Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Austin and Change

As I traveled or didn't travel around Austin, I came to some pretty important realizations.
  1. 25 Days is not enough time to know a city of any real size.
  2. The format I am currently using is stifling. So many stories are not told due to the parameters I have set for myself.
  3. Without a good dose of my own perspective, the stories have less dimension.
  4. I am not completely honest about my views when I express them.
  5. I am not learning as much as I would if I were more faithful to the experience.
Due to all of these factors, I have decided to finish up my stories from Austin, then return to the Pacific Northwest and continue the project in Seattle. After Seattle, I will continue the project in smaller cities in and around the region. I will continue to post all the stories I have gathered, but I will also be adding stories I did not initially intend to post. I believe this will make for a more interesting picture of each of the cities and a better product in the end.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Austin and Turtles

"Let me make it official and put in my tooth." So says Dave as he gets ready to take me to his favorite Austin Place, The Turtle Pond at The University of Texas in Austin. He speaks briefly about the judgment he has received when not wearing his tooth, calling it "the one thing that invites judgment from all social classes". I agree, and think back to the glorious day I encountered my high school boyfriend without one of his front teeth. Ah, memories. Dave pops a tooth into the front of the roof of his mouth, and off we go.

Dave is a tall, older gentleman who has lived in Austin for 20 years. He tells me that Austin, like many cities, is much more interesting if you can go other places during the summer months. Judging from what I have seen and felt so far, I have to agree with him. Although, in each of the cities I have been to, someone has taken the opportunity to tell me, "It's too bad you didn't come one month earlier/later, when ...."  Just fill in the blank. I am always missing something somewhere.

As we walk from his apartment to the University of Texas campus, I ask him what about The Turtle Pond makes it his favorite place. 

"It wasn't originally designed as a turtle pond. I think it was a biology department experiment to research how water cleans itself. It's been there for a while. At some point someone introduced some turtles, and they have just multiplied. Now there are bunches of them. It's a nice, quiet area behind the main tower, and the students like to sit there. It is an unexpected little oasis in the middle of the city. The University is filling in the city with stuff like this."

There are turtles piled on top of turtles on rocks, sitting in the sun. There are turtles swimming around in the muck, sitting on the edge of the pond, and generally just doing turtle-type stuff. It is amazing that so many live in such a small space. That small space is surrounded by buildings on each side of it. One of the buildings is the tower where Charles Whitman shot and killed 16 people and wounded 32 others on August 1st, 1966. From what David tells me, many of the students and citizens at that time also had guns and due to their help, the police were able to bring down Whitman much more quickly than they would have otherwise.

After the turtle pond, David walks me around campus a bit and tells me that he has made his living via small businesses and special projects. One such project was collecting all of the letters written to Lyndon Johnson by the relatives of soldiers killed in Vietnam. He hired actors and re-enacted all the letters and made a film of them.

David stays in Texas, he tells me, because of the swimming and the libraries.

"There are seven or eight libraries on the campus. It also has the Ransom center, with the largest private archive in the United States connected to a University. They have the first photograph ever taken. They have a copy of the Gutenberg Bible. "

David takes me to the Architecture Library on the UT campus, and as we walk in, I hear a strange noise that sounds a lot like several violins coming in tune together. The noise is reverberating off the stone walls of the enormous room and creating a surreal and vivid musical experience. We sit down and watch a woman carefully walk up and down the length of the library between metal wires, running her fingers along them to elicit these sounds. It turns out that the University is having a symposium on Music in Architecture and Architecture in Music. The sound is mesmerizing, as is the movement of the woman making the sounds reverberating off of all the walls.

We leave the library and walk back across campus toward his apartment. David tells me that he camps and rides his bike in Europe and travels to California, Washington D.C. and New York during the summer months. When I ask him if his plan is to just keep doing that, he replies, "as long as I can. I'm 67 and I can see the back hoe creeping up behind me." We both laugh and he tells me it is something his brother said to him once.

I have met many people in the last several months of all ages who are afraid of death and reticent to talk about age at all. This is probably the first time I have ever heard anyone make light of their advancing age in such a comfortable way. The more I listen to David the more I have to disagree with his original hypothesis about the city of Austin. It is not because Austin is not interesting enough, it is because David is attempting to remain interested. I guess it is easier to make light of death when you are thoroughly interested in your life.

Friday, October 21, 2011

A Tale of Two Houses

A perfect sunrise appears over the vast expanse of trees through the huge windows of my well-appointed temporary bedroom. I consider the trajectory of the project to this point and wonder where it will take me. The little house in East Austin was really the first taste I have had of living in an extremely poor neighborhood. In fact, until I had come to this house in the wealthy part of the city, I was wondering why everyone said Austin was so beautiful. Until this point, I had seen nothing but endless strip malls and strangely planned city streets. Just the day before I was sitting at an abused table in a crowded living room in East Austin, sharing cookies and tea with one of the neighbor ladies, hearing about all of the news of the neighborhood.

"Momma" steps up through the steep entryway and in to the cramped, humid living room wearing a purple cotton house dress. She sits down at the table, a beat up old wooden four-seater that has been crammed into the room crowded by various musical instruments and other random furniture.  She introduces herself to me, and Bruce brings out tea and cookies. He pushes papers and other random objects out of the way to make room for the impromptu tea party.  He starts telling her all about his work and his projects. He wants her to be impressed with him, to be proud.

I am antsy. I want to hear what she has to say. I sit, listen and drink tea, occasionally eating sugar cookies out of a tin which has been doubling as a pot container of late, and the cookies taste of it. Every time Momma starts talking, Bruce brings the subject back to himself. Of course, this is not an interview, this is a conversation. I just happen to be more interested in what Momma has to say.

When Momma starts talking, it is a continuous tale of who was stopped by the police for what reason, what has been stolen from whom, and the story of how she and Mr. Woods, or, Woods, as she calls him, came to be married. He told her when they first met that they would be married in three years. Three years later, he reminded her of that fact. It was two weeks after their wedding day.

When she brings up the recent shooting of a young black man in a car downtown, Bruce reminds her that cars are lethal weapons. She responds firmly that she is not arguing the case, just reporting on the news. Bruce will not give up his perspective, not even for Momma.

At a certain point, Bruce goes out back and I ask Momma if she likes living in Austin. She shakes her head no, and when I ask her where she would rather live, she responds, "Atlanta. In Atlanta, there is not so much of this pushing people around. People there can just be. It doesn't matter if you are educated or not, there is an acceptance of people no matter who they are or where they are from." 

I ask her why she doesn't live there, and she tells me that one of her sons several years before had moved there and called her when he was close to finishing school, telling her that he was planning on staying in Atlanta. He told her that he just couldn't bring himself to go back to Texas. She told him to save her a seat, that she would come and join him. A few weeks later he was hit by a car while pulled over on the side of a highway and died.

The house is airy and open and cool and I have chosen my room from the three offered, the one with the big windows facing east. Dave has saved the UT game on his DVR and commences watching after he gets me a beer from the fridge. Once it becomes clear that UT will lose, we all sit down to dinner.  Their daughter, Erika and her husband Andy are also there. They had been at the stadium watching the game.

Dinner is lively. Dave says a prayer for dinner in honor of his "mid-western friend", me. In honor of me mainly because it is short and he believes I do not have the patience for anything longer. As we eat, we talk football, politics, taxes, and about the Occupy movement sweeping the nation. We all agree that too many kids grew up getting trophies for losing soccer games.

 Erika tells me about a high-end market place called The Domain that she thinks I should go to. When you love The Domain, they call it "Domania". Andy tells me about the seven surgeries he has had due to playing college football, and about coaching high school football in the great state of Texas. He has decided not to coach at the college level as that would leave little time for family.  Erika and Andy are a good looking couple. I imagine they are as good looking as Dave and Cynthia were when they were young.

After dinner, we all sit down and watch more football. We eat home made brownies with Blue Bell, the best vanilla ice cream in Texas. Dave gives Andy a hard time about his teams, and Andy gives it back. A beer commercial comes on TV and Andy wants one.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Austin and Mild Mannered Michael

On yet another beautiful and hot sunny day, I meet Michael at Town Lake, or, Ladybird Lake, in Downtown Austin to go kayaking. I prepare by slathering on SPF 40 and donning shades and a baseball cap to cover my tender lily-white scalp. As I stand at the boat landing, hundreds of people jog, run, and walk by on the adjacent hike and bike trail. It is 9:30 a.m. on a Sunday, and the city of Austin is already out in force.

Michael is an older, heavy-set man who has lived in Texas all his life and is a lacto-ovo-pesco-vegetarian. Michael is not the first person I have met in Austin who does not eat meat, and this kind of boggles my mind, as the air in Austin smells of really good barbecue. It is to the point where I am vacillating between always wanting barbecue and being sick of barbecue all day long. I resolve this by eating it every other day.

Michael goes kayaking on the lake three or four times a week. He owns 11 kayaks and takes other people on the lake all the time. As we slide his tandem blue plastic kayak in, he notes the water level. It is low due to the drought. Just the day before, I was at a bar on another lake in Austin which was so low much of the sand bars were exposed and grass was growing on them. Every day, I ride over bridges with dried-up river beds beneath them. The sight of dried-up bottoms of rivers and lakes make the air seem hotter and the sun more violently destructive. I am all for the sun and exposure to it, but as I ride through the streets of Austin, I wonder if you can't sometimes overdo it.

As we glide across the lake, Michael tells me about growing up in Texas, being a bankruptcy lawyer, and hiking the tallest peak in the U.S. Michael is one of those people who has done a lot, and speaks in a manner which conveys his knowledge of this. He is exceedingly bright, accomplished, and he loves his lake.

That is what he calls Ladybird Lake. He refers to it as"his", and in his actions, he communicates a humbling form of ownership. Once a month, he brings an extra empty kayak with him, tows it behind the one he paddles and fills it with garbage from the lake. On more than one occasion, he has towed a stranded paddleboarder or other water sportsperson through the lake's strong currents. He is on the lake so often that he knows where to find the turtles, the clams, the rocks, and the hidden places to go in the lake's several small alcoves. He has taken girlfriends to the lake, and has watched homes being built on its high ridges over the years.

As we paddle, he aims the kayak to pick up random garbage along the way, and as we pass PVC pipes along one of the edges of the lakes, he laments the rich people using the lake's water to green their lawns while most of Austin is on a one-time or two-time-a-week watering schedule.

We travel under the Congress Bridge and hear the hundreds of thousands of bats nesting there. In addition to the sound, there is also the sight of a cow sculpture hanging upside down from the bottom of the bridge, wrapped in wings, in homage to the bats' home. When I ask Michael about his love for the lake, he speaks plainly.

"This lake is great because it exists in city of a million people, but it feels secluded. There are some parts of the lake where all you can see is trees, lake and sky. It is a part of a large system of parks and trails and really gives the people who live here a lot of opportunities to be outdoors. Additionally, people really love this lake; it is an important part of Austin's development as a city. You can't come out to Town Lake, (he does not call it Ladybird Lake), and not fall in love with the city of Austin in the process."

Michael and I paddle up and down the lake for about three hours.  It is sad to see the garbage that accumulates along its edges. Beer cans, water bottles, even Styrofoam cups float in the water, and as Michael diligently takes care of what he can, the remaining garbage serves as a marker of the carelessness of the people who use the lake. When we finish, he tells me we have paddled about ten miles. Until this point, I have been wondering why everyone has been telling me that Austin is a beautiful city. The endless strip malls and random architecture in downtown Austin is at best, puzzling, and at worst, atrocious, but after ten miles and three hours on the lake, I am beginning to see why so many people love it here. It is easy to forget about the strange and random planning of the city when you are silently paddling up and down Ladybird Lake, watching the turtles pile on top of each other in the sun and the birds taking flight as they run along the surface of the lake.

Like the weather, I am warming to Austin, and after this and a several of my other meetings, I am beginning to see the true character of Austin's people. I am finally happy to be here, which is just in enough time to miss it when I leave.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Austin and The Graffiti Park

I decided that since I was in Austin I would give Craigslist another try. The first meeting I garnered from this decision paid off in spades. A contractor named Bruce asked me to meet him at the graffiti park on Baylor and 11th. He told me that he was going to spend the day painting a floor in one of the areas where graffiti had been painted on the walls. As an artist and a person who believes that graffiti, like ball playing, belongs outside, I was ecstatic.

Of course, it was still very hot in Austin, well, hot to me. To most of the people who I have spoken to regarding this environmental travesty, Austin is actually very enjoyable at 90 degrees in the shade. Ugh.

I arrive early enough at the graffiti park to give me some time to grab a bite before we have to start.   Unfortunately, I have no lock for my bike yet, so I hide it in order to go into a local cafe and grab a chicken curry wrap.

 After I finish my wrap, I walk my bike to the graffiti park to wait for Bruce. Some of the graffiti at the park just floors me, so I take some time to scout around and take pictures.

Bruce had emailed some images of where he wanted to paint, but I couldn't find them on the first level of the remnants of whatever building used to stand on the hill. I look up and wonder if the space isn't  higher up, and wonder how I might get my bicycle up there if it is. There is no way I am going to be able to leave the bicycle at street level if I am going to be 40 feet up.

Soon enough Bruce arrives in his big white truck, with a design on the doors that read: "The Bungalow Doctor". After spending four and a half years at a place where certain individuals took their "Doctor" titles very seriously, this name strikes me as funny. I love looking back at stuff I used to care about.

Bruce smiles broadly and waves at me, and tells me to lock my bike up to climb up with him. When I tell him I don't have a lock, he runs back to his truck and grabs me one.
As I had suspected, the floor we are to paint is about forty feet up. I am not generally afraid of heights, but getting up there the first time while carrying the necessary equipment turns out to be quite a challenge.

Bruce had narrowed it down to two spaces. One had brightly painted graffiti over most of its walls, the other space, more of a work in progress. He chooses the former to the two and begins sweeping the huge amounts of debris from the space as he tells me why he chose this location as his Austin Favorite Place.

"This is a great Austin place because it is so creative, and invites anyone with something to say to express themselves. The lady who owns this property okays the work for the most part, I think. When I sent her the pictures of where I wanted to paint and told her what I wanted to do, she got right back to me. She is excited to see what it looks like when I am finished, so I told her I would send her "after" pictures."

As Bruce talks, he grabs a shovel and starts trying to chip away at some unidentified goo that has stuck itself to the floor of the space but good. After he gets some of it up, he decides it is good enough and moves on. Bruce is a wiry, weathered-looking older guy who has worked as a contractor in the past but is now working putting together model homes out of salvaged materials until the economy improves. He lives on modest means in East Austin by renting out the spare rooms in his home.

"It is great that I was able to get my house for so cheap. I have bought, remodeled and sold three other houses doing this. I usually buy them in pretty bad shape. The house I am living in now didn't have a real kitchen or bathroom to speak of. It is a slow process, but it works for me."

After we lay down chalk lines, Bruce and I start painting. He gets me a sun hat from his truck and we paint diligently, bright blue squares in a checkerboard pattern. It is about this time that I realize that the only sunblock I have brought is some fancy brown stuff for my face. Something is better than nothing for this white girl, so I squeeze out all the lotion I can and apply it liberally all over my exposed skin. The upside to this is that I can barely feel it, as it is for my face. The downside is that it is kinda gross.

At some point we take a shade break and walk over to the side of the building wreckage to sit under a tree. As we sit, I cannot believe how good it feels to be a few degrees cooler. Bruce opens up his little cooler to reveal chunks of pineapple which have stayed miraculously cool through the morning as we have painted. I ask him how he has energy to do this type of thing after working at a physical job all week.

"I have a lot of energy. I get something in my head and I just go do it. I don't stop until I am finished in some kind of satisfying way. Of course, I have to be careful to eat, as I sometimes go too long without, then I kind of crash, but I have tons of creative energy, which is why I am so drawn to this place and why I love Austin so much. The creative energy in Austin is overt."

As Bruce speaks, his eyes light up and he emphasizes each sentence with a broad smile. It is clear he is very excited to be painting a blue checkered floor in this graffiti park, and as he gulps down his pineapple, he tells me more about his life in Austin.

"I'm a social dancer. I go out dancing as much as possible. I have even traveled to dance. Austin is great for that because of all the live music here. It is great to be able to meet people in this way too, because you get to know them on a whole other level than you would just meeting them at a club or something. When you dance with someone, it is a form of communication. You can tell a lot about a person by how they dance."

Bruce and Daniel painting.
The sun isn't getting any cooler, so we go back to painting. Due to the nature of the project, it is a bit tedious and takes us quite a while. At one point, an older gentleman and his son drop by. Bruce had met them the day prior while taking scouting pictures and told them what he was planning to do. They hang around a bit talking to Bruce, then offer to go get us some drinks. When they come back, Daniel, the son, paints a square. When he asks how he is doing, I tell him that he messed it up already, but not to worry about it. He recoils in horror, looking at his square, and asks, "really!?!?!" Man I love gullible people.

Eventually, they leave, and we take another shade break. This time we are able to lean against one of the walls as the shade its throwing is providing good cover from the relentless sun and heat. As we sit there, I look down at the street and notice someone waving at me. I wave back, thinking, "wow, people really are friendly here," then I point out the waver to Bruce.

"Oh! Those are my friends! I didn't think they'd make it!" Bruce waves wildly at his friends and tells me the story of how one of them is his dance partner, used to be his girlfriend, and now, she and her partner are his best friends. As he is telling me a greatly extended version of the short story I have just written, I am thinking that I am just happy to have help. Painting in the heat of the Austin sun is a novelty that wore off at about 11 am.

Bruce's friends, Caroline and Louise,  join the painting party, and soon after, we are finished. It is a glorious thing, and it is nice to be around three people who so obviously care for each other greatly. What's more, I feel very welcome around them. Not once do they share an inside joke that they don't explain to me, and their ease with each other is graciously extended to me.

As we clean up and start throwing things down to Bruce to put in his truck, Caroline invites me to go eat with them. I immediately accept, and feel greatly complimented that they would want to include me. The evening ends with the four of us piling up in a hammock and looking at the stars in Bruce's backyard. The stars are sharp and bright and the air is finally cool. As the hammock swings back and forth under the weight of the four of us, I start to understand why Austin is loved by so many. Especially considering the high caliber people you are able to find on Craigslist.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Austin and The Humble

My first Austin meeting takes place in a yoga studio. One of the co-founders, Steven Ross, has agreed to sit down with me and tell me about Eastside yoga, the small, charming studio he founded with his wife two years ago. The studio is his Austin favorite place.

"We started Eastside Yoga almost two years ago. October will be our two-year birthday. My wife and I run the place, and we think of it as our first born. It's filled with a lot of love. Opening the studio took some blood, sweat and tears, but everything is filled with love.  It is the basis for what we do, so it's coming from a place of softness, a heart-felt place. We saw the yoga scene to be very dominated by powerful forms of yoga. We saw people using this word, "intimidated"; "I feel intimidated, I can't do yoga. It's not for me." I consider myself a normal person. In terms of physical attributes. I thought that we should create a place where everyone can come. You'll have people in their 50s, 60s and beyond doing a class, feeling quite happy, and sharing that class with a young person. I think that's something we have that is a little bit unique."

Steven is a full grown man, beard and all, but he has the expressive qualities of a child. He has a Scottish accent which reminds me of Shrek a bit, but I think that is mostly beside the point. Though he is incredibly articulate and says things that occasionally blow my mind, he speaks in a way which communicates both humility and fascination. It is as if the world that he has lived in for so long is still capable of enchanting him, and the people in it are all great miracles. I have never spoken to someone with quite this perspective. He tells me about what role the studio fills in the community and where he hopes it will go.

"We see ourselves as a neighborhood place. We're a Mom and Pop Yoga shop. I guess I'm the Pop. We have different events, like we had the free lecture last night on philosophy, and we had a wide range of people come. We do movie nights. We'll watch documentaries and we'll have popcorn and chai and people come and talk about it. The older people give their perspective to the younger people and vice versa and I just think it's really kind of cool. People ask me, when are you going to open your second location, and I say never. I never want to do that. If I do, give me a slap. Being that small studio, having that close connection, I think people are attracted to that. Our hope is that we have a busy studio, we make a humble living, and we have a happy community, to me, that's success."

Steven is easy to smile and laugh. He speaks with the intent of a man who hopes for understanding, and his softness of character makes it easy to like him. I ask Steven about community in Austin, and how that plays a role in the yoga studio's presence in the city.

"The community is really important. I see that as an extension of yoga. I think of community as a coming together, as binding, and I think people are looking for that on a number of levels. Back in the olden days, people would go to church or community centers. Back in Scotland this was very common. As a studio owner, people like that one to one connection, if you're there, and you're interested in them, it's of value. Some times I sit in the studio and talk to students one on one about their practice. Sometime I go for tea and we talk about their practice. There is that connection, and that is very, very special. When I see people come in, there is that look of relief. People come in, they have had a crap day, and they are relieved to be in the studio. I feel kind of emotional saying this to you. They come in to class and they can decompress. I think that special connection is really important. Austin has some preference to the small business. There's a lot of loyalty because we're on the east side, and they like the small guys. You see that all around town. You get a feel for that. Austin is slightly different. You see less of the big chains and more of the small Mom and Pop type places. People here really support that, and we do reach out into the larger Austin community. Austin Free Day of Yoga is one event we do. It is city-wide. Austin Yoga Festival is also happening for the first time this year."

Steven and I talk about the idea of a yoga studio having a goal of creating community and what that looks like on the business end. Steven talks about the idea of growth versus the concept of development as a business strategy.

"There is a certain surrender that comes as a yoga studio owner, and that's extremely difficult. You want to prosper and survive. I always affirm that we always have enough, and it has worked so far. There is a certain non-attachment that is really hard.  People come to me for business advice, and you know, I am not really following business rules, I listen to my inner voice and look for guidance. I have a person that helps me. My front desk people are all volunteers, but I have one person who is a devil's advocate, to bounce ideas off of. I have that grounded person that is independent that helps me and it's a blessing. Like an angel. Because it's hard to see sometimes. I see the studio's development more as my own development, I see it more as developing the teaching, and developing the program, also, as being what it's about. It's not about growth. We might take another room next door one day, but that is about as much as we will do. That gives me a luxury in the way that I don't have to be constantly thinking about it. It's about deepening our approach and the studio's practice. But, if we're sitting here ten years from now and my class schedule is the same as it is today, I will be disappointed. I want it to adapt and change. As yoga students we are constantly changing and the yoga must reflect that. It's funny because I refuse to be called the owner of the studio. I don't own anything. I call myself founder, but I don't even think that's the right word. It found me."

We talk about the apparent contradictory relationship between business growth and spiritual growth, but he feels that the contradiction lies in the minds of the people who see it that way. His approach to business, like many of the people I have spoken to on this subject, is that he and his studio must be a service to the community, and in order to be so, he must be of the proper mind and spirit to be effective. We discuss the idea of openness, and how it relates to spiritual development.

"Being open is a life-long exercise. There's years of trying things and not working, and there's years of pain too. Stuff comes up in your life which gives you a little nudge along the way. They're hard at the time, and you can't see clearly. It's the process of transformation and change that's the spice of life. Not just being enlightened on the mountain top. It's the process of unraveling and getting to know yourself. It is quite remarkable. You can take this enlightened philosophy and use it. There is nothing wrong with making money. There is nothing wrong with making a living. It is all in how you go about it. I feel like if people can take that into life, that is vital."

Steven and I discuss process versus product and journey versus destination. I ask him if there is anything he would like to add to the discussion be we wrap it up. He concludes the conversation with a simple parting thought.

To find peace within you is probably the most important thing you can do. However you get there is fine. You can play golf and find some peace in that. Look for the different paths that yoga offers us and how we can take the teachings into our daily life, then practice and enjoy it. Build that enjoyment in your practice more and more. This will help you to have a healthy life, health for your body, mind and spirit. 

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Coming Soon!

My Epic Journey will begin in Austin on September 26th! Stay tuned!