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.

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Gotta Keep Moving; The Puzzle I Am to Myself

The 747’s engines roar to life. I raise the window shade and peer out at the flatness of DFW International Airport. The plane throttles forward and lifts from the runway. I leave the ground. I leave home, museum of my childhood, repository of first memories, first loves, first losses, the place where tiny fragments of me dangle from tree limbs I once climbed as a boy or rest alongside beloved scaly pets I buried in the yard.

Sometimes I feel like I’m smeared across time and space, scattered among people I’ve known well or barely spoken to. I forget myself sometimes, then a person or an object from the past jogs my memory. They tell me who I was with a knowing look or a trivial comment: “Gotta keep moving,” says Jon from elementary school, referring to one afternoon seventeen years ago when we played H-O-R-S-E together in my driveway. He had to sink a fade-away jump shot or else incur an ‘R’. “Gotta keep moving,” I said to Jon that day as he turned toward the basket and sent the ball gliding through the hoop.

Now, with that one statement, Jon hands me a piece of the puzzle I am to myself, and I remember. I remember that we were once twelve, he and I, and I feel the zest and confusion of that age. I’m twelve again. I’m twelve and I’m twenty-nine and many ages besides. And for a moment, that somehow makes sense.

“Gotta keep moving.”

I think I was somewhat younger than twelve in this picture, but only somewhat.

*I’m stealing away to Puerto Rico Thursday.  I hope to come back with something mildly interesting to share. 🙂  It would be hard to top the random experiences I had in Costa Rica last March with a group of  Harvard MBAs I became attached to. 

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…

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