Water and Air: A Day Swimming in Barton Springs

Last Saturday I drove three and a half hours from Dallas to Austin with the express purpose of swimming in the cool waters of Barton Springs.  I swam for about an hour in the morning, then lay in the shade of sprawling oak trees on the hillside above the pool.  The smell of cedar, the splashing of swimmers, the regular rattle of the diving board as one kid after another leapt skyward and belly flopped into the turquoise water—all of it, every sound, every sensation massaged my troubled mind and smoothed out the kinks left there by working and living.

Barton Springs Pool--68 degrees year round

For two hours I lay on that hillside.  I slept.  I woke.  I listened to grackles posing their long drawn-out question, “Huuuuuuuuh?  Huuuuuuuuuh?  Huuuuuuuuuh?” with the persistence of small children.  I laughed at squirrels scampering up and down tree trunks in a game of hide-and-go-seek that to them may not have been a game.  When I grew hungry I walked a half mile to the Green Mesquite and gorged myself on beef brisket, turkey, chicken, rice and pinto beans, all drenched in barbecue sauce.  For dessert, I savored peach cobbler in the smallest bites possible.

Barton Springs Pool

After strolling around the hundreds of acres of parkland that surround the springs, I returned to the pool around 7pm and swam in the soft glow of dusk.  The pool gradually emptied of people.  At 8pm the life guards blew their whistles to announce that they were retiring and that those of us still in the water were on our own.  I floated in deepening darkness.  I heard other swimmers splashing and laughing occasionally, but for long stretches I felt I had the spring and the trees, and even the glowing sky, all to myself; that I existed in a world half water, half air, where all I knew was the sound of the wind jostling the now-invisible trees hanging over me and the leaves answering the wind with a million tiny claps that sounded like rain droplets tapping the ground, where I could hear gentle waves lapping against the concrete edge of the pool, producing a sound like that of a dripping faucet, with the drops alternating from high pitch to low pitch: drip, drop, drip, drop.

I straddled these two worlds, above and below the water.  I was immersed in them both, one cold, one warm, and I felt them both at the same time.  At once I felt warm and cozy yet cool and refreshed.  And for an entire day I thought about nothing but green St. Augustine grass, oak trees, turquoise springs, children flying kites, beef brisket and peach cobbler, the breeze running its fingers through my hair, and the sun warming my skin.  No stress.  No worries.  I thought about saying goodbye to it all, maybe for the last time. I returned to Dallas the next day.

The busy diving board. Unfortunately, the poor guy did not complete his back flip and smacked the water back first.

Squirrel territory.

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In Search of Happiness: Recreating the Past

A few years ago I read an essay by Paul Theroux in which he wrote that we spend our entire adult lives trying to rediscover those moments of perfect happiness that we had as children.  To this end, we gravitate toward certain types of people, places, and experiences in an effort to recreate those tiny, intangible slices of perfection that lie strewn across the landscape of our youth like fallen leaves.  Now, I’m not in total agreement with Theroux’s thesis because it implies that our search must always yield nothing but clumsy approximations of what once was.  It also assumes that everyone has a happy childhood, which of course is not the case.  Moreover, I’m sure most people share with me the belief that we can match those childhood memories by creating new, equally blissful ones as we age and mature.  But at the very least, I think he’s on to something.

My best memories from childhood are of family road trips to Michigan, Florida, New Mexico, Colorado, California, Oregon, and Montana, together with weekly visits to our local Barnes and Noble.  Although in the beginning I was always a little annoyed at how long it took to reach our destination, eventually I came to appreciate the journey itself at least as much as the arrival.  Long drives taught me patience and nourished in me a love of idle thought and contemplation.  Too much patience can lead to excessive idleness, just as too much idle thought and contemplation can lead to inaction, anxiety, and depression.  But if tempered, each of these tendencies can be a good thing.  I know for a fact that I still haven’t achieved the proper balance, but I’m working on it. 

As with road trips, initially I hated going to Barnes and Noble every other day, every week, but before long, an hour or two in that bookstore every few days turned me into an explorer.  My parents would wander off to their favorite sections, my dad either to the science fiction or the technical isle, my mom to the art section.  They would look at my sister and me and say, “About an hour.”  Usually that one hour would become an hour and a half, and that hour and a half would become two hours.  After about fifteen minutes I would hunt down one of my parents and ask, “Can we go now?”  They would always answer with a concise, unsympathetic, “No.”  It was after those first fifteen minutes, once I knew there was no way out, that I began to really explore the bookstore and the mountain of information and excitement it had to offer.  At some point, our trips to Barnes and Noble became my favorite part of each week.

Now, at age thirty, the one thing I yearn for most of all is travel, and I don’t mean travel by plane (although I fly quite a bit), but travel by car, or bus, or train–the kind of travel that allows me to see in greater detail what lies between my point of origin and my final destination.  This kind of slow travel allows an opportunity to become acquainted both with the countryside and with other people in a way that air travel generally does not.  I learned more about human beings in one bus trip from Yosemite National Park to Fresno, CA than I’ve learned over the course of weeks spent in some places– because travel by bus forces people to talk to each other for extended periods of time.  It provides a perfect opportunity both for “idle thought” and meaningful conversation with strangers I’ll see only once in my entire life, but whom I’ll never forget.  These are people, and more importantly, types of people, whom I never would have met had I not set foot on a bus. 

And since I can’t always be on the road, usually I satiate my hunger by heading to the bookstore and perusing the aisles for something new–some book or author I’ve never noticed before, or even an old book I had long forgotten about.  In other words, the two things I want most of all are to travel and to read–to wander into bookstores and lose myself amidst an endless maze of books and knowledge and wisdom, to make my away through the arteries of our country and our world in search of interesting places and interesting people.  In short, I want to recapture my youth.  I want to be happy.

Austin, Texas: Live Music Capital of the World?

Downtown Austin from Auditorium Shores

Austin sits at the center of Travis County like a radiant sun that illuminates all around it.  It tugs people into its orbit and, as massive stellar objects are wont to do, the city alters the fabric of reality and bends perceptions.  Are you sad?  Go to Austin, dance in a club or sway to the beat of an outdoor concert and you’ll find happiness again.  Are you angry?  Go to Austin, swim in its soothing springs and you’ll emerge cleansed and eager to forgive whoever wronged you.  Are you lost?  Austin will help you find yourself.  Do you want to get lost?  Austin can help with that, too. 

Music courses through Austin’s streets, reverberates off of its sky scrapers, and saturates most anything that passes through the “Live Music Capital of the World”.  On a loud Friday night even the Austin hills seem to resonate with the music that wafts in the air from Sixth Street, the pulsating heart of the music scene.  I used to read Austin’s boast that it was the “Live Music Capital of the World” as a joke that everyone was in on.  We natives repeated it with an implicit wink and a knowing smile.  To be sure, Austin has long been an incubator of musical talent, and for decades musicians and their fans have flocked to the city for its unique scene.  But capital?  Of the world?  That struck me as hyperbole. 

How things have changed.  Now Austin hosts two of the biggest, coolest, and most tweeted music festivals in the U.S..  More than 70,000 people attend the Austin City Limits (ACL) Festival on each of three days in mid-September.  200,000 people from all over the world flood Austin each Spring for South by Southwest (SXSW) to witness an entire city transform itself into one gigantic concert venue, where bands are as likely to perform in grocery stores as on big stages to big crowds.  The SXSW music festival grew to be so large that it spawned an accompanying film festival and, later, an interactive festival featuring social networking technology.  According to TIME Magazine, the film festival threatens to eclipse Sundance, long the hotspot of the indie film scene.  The Interactive Festival is one of the few of its kind.  The story goes that Twitter went mainstream when attendees at SXSW tweeted en masse about what was happening there.   

Stevie Ray Vaughn Statue

Yes, music has long been in Austin’s blood, but when I was growing up here, in the 80s and 90s, you could wander most parts of downtown outside of Sixth Street and miss that fact.  Austin’s music scene contributed to its eclecticism and confirmed it as a bizarre kind of place where dreamers fought against the odds and strived to live off of their art, playing in whatever venues would book them, and in some cases living on the streets with little more than their guitar cases to accompany them.  Now, wandering the streets of downtown on a Friday night, everywhere I go I hear at least the faintest echo of a song.  A country performance at Threadgills, south of downtown on Riverside Drive, floats over to me more than a mile away, on the far western end of Auditorium shores.  Loose melodies and muted drum beats rise from the city.  A drawn out guitar chord resonates in the wind.  For a moment I imagine the city itself is the instrument and that 800,000 people strum one of its 800,000 strings. 

Austin’s rise in the national consciousness thrills me.  I’m glad to see it grow and thrive.  Better than to shrink and stagnate.  Austin has changed, but at the center of the new people and buildings, subdivisions, restaurants, and festivals that accrue to the city, Austin retains its core identity.  At the center of the bigger and richer Austin lies the city’s soul, a seed crystal that alters everything it touches.  Everything new conforms in its own way to the best of what is old.  True, more people share in certain finite resources, and if you told me that on some busy days there is more skin than water in Barton Springs Pool, I might believe you. 

Barton Springs Pool

Nevertheless new blood injects vitality into this complex ecosystem, and public spaces set aside when the city was 1/10th its current size accommodate a metropolitan population of nearly 2 million with admirable ease.  By all means, come to Austin.  Austin will welcome you with open arms.  Whoever you are, wherever you’re from, Austin wants to get to know you.  Are you a hippie?  A suburbanite?  A hip professional?  Austin has a place for you, yet wherever you end up, you won’t be far from people who are entirely unlike you, and unlike in most cities I’ve come to know, you’ll be glad of that fact.  That is the essence of Austin: contradictions coexist side by side in harmony. 

 

I’ll post another essay or two about Austin soon.  I’d like to focus more on the recreational side of the town: its springs, its green belt, its parks and cliffs.  To be continued…

Happiness Through Forgetting

Every once in a while, I’d like to walk down the street and not recognize the towering oak tree spreading its contorted wooden limbs in all directions, showering the ground with fallen leaves.  Sometimes I’d like to come upon something familiar as if I were seeing it for the first time: an earthworm writhing on the pavement after a hard rain, a white kitten playing with a ball of yarn, a verdant green meadow aglow in the resplendent light of a star I have yet to identify.  Yes, if I could open War and Peace for the first time, indefinitely, I would be forever happy.  If I could wake up each morning and forget that I had already seen more than eight thousand sunrises, and if, upon lying down to sleep at night, I could gaze through my window at the full moon and realize for the first time that its face has the appearance of Swiss cheese, then, maybe then, I would be happy, and I would never grow old.

In my next post I’ll write about a trip I took this weekend to my childhood home, Austin, TX, and what it feels like to hostel in your own city, to play tourist in the place that breathed life into you and made you who you are.  What is home if the people who shared it with you have scattered to the far corners of the earth, if when you return you walk its streets alone, you swim in its springs alone, alone you dangle your legs from cliffs and alone you peer at the lakes, forests and hills of your youth?  And if the places of youth greet you with confusion or indifference, what then?

Here’s a preview picture:

Loop 360 Bridge over Lake Austin, Austin, TX USA

San José’s Nightmares: Arriving at Night in a Foreign City

I board a cab outside of San José International Airport and sit in the back seat with the windows rolled down.  As I wend my way through Costa Rica’s sprawling capital the wind clutches at me with ethereal fingers that smell of car exhaust and a mysterious odor I can’t quite place.  It’s an odor that is unique to every city.  When I return home after a long time away, the wind and the scent of home it carries with it collide with me as I leave the airport.  The weight of home bears down on me in humid gusts saturated with a lifetime of memories.  Home wraps its airy arms around me and knocks me about like an old friend annoyed that we’ve fallen out of touch.  In like manner the San José wind buffets me, screams at me, and with these gestures and its smell of otherness it is the first of the elements to announce that I’ve arrived somewhere new.  “I don’t know you,” it says.

A soft layer of clouds presses down on the city like a padded lid.  The cottony sky glows red, as if the city below were aflame and on the verge of destruction.  Mountains surround San José and stand black against the reddened sky.  Through the window I see pedestrians scampering across busy streets.  They run, they pause, they dodge headlights.  Somehow they manage to ford the rivers of traffic.  Cars honk and squeal their brakes.  Police sirens wail in the distance.  I pass block after block and they all look the same to me, with the same ten story concrete buildings, the same plazas, the same people milling about, the same bands playing the same music in a never-ending repetition of the same park.  I imagine that the city sleeps and that through the windows of the cab I’m seeing visions of its nightmares. 

At night the whole world shrinks around me.  My only reality is the city itself.  It’s as if I’ve woken up beneath a thick quilt and in my hands I hold only a dim flashlight.  I may point the light in any direction but I will see only the checkered underside of the quilt and the red glow that the quilt reflects back at me.  I don’t know where the quilt ends and where the outside world begins.  I may thrash about.  I may crawl first in one direction and then another, yet the edges of the quilt will elude me.

I arrive at my hostel and I fall sleep on my bunk.  Monsters populate my dreams and strange faces parade before my closed eyes.  Morning comes and the city wakes with me.  Its demons retreat into the shadows that pool beneath buildings and trees and lamp posts.  Slowly the sun rises and dapples the urban landscape with light.  It splatters reds, blues, whites, and yellows on those same ten story buildings from the night before.  Parks glow green and trees spindle upward toward the sun.  Plazas and the people milling about them acquire detail and stand out from one another.  The sky no longer presses down on the city; now it soars and opens clear and blue above me.  The mountains that loomed darkly last night now cradle the city in their verdant lap.  San José makes sense now.  It exists in the wider world.  What I thought were its demons dancing around me were in reality my own demons projected on the unknown.   

I feel confusion and menace of this sort on arriving in any new city at night.  The place could be Chicago, New York, Buenos Aires, Santiago, or Lima.  Maybe I’m walking from a Greyhound station in Portland, Oregon or stepping off the train in Fargo, North Dakota.  In each case, at night, I feel the weight of the unknown bearing down on me.  The slight twinge of fear I feel on these occasions is electrifying. 

San José, Costa Rica

 

Park, San José

 

Site of the old San José Airport; now el Parque Sabana

 

Be a Traveler

When I go somewhere new, I don’t want to be a tourist; I want to be a traveler. To tour is to touch the surface of something, to understand its general outlines, to arrive at a condensed summation of what it is. To travel is to penetrate deeper, to discern the nooks and crannies of a place and to become aware of its beautiful and ugly imperfections. It’s not the postcard picture that defines a place. The lifeblood of a place is everything the postcard leaves out. The postcard says nothing about a city’s slums and ghettos, or the people who live and toil there every day. A city that is stripped of its inhabitants, with their daily comings and goings, their problems, their hopes, their fears, and their dreams, is an empty shell, a vacuous ghost town. In a word, it is dead.

Iguazú Falls, Argentina

Likewise, one view of one sharp mountain peak leaves out the expansive range that peak is a part of. To understand the scope of the range, we must traverse its rugged contours, peer over its abrupt precipices, drink of its fresh lakes and rivers. Only then can we arrive at an intimate understanding of its immensity and scale. But even this understanding would be incomplete without an attention to the details: the trees, the mosses, the flowers, the birds, the bears, the marmots, the lizards, the bats, the bugs, everything that goes unnoticed, a favorite rock to lie down on, a gurgling spring, a misshapen tree trunk carved in the form of Richard Nixon’s face. Even with all of these details, we exclude a multitude of others. The mountain range’s features are infinite; its wealth of discoveries and marvels boundless.

The Andes, near the Argentina/Chile border.

When I arrive in a new city, or even when I arrive in a familiar one, I want to stroll its streets as just another pedestrian, to smell its air and watch its people as they go about their routines. I want to know their wishes and understand something of how they live. I want to talk to them in cafes, in markets, in plazas, and in parks. I want to see the uglier side of town, to know the vicissitudes of local life, and to learn about local preoccupations and partake in local customs. Anywhere I go, I want that place to tell me its story through the mouths of the people who live there, through their music and their dance, their laughter and their smiles, their tears and their sorrow. Let me decipher old buildings with my eyes, touch their decaying structures with my hands, read their history in the flaking paint and crumbling brick of their aging walls.

Drink it all in. Experience it all. Don’t let the opportunity to see something new, to feel something strange, disconcerting, and unexpected pass you by. Seek out the unknown, throw yourself off balance, challenge your conception of the world. Grow. Be a traveler.

Yosemite Falls, Yosemite National Park, California, USA

Near Poás Volcano, Costa Rica

San José, Costa Rica

You Could Be Anyone and Go Anywhere: The Beauty and Violence of Planes and Airports

This photo and all that follow are from Founders Plaza, overlooking Dallas-Ft. Worth International Airport

Near Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport there is a park called Founder’s Plaza.  From here you can watch planes take off and land, you can have a picnic, lie on the grass and stare up at the sky, or close your eyes and listen to the thunder of jet engines and feel their vibrations course through your body.  I’ve seen couples in this park, families, airport employees, aviation aficionados, and, occasionally, police officers when someone has wandered too close to the security fence that separates the park from the airport. 

Sit on a bench here in Founder’s Plaza and you will see the entire airport spread before you.  From here the immense terminals, the control towers, the fat jumbo jets, the baggage cars, the ground crews and the runways take on the appearance of a miniature lego-set.  For a moment it stikes you that a child may well have assembled the entire contraption, but then the roar of jets taking off and landing dispells any such notion.

The planes come and go with such frequency that you might expect a collision here and there, a miscommunication that might place two planes on the same runway, one landing, the other throttling toward take-off.  Yet perfect order reigns here.  The catastrophe is a predictable non-occurrence for being always averted.

The airport screams destruction.  Close your eyes and listen as the smaller planes rev up, first with a metallic whine, then a high pitched screech, until finally they explode down the runway.  Close your eyes and you might imagine that you stand at the epicenter of a dozen earthquakes cascading outward one after another, flinging the crust of the earth skyward like a bed sheet flapping on a clothes line before a storm.

The larger planes are quieter to the ear.  They rumble like distant thunder and propagate their power through the ground, so that you tremble with them and glimpse through their dissipated vibrations a knowledge of destruction collared and tamed for human purposes.

You could be a passenger on any one of those planes going anywhere in the world, bound for London, Paris, Seoul or Istanbul.  You could be any one of those tiny faces staring out the window at the flatness that surrounds DFW International Airport, at the big blue Texas sky that hangs over fields of parched grass yellowed by winter.  Maybe you see home.  Maybe you see nothing more than a random airport fit only for a layover of minutes or hours, or even a day if the weather is bad elsewhere on your route, if the pilot has taken ill, or if your plane has suffered a mechanical failure.

You could be anyone and go anywhere.  And for the duration of the journey you could be nowhere at all, suspended in the netherworld between departure and arrival where only the roar of the engines, the vibration of your tray table, and the clouds gliding by remind you that you’re in motion.