and an emaciated skeleton man.)

"Paige. It'll be an adventure. You'll have a blast. Trust me. ...Besides, it's always a good thing to know a local in Marfa."

She added the last part as enticement. I had never been to Marfa, but Nancy had a house there and I'd always wanted to go. A real Marfan who could give me street cred (if there is such a thing in West Texas)? Now that sounded good. ...Besides, it's not really that hard to get me to do something. Carrot + Stick = you're golden. And most of the time you can leave out the carrot. Plus, quick backgrounder on Nancy: she rocks. So, you know what? Why the heck not!

Now, the way my brother, Craig, remembers it, I called him up and said I had a Marfa cowboy coming to crash at my place and would I like to meet him and grab a beer. He did. This is what he had to say:

"I've met a lot of cowboys in my life, but I've never known one as energetic as Ty."

This, of course, is hysterical. Ty is a tall, skinny thing who walks slow and talks slower. He rolls his own cigarettes almost without having to look and can sit in one spot for hours staring at the dogs sleeping in the dirt outside. He eats his BBQ with his pocket knife, tells a good story about gettin' drunk, and continues to be quietly exasperated by the idjits of the world. He can spin a good yarn and, boy, has he lived a life, but hmmm, "energetic?" Energetic is what I would use to describe a cowboy dancing backup in a Madonna video. That is definitely not Ty.

"Yeah," my brother says. "Most cowboys say few words and when they do, they're well chosen."

Let me tell you about Ty's words. When he was 17 and he ran off to Marfa the first time to follow a girl going to Sul Ross, somewhere along the way he started running guns across the border, then he mended his ways, worked on ranches, construction, I'm guessing pretty much you-name-it, and along the way he married twice, and had (according to his stories) approximately 1100 girlfriends. He flirts relentlessly, referring to all pretty ladies as "darlin'" and he just shines when he's asked a million questions from city folk like me.

Ty currently runs the Lost Horse Saloon in Marfa that might have the best damn BBQ I've ever tasted, ever, EVER, which I swear to god made a tourist weep (no lie, I was there). "I'm sorry," she said. "This is just the best barbecue I've had since my daddy died 7 years ago." And Ty thanked her kindly and invited her to sit with us. And did I happen to mention he's an actor? He's worked with some of the best, including being directed in a scene by the Cohen Brothers with all the stars of True Grit.

"I told them, there ain't no way cowboys ever annunciated their words like that, it wasn't natural. And Joel said to me, 'How many Oscars have you won?' So I shut up and annunciated them, all right," said Ty.

He's also lived in a haunted house. Yep, he said his daddy built a house from the ground up and would buy antiques and architectural remnants to finish it. Bad idea, apparently.

"That place just wasn't right, ever," he said. "I mean, you'd be standing there and plates would fly off the shelves and crash on the ground, or a chair would move across the room. One time, we looked on the wall and there was blood flowing from it. Bright red blood dripping down the wall."

"Oh my god! What did you do?"

"I mean, what can you do? We just put up a mirror to cover it up."

Which makes me believe it would really suck to haunt a cowboy. Poor evil ghost, eternally bound to terrify tenants only to find it's landed in Far West Texas where stoicism runs so deep, babies coming out with a shrug.

So Ty and my brother and I drank beer and laughed. And he smoked about a million rolled cigarettes and then it was time to leave the bar. Ty's truck was parked on the opposite side of the block from my car, but I noticed he started to follow me. All my radar systems went off. And it takes me until this cowboy is literally holding my car door open for me to realize that he was ACTUALLY WALKING ME TO MY CAR JUST TO BE NICE, which hasn't happened in quite some time (if you couldn't tell by the universal sign for astonishment: ALL CAPS).

And so yes, he crashed on my couch, in his jeans, no less --I don't think cowboys wear pajamas, but don't quote me on that just yet-- and in the morning when I asked him how he slept (in jeans, on the couch), he said, "Darlin' I'm used to sleeping in a bed roll, so that was about the most comfortable sleep I've had in a long time."

And when he called me later to tell me he was leaving town and thank me he says, "Now, anytime you need a place to stay in Marfa, you got it."

Which would be prophetic, since about two weeks later, randomly, I overheard my coworker talking about extra tickets she had to a concert in Marfa. And when I called up Ty to ask him if it'd be OK if I really did crash with him, he really was, as Craig said, energetic.

"Come on down, darlin'! I'd love to have ya!" He shouted into the phone.

And that turned out to be the weekend that changed the trajectory of my life.

So really, I've got to thank Ginger, who contacted Nancy, who contacted me, to ask if I could let a cowboy named Ty crash on my couch. And then I need to thank Ty for actually doing the couch-crashing.

And no, I'm not moving for Ty. I hope you didn't think that was the point of all this. But if it hadn't been for Ty, I wouldn't be moving and I can tell he's going to be an amazing friend. I'm not moving for anyone, I'm moving because I want something bigger- a new take on life, a new viewpoint, a slower pace and nicer people. Ty was just the first person I met from Marfa and then circumstances just fell into place. It was kizmet that way, I guess.

Jesus. I hate to think where I'd be right now if I hadn't said yes.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Backstory: Life-changing moments happen when you're sipping wine in the fancy room.

It was a Saturday evening about five months ago and, once again, I had nothing to do and nowhere to go (world's smallest violin). I decided to hang out with my parents because they were having a guest over and dad said I would like her.

You could tell this guest was new to socializing with the Phelps, because after mom and dad filled her wine glass, they directed her to the fancy room: the living room with the expensive couches the dogs aren't allowed on, Limoges tigers and the silver matchboxes mom was so intent on becoming a collector of (does four make a collection?). And there we perched, awkwardly.

And we were chit-chatting blandly when suddenly I pop up as the topic of conversation as if I'm not in the room, though I am clearly in the room-- I'm right there by the brass floor lamp that magically turns on when you touch it.

"We never worry about Paige," said my father. "She's always got a plan."

"Yes," my mother chimed in. "She'll set her sights on a destination and she'll have a job lined up and an apartment and a way to get herself there without any help from us."

"As soon as she's got a plan, off she goes," dad laughed.

And bam! It's like the teal and purple pheasant decorative accent serving dish on the coffee table is speaking to me: Girl, you've gotta get a plan.

Get. A. Plan.

Before I continue, let's get something out of the way now: Effexor, Lithium, Pristique, Celexa, Wellbutrin, Cymbalta, Abilify, Nortriptylene, Prozac, you name it I've been on it. But this is not about my brain's long-running sideshow. Hell to the no. I'm just pointing it out because at that time I was in a melencholy that I couldn't shake, god knows how I and my trusted Dr. Z tried.

And suddenly I realized it was because I had no plan. But I could change that.

Now we're going to jump back in time a bit, back to when I lived in New York in 2002. I had been living in Atlanta until 2000 and was bored witless. I got laid off from my weird, secretary/party planning job at a publishing company who's main title was a pub called Varmit Hunter and I knew it was time to go North. So I found a job in New York, found an apartment on Craigslist, found a guy named Bob who wanted to share a U-Haul with me, and landed in the Big Apple.

And it was there that I poured out my excitement about living in Manhattan to my new roommate, an Isreali agoraphobic chain-smoker named Inbal.

"I'm so excited! I've always wanted to live here! I mean, Broadway's here and the museums and there's so much to do and so many interesting people and it's always been my dream and..."

"You'll hate it in three years," she said, and exhaled smoke.

Thus, Paige's Rule #1 in Life: Never Live with an Israeli Roommate.

Granted, Inbal was freakishly good with her prediction. Two-and-a-half years in and I was toast with a side of bitter. But I have to say that 2001 wasn't exactly a banner year for anybody in the city (see: September 11) and then almost a year to the day later, August 10, 2002, my sister Brooke, who was 36, was killed in car wreck back in my hometown of Dallas.

Shit sort of soured for me after that.

I'd like to say I had an infinite amount of self-knowledge and poise and was able to accept that it might be time to abandon NYC to head back to a city where I could afford an apartment with windows. A place where I might be able to live without a revolving door of 14 roommates in three years, including the last one, whom I'm pretty sure was a prostitute. (Who, I'd like to point out, walked around the shoebox we called home completely nude. "Are you uncomfortable with me walking around naked?" the Prostitute asked. "Yes," I told her. So she started wearing a thong.) But I didn't.

Coming home finally came down to a phone call home where I was bawling (again) but this time instead of politely pleading with me to give up the NY ghost, my mother Ordered. Me. To. Come. Home. Right. Now. And as soon as she said it, it was like this well of relief opened up in my chest and I could breathe deeply for the first time in two years.

So I went home to Dallas and, after a hiatus to regain my sanity, I got a job as a society reporter with a weekly column. Later I worked at the city's shelter magazine as a contributing editor, and then moved on the big daily newspaper as a staff reporter.

But that's where my Dallas non-plan, that was working pretty OK as a plan, broke down. I was laid off in 2008 (death of the American newspaper, don't know if you've heard about it) and, despite all my protestations that "I was not my work and my work was not me," I found myself in an existential crisis that Bristol Meyers Squibb has yet to conquer.

Then I turned 35.

Thirty-five and I realized something that rocked my world: thirty-five was the age my sister was when she lived the last full year of her life.

I was living her last year.

This fucking hit me like a Mac truck. So I panicked. But once I stopped panicking, another semi was waiting for me: I looked around at my non-plan life in Dallas and realized that if I woke up on my birthday at 40 working at the same job with the same condo and the same melancholia, I was going to have a breakdown so epic it would make the lead on the local news. People named Krystal were going to win Emmys for reporting on that shit.

Luckily, I had just forgotten that I'm really, really good at making a plan.

So there you have it: the conversation I overheard that set me on this path.

Which, don't worry, I'll get into later. But right now it's midnight in Dallas in early June and my condo is a mess with boxes and packing table and bubble wrap because I'm packing up my entire life and moving to a part of the world that I've only been to once, and for which I have pretty much zero frame of reference.

I've never lived in a city with less than 1 million people, and now I've rented an apartment, sight unseen, in a town of 6,000.

But I'm excited! Because, you see, this is all according to my plan.