Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Fifty percent of my heart.

My very first-boyfriend-ever used to get drunk on Boone's Strawberry Hill then run into traffic to try and kill himself.

That was disheartening.

Jump ahead in time to my NYC boyfriend (who kept reminding me he wasn't my boyfriend), who held my hand as I told him of my sister's funeral that I had attended only days earlier. He stopped me, still holding my hand, and said, "I hope you don't think this will bring us closer together."

I know people are complex and timing is everything. This is just the way the cards have fallen. It is what is is. But it's still exhausting and it's part of the reason I wanted to move out here and get off the grid. I needed a break from my heart landing in the E.R.

Let me paint you a picture:

I remember in high school, while at the first Lollapalooza concert in Dallas, people all around us were taking their patchouli-smelling blankets and using them as catapults to toss people 10-feet in the air then gently catch them again as they came back down. It was obviously a great idea at a rock festival where alcohol and psychedelic use was heavy, and so my wasted friend Amy decided this was the experience for her. Strangers in vintage Levi's and suede vests loaded her in a blanket, tossed her up, and up and up and up (she was super tiny), and then, because time is all goofy when you're stoned, promptly forgot about her.

Everyone holding the blanket literally forgot they had tossed someone in the air only moments before and somehow simultaneously looked down at their hands in unison and thought, "Dude. Why am I holding this blanket?" And walked away.

Amy hit the ground with a thud.

This is a good analogy for my love life.

Now, contrast that to my late sister's. After Brooke's funeral we held a reception at our house. And because Brooke's death was so sudden and shocking and she was young (36, my age now) and single, and because we were all upside down and unmoored, what was supposed to be a somber reception somehow turned into a massive cocktail party.

Let me stress this was not my family's doing; in fact I can assure you, we, every last one of us, did not know what the hell we were doing.

Hundreds showed up and packed our house from wall to wall. Personally I remember asking people if they'd like a gin and tonic, completely numb but smiling sweetly; a perfect Southern Belle offering magnolia blossoms to those crossing the River Styx. None of us Phelps understood where we were in the space/time continuum or what was really happening, so we just did and said what we were used to doing; we were friendly and accommodating, all the while deeply mourning, fluctuating through our individual stages of grief. I'm not sure how appropriate our behavior was, but it was all we could manage at the time, and it got us through.

So at Brooke's funeral reception (cocktail soiree?) there were a gaggle of her former (and current) boyfriends on hand. All of them devastated. All of them teary, broken-hearted, in my family's house mulling about forlorn from room to room. It's a large split-level house with tons of narrow stairs, my childhood home, and felt like I was constantly bumping into one of those damn men on the damn stairs.

There they all were, weepy and talking to one another, like something out of a Fellini scene. And in the dining room, which is at the very center of my parent's house, lay a book my dad had found at Brooke's, a collection of love letters and photos from her past relationships, a scrapbook diary of sorts, that people were flipping through while chuckling and telling anecdotes about Brooke and each of her hapless men. ("Remember the time when two guys found out she was dating them both at the same time and confronted her on her doorstep: 'It's either option A or option B,' they told her. 'It's Option C: none of the above!' She said and slammed the door.'")

The takeaway: Brooke was a heartbreaker, which was always relayed with a twinkle in the eye and, thanks to me, a gin and tonic in hand. And as the night wore on, one thing became very clear to my siblings and I: the prettiest and most popular among us had died.

Now what?

Back in Dallas, after New York, after Brooke, I was a reporter and used to pal around with a famously sartorial drunk. We would hit the parties and the galas and the fundraisers and drink ourselves through a sea of fabulous people and nutty conversations. His dress was always impeccable: custom suits with special flourishes, crisp white shirts monogramed at the pocket, wonderful hats (sometimes with plumes!), cufflinks that could be displayed at MoMA. And then there was me, stylish but disheveled, bloody, bitten cuticles, ceaselessly digging through my purse for my wallet or a pen and paper, spilling my drink. One day the satorialist said to me, "May you become a little more vain." I turned to him and shot back, "May you become less so."

You see as far as I was concerned, vanity and pretty were one in the same, and that was Brooke's role. I equated those qualities with modeling contracts, vapid women, and boyfriends who wore braided leather belts who cut the of fat off their fajitas at Tex-Mex restaurants. "Pretty" was a sad fall from grace, directionless and defined by boob size and liposuction. Pretty was prescription drugs and lies. Pretty seemed ugly. I did not want pretty.

And yet in Dallas, pretty is everything. So...?

When we were little and brother had bad dreams, he would climb into bed with me and we would touch our feet together so that we both knew we were there and were safe from any nightmares. And when we talked, we would divide our hearts into pieces.

We couldn't grasp how you could love one object/animal/person with 100 percent of your heart and another, separate object/animal/person also with the same 100 percent, so we'd say of our pets, for example, "I love Betsy fifty percent and Ginger fifty percent." That way each pet got exactly one-half of the whole. Fair and balanced. 

I think this magical thinking grew out of a childhood spent in a tense, blended family where half-sister and full-brother roles were clearly defined but never discussed. We could all feel the divide between us but were never supposed to acknowledge it. We were loved equally, we were told often and emphatically, and yet, in all honestly, looking back, whether real or imagined, it felt off

And here's the thing: I now realize I've taken that magical thinking into adulthood. I've somehow held on to the notion it is OK for someone to love you with only 50 percent of their heart for just 50 percent of the time (or less), because they have another half waiting for something or someone else that's equally important. I've told myself no one can really do 100 percent and somehow I've made that my status quo.

With this thinking, I've managed to hold on to "pretty" is one thing because "smart" is another and never the twain shall meet.

And what's funny is that not only is there a gaggle of girls out there, gin and tonics in hand reading this saying, "That ain't right!" Science is also kinda telling me the same thing.

Lately I've been reading about quantum mechanics, which, you see, "can... have several identities at once." Or so says the 2012 Nobel Prize-winning physicist Serge Haroche. Basically (really, really basically), the reason Dr. Haroche and his peer Dr. David Wineland won that Nobel is that their experiments have shown us ways in which we can finally measure all those weird little photons, previously unmeasurable,"like marbles in a box." And you know what they found?
"Dr. Wineland compared the electron to a marble rolling back and forth in a bowl. 'At some instant of time, the marble is both on the left-hand side and the right side of bowl at the same time.'”
In the end the most basic state of being is to be everything and everywhere at once. In fact, that is the most precise, accurate measurement there is at a quantum level, and remains the case until the object starts to choose one distinct path and becomes part of the world we can see.

I love this. And I love to imagine that in the beginning, at the essence of who we are and how we were made, there was no division where one sibling was the popular one and one was the arty one and one was the athletic one, etc. We, each of us individually, were all those things and more. Until we chose not to be.

Brooke was bitchy, sure, (as a flight attendant she once told a very famous passenger who wanted more cookies "This is a 747, not a 7-11,") but she was also kind. We were told her neighbor's little girl cried for days when she found out Brooke died, she just idolized her so. Yes, she was my definition of pretty, but so is the view from the top of Mt. Livermore, staring down at the rest of the Davis Mountains. Pretty is the left side and the right side at the same time.

I know now we can love 100 percent of 100 things 100 percent of the time and people can love us back 100 percent. We can embody qualities that are both complementary and divisive within ourselves. I love my sister Brooke but I'm also still really, really angry with her for leaving us the way she did.

What do they say? God is in the details? Listen, God is the details.

And my first boyfriend who used to chug Boone's and try to kill himself every Saturday night also asked me to marry him.

How quantum.

Monday, September 24, 2012

99 problems.

When I first moved to Alpine I grabbed a copy of the town newspaper The Alpine Avalanche and sat down to read all the ins and outs of my cute, new little community: So-and-so's daughter won an award in the pre-law department at her college; the first-ever taco festival was a great success!; Billy and Janie Sue are engaged, and a letter to the editor likened a city council member to Goebbels.

Wait, what?

Contrary to all logic, I've learned reactions in small towns are not at all handled in direct propotion to the size of the problem.

Quick lesson in Small Town Math, e.g. the reasoning used to arrive at conclusions having nothing to do with any sets of scientific, mathematical or economic principles practiced in the urban world. (Example: for every square foot of dirt in your front yard, Small Town Math (STM) calculates there is room enough to chain a dog to an inanimate object.)

Using this STM, the best way to calculate the volitility of any issue in a rural community ranging from "your dog is on my lawn!" to "X organization/person/business will RUIN this town!" is to add up the population size and divide that number by the number of city council/chamber members/individuals and/or civic organizations involved in the dispute.

The answer will tell you how many vats of vitriol that will spew forth: higher numbers equal acid reflux; smaller numbers, hydrofluoric acid. (This is probably also the equation used to determine how much fuel is needed to propel a 100,000 ton rocket into space, it's about the same level of firepower in the end.)

Things can get pretty thermonuclear in a small town in a matter of days  hours minutes if the gossip tree is up and working. And you should know the gossip tree is never, ever not completely up and working to full capacity (Why? What did you hear?).

Now I am in Marfa, where the population size is much, much smaller and the personalities are much, much larger and scandal is ten times more el escandalo!

In fact, recently an anonymous group circulated a satire 'zine they named after a real genetic disease that weakens the connective tissue keeping a body together, which just happens to be named Marfan Syndrome. I won't get into it (lest I get drawn in), but satire is one thing and libel another, and a couple more issues of this newsletter (if there are more issues) might truly break this town down like its namesake disease. Hell, maybe that's exactly what they want.  Who knows?

So why is there so much bubbling up in a small town? Because there's just as much boiling over in a big town. It's scientific fact.

From NPR:
If you took 10 drops of water (not extra-big drops, just regular drops, I'm presuming) and counted the number of H2O molecules in those drops, you'd get a number equal to all the stars in the universe. 
This is amazing to me. For some reason, when someone says million, billion or trillion, I see an enormous pile of something, a grand scene, great sweeps of desert sand, twirling masses of stars. Big things come from lots of stuff; little things from less stuff. That seems intuitive. 
But that's wrong. Little things, if they're really little, can pile up just like big things.
When you live your life in the snow globe of a small town, this makes perfect sense. (Marfan Syndrome, says the National Institutes of Health, is a condition that is usually inherited; I think that's important to note.)

As a newcomer and former city girl, I'm too new to understand who was talked about and why what was said was said, and you know what? I don't want to know. I told someone, "I don't have a dog in this fight," which is an expression I've never used before moving here and one I actually loathe. I think subconsciously I took it up because it conveys the viciousness I associate with these microscopic mega-battles. (I'm living by the slogan, "mean people suck" and that will be that.)

And, for now, whenever I happen across a conversation about this topic, it is always spoken in whispers or vagaries and in close quarters. My high school theatre teacher always said the only reason people stand too close to one another is they are about to kiss or they are about to punch.

I guess it's a wait-and-see to find out which one will happen next.

I'll just open the local newspaper, turn past the six-man football results, and look in the letters to the editor section for references to engineers of mass-murder.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

An arm and a leg. But I just saw the leg.

Last week on my walk with Pete we crossed the railroad tracks and came across a leg.

It was a deer leg, not sure if it was a front or hind, but it was small. Half of it had been picked clean to the bright, white bone but the lower part still had fur and a hoof.

There's really no better reminder that you live on the edge of civilization than coming across a body part.

A lot is written about Marfa, the art, the restaurants, the hipsters, the hipsters, the hipsters...the hipsters. But beyond the predictable line about "a tiny town centered in the middle of nowhere on a vast desert plain" (or something similar), not a lot is communicated about how far out there we really are.

A brown chihuahua used to hang out on my porch, a flea- and tick-ridden little stray who was terrified of me but would hang around anyway. Then one day he stopped showing up. Sure, the one dog catcher in town could've picked him up, but more than likely something else got him: coyote, javelina, snake bite, hawk, feral hog, bobcat, fox, any number of things will eat your dog here at night. Especially one small and sick. I believe that's called "thinning the herd."

No matter how much art or how many beef tongue sandwiches offered, people here live on the edge. As my friend Dirk says, "this is the island of misfit toys." And what makes this desert really special is not the people passing through town or the girls in top knots with platform sandals at the bar, but the people who have come here to learn and adapt and be completely OK with the edge of wild.

And not "wild" in the way that the new "party like a rock star" cliche saying is wild (which, in my opinion, heralds the death of the "rock star"), or "wild" in the bed-head tousled hair pinned into a messy bun is wild, or even the "wild" in the way my mother used to say it, "Those girls are WILD and you are NOT hanging out with them." No. I'm talking you need to be OK with a drive-too-far-into-the-desert-without-a-survival-kit-and-you-will-die type of wild.

For example, not too long ago, my coworker almost died. He owns land down in Terlingua Ranch and was down there when a monsoon rolled through. For reasons unknown to me, he hopped in his truck to see if Terlingua Creek was rising. It was and he got swept down in it. He sat in his truck for hours with the water rising, boulders and debris pounding against his doors until he realized he could just as easily drown in the truck so he opened the door and abandoned ship, in the middle of a moonless night in the desert.

He washed downstream until he could grab the edge of the creek and pull himself out. Soaking wet with no resources, he had to find shelter. During his aimless trek he said lightening flashed and he saw a pair of eyes behind him. Mountain lion, coyote or bobcat, he doesn't know, but something was hoping he wouldn't make it. But he did. He found an adobe ruin, crawled inside and waited out the storm and for rescue.

Needless to say, the guy was pretty shaken up.

But the funny this is, when I posted the story on Facebook, the closer my friends lived to the border, the more "meh" they were about the whole experience.

From Connecticut I got, "Holy cripes. Come move in with us. It isn't safe where you are."

But the folks from Terlingua were more nonchalant.

"Welcome to the desert," wrote one.

Author and journalist Michael Pollan was here this weekend as part of the 2012 Marfa Dialogues and he spoke to a packed house at the Crowley Theatre.

"There is something wrong with our assumptions of the natural world," he said.

Which is true. We approach the outdoors with thoughts, as Pollan said he first did, of Thoreau ("Simplicity! Simplicity! Simplicity!") believing bucolic Walden will show us on the meaning of life once we're able to live without pesticides and margaritas (Author's Note: I do not want to live in a world without margaritas). It's a bit much, that approach. But then again, so is treating nature as a giant X Games. Both are simply unrealistic.

Pollan said the urbanite seeking the full nature experience "can go to the wild, go to the woods, go to the desert, but my feeling is if they'd just go to the garden, that has a lot to teach us." Just getting outside and digging in the dirt does a lot for advancing understanding of how the land and animals respond to the elements. It is, as Pollan was saying, critical knowledge we've lost.

Take for example the perfectly innocent question asked by a young hipster before the Marfa Dialogues nature walk at Mimms Ranch.

"So, do you water the ranch?" she asked. She really didn't know.

"No, we rely solely on rain water, which is why the drought effected us so deeply," answered a very gracious Dr. Bonnie Warnock.

The young hipster's idea of land management must be rooted in suburban lawns with Bermuda grass and sprinkler systems. It reminded me of the time back in college when we visited the Grand Canyon. A friend knew a park employee there and he told us that very often tourists would ask him at night, "so what time do they turn the lights on?"

Living on the edge out here, the edge of the manicured, civilized world and the untamed natural one, teaches you things-- well, it teaches things to those who pay attention and leave the center of town every now again-- it teaches you to always know your surroundings, manage resources wisely, and understand the signs of danger so that you don't end up surprised.

Because surprise in the desert is a bad thing.

Just ask the deer who lost his leg.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Just because you can't hear them, doesn't mean they're not partying.

The Marfanoia began the weekend of July 4th, which also happened to be my first official weekend in town; I went to the Pueblo for some milk and there were throngs of young, hip people filling baskets with salsa, beer and meats. Aisle after aisle people were preparing for a good time and all I had was my scheduled was my organic milk purchase and a date with my couch.

The next day while getting a latte at the laundromat/coffee shop/ice cream parlor, a stream of people stumbled in hungover and over and over again told the tale of THE MOST EPIC PARTY EVER TO TAKE PLACE held at a house known locally as "the chicken coop" in which Beyonce and her crew showed up and danced with the locals until the cop (not a typo) showed up and tried to bust up the crowd, at which point the drunken party guests threatened to turn the guy into sausage.



Marfanoia, I should explain, is a term coined by a local guy named J.P. to describe the feeling a Marfa resident gets when they just know there's a cool party going on somewhere and you weren't told about it and have no way of finding out.

Marfanoia happens to the best of us (and probably plagues the worst of us). But it goes beyond parties and openings and, for me, digs a little deeper.

See, it's really not all that rare to casually bump into a guy in his 20s who is from California but currently living in Denmark, back in town to finish up his newest show, a series of handmade chapbooks exploring the cultural relativism of rural West Texas Latinos. And he's good looking.

In fact, I would say that's probably the most common thing that can happen to you here in Marfa.

Because right after you meet him, you'll meet a woman in her 40s who quite recently retired from a modern dance career, made name for herself styling movie sets and now is planning to open her own business. Plus, she's good looking. Or you'll meet a nice guy in his 30s, in town via a MacArthur Genius Grant shooting a documentary that will air on HBO. And you know what? He's pretty good looking. Or, hey, the people moving across the street from you? Don't be surprised when you find out they are the designers behind a well-known indie fashion brand. And happen to be good looking.

My point is that there are a lot of accomplished people in this town (incredibly good-looking, accomplished people) and I think part of the Marfanoia stems from an awe of the general prolificness of work here. (That's a word. I looked it up.)

Like when Fiest was here, I don't know if she was kidding or not, but she said she spent the day in Marfa writing songs and then performed one for us-- with full band and backup singers. She did that in less than 8 hours. I leaned to my friend and said, "That's nothing. Today I took a three-hour nap." I know when I said that I was not kidding.

Look, I understand now that when I moved out here originally, I needed a break. I was fried to the end of my fingertips; utterly spent. I went into hibernation. I needed to. You know what happens when you've had your heart broken 8 ways to Sunday? You want to sleep. You want to curl up like a fat, smelly bear in a cave and eat burritos and watch costume dramas while you look at the mountains. And then you want to climb those mountains, a lot of them, over and over, and celebrate with a burrito.

Thank god I moved to Alpine first and not to Marfa. Marfa is not where you go when you need to hibernate.

In Alpine I was at my least creative, but I was content. For some reason, 8 months curled on my side watching costume dramas didn't bother me one bit. I had to detox from toxic people, toxic places, toxic air. Meanwhile I hiked, I met people, I observed. Did I mention the costume dramas? Because, honest to God, I've seen every single one catalogued on Netflix.

Then, slowly, I began to wake up.

So many people I meet here blew up their life and headed for the Far West Texas desert. This place really does call to people. I am not the only one that dropped everything and moved to the desert because it felt right. People are here because their spouses died suddenly or they had scandalous affairs with the true loves of their lives and had to book it out of town. People come to the desert on dares from stupid ex-boyfriends who said they weren't brave and end up staying. People come here because they don't fit anywhere else. People come here because they fit in too well everywhere else and want to be left alone. But most of all, in Marfa, people come to produce work; some of it extraordinary.

So, right now my particular strain of Marfanoia is that I will never live up to my fellow citizens' talents. I feel like I'm the Gap version of a Peter Beard photograph; maybe instead of half-naked Peter, furiously writing while inside the carcass of a crocodile, I'm Sarah Jessica Parker with a cutesy stuffed snake and a hair bow, giggling. The people here get shit done. They get published. They record. They go to Africa and come back EVEN BETTER LOOKING. Meanwhile, I've learned to cook tagine meatballs and desperately need a facial.

But I'm trying not to beat myself up too much (which I am really, really good at, btw. I wish that was considered a legitimate talent because I'd win).

Did you know that bears take three weeks to wake up from hibernation? And that is totally without the added fat and lard of copious breakfast burritos, which probably adds weeks or months to grogginess. One study by a guy who I'm pretty sure is the Swedish Chef said this of awakening bears, which I think is pretty apropos:

Øivind Tøien, author of the study, said: "[Bears] have an almost-normal heartbeat when they take a breath. But, between breaths, the bears' hearts beat very slowly. Sometimes, there is as much as 20 seconds between beats."

My heart is still beating slowly too. Some days I'm sure there are more than 20 seconds between the time I breathe in all the darkness, cynicism and anxiety and remind myself to be present and content and that I am loved, and then exhale. But here I am, still breathing.

I have a long way to go before I'll be fully awake. And some days lately I just feel old. But I am waking up. I am. I'm even pretty sure the GREAT EXISTENTIAL CRISIS OF 2009-2011 has closed up shop. Finally. It's been at least a few months (OK, weeks) since I've smashed a bug then ruminated over the meaning of life and what constitutes a sentient being. Progress!

I'm glad I moved to Marfa. This place will be good for me, I think.

I hope.

Now I'm just waiting patiently for my creativity to reappear, my thoughts clear up and for someone to invite me to a really sick party that ends up told and retold as local lore.

Friday, August 3, 2012

A natural resilience to fire, and other things I learned about myself this weekend.

I am a writer.

Or, I guess I should say I was a writer.

I was a journalist for years back in Dallas and I loved it. I loved meeting people and hearing their stories, sometimes good, sometimes bad. As a friend of mine from college said, “everyone has a book inside of them” adding, “it’s just that most of them you’d rather not read.”

I loved finding threads of meaning in seemingly innocuous details (hey, I have a BFA in theatre, I’m dramatic; it’s what I do). Like when a copywriter asked me why I liked being the home and garden reporter. “Because the way you decorate your house is a clue to who you are and who you want to be when you’re totally alone.”

“God, I’m never inviting you over for dinner. I’m color blind,” he said.

But I got laid off four years ago, and I’m not exactly known for my discipline, so here I am: a sometimes-writer who has forgotten what to say.

My creativity, even while surrounded by the majesty of this high desert, seems to have taken that long-past pink slip and decided it was a ticket to watch as much Masterpiece Theatre while eating burritos as humanly possible. That is to say, my muse abandoned me. Even selling my TV didn’t bring her back (because, let’s be honest here, everyone in Big Bend says they don’t have TV, but you all know everyone’s hunkered down anyway watching Netflix and Hulu on their computer screens. Same diff, people.)

Thank god I was accepted into Tierra Grande Texas Master Naturalist class of 2012. It has helped me remember that I don’t have to say anything at all.

"In a fire, not everything burns," we were taught. Along with, “not every tree gets to grow up.”
Over the course of the weekend we hiked Mt. Livermore and tried desperately to soak up the knowledge of The Nature Conservancy’s Associate Director of Field Science John Karges, Texas Parks and Wildlife Botanist Jackie Poole and CDRI Executive Director Dr. Catherine Hoyt. And what we learned from them sounded like prose flowing effortlessly to the page:

"Rattlesnakes can taste the air."
"Trees have living libraries, you just have to know how to read them."
"A worry of ravens is the same as a murder of crows."

Through these lectures I suddenly remembered that Mother Nature has her own language that hangs like fruit all around us. Everything she does serves as the template we use inside our own private worlds. Love and heartbreak, fear, vice, narcissism, humiliation, triumph, and perseverance, it’s all there, playing out in the natural world over and over serving as a sentinel for us, like the play inside the play of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

"This 'Tripod Tree' is an Alligator Juniper that has had its heart burned out and is still alive” or “males in the lizard family heighten their colors and/or do push-ups to attract the females” and "Most Texas rivers are dammed." (Remind you of anyone?)

What’s the old quote? “There are no new ideas, there are only new ways of making them felt.” Well, did you know that, like the wolf, the Grasshopper Mouse howls at the moon? Or that a female frog of one species will never respond to the calls of male frogs from different species?

The window into our behavior doesn’t come from laying on a couch endlessly answering, “Tell me about your mother.” In fact mysteries are revealed everyday inside the biologies of wind, rain, fire, plants and animals. "Fire makes its own weather, makes its own wind."

I’d forgotten that somehow.

So thank you Master Naturalist class of 2012. I am awake and aware again. I await your next move.

After all, “nature bats last.”

This essay appears in the August edition of The Big Bend Gazette.