Slimy and Scaly Creatures

Growing up in Texas, I developed an early fascination for all things slimy and scaly: lizards, snakes, frogs, salamanders, newts, and turtles.  My attitude toward anything that hopped, scampered, slithered, or swam was somewhat akin to Golem’s “fondness” for world-destroying golden rings, except that mine was more a combination of a scientific and artistic appreciation for these creatures.  Less doomsday and split-personality, shall we say.  In celebration of small creatures:

 

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Gecko on the Big island of Hawaii.

 

 

Auratus

Dendrobates auratus-one of the first poison dart frogs I bred in captivity.

 

 

Frogs

In search of bullfrogs in Michigan.

 

 

 

Tricks of Memory

Sometimes I imagine that I’m in a room filled with all of the friends, family, and acquaintances I’ve ever known.  My wife is there.  So are my parents, my sister, and my whole extended family.  Arrayed around me are many of my best friends.  Jonathan and Ronald, two of my childhood basketball buddies, talk sports with a group of my Dallas friends.  They appear to know each other even though location and time separate them; in reality they’ve never met.    

Here and there, mixed in with the more familiar faces, I also see strangers I met only once—a retired federal employee who sat next to me on an Amtrak train from Boston to Seattle, who for his entire life had commuted from Spokane to Seattle only by train; a German backpacker whom I spent the day with wandering the ruins of Tulúm in the Yucatan; or Tarzo, a Brazilian journalist who, with a strange delighted glint in his eye, spun global conspiracy theories in a Buenos Aires hostel so many years ago.

Still others may be people I saw every day for a period of time in my life and with whom I barely exchanged more than a friendly “hello”, yet whose “hello” was just what I needed in that moment of a rough day.  Pete, a math teacher whose classroom shared a hall with mine when I taught Spanish near Houston, expounds on a recent scientific discovery.  Pete made me feel welcome in a school where, as a new teacher, I knew hardly anyone. 

It’s strange the tricks memory plays on us.  Storytelling requires chronology and sequence, yet memory is only sometimes chronological.  Everything it contains seems to have happened all at once.  I was reminded of this when I returned to my hometown, Austin, last year.  The more deeply I immersed myself in this massive city that once seemed small, the more random recollections exploded in my mind.  They lit up like so many thousands of lightning bugs on a cool Michigan night, bright and ephemeral and impossible to snatch out of the darkness. 

In an instant I remembered running through the woods near my friend Albert’s duplex.  We played hide-and-go-seek and tussled with other kids whose aim was to bully us.  Those woods are long gone.  In their place stand cookie cutter houses that over time have come to look as if they’ve always been there.  Their apparent permanence makes me question how big those woods were, with their sprawling live oak trees, where the odd rattle snake slithered among loose stones.

Over time I comprehend better why generations struggle to understand each other.  While in Austin I stopped by the ice cream shop I worked at when I was in high school.  I opened the very door I had windexed a thousand times and was greeted by a smiling teenager.  “Welcome to Baskin Robbins!” he said.  I told him I had worked there too when I was about his age.  He nodded but didn’t say much. 

Then it occurred to me that when I was his age, he had yet to even be born.  He wouldn’t enter this world for another four years.  Most of my world predated his.  Hence, it didn’t exist to him.  History before his birth was a mere instant, not the long, sometimes meandering personal history I had experienced as my life.  How strange, but also how exhilarating that we get to experience life with the same newness and exhilaration as every generation that has come before us.

*I’ve decided to start blogging again.  I have missed it, and it has been far too long.  I will be rusty for a while.  I invite any newcomers to peruse through my older posts. 

Pictures of Austin:

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The Geography of Identity; Where Blue Bonnets Paint the Hills

My sister, Becky, and me in a field of Blue Bonnets near Barton Creek Square Mall, on the edge of the Texas Hill Country

I’m returning today from a trip to Texas.  I went to Texas intending to find a job there and to return there permanently.  In other words, I changed my mind.  I no longer wanted to live in Kentucky.  I wanted to live in Texas.  But things didn’t quite work out how I had hoped they would.  So now I find myself in a hotel somewhere in Arkansas, about halfway to Lexington.  Leaving Texas is always hard, because I’m leaving home.  I’m leaving memories and people and places that cling covetously to little pieces of my identity.  I considered writing for my blog a piece titled “The Geography of Identity” in which I would map out where I’ve left different versions of myself.  The child “me” is in Austin.  He still clambers up trees, builds tree houses, catches snakes and frogs, scorpions and spiders.  His hair is still blonde and it still hangs to his shoulders.  I can still see him sitting on a hill of Blue Bonnets next to his little sister, Becky, one Easter weekend when he was four years old; meanwhile his parents are still snapping photos of them both for memory’s sake.

I remember that when my sister and I sat on that hill I was worried about crushing the Blue Bonnets.  Actually, I was more than worried.  I felt terrible.  I also remember feeling silly sitting next to my sister, holding a blue Easter bunny and posing for a picture whose significance I would only understand decades later.  What isn’t clear in the picture is that the hill on which my sister and I are sitting rises up from Loop 360, one of the busiest stretches of highway in Austin.  Even twenty-six years ago cars streamed down that road nonstop.  I was aware at the time that we were posing not only for my parents, but also for hundreds of drivers and passengers as they shot out of town into the folds of the Texas hill country or made their way to Austin’s newest mega-mall: Barton Creek Square.

Everything outside of the picture still exists.  The four lane highway carries more cars today than when I was a boy, but it looks exactly as it did almost three decades ago.  The mall has changed very little on the outside.  A few apartments have risen on nearby hills with glorious views of downtown Austin and the thunderstorms that roll in from the east every Spring.  Everything in the picture, however, has disappeared.  The hill remains, of course, but Lady Bird Johnson and her army of Blue Bonnet enthusiasts stopped seeding that hill soon after my sister and I posed on it for my parents.  It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that, in the interest of public safety, the city itself forbade parking on the shoulder of the highway to take pictures.

So now, at any given time of year, in any season, if you venture to the hill along Loop 360 you will see neither Blue Bonnets nor little children posing for their parents.  Instead, you will see pointy cedar bushes creeping down toward the highway.  But in my mind I see something different.  The blue bonnets still paint the hill azure, my sister and I are still sitting next to each other among the forest of flowers, and my parents still futz around us with their cameras, always just a moment away from taking a picture that today recalls a moment grown more poignant with time.

*I’m going to keep blogging, but I’ll probably post about once a week from now on.  I love sharing the world with anyone who happens to read these miscellany.  I’ll keep commenting on other blogs, of course.  Thank you for your time and conversation.  It means the world to me.

Plight of the Monarch Butterfly

Monarch Butterfly

Sometimes all I want to do is point to the sky, lean toward you and whisper, “It’s blue.  Isn’t it wonderful?  For God’s sake, it’s blue.”  I want to tell you about one day in October when I was idling in traffic, stuck in a line of cars at a red light, and I saw a Monarch butterfly flit across the road, all six lanes of it.  In all of its black and yellow and orange, its general ignorance of where it was or how ridiculous its task, how pathetic its odds of crossing the thoroughfare intact, it zigzagged through the air.  It collided with a fender and only just caught itself before falling to the asphalt.  A light breeze whisked it over the roof of a red Camry, then yanked it back five feet so that again it almost fell to the pavement.  It picked itself up in mid-flight, bounced off of my windshield, and stumbled gracefully through the air until it arrived at the median.  It achieved grace in clumsiness.  I don’t know if it actually made it to the other side of the road.  All I know is that it survived three lanes of stationary cars and that the traffic lights turned green the moment it reached the median.

When I was a boy I used to chase Monarchs through fields of flowers in Texas.  I used to think that a single butterfly made the Spring migration from Mexico, up through Texas, and into various parts of the Eastern United States and Canada; and that the same butterfly made the return migration back to Mexico beginning in October.  In fact, the whole South-North/North-South migration requires four generations of butterflies, the longest-lived of which is the generation that winters in Mexico and swarms in Oyamel forests to the delight of tourists.

The butterfly I saw in October was a member of this hardy generation, charged with reaching Mexico and surviving for the next six months so that come Spring, it could join its peers in journeying northward to ensure the survival of the entire species.  It represented one leg of a long-distance, multi-generational relay.  A six-lane road must have been among the least of its obstacles.  A gleeful little boy may have been its worst enemy.

Image Credit: Lone Star Junction

Encounters with Drifters and Prisoners: Thoughts on Manhood

Late one afternoon I was sitting on the curb of Rio Grande Street, near the University of Texas at Austin, waiting for the Number 12 bus to collect me and convey me home.  It was spring, and the purple Texas mountain laurels planted throughout UT’s grounds perfumed the air.  I had just left a Latin American Lit class and was still drunk on discussions of time, infinity, and identity.  A man sat next to me, not a foot away, and asked me for $5.  He told me he was homeless, had recently endured some kind of surgery on his right knee, and pointed to the scar to prove it.  I gave him the money, though it wasn’t mine to give since my parents, loans, and a small scholarship were paying my way through school.  I couldn’t help myself, though.  I’ve always found it difficult to say no to people. 

Once I had given him the $5, he remained seated beside me on the curb.  Everything about him sagged toward the ground.  His body spread over the pavement, his eyes drooped, the corners of his mouth pointed downward as if they were attached to the ground by strings.  Even his words tumbled downward from his lips when he spoke. 

This man told me about an ex-wife and kids whom he never saw and couldn’t support.  He exhorted me to appreciate the quality education I was receiving and to use it to do good things.  Maybe he was lonely.  Maybe he could tell that I was lonely and he derived purpose and satisfaction from keeping me company.  Maybe a man like him, alone, homeless, in his fifties, with bad knees and a broken body, regains some of his youth when he is in the company of the young, to whom men like him are often invisible.  They amble down alley-ways; they sleep in doorways and beneath bridges.  Some of them while away their days in public libraries. Others lie on the green lawns of university campuses and divert foot traffic by their presence.  Do we see them?  Yes.  Do we talk to them?  Do we know them?  No, and so they are invisible in the way plastic bags and newspapers blowing down the street are invisible.  We know they’re there, yet we know nothing of where they come from or where they’re going, of who set them adrift and who forgot about them.

I’ve had so many encounters like this one.  Once, a man with long red hair and a thick moustache, carrying a guitar and wearing bell-bottom jeans cornered me at the back of the bus (again, the Number 12) and mumbled something about what Austin used to be like in the 80s.  I heard him say something about how back then the police didn’t harass people, and you could sleep where you liked, but in all I understood maybe a quarter of what he said to me over the roar of the bus and the wind howling through the opened windows.  I tried my best to listen, but eventually the man grew angry and told me I hadn’t heard a word he had said and that I must not care. 

On two occasions I talked to just-released prisoners, once while I waited for a Greyhound in Fresno, California, and once on that same Number 12 bus in Austin that so reliably served up interesting conversations.  I remember their joy over finally getting out of prison, their eagerness to get things right this time, to see families in Montana or to pursue a talent for art they had only discovered while they were locked up.  What joy could be more real than that of a man who has served his sentence and has just regained his freedom? 

If they could have seen their own faces, naked with the wonder and hope of children, they may have recoiled from themselves and the unmanliness they beheld.  But they could not see what I saw.  They didn’t know that tears glistened in their eyes.  They didn’t know that they giggled like little boys who had stumbled upon some squirmy creature for the first time and were taken with the novelty of their discovery.  They were lost in themselves, lost in the world that was new to them again, forgetful of the manliness society told them they had to project from a young age.  There’s something wonderful about watching a grown man return to himself, seeing him shake off the costume of masculinity and toughness in which he usually clothes himself, and listening to him as he expresses the complex mixture of hope, confusion, and fear that our culture tells us to suppress.

Father and Baby Son On the Edge (of a Cliff…)

Two Saturdays ago I walked by a man and his baby boy sitting on the edge of a cliff that drops four hundred feet to a lake below.  Here is what happened.  Early that morning I made my way to the Loop 360 bridge that spans Lake Austin, a dammed up section of the Colorado River.  The lake is about as wide as the river that once flowed freely through this part of the green Texas Hill Country.  The 360 bridge explodes from a blasted-out wedge of limestone on the north side of the lake.  It shoots from a vertical wall of white cliffs toward the flat south shore, four hundred feet below and a quarter of a mile across.  The bridge hangs from a series of cables suspended from two steel support arches, both red with rust.  On its north side, before flying over Lake Austin, the bridge cuts a five hundred foot gouge through bleached limestone, so that three hundred foot cliffs line both the north and the southbound sides of the four-lane highway as it approaches the lake and the bridge. 

I’ve crossed this bridge hundreds of times in my life.  I always assumed that the cliffs to either side of it were off limits.  But on this day, two weeks ago, I hiked up to the ledge above the southbound side of the highway and found neither signs nor fences barring my way.  Below, cars shot down the bridge, over the lake, and continued south where the hills swallowed them up.  I stumbled upon a black and grey tent set fifteen feet back from the cliff’s edge.  Gusts of wind pounded the cliff and shook a lone sinewy cedar tree that clung to cracks in the limestone cliff face.  Its branches creaked in the wind.  Twigs snapped, flew at me, and bounced off of the tent.  The tent flattened, then sprang upright at regular intervals.  

Loop 360 Bridge

I guessed that a climber or backpacker slept inside, but within moments of my arrival a dark-skinned, muscular man in his thirties emerged, wearing only blue jeans.  In his right hand he held a baby carrier, and in the baby carrier slept a baby boy of ten months.  In his left hand the man carried a lawn chair and a blocky 70s era radio.  He walked to the edge of the cliff, set the radio below the cedar tree, unfolded the lawn chair with one hand, and placed the baby carrier to the right of the chair.  He fell into the chair and turned the radio to a contemporary pop music station.  Man, baby, and radio all sat within two feet of the cliff’s edge. 

The man leaned back and turned his head from left to right, taking in the panorama laid out before him.  To the east, far downriver, downtown Austin rose grey from the plains that flow out of the Texas Hill Country.  Below, the 360 Bridge flew over Lake Austin and poured traffic in a straight line south to the edge of the horizon.  To the west, the lake curved southward around a bend at the base of the limestone cliffs that rise from its banks.  Beyond and above the cliffs, hills grown thick with cedars and oak trees rose and fell in swells of light and dark greens.  Houses bobbed on the crests of some swells and larger buildings plied through the troughs in between them.

Father and Son on the Edge

The lake, the hills, and the clouds gliding overhead all took on liquid qualities.  Cars flowed along Loop 360 toward a dot that vanished on the horizon.  Music oozed like liquid sound from the old blocky radio, and the tent and the trees swayed like seaweed in time with the currents of the humming wind. 

It occurred to me that every hour some five thousand cars passed below this strange man, seated on a cliff ledge beside his baby boy, fighting the gusting wind that threatened to whisk his son and his tent away.  Every hour five thousand drivers passed below him, and not one of them knew of his existence.  Not one knew that he had camped here the night before with his son; that he had slept above the intersection of two rivers, one of water, the other of flesh, metal, and asphalt.  Not one knew that father and son had watched the sun set over the western hills that tumbled into the distance like the lingering ripples of some divine thought propagating itself through the tissue of the earth.

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.