"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

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.