Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Austin, TX

Julia (pronounced HOO-lia) and I crammed our gear into the back of Shawn's van. Shawn is dating Julia's mother, Chris. He is a gentle man and a musician. He plays stand-up bass. Shawn tells me he has been playing music professionally since he was 17! I noticed he wore earplugs to pad his hearing from sudden loud noises. There was even a bag offering various earplug sizes resting in the cupholder. His caution, however, veered slightly into comical territory when he began preparing to drive. From what was probably his sleeve, he produced a pair of driving gloves and a sun hat complete with a neckguard which he fussed with for a few minutes. By the time he was done, Shawn looked as though he were preparing to strike out into the Sahara rather than Austin, Texas.

"I burn very easily," he explained. Then, "Are you going to be comfortable back there?" This to Julia, who was sitting behind me. She shared the back with a large wooden board which Shawn had installed in order to transport his basses. Because the board acted as a giant table bisecting almost the entire van, this meant no seats for people remained in the upright position. Julia was assigned to an unsecured folding chair.

"Well, there's no need to worry," Shawn assured us cheerfully. "I'm a very good driver. We'll just go nice and slow and easy. The key to driving is patience." He emphasized "patience" as if he were gently admonishing a classroom of Bad Drivers. If his words were meant to inspire peace, they did not. Almost as soon as we lurched out of the parking lot, a tension settled into my chest. Shawn, in his gracious efforts to introduce me to Austin, would periodically look away from the road and gesture out the window towards every iconic landmark on the Austin skyline. On one notable occasion, he was directing my gaze towards the Frost-Chase building and forgot about the cars slowing down before us. I made a strangled noise and he noticed in time to pump the brakes, which nearly sent my rickshaw catapulting into the front seat. I'm not sure I relaxed my grip on the car's handholds until we arrived safely at Julia's mother's house.

"I'm the most handsome in all the land, you say? Hoo knew."
Julia and I brought our packs into the house and all was calm and peaceful again. I exchanged pleasantries with Julia's grandmother Judy and met her brother-in-law, Richie. However, it wasn't ten minutes later when a squall of activity followed us through the door. A woman holding a blond child with blood on his face proceeded calmly into the house, a small girl skipping along behind her. Chris, Julia's mother, brought up the rear. Everyone's attention was on the poor kid. Apparently Eddie had been running around the whole beautiful day when right at the end he had toppled forward onto pavement. He was okay but he scraped his nose and cut his lip pretty good.

Looking back on this moment, it seems fitting that I met Sara and Richie Montoya then. Eddie wasn't their kid--they were babysitting for friends--but I immediately gathered that they were good parents. Because the Montoyas were crashing at Chris' home while their house was having some mold removed, I had the opportunity to observe their parenting. When I first met Richie he was wearing running shorts and a t-shirt in preparation for a run with their shaggy dog Simba. Lanky and tall, he has close-cropped black hair and a neatly trimmed beard with sideburns coming to a subtle point at his jawline. His wife Sara, Julia's eldest sister, is slender and athletic and wears her hair at an elegant yet practical cut that frames her stunning features. Richie and Sara are in their early thirties and have been together since highschool. They have a 3-year old daughter Olivia who is the sweetest and most charming young lady. I thought they were very modern and appropriately conscientious about their daughter's development, from the food she ate to the numerous variety of experiences they worked to expose her to. They spoke to her in both Spanish and English and explained things to her in full sentences instead of speaking to her simply. I am not a parent but I thought if every child could receive the love Olivia gets the world be better. Olivia has the freedom to be curious and has all the encouragement she needs to support her growing confidence as she explores and learns. After what I observed, I am more convinced than ever this is how you improve the world: being a good parent. And the Montoyas are damn good. Plus they were fun and interesting and the presence of their family added to the full, active atmosphere of the house.

The first night, Julia and I decided to veg out and watch The Truman Show starring Jim Carrey. We wanted to recoup our energy for the festivities of tomorrow: South by South West (SXSW). This is a weeklong, city-wide festival that attracts hundreds of bands that no one has ever heard of to play their music. I believe 100,000 people flocked to Austin for this enormous event. The fact that my arrival coincided with the festival is mind-blowing.

Austin is the first major city I have encountered since Phoenix, AZ and I'll admit it was bewildering to step beneath skyscrapers again. They are monoliths built by humans for humans, annexing their own slice of sky where once there was no such thing as geometry. And below, people of all backgrounds, experiences, careers, and shapes walking, eating, drinking Shiner beer, jogging, driving, talking, kissing, biking, tweeting, taking out the trash, wiping down counters, growing facial hair, playing, sound-checking, laughing, breathing. It was incredible to be among that awesome flood of humanity, every person beaming out signals and identities and information, all together and at once. Faced with the collective noise, my perception was overwhelmed. I would have to turn away, inwards. This happened the two days Julia and I joined SXSW. The day would begin with excitement. We would find a concert and quaff a couple of free beers. There was a lot of variety musically speaking and the informality of the whole thing meant we were always winging it. But after a few hours, the constant presence of loud noise and the pressure of hundreds of people would make itself felt. Overstimulated, my mood would plummet and I would have to leave.

What could explain this phenomenon? Consulting several over this question invariably brings up one answer: I am accustomed to solitude. The crush of noise and people contrasts too much with the quiet I am used to. It makes some sense considering the last 4 1/2 months I largely walked alone. But I wonder if this is the full story. Has my separation from society been so complete I can't handle live music? I don't know why, but that answer doesn't present much impact to my reason. Yet I can't come up with any other theories. I was experiencing other confusing emotions but I have been okay each day up until the hours-long immersion in unfiltered noise, so perhaps it made me vulnerable to being sucked down into the darkness of my head. I like to think I am familiar and experienced with the way anxiety and a depressed mood can warp reality and how to counter it but it had been so long since I'd had a day like that. On the final day of SXSW, I forgot how to remain calm. I knew though I had to remove myself from the situation in order to spin out alone so I asked Julia to take me home. With her usual grace and compassion, she didn't hesitate to say yes. She could probably tell I was losing it.

Back at Richie's and Sara's, I called my friend Karen and she soothed me. I tried watching House of Cards and writing but gave it up for sleep. It was patchy sleep the whole way through. Around 7 a.m. I kicked off my sheets in frustration and tugged on my shoes. Time for a walk!

Even though I was a stranger to Austin, I had managed to create a vague mental sketch of the neighborhood. I set off down Airport Blvd, my sole aim being to locate a coffee shop. In the cool morning, the heat of my agitation vented with each step. I brushed against the overhanging branches of a blossoming tree--this may or may not have been on purpose--and acquired a snow of petals in my hair grown long. The sun wasn't visible behind the sky marbled with clouds but I could feel my spirits rising with it in an exuberant arc, so much so that when Julia called and informed me I was very much headed in the wrong direction, I could only laugh. Of course I would be lost! We agreed to meet up for coffee and I turned around.

Julia wore the same flower skirt and blue cardigan top as the previous day. She hadn't returned from SXSW until 8 this morning! We headed for a place called the Thunderbird Café and ordered breakfast tacos, everything bagels, coffee and tea. And in the space of Julia's understanding, I felt right-side up, able to sail again. We discussed cannibalism and my favored super-power which would be the power to inconvenience people in the most minimal way. The fearful populace would know me as Inconvenience Man, the villain responsible for slight irritations such as that one pesky fly that won't leave you alone or the pickle in your sandwich you specifically asked to be excluded.

The plan for the day was to make gnocchi in honor of our friend Gabe, a master chef who always fed us delicious food in college. After breakfast and a nap for Julia, we teleported to one of those stores with all the food in them (they let you take whatever you want in exchange for some green paper) and walked away with potatoes, eggs which we wouldn't end up using, vodka sauce and fresh fruit.

To celebrate the coming of Pi Day, someone hired 5 jets
during SXSW to write the first 100 letters of Pi in the sky.
Back at home base, Sara was making kale chips (yum!) and Richie was entertaining Olivia. He looked extremely tired after a difficult night with Olivia. Apparently screaming kids make it hard to sleep. Go figure. Julia and I cleared a space for our operation and cautiously boiled 3-5 lbs of potatoes. When they were soft and pliable we peeled and mashed them, mixing in flour as we went. Now, the recipe explicitly states that the potatoes should be soft and "slightly sticky." Upon examination of our goop however, we didn't feel it made the cut for slightly sticky. It clutched our hands like off-white mittens. We added more flour in retaliation. We nearly doubled the called for amount of flour before we realized it was only making the now unified mass stickier. We laughed until our faces hurt trying to decide how to save the situation. But the longer our hands remained in what could now be considered a single entity of potato goo, the more we were paralyzed with indecision. There was no exit strategy. We had been fools to attempt a recipe of intermediate difficulty.

It was at that moment, our darkest and stickiest hour, when Julia's mother walked in. Chris immediately recognized that all we had to do was take the lump of potato out onto a flat surface and roll it in flour. This worked instantly. The dough turned malleable and we rocked out to Elvis Presley as we worked. Julia and I were back in business! In a complete turnaround of the situation, Julia and I soon had neat logs of potato dough arranged and ready for cutting. Once we had about 200 gnocchi-sized pillows, we began shaping them with a fork. Mine turned out beautifully. They were plushy and crescent-shaped, extremely pleasing to the sensibilities. Julia's looked like a third grader had pushed each of her gnocchi pillows in with their thumb. I thought they resembled forlorn, pale bow-tie pasta.

With the gnocchi ready, served with vodka sauce and accompanied by salad and wine, I sat down with Julia, Chris, Sara, Richie and Olivia while Italian dinner music played on Youtube. The gnocchi was delicious. I reckon I laughed as much as I ate. It was the highpoint of an already beautiful day.

When the evening eventually wound down and the Montoya's headed for home, Chris, Julia and I drove to downtown Austin to observe the bats. In the summer, up to 1.5 million Mexican free-tail bats roost under a bridge connecting the city to itself over the Colorado River (the other Colorado river...). Unfortunately it was too cold for many bats to have migrated this far north but it was lovely being on the river and watching the black threads of what bats there were taking wing. As we walked back to the car, dusk settling between the skyscrapers, Austin, still recovering from its collective hangover, felt calm. I felt calm.

It was really nice to spend time with Julia's mom as well. She had been out of town for most of the weekend. I swear she must be the most supportive, loving, and goofy mother on the planet! On our way back to the house, Chris introduced me to the legendary George Strait. He is the most well-known, beloved country singer in the nation and I had never heard of him. He is a Southern staple, according to Chris who is an avid fan, so I'm very glad I could experience his music. And at the house, at the end of the day, we sat around the kitchen table and drank tea. We wrote. We talked and looked at pictures. When Julia first found me on the road in Gila Bend, Arizona, I received a fortune cookie whose fortune inside read: "A quiet evening with friends is the best tonic for a long day." And so it proved to be.

Sam Kellogg, myself, and Julia Cosgrove. Location: middle of nowhere, empty space in America.

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