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.