"With the certitude of a true believer, Vellya Paapen had assured the twins that there was no such thing in the world as a black cat. He said that there were only black, cat-shaped holes in the universe."
-- Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things

Friday, December 30, 2011

My Familiar

The black cat who inspired the title of this blog is curled up next to me on the couch right now.  A second cat hovers nearby.  A third is munching food from a bowl behind me.  And a fourth is sleeping on a pillow near the fire.  The dog has retired to his crate for the night.

There are five animals living in this house right now (seven if you count me and and my husband too) all those mouths to feed, all those personalities to contend with, all those little bundles of warmth with which to snuggle.

But twelve and a half years ago when I brought him home from the shelter (May 1, 1999-- I still remember the date) it was just me and my black cat.  And it stayed that way for a couple of years until other pets began finding their way into our lives.

Gink (who is named after Dorrie's black cat in my favorite series of children's books by Patricia Coombs) instantly filled a void that really needed to be filled.  Although I still had cats and dogs who I loved at my parents' home, I had not had a pet living with me for all four years of college.  I craved one.  I don't plan on ever allowing that void to form again.  My life needs animal companionship.

This cat and I have been through a lot together.  Relationships, break-ups, scares, serenity, midnight trips to the emergency vet, and moments of gut-busting hilarity.  Gink spent the first six years of his life being a complete nightmare to most people and even when I pretended to be scandalized by his behavior, secretly I always loved it.  He was my bad boy.  Around age seven, he began to chill out.  He took up a serious but mostly peaceful guard duty job at my front window and developed a taste for Greek olives.  Instead of playing how-long-will-he-be-amused-with-this-toy-before-biting-me, we started singing duets while I showered and cuddling under blankets to read good books.  Although Gink still goes into attack mode for a select few humans (you know who you are) fewer things ruffle him now, and most people can't believe he used to be such a terror.

These days, with a demanding job, a long commute, a husband, and four other pets to care for, Gink doesn't get the one-on-one attention that he used to.  There was a time when I would come home from work, he would greet me at the door, and I would drop everything to scoop him up into my arms, rub his soft head, and ask him how his day was.  Sometimes he had much to report.

But despite my busy schedule and lack of time (always always not enough time) there are moments when the activity in the house grows still and quiet and I notice that Gink is next to me--  sleeping or snoring or stretching or sometimes just watching-- and I stop what I'm doing and give him a kiss and stroke his glossy fur and rub the white spot on his belly.  And it kind of feels like it's just the two of us again and I think about how much this black cat has meant to me and how much I still love him.

This is one of those times.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Happy Spring!

One Easter several years ago, my family had gathered at my parents’ house to spend the holiday together, hunting for colored eggs and eating yummy home-cooked desserts.  My niece, who was around five at the time, had a sheet of Easter-themed stickers (obviously meant to be used in the classroom), and she was selflessly giving one to each member of the family.

We proudly wore our gifts on our hands or shirts or foreheads, as the case may be.  After a few minutes, people started looking more closely at the messages.  Mine said, “Great job!”  My dad’s exclaimed, “Way to go!”  My brother wore the witty, “Egg-cellent!”  His wife’s said, “Hooray!”  But my cousin’s sticker, next to a picture of beautiful flowers, stated, “Happy Spring!”

While still a pleasant greeting, this one didn’t seem to be quite in line with the rest of the sentiments, and a discussion ensued about the need for such a sticker in an educator’s arsenal.  We laughed about the teacher’s hand gliding over all of the choices, hovering, hesitating.  Then, finally seeing the “Happy Spring” one, she breathes a sigh of relief as she finds the one sticker she can put on the mediocre work in front of her.

We decided there was a market for this type of product and suggestions were made for other useful sayings to put on stickers:  “You turned it in!”  “I can read this!”  “Not so bad!”  “I like your shirt!”

Since then, the term “Happy Spring” has become a euphemism in my family for “You’re an idiot” and we enjoy chuckling over it privately.

I’d like to stop my anecdote here.  In truth, I do have a point.  There is a reason why I wanted to share this story on this day.  It’s just not worth getting into on my little blog.  Let’s just say, that I would like to give a BIG “Happy Spring” to the state of Texas right now.  Due to their ignorance and idiocy, they are causing a trickle-down effect of many more “Happy Springs” to come.   And it’s very  disappointing.

Monday, August 1, 2011

4 months old

                                                  all legs
                                                  and floppy ears
                                                  soft yellow
                                                  and eyes that know

                                                  you frolic like a little deer
                                                  toss your lanky limbs in the air
                                                  bow & bounce
                                                  tumble & roll
                                                  grunt & sigh
                                                  there is a smile in your gait
                                                  as you trot away from me
                                                  with my sneaker

                                                  when you sleep you stretch

                                                  the jingle of your collar
                                                  is my gentle alarm clock
                                                  and I wake
                                                  to your inquisitive face
                                                  head tilted sideways
                                                  wondering how much
                                                  the world has shrunk today

Monday, July 18, 2011

Feeling a Little Batty

This weekend, for the first time in years, I went downtown and watched the bats emerge from the Congress Avenue bridge and swoop into the night in search of dinner.  When I stood down on the lawn, looking up at their silhouettes flitting this way and that against the dusky sky, I felt a sense of relief.  Without realizing it, I had been a little apprehensive about going, worrying that maybe the phenomenon had changed, that the additions of high-rise condos and the ruthlessness of time had somehow ruined it. 

But no.  The bats, and their audience, were just as I remembered them.   Spectators sat beneath the bridge on the grass on blankets they had brought.  Those on the bridge leaned over and pointed and gaped.  Party boats went by below, their guides commenting on the smell of guano and making jokes about how “this is the only bridge where it rains underneath” while the tourists squealed on cue.   There was a man trying to make a buck selling glo-sticks, a couple making out inappropriately and at least one crying child.  All was as it should be.

And the bats—the bats did their majestic dance down the river, rising and falling in one living, breathing cloud, breaking apart briefly and then coming back together, heading east as the sun set behind them.

Although the Congress Avenue bridge is famous for the number of bats that live beneath it, that is not the only place you can find them in Austin.  They make their home in several areas of the city and our neighborhood is one of them.  If we are outside at dusk, we can usually see at least one or two darting around in the sky above us.

So tonight, around 8:45PM, my husband asked me to come out to the front yard because there were a couple of bats flying around and he wanted to prove to me something he’s been telling me for years:  that if you throw a tennis ball up in the air near bats, they will dive bomb it.  It’s not that I didn’t believe him, I just couldn’t picture it.  So we headed out into the street armed with two of our puppy’s tennis balls.

And he was right!  Whenever we tossed the ball high into the air, at least one of the bats would swoop toward it and then veer away again.  They never actually touched the ball, but they came very close to it, as well as to us.  Once the bat even continued to dive bomb the ball after it had bounced and flew right under Mark’s arm as he was catching it.  It was really amazing to watch.

After a few minutes, though, we stopped.  I was worried that maybe we were being mean to the bats and Mark was worried when he saw one of the bats circling above my head for some reason, so we ended the game and went inside.  But I have to admit that it was pretty cool.  If you have bats in your neighborhood, and a tennis ball, and access to a rabies vaccination just in case, I suggest you try it.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Dwindling Funds Leave Wayside Wobbling

 There is no Miss Zarves.  There is no nineteenth story.  Sorry.  
Both have been eliminated due to budget cuts.

Recent budget cuts have created financial nightmares for school districts everywhere, and Wayside School is no exception.  The unique elementary school, which was accidentally built sideways in 1978, leaving it 30 stories high instead of 30 classrooms long, is suffering right along with the rest of them.  With funding cut almost in half, the educators at Wayside fear that the distinctive culture of their school will be lost.

Out of necessity, some teachers had to be laid off, including Mrs. Gorf, who no one had seen in quite some time anyway.  Other teachers, such as Mrs. Jewls, will keep their jobs but will be forced to cover classes on multiple stories. 

“I just don’t know how I’m going to do it,” Mrs. Jewls told reporters.  “All that running up and down the stairs is going to exhaust me.”

Mrs. Jewls also lamented that less time with her students means she will have to omit some of her more enjoyable lessons, including the ice cream unit.  “The kids all love finding out what each of their classmates tastes like as an ice cream flavor,” the terribly nice teacher explained, “but there just isn’t time for it anymore.”

Classroom teachers are not the only staff members affected by the shortage of resources.  The beloved yard teacher at Wayside is also facing unpleasant changes.  His time will now be split between three different campuses, Wayside and two schools which are laid out “correctly” on ground level.  Louis, who is on a first-name basis with all of the Wayside students, routinely gives advice to the kids and tells them stories on days when they can’t go outside.  And once he saved a little girl from falling to her death.  Now, Louis tells us, he won’t be able to provide that kind of one-on-one assistance.

“There’s just no way,” Louis said, “that I will be able to remember the names of all the students in three different schools.  And I can’t be counted on to catch falling kids anymore.  I mean, what if I’m at one of my other campuses the next time a girl falls asleep and rolls out of a window?  It’s just not feasible for me to get there in time.”

Despite the bleak outlook for Wayside School, the teachers are still optimistic that they will be able to maintain the one-of-a-kind atmosphere of the institution.  The students are simply hoping for more recess and less tuna surprise. 

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Danger, Danger Everywhere!

A veterinarian once told my husband, after he assured her that his housecat did not need a rabies shot, that ALL pets, even those who were indoors-only needed to be vaccinated because (and I quote) “a rabid bat could fly down the chimney and bite your cat”.  Instead of being terrified by this horror-movie-like visual, my hubby simply rolled his eyes and filed the suggestion in the same category with tsunami insurance for Iowa residents and life jackets for dolphins.  He still declined the shot.  Since his cat had almost died from a seizure following her last rabies vaccination, he decided to take his chances with the bat.

Since then, the vet’s warning has become sort of a euphemism in our household for the ridiculously implausible. 

Me:  “What did you do with that scorpion I found in the bathroom?”
Hubby:  “Took it outside.”
Me:  “How FAR outside???  What if it crawls back inside during the night and climbs up into our bed and stings me???”
Hubby:  “Oh yeah, and what if a rabid bat flies down the chimney and bites you?”
Me:  “Point taken.”

And we laugh and consider ourselves clever.

Well, recently, Hubby and I got a puppy.  His name is Uno and he’s AWESOME.  (See visual proof of his awesomeness to the right.)  Even though he is only 11 weeks old, he is already, hands down, the best puppy in the world.  No hyperbole.

Anyway, ever since we brought Uno home, the warnings, cautions, suggestions, and advice have been flooding in.  Apparently danger lurks around every corner when you are a defenseless little canine. 

On the one hand, we are told to be very cautious with our puppy until he is four months old.  He hasn’t had his rabies shot yet.  He is not yet completely immune to doggy diseases.  The ground is teeming with germs.  Parvo can live in the soil for up to a year.  He could step in another dog’s poop, lick his own paw and die a terrible death.  Best to keep him away from any area any other dog has ever or might have ever set foot in.  Yes, your best friend’s dog may be healthy and have all of her shots, but what if SHE has been around dogs who HAVEN’T?  Are you willing to take that risk?!?! 

On the other hand, we are told it is SO important to properly socialize our puppy before he is five months old.  He needs to meet other dogs.  He needs to experience new places.  Fears set in at 20 weeks.  He needs to be exposed to every type of surface, temperature, noise, smell, and weather condition.  He needs to be around cats, birds, squirrels, deer, horses, rabbits, and llamas.  He needs to meet humans of every age, size, gender, and race.  He needs to interact with people wearing hats, sunglasses, masks, scarves, vests, and hoop earrings.  How will you feel if your dog gets to be six months old and he is terrified of elderly Asian men wearing bow ties?!?!

It can be a bit overwhelming. 

Still though, we try to take it all in stride and find a happy balance between disease risks and socialization phobias without becoming paranoid parents. After all, the idea of a bat flying down our chimney or a rabid dog sneezing on our front porch is preposterous. 

Or so I thought.  

Last week I stopped into a pet store which, for the purposes of this blog, we will call MegaPet, to buy some chew-deterrent spray.  (It did not work.  However, this does not denote a lack of awesomeness on the part of my puppy – See second pic for further proof of his awesomeness – it instead denotes a lack of awesomeness on the part of the product.  This face can obviously do no wrong.)

Anyway, I was standing in line behind a woman buying a medium-sized, brown, cushy dog bed.  This was the middle of the afternoon and the store was nearly empty.  The only people around were me, her, and the male teenager behind the checkout counter.  It was a slow day at MegaPet.

While Teen Boy was swiping the lady’s credit card, she was reaching down into the plush recesses of her new doggy bed, when suddenly she said, “Oh!  I don’t think the bed was supposed to come with this!” and she lifted up out of the crevasse… a dead mouse.

Teen Boy and I just stared while Clueless Lady held the thing by the tail and said stuff like, “Looks like I got an added bonus!  Almost walked out of here without paying for this!”

I ventured to ask, already knowing the answer to my question, “Is that a dead mouse?”  To which she replied, “No, it’s a toy.  Looks real, though, doesn’t it?”  And I thought… yep.

Clueless Lady set the dead rodent on the counter next to my bitter apple spray, then, seeing my look of concern, thought better of it, picked the thing up AGAIN, and set it on Teen Boy’s cash register.  Then she stood there, cluelessly waiting for her receipt.  When she noticed that Teen Boy and I could not stop staring, jaws dropped, at the thing on his cash register, Clueless Lady finally got a clue.  She gasped and said, “Is that a DEAD MOUSE!?”  We both nodded.

Now I must admit, once Clueless Lady got a clue and realized that she had, in fact, been waving a dead mouse around for the past couple of minutes, she handled herself very well.  She demanded (and received) a new dog bed, thanked Teen Boy, and hastily escaped to her car, where I can only assume she got a huge case of the heebie jeebies and doused her hands in antibacterial gel.  Meanwhile, back in MegaPet, I watched as a very dismayed Teen Boy picked up the dead mouse with a dog food coupon, and threw it, along with the contaminated dog bed, in the trash.  I’m pretty sure MegaPet has no data on this incident whatsoever.

I left the store with my ineffectual chew deterrent and a bewildered expression on my face.  What boggled my mind more than the fact that I just saw a grown woman play with a dead mouse was the idea that maybe there was something to the whole bat theory after all.  I mean, if I had bought that bed for Uno and NOT rummaged around in it before bringing it home, he could have found the dead mouse, eaten it, contracted some horrible dead mouse disease, and gotten sick or died without me ever even knowing what had happened to him.  It was a sobering thought.

But still, you can’t live your life in fear.  Yes, there is danger everywhere.  There are diseases in the soil.  There are mean people in the world.  There are rabid animals.  There are poisonous plants.  There are fast cars. There are dead mice in dog beds.  There are germs, germs, germs on every surface everywhere.  But everything should be taken in moderation, including safety precautions. Our goal is to raise a healthy, well-adjusted puppy while avoiding becoming “the people who fear the bat in the chimney”.  And we do this by following a few simple rules.

** Keep up with regular vet appointments and vaccinations.
** Take puppy to safe, clean areas to socialize with friendly people and healthy dogs.
** Be cautious of high-traffic dog areas until puppy is older.
** Keep fireplace doors closed at all times.
** Thoroughly inspect all items purchased at MegaPet.

And I think we’re doing pretty well, because our pup is AWESOME.  Seriously.  Look at him.

Saturday, May 14, 2011


How am I supposed to wait 13 more days to bring this little guy home?

My life already feels incomplete without him.

Thursday, April 28, 2011


I wrote the following journal entry exactly one year ago, only about a month after I’d moved in with Mark.  It’s crazy how long ago that feels.   

April 28, 2010

I went for a walk tonight.
I was supposed to be doing school work, but I’d been cooped up in my classroom all day long monitoring TAKS, and I’d had a chai latte and it was just a really nice evening and I decided I needed to get out.  Mark chose not to come with me this time, so I set out with just my book, a collection of stories by Naomi Shihab Nye, and nothing else, not even a cell phone.  It was about 8:15PM. 
Taking a walk at this time of night without my phone is not something I ever would have done in Rosedale, but here it feels ok, and it was kind of liberating to get out of touch for a while.  I set off down Snapdragon and turned right on Bluestar, looking at houses and reading the story called “Lending Library” in my book, another tale of a cosmic conversation in a taxi.  (Naomi’s book is making me wish I had more reasons to take public transportation.)
When I got to the corner of Bluestar and Sundrop Valley, I suddenly wished I had brought my phone.  There, on the edge of a bush by the sidewalk was a momma cat and four adorable little kittens, three tabby and one (the littlest one) solid black, probably about six or eight weeks old.  Well, Mark had said no to a walk, but had he ever said no to kittens?  These were so cute—in that stage of toddling around, curious and a little wobbly—and I knew he would want to see them.  So I ran back the few blocks (revealing how truly out of shape I am) and got Mark.  He came back with me and we spent about fifteen minutes watching and playing with the little cats.  They were gentle and not wild.  I held two of them and only got hissed at, half-heartedly, a couple of times.  We’re worried about their safety and about them breeding more strays and considered talking to the owners of the closest house about maybe helping to get them fixed or something, but there was nothing to be done tonight, so we left them alone.  Mark went on home and I continued on my walk.
By then it was much darker and I could only read by street lamp, and there are not that many street lamps in our neighborhood of shady roads and many stars, but I kept trying anyway.  I am a slow reader as it is, someone who likes to stop often and ponder what I have read.  This just gave me more opportunity, often in the middle of a sentence.  Street lamp… “I’m never lonely.  And I’ve only taken a friend along twice.  But I always take books and find more books.  Say, have you read…”  Pause for darkness.  Porch light… “another one of my truly favorite books, Cold Oceans by Jon Turk?”  Darkness again.  Reading the story so slowly like that—a sentence here, a paragraph there—made me enjoy it even more.  It was about a taxi driver who had waited at the airport for Naomi (we are, apparently, on a first name basis now) for three hours when her plane was delayed, but his grumpiness quickly turned to friendliness when they started discussing books and he realized that she was friends with his favorite author.  He told her that Peter Matthiessen’s book The Snow Leopard changed his life, and ever since then he has worked for a year (earning money and living simply) and then explored for a year, and he listed all of the countries he had been to already living life this way.
I thoroughly enjoyed the story, but I enjoyed the spaces between the story (ever-increasing as I walked on streets with fewer lights) just as much if not more.  This neighborhood is definitely different from Rosedale.  The houses are all somewhat similar in that “master planned community” sort of way (I always wonder if the builders of these developments ever get to say in the process, “It’s all part of the master plan…”) and when the lights are on inside and you can see in, the rooms are… different… in a way I can’t describe, but this place certainly has its own individual charm as well, and I was finding it tonight.  The many stars that are visible… Orion, the big dipper, and other, smaller ones, I never saw on Ramsey.  The flowers everywhere, making us true to our name of “Wildflower Park”, specifically that big patch of buttercups at the corner of Hibiscus Valley and Chaska that I actually passed twice tonight when I decided my walk hadn’t been long enough yet.  The peacocks that you can hear kay-hawing out somewhere on the east (?) side of the neighborhood.  The fact that I can walk without my phone if I want to and still feel safe.  (Although I think I’ll start carrying it anyway.  Shady characters or not, I could just as easily trip and fall here as in Rosedale, and besides it is helpful for kitten sightings.)
In the shadows of my walk, while I was pondering the latest words in my book and waiting for the next bit of illumination, I found myself looking at the houses I passed, and feeling those familiar stirrings of envy for the big houses with their second stories and balconies and extra rooms.  Without even meaning to, I started to fantasize about cat rooms and more living space and a separate office and guest room, decorating the imaginary square feet with furniture and, naturally, more books.  When I realized what I was doing, I had to laugh at myself.  Mark and I could move into the biggest house in this neighborhood and have a separate room for every cat if we wanted to, and in the evenings after work, I’d still grab my book and my tea and my laptop and squeeze into the chair by his computer so we could hang out together.  Maybe all that space is overrated after all…
Eventually, I got close enough to the end of my story that I could no longer read it in disjointed segments, and I stopped abruptly and read the last few lines in a circle of light somewhere on Hibiscus Valley.   When I finished, I realized I was standing right in the middle of someone’s driveway and felt a little silly, wondering if they were watching me from inside.  After that, it seemed like the right plan to head home.  I didn’t really want to; I felt like I could walk around all night, enjoying the cool breezes, reading under street lights, and contemplating the idea of taking every other year off to travel the world.  But I had no way of knowing what time it was or if maybe Mark was worrying about me, so I made my way back to Snapdragon Drive.
By the time I arrived home, it was 9:20PM, and I had come to three conclusions.  I’m very happy with my new neighborhood, and I don’t think I would do well with the work-a-year, play-a-year lifestyle, but I think I’ll put The Snow Leopard on my reading list nonetheless.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Creepy Things

Recently I took a break from the memoirs and young adult novels I’ve been reading and picked up some short stories of the “creepy” genre instead.  First I read Horror Stories: A Spine-Chilling Collection, chosen by Susan Price, which was great.  It contained favorites like “The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allen Poe and “The Room in the Tower” by E. F. Benson (a story so creepy I kept checking behind me as I read it), as well as some eerie ones I hadn’t heard before like “Something” by Joan Aiken and “The Affair at 7 Rue de M—“ by John Steinbeck, which is about a sinister piece of bubble gum which takes on a mind of its own.

Next I read More Spooky Texas Tales by Tim Tingle and Doc Moore, which included modern versions of stories about such creatures as the chupacabra and “Skinwalker”.  It was only ok, but did have a few gems here and there.  One of my favorite lines came from “Screaming Banshee Cattle of the Night Swamp”.   In this story, a little boy is with his dad, driving across east Texas at night, and his father has just told him the tale of the screaming banshee cattle of the night swamp, those monstrous cows that look just like the rest of the herd until nightfall when they reveal their long sharp teeth and pounce upon human victims with piercing screams.  The boy, who only half believes the story, falls asleep, and when he awakes it is dark and his dad is pulling into a lonely-looking diner.  He tells his son to stay in the truck while he gets them some food for the road.  But not long after he is left alone, the night becomes frightening.  The wind picks up, the moon disappears behind the clouds, a storm rolls in, and the boy begins to hear a high-pitched screaming sound.  Terrified, he looks toward the restaurant for signs of his father and sees him, sitting at the counter, laughing and joking with the cook.  It says, “In the diner, life appeared normal.”

Such a simple statement, yet it holds so much meaning for me. 

One of my earliest memories is of a recurring nightmare I had, when I was around four years old.  In the dream, I am playing in an old red rocking chair in the back room of our house, climbing around on it and hanging upside down in it so that my feet point to the ceiling and my head dangles toward the floor.  Just a few yards away to my right, my mom and grandmother sit at the kitchen table, shelling peas into a metal pan and talking quietly.  To my left, I can see my pappy walking down the back porch, heading to the door to come inside.  The scene is normal, peaceful, right. 

Then, in an instant, everything changes.  No longer is it my pappy coming to the back door.  It is the thing, the monster, the creature, the phantom, and it is coming in to get me.  Suddenly, I can't move; I am trapped, upside down, in the rocker.  Suddenly, I can't speak; I try to call for help, but my voice is gone.  The nightmare advances in slow motion.  Me, trying desperately to move, to speak, to run… the thing getting closer and closer to the door, reaching for the doorknob, the doorknob turning… the panic growing inside me until I awake, drenched in fear.

The only thing about the dream that remains constant, is the scene in the kitchen.  Throughout my turmoil, my mom and grandmother continue shelling peas for dinner, utterly oblivious to my horror, and completely safe from it.  In other words, in the kitchen, life appeared normal.

Sometimes, when you feel creeped out, whether justifiably or not, you find comfort in being around others, in joining a group that knows nothing of your turmoil and carries on as usual.  There is the idea of “safety in numbers” and the feeling that nothing bad can happen to you if you’re surrounded by friends.  But other times… there is no amount of camaraderie that can protect you, no crowd that you can blend into to feel safe.  In times like these, the terror has targeted you specifically, and there is no way for others to rescue you because they can’t even perceive your danger.  And those are most horrifying experiences of all.

Sleep tight,

Sunday, March 20, 2011

My Trip into the Middle of Nowhere

When I first started college at UT, my knowledge of Austin consisted of the Jester Dorm, the part of campus that existed between 21st Street and 26th Street, and the Fiesta grocery store on 38th ½.  At that time, anyone who lived “off campus” might as well have resided in another world.  In 1995, Far West Boulevard truly seemed far away. 

In my senior year when I moved into an apartment on Enfield, my familiarity with the city had grown until I no longer feared such places as North Lamar and the Warehouse District.  But still, I couldn’t fathom why anyone would live south of the river and drive “all that way” to school.

After teaching for a few years, I moved into a duplex in central Austin, just north of 45th Street.  By then, I was an expert on Austin traffic and shortcuts, easily navigating the curves of 2222 and the one-way chaos of downtown.  But when people said things like, “Take Mopac until it ends and then turn left…” I became a little suspicious.  Did Loop 1 truly have an end?

Then, a year ago, I moved to far south Austin (not just south, FAR south, there’s a difference) to a house very close to that legendary end of Mopac.  And in the past few months, as I have driven down Nutty Brown Road or made my way out to the Salt Lick for some BBQ, I have gazed at those houses off the beaten path, resting comfortably on their acreage, surrounded by space and land and livestock, and I’ve wondered how it feels to be so far out?

But this week, when my husband and I took a trip to Big Bend, I got a glimpse of what secluded really means.

We left our house on Tuesday morning at 8:00AM and pulled back into our driveway at 10:40PM Friday night.  During that time, we drove 1,301 miles, passed through 12 different counties, and averaged 17 miles per gallon in our rented SUV.  (Ouch!)   

Our route took us through such towns as Sonora (where I ate a sandwich called a “Hobbit”), Marathon (where we saw a pack of javelinas), Terlingua (I highly recommend the Starlight Theater Restaurant and Bar), and Lajitas (population 621).

Throughout the journey we passed several farm houses and residences, quite literally in the middle of nowhere and each time we found ourselves asking questions like:
What kind of person chooses to live out here?
What is their day-to-day life like?
How far away is the nearest hospital?
Where do they get their milk?

Several businesses did not accept credit cards.  Our cell phones rarely had any service at all and when they did, it was unreliable.  We began filling up with gas every time the needle touched the halfway mark.

Some people would find this type of environment intolerable, or at the very least frustrating.  But I liked it.  I got used to watching for deer rather than pedestrians.  I enjoyed returning the waves of the pick-up truck drivers in the small towns.  I learned how to spot water by the vibrant green of the trees and nearby vehicles by the clouds of dust behind them.  I soaked up the horizon like a sponge and reveled in the emptiness of the landscape.

I didn’t want to come home.

Don’t get me wrong-- I am not trying to suggest that I want to pack up my city life and buy a ranch on the Rio Grande.  I don’t have what it takes, and I know it.   But I could have used another day or two in a place where directions are given by landmarks and you can stop in the middle of the road to take a picture without having to worry about being in someone’s way.  When we got back home, our neighborhood felt a little close, and I found myself yearning for more sky.

Things you should know before heading off into the middle of nowhere:

When you drive from Austin to Big Bend, the last Starbucks you will encounter is in…Austin.

If you see a plume of smoke rising and twirling in the desert, don’t immediately assume grass fire.  It may just be a dust devil, which will casually hop across the road in front of you and continue on its eerie way.

When starting out on a hike, determine how much water you think you will need.  Then double it.

When asking for directions to a restaurant, you may hear such things as “We don’t have many addresses out here” and “If you hit the pirate ship you’ve gone too far.”

Don’t be alarmed if you find yourself clutching a baseball-sized rock while hiking at dusk, just in case a mountain lion appears and you have to (as the signs instructed) “appear large and throw things”.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011


I have always been a multi-tasker.  I talk on the phone while folding laundry.  I make lists while eating dinner.  I once attempted to put my contacts in while brushing my teeth.  (It did not work.)

One of my favorite ways to multi-task used to be grading papers while watching TV.  I always convinced myself that I was being super-productive while also relaxing after work and catching up on my favorite shows.  Though in actuality, I was really just watching TV and then trying to frantically grade during the commercial breaks, which sometimes resulted in my accidentally writing things like, “Great idea development but you need to work on your whitens teeth,“ on the tops of papers.  This method of multi-tasking has become more difficult now that I have a DVR and a husband that hates sitting through commercials.

Recently, however, I have taken my multi-tasking to a whole new level.  I have begun reading in the car.  Before you get all huffy and judgmental, I do not read whilst driving.  I read at stoplights.  Let me explain.

For years, I have held the firm belief that you should always, ALWAYS have a book with you. 

Problem:  Long wait at the dentist office and no magazines without the word “parenting” on the cover? 
Solution:  Book. 
Problem:  Standing in line at the DMV and the weird guy who smells like Pine Sol is looking for someone to chat with?
Solution:  Book.
Problem:  Your husband says purchasing a new TV at Best Buy won’t take long at all, but he’s more wrong than he’s ever been before and all the display models are showing 3-D movies, but you don’t have any 3-D glasses, so it’s kinda like seeing The Blair Witch Project with only one contact in?
Solution:  Book.

Because I love to read anyway, and often long for time to peruse a few pages, these previously unpleasant experiences can actually be made enjoyable by having in my possession… a book.

Which brings me back to my new pastime. 

In order to get to work, I drive 26.4 miles and encounter 29 stoplights along the way.   The commute takes me 45 minutes in the morning and up to 55 in the evenings.  Although I know it could be worse, it’s not my favorite hour of the day.  I try to pass the time by listening to NPR, but sometimes after a long day of teaching you just can’t listen to any more stories about budget cuts or riots.  I often (I’ll be honest) pass the time by talking on the phone to friends and family, but people frown on that and I am tired of giving AT&T all of my money.

So… I’ve started reading.  I pull up to a red light, come to a complete stop a safe distance from the car in front of me, open my book to my marked page, and read a few sentences.  That’s usually all I get before traffic starts to move again.  And I instantly (even mid-sentence, I swear) close the book and proceed on my way, pondering the few words I’ve collected in the mean time.  The next time I am compelled to halt, I again safely stop my vehicle before seeing what happens next in the chapter.

What I have found, is that I am much more calm of a driver, much less impatient to get home, and much more relaxed when I get there if I spend my red lights reading rather than stewing over time lost.  If it’s a “bad day” I can sometimes read up to two pages during my commute.  And I have not been honked at even once.

I’m not trying to suggest that other people pick up my new habit.  I’m sure it’s not the safest thing to do, and if there is not one yet, there will probably soon be a law against reading in the car, as well as eating french fries or singing at the top of your lungs (both of which I do as well, often at the same time).  All I’m saying is that for me, taking in a few paragraphs at a traffic light has brought a little peace to an otherwise stressful hour of my day.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Teaching 7th Graders to Write Poetry

What time is it?
What time is this over?
How much time do we have?

Well… how much time do you need?

What if there were no clocks on the wall?
Would you stare at the angle of the sun
slanting through the window
to check the hour?
What if we used an hour glass instead?
Tiny grains of green sand trickling down
with a swish swish swish?
Or a little plastic timer
tick tick tick tick ticking away the time
like a bomb?

Or better yet
what if there was no time at all?
What if there was no
when, later, next
due date, deadline, expiration
end, stop, over

What if we just sat here-- timeless--
no clocks, no hours, no minutes,
and wrote our poems
in the absence of time
until words like
floated through our minds?

How much time would that take?
And what does finished
even mean?

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

A Change Is Gonna Come

In August of 1995, when I was eighteen years old, I started a diary.  It was two weeks before I moved to Austin for college and I wrote about the big changes occurring in my life, such as my boyfriend’s new haircut.   The journal had a bouquet of flowers on the front cover and inside I placed a unicorn bookmark with a purple tassel and the inspiring message, “Anything is possible if only you believe.”  Don’t be jealous.

That journal became my closest friend and confidant during my freshman year at UT.  I chronicled the highlights and low points of my first year away from home in purple and green pen, bold underlines, multiple exclamation points, and tiny little hearts.  I even had a name for my alter ego (one which I am not willing to share with you… yet) and gave her the personality traits I so desperately wanted to see in myself at the time.  That girl got me through a lot of stuff. 

I have been keeping a journal ever since.

Fifteen and a half years later, there are twenty-four volumes of my handwritten ramblings standing on the bookshelf in my bedroom.  Twenty-four journals of various shapes, sizes, colors, and amount of wear filled with my passions, my break-ups, my brilliant ideas, and embarrassing moments.  At some point, I dropped the pretense of the alter ego, having finally merged the two of us together, back into one semi-whole being, but my method of communicating with myself remains amusingly consistent.  When I take the time to revisit that first flower-print journal, I can never decide if my astonishment comes from how much I have changed, or how much I have stayed the same.   If nothing else, the one thing we have in common is that we write.

Sometimes I write six pages a day.  Other times I go six weeks without writing a word.  But it’s always there, my latest volume, waiting for me, eager to listen when I return. Those journals are, more than any other thing I possess, ME.

And right now I feel like I am cheating on them.

It’s a common party topic or maybe a question on one of those email forwards so helpful for getting to know your friends:  Your house is on fire and you only have five minutes to get out.  What do you save?   Since everyone accepts that this party game comes with the convenient disclaimer that all of your loved ones and pets have already made it safely out and it is down to just you and your possessions, my answer has always been a no-brainer.  My journals.  I have always imagined myself scooping them up into my arms and dashing for the door, weighed down with all the triumphs, disasters, and dirty little secrets of my life.  I imagine the rest of my house going up in flames, and me feeling relief that at least my detailed description of the secret door in my favorite all-night coffee shop has been preserved. 

When asked, What would you save? no one ever says their blog.  Yes, yes, I know you don’t have to rescue a blog.  It’s on the internet.  It’s in “the cloud”.  I get it.  But the idea of having something to save, of picking up something that could be killed by fire and holding it to your chest and running away with it scorched and smelling like burning paper, of clutching it to your heart like a piece of yourself that’s been wounded… that means something to me.   And the fact that I am typing in front of a computer screen right now and not huddled up somewhere with an open book on my lap and a pen gripped between my fingers and the feel of paper beneath my palm, the sight of the little glob of ink that forms when I press down too hard on a comma… makes me feel like I am losing a part of myself.  I like running my hand across a page I have written and feeling the indentations of my thoughts, a kind of Braille that only I can read.  The computer screen offers no such tangible comforts.

Having said that, I feel like I am ready to take my first step into the world of online journaling.

My name is Carie.  And this is my blog.