Monday, June 6, 2011

Greenwood Farms

There was on this land sprawling acreage
Leafy green trees, rooted deep
Horses, cattle, and farm cats running free
Beneath behemoth oak trees a white wooden house
Interior walls painted by hand, depicting weeping willows and birds
And their chaotic, interwoven nests

In summertime, voices reverberate between wooden beams
As children hide within peculiar rooms and hidden spaces before taking
To neighboring hills, whose mild slopes provide unspoiled panoramas
Nothing but raw earth

Time clicks on, willing change
Papers are drawn to inhibit the freedom of this place
Little by little, the terrain spoils
Oak trees lining quiet streams become backyards of eerily familiar homes
Red brick
Perfectly squared, manicured lawns

Atop the hill refuge etches away until there exists but one view: people, houses,
Man’s insistent sprawl

No horses roam free
Nor cattle
Nor cats, dogs, or children

Decades pass and children helplessly grow into adults
Less frequent are their family gatherings
Memorialized by fading photographs
Tacked into cracked, rotting walls

When finally the homestead is sold, and with it every last acre of land
The children, now grown, dream of its rolling hills
Where they played beneath maypoles, built forts and skidded bicycles on gravel roads

The city’s expanding reach compounds their longing
For days when man encountered
Fewer homes
And stores
And superfluous manmade things that overwhelm the place where stood their quiet haven

One day, a woman makes pilgrimage to this place of bound recollection
Many years have passed since she joined her family here within
The farm’s white, bold, stone gates

Inside, as if time stood still, or turned upon itself, is her grandparents’ house
Holding within its joyous halls dust and faint etchings
And ghosts, of what used to be, and what could have been
Before long, this house will fall, its stones recycled to build more structures
And liberate more space
That we might all have less

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Popcorn Perfume

I'm at the window, sucking air through a narrow 4-inch slit like an absolute lunatic just because I tried to make a simple low-calorie snack.

The popcorn bag, left unattended for four minutes (per cooking instructions), smoked and hissed while its edges morphed into blackened crisps. Shortly after wrestling it into the sink, one of the most putrid smells imaginable emerged from the microwave, weaving its way into every square inch of my small apartment. Even my bedroom--some distance away with its sturdy door closed--smells like burned butter.

This is worse than inadvertently eating ten popcorn-flavored jelly beans and more offensive than waking up in the middle of the night to a strange smell wafting through the window. More nausea-inducing than the near-constant smell of city sewage, this hideous popcorn odor has even infiltrated my skin and hair.

You can imagine, then, how a bar full of people reacted to my presence at their local watering hole. Unsurprisingly, two middle-aged men, one of whom was missing one of his front teeth, made passes at me. Something about my scent must have reminded him of a woman or meal he once loved.

This is not the first...second, third or even fourth time I nearly burned down my residence (with me in it) because of an embarrassing miscalculation. It traces back to high school when I caught myself on fire and was shortly followed by the time I draped a  pashmina over an exposed light fixture, a decision that nearly destroyed a multi-million pound residence in one of London’s ritziest neighborhoods.

Was I, London's biggest fan, destined to start its next Great Fire? Before grabbing the fiery pashmina, running it to the bathroom and drowning it in water, I imagined for a moment what trouble this would cause, never having been particularly prone to trouble-making.

The pashmina scandal would have meant baptism by fire—pun intended—shooting me straight from the front of the class into jail. People would be hurt, maybe killed. Their belongings would vanish, and with them myriad irreplaceable memories. And what would become of me? I watched my dreams of becoming Governor of Texas vanish into wisps of smoke. No self-respecting graduate school would admit an accused arsonist.

Fortunately, a quick reaction on my part precluded harm from befalling anything besides the scarf. I dodged injury on several more occasions, including at a college party when a drunk guy inadvertently lit my hair on fire, but my luck would one day run out.

Back in San Antonio, where it all began, at the hands of a highly potent candle. A gorgeous gift, seemingly harmless, that--once alighted--burned down at an alarming speed. Wax became liquid; liquid became fire; and I became transfixed-- not by the flames that so easily captivate one's attention-- but by an episode of Seinfeld on the downstairs' television, a little too far for comfort from the candle. Having finished the episode, I returned upstairs to prepare for bed when I saw the candle in its latest iteration. A terrifying, blazing, seemingly psychotic version of the benign gift I'd opened mere hours before. 

Previous encounters with fire hazards taught me that fire could be easily quelled with water, so I once again rushed the blazing product towards a nearby sink, but when I turned on the faucet, glass began to break. Wax spewed in every possible direction, marking the ceiling, cabinets, and windows of my childhood bathroom. I was miraculously spared, except for in one place: the top of my left hand, where molten wax imprinted the shape of the Playboy Bunny, a humiliating Scarlet Letter and perpetual reminder of my inept judgment.

Many years and one trip to the emergency room finally led me to conclude that I am ice to fire. You will be happy to know that I now avoid all flammable materials: scarves;  cigarettes; matches; and, most of all, candles.

Except for right now: I don't know how else to exorcise the remnant scent of buttered popcorn.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Where Has the Good Samaritan Gone?

My New York fairy tale was bound to end.

One cannot spend an eternity gallivanting around lower Manhattan without consequence: it just doesn’t seem fair that one person should be able to spend every day walking, reading, eating and writing without incurring any harm besides a diminished bank account and expanded waistline.

At every turn, architectural marvels and delicious cups of coffee. Would I like a bagel to go with my latte? Of course. No matter that I just made my fourth visit to Magnolia Bakery in a two-day span.

At the very least, I expected to encounter foul smells, well-concealed dog feces and cacophonous ravings during my neighborhood strolls. I’d step in it, literally and metaphorically, causing me to momentarily long for Texas, where nearly everything is accomplished from within private transportation.

All alone in a cozy space, where I control the temperature and music and ensure that expletive-rich-rants are limited to my own.

There’s just one problem. Occasionally one has to exit the vehicle, park within a chaotic sea of Chevy Tahoes, and make one’s way into anoversized, freezing cold restaurant.

Gooey sweet customer service smacks me like a Mack truck as soon as my waitress appears, donning loud purple earrings. Her bangs hang over her face like a curved awning.

“How are you today? Are you enjoyin’ your Tues-DEY?” For no apparent reason San Antonians insist on pronouncing every day of the week this way. WINDSDEY is by far the most jarring.

“I’m fine. And you?”

I should never have reciprocated her introductory question. She responds with a deluge of information about getting her child to school this morning; the weather outside; her favorite of today’s specials; and ends by asking me whether I’ve seen the latest blockbuster.

To which I reply, “Great, may I please have a cup of coffee?”

The effusive waitress with big hair inserts herself into every conversation between my friends and me as though adding two cents equates to two additional dollars on her tip. How wrong is she.

Southerners love to bemoan New Yorkers’ brusque and short-tempered antics, but I had never experienced discourteous behavior until this past Sunday when one person’s disregard for basic civility made me fall, then cringe, then cry, then question the essence of humanity.

I strolled towards my house after a heavy lunch and tiresome weekend when I paused at the intersection of Greenwich Ave. and 7th Ave. Before crossing the street, I carefully looked up the Avenue. Traffic, some two blocks away, steadily approached, leaving me adequate time to make my passage.

My next conscious thought occurred in the middle of the crosswalk, where my body lay facedown. Pain seared through my knee, right shoulder, stomach and finger tips—my hands held my face several inches from the asphalt.  

Looking up and to my right, I realized that I was in the middle of the intersection, thus extremely vulnerable to coming vehicles, the drivers of which seemed not to have noticed me since they made no apparent effort to slow down. To my left: a bicycle being lifted upright by its owner, who looked to be in much better shape than I. 

He and I locked eyes for a brief moment before he mumbled, “Watch yourself.”

I retreated to the safety of the curb before realizing that HE had crashed into ME. His bike ran over my midsection. His decision to ride against traffic rather than with it caused us to collide. And he didn’t even apologize.

Or ask if I was OK.

Neither did any of the passers-by.

A few months ago I wrote a story about how several strangers and I responded to a horrific roadside accident in Namibia. My story ended with, “The relative safety of the modern era means that we rarely anticipate or prioritize someone’s propensity for fight versus flight or their ability to stay calm and productive in difficult situations. Perhaps we should. There’s nothing more revealing or crucial, particularly when you’re the one dependent on a Good Samaritan.”

I naturally wondered this Sunday: where was mine?

The same question plagued me last November when I encountered a strange, albeit slightly amusing, threat—aggressive vervet monkeys who inflicted as much physical damage to my body as they possibly could.

My thigh post-attack. One of several horrific bruises to my body.
A number of people, some of whom worked at the sanctuary where I was volunteering for several weeks, stood nearby the enclosure where I was trapped with the three attacking monkeys. Some of them walked away. Others called out barely audible suggestions for how I could extricate myself. No one came to my rescue, nor did any one assist me once I had broken free.

The bystander effect—a harrowing scenario in which multiple people witness another’s distress without calling for help—has been attached to a number of publicized incidents, beginning with the Kitty Genovese murder in 1964. Approximately 38 people witnessed Genovese’s murder without intervening or calling the police.

What accounts for our unwillingness to react? Selfishness? Fear? Or could it be that we are painfully out of practice: too unaccustomed to threats of this magnitude to know how to react when one arises.

I will never forget watching footage of the 2004 Indonesian tsunami. Horrified to see people lingering on the beach as the tide receded. Some of them snapped photos or ruffled through their bags for video cameras. Others chatted idly. All of them transfixed by, but not the least bit fearful about, the ocean’s unusual tidal activity.

Animals had already made their way to higher ground, innately attuned to the slightest environmental shift.

Friday, March 4, 2011

It's Frigid & I Need a Fan

I grew up in San Antonio, Texas, where the sun always shines unless the city suffers a torrential downpour: even then, temperatures soar. Submitting to a San Antonio “cold front” is akin to staying home from school when you have a headache and mild sore throat. You think, “Hey, I feel sick. Not that sick, but kind of sick. I’m sure the day may come this school year when I feel worse, and I should probably save my “sick day” for then, but what if it never comes? Then I won’t have taken any sick days, and that's just pathetic.”

This logic seduces San Antonians into pulling out wool sweaters, gloves and padded North Face jackets as soon as the climate dips below 65 degrees, which happens approximately ten times a year. As the day carries on, the sun rises higher, bringing temperatures well above what was only marginally sweater-acceptable. Quick solution? Crank up the A.C.

Growing up, I never realized that in some parts of the world people don’t breathe in chemically-produced air. In Europe, people bypass air conditioners altogether, even during legitimate heat waves when they use a small fan, strip off outermost layers, and deal with it. 

We Texans are completely unable to self-regulate our bodily temperatures having become so dependent on air-conditioning, which is why I—at least once every summer—go out to play tennis and faint, then vomit, on the court.

And why I can barely stand to travel to places without air-conditioning, having adopted a very justifiable phobia of heat-induced embarrassment.  In Africa, where I spent several months this year and last, I feared the worst: fainting on day one in front of a handsome crew of European volunteers. I would have likely fallen into a lion enclosure, on top of a thorn brush, atop a mamba's den. 

I can only imagine, “Did you hear? The fat, loud American fainted and died. She probably ate too many cookies this morning.”

My body miraculously began to adjust, probably because I was a) so excited to be nearby wild cats and b) careful not to give my European friends any (additional) reason to despise Americans.

Now I have only one man-made temperature regulator to conquer: the HEATER.

The complete inverse of the mega, Texas-style A.C.

We never, and I mean never, had any cause to utilize our heater. When I went to college on the East Coast, I came to understand that it would be turned on for several months of the year, but I simply couldn’t tolerate the feel or smell of it. I feel nauseous just thinking about those first interactions with the brutal force beneath the window.

I struck a deal with my roommate: she could turn on the heater (on her side of the room) if I could open the window. I’m not sure why she agreed, because my window surely defeated any effort exerted by her heater, but the deal was struck, and we stuck to it. Similar compromises kept me sane throughout following shared living arrangements, but I’ve recently moved into buildings where I have no control whatsoever of the people beneath me. And, wanting a better view of outside surroundings, I insist on living on elevated floors where remnant heat from lower floors gathers like an incendiary mob.

Things are particularly bad in my new Manhattan apartment. Without a ceiling fan to combat the rising heat, I have been compelled to open my windows every night. But this isn’t San Antonio, Austin, Wake Forest, London, or D.C. The sounds that waft through my window  aren’t just people chatting or dogs barking: there are jackhammers; ambulances; and drunken transvestites.

I must, then, go purchase a fan. White noise will save me.

Surely this will be an easy task to accomplish given that I live in NEW YORK, the city that never sleeps, where every THING is available all the TIME.

I walk to the Duane Reade across the street and politely ask for a fan.

“A what?”

“A fan.”

“A heater?”

“No, a small desk fan.”

“It’s winter.”

“I know, I just want one.”

“We don’t carry them now. They’re seasonal.”

I’m off, this time to Bed, Bath and Beyond, the mecca of all things house-related. They offer the same paltry explanation with slightly more information, “We did have some because people were complaining about the heat in their apartments (probably all the Texans). But we sold out.”

I soon discover that big, obvious-to-the-mind places won’t carry fans for the aforementioned stupid reasons, so I will instead visit every small bodega or local hardware store that I can find. And maybe a few more Duane Reades.

When I query uninterested staff members, they look at me as though I’m crazy. I may as well be asking for methamphetamine or explosives, both of which would probably be easier to come by.

With no apparent remedy and the inability to walk to another Bed, Bath and Beyond (it really is too cold outside), I must do the painfully obvious (and equally annoying, to someone like me) thing: order one online.

It will come, sooner rather than later, and I will finally sleep to the sound of small blades gathering dust. And then, just as folks finally power down their heating units, I’ll be back on the hunt again: for a window unit.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Why I Hate Valentine's Day

I won't waste your time or mine describing the basis for my Valentine's Day disdain. Suffice it to say that most individuals--regardless of their relationship status--revile today for imposing itself so uniformly on the masses...

...and the tacky places that summon them with red roses and stuffed bears, including the Logan Circle Whole Foods, a place that eerily resembles CVS while adorned with such excessive holiday embellishments.

I have never seen such chaos, except for winter 2010 when blizzards threatened to cut off power, water, and all resources available to the city's then-anxious citizens. This evening's shopping maelstrom leads me to conclude that we owe credit for this V-Day chaos to men, who are such poor planners that they cannot imagine buying groceries or flowers any time before 6:15pm on February 14. 

Valentine's Day has committed more than this paltry offense against me. I awoke one year to pink eye in both eyes, the first and only time, I should add, that I ever suffered from this illness. Several years ago, I hosted my annual Anti-Valentine's Day party. The theme of my party inspired a pretty outlandish (albeit sexy) outfit: black leather pants and boots; a skimpy top and black motorcycle jacket. Unfortunately, I allowed myself to fall a little too deep into character, channeling angry biker chic by about 11pm. With a full house downstairs, I took my angry self to bed on the top level of the London flat I shared with two of my friends. And then, a most shocking turn of events: a boy, a cute one at that, gently knocked on my bedroom door. He emerged, eager to check on me and perhaps raise my spirits, but within moments my devilish cat (part-Bobcat, I'm sure) pounced on him, clawing at his arms, driving him away without hesitation.

The most ludicrous 2011 moment occurred midway through today, when I exited my apartment for a cup of coffee. Outside my door, carefully positioned so as not to fall, was a large box of flowers. Confused and delighted, I immediately assumed that my parents had taken pity on me and sent me flowers from their loved-up home in Texas. How wrong was I, discovering instead a different address on the crisp label: apartment 305.

The exact opposite of my unit, apartment 503. I huffed and puffed, retracted my imaginary thank-you to my parents and stomped down the stairwell to the third floor, where I deposited the flowers at the doorstep of their rightful owner. 

Friday, December 31, 2010

Twin Shots: A Photo Comparison of Texas & Namibia

Thousands of miles stand between them, creating one of the vastest distances I've ever traveled. States, then oceans, and African nations are crossed before my journey deposits me in Namibia, a relatively unknown country, about which almost everyone asks, "I should know, but where is that?"

Just northwest of South Africa, flanked by the Atlantic Ocean on the west, Angola, Botswana and South Africa on its interior borders. Namibia is the second least populated country in the world, second only to Mongolia, a rugged stronghold where few man-made distractions exist. Most interesting, at least to my native Texas eye, are the physical similarities between its terrain and Texas ranchlands (both places are bastions of cattle ranching). These curious parallels inspired the photographic comparison below. See if you can identify the photos taken in Namibia versus those captured in Texas...

Plains Zebras at the ranch, with full-bodied stripes.

Mountain Zebras in Namibia: their stripes pause at the belly.

The view of Namibia's Waterburg Plateau, from the Cheetah Conservation Fund.

Brady Creek.

A warm, fall day at our family's Texas ranch.
Tracking leopards at Africat.

Stunning December sunset in San Antonio.

Daily sunset in Namibia.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Disaster Strikes Midway to the Namib Desert

I have always hoarded past written work of every variety.

Several years back, I spent a lazy afternoon rifling through my childhood bedroom when I discovered an essay I wrote in the 6th grade entitled “Vacations and Holidays: How Bad Things Always Ruin Fun.” Such a young skeptic, disappointed by altitude illness on ski trips, poorly timed bouts of the flu, and one horrific car accident that practically wiped us out and unquestionably ruined Christmas. And yet I continued to travel, developing into a sort of modern-day vagabond. Someone who lives everywhere and nowhere, both prisoner and beneficiary of my own stream-like memories.

Still skeptical, less superstitious, and extremely enthusiastic: this was my frame of mind when I departed for Namibia this November. I arrived in Windhoek and shot off the following day, back to Harnas, a place I’ve lovingly written about during the past 15 or so months.

Thanks to new management and a horrible attack by vervet monkeys, my volunteering experience was drastically different this time, leaving me exhausted rather than revitalized. I left Harnas so physically and mentally depleted that I almost changed my flights to return home early, but I decided to stick it out for the sake of adventure. With a few days to spare before starting my next project, I joined a short tour to the Namib Desert, where rust-colored dunes encircle dead acacia trees and long desiccated riverbeds.

Our motley crew—2 American and 3 Japanese tourists along with a Namibian guide—all pile into the white 4-wheel drive vehicle early Friday afternoon. Besides two of the Japanese women, none of us knows one another, so we drive in relative silence, idly chatting about our African travels and how we all envy the Europeans for their 5-weeks of annual vacation.

We’ve been driving for almost two hours when we stumble upon a ghastly scene, the type normally reserved for big screen blockbusters.

A man furiously waves at our vehicle, some 50 yards ahead of us on a minimally traversed gravel road. To his right is a flipped truck, the cab of which is crushed to the bone.

We pull to an abrupt stop, discovering that he’s not alone. Under the shade of an acacia tree rests a young woman, who seems to be in decent shape apart from a broken leg. Beside her is a large male body, face-down in the dirt. We quickly surmise that he’s still alive but bleeding heavily from several head wounds. This man needs medical attention ASAP or, more precisely, a half hour ago when the crash occurred.

We are in the middle of nowhere, all but one of us incapable of communicating with the injured passengers. No one knows the location of the nearest medical facility. Interestingly enough, the other American in our group is a doctor, a neurologist to be exact. But he’s not a surgeon, doesn’t have the requisite tools, and is understandably worried about getting too close to an open wound in a country with one of the highest HIV rates in the world.

I alternate between feeling useful and paralyzed by exhaustion and fear, all the while thinking that events like these don’t occur in real life. These scenarios only crop up on law school exams. My inner lawyer can’t help but wonder: what duties and protections are created by Namibian law? Legal systems vary on these so-called “Good Samaritan” scenarios, with distinct rules reserved for physicians. Some countries require them to intervene. Most hold no requirement; rather affording the passerby physician increased protection should he decide to administer care.

I snap back from my philosophical digressions. We’ve no time to waste on legal what-ifs and discussions about the long-term. We haul the three into the car and drive like mad towards anything resembling civilization. Many wrong turns and confused conversations later, we find a medical facility where we leave the injured passengers. A local nurse assures us that she will arrange transport to the nearest big city, one that promises a staffed hospital (although the American-trained neurologist doubts that such facilities will have the expertise and equipment needed to prevent further injury to the man’s brain).

Leaving seems unfair, callous even. Like it or not, we’ve been roped into this situation, and I don’t feel comfortable just walking away. But we have no further assistance to offer, and I'm not calling the shots. We wind down the road, through the small town we’ve stumbled upon until we hit the poorly paved road leading to Sossusvlei, driving much more slowly this time.

Connecting with strangers has always been easy for me, customary now that I do so much traveling on my own. Experience supports the possibility of speedy bonding. But certain traits are naturally withheld. Challenging situations, the sort that force people to come together under unwelcome circumstances, may not arise for years, if ever. The effect on human relationships—we often don’t know how a person will react when the tough gets going until it does—would have been devastating to our ancestors. Survival depended on strength and the ability to respond to near-constant turmoil.

The relative safety of the modern era means that we rarely anticipate or prioritize someone’s propensity for fight versus flight or their ability to stay calm and productive in these difficult situations.

Perhaps we should. There’s nothing more revealing or crucial, particularly when you’re the one dependent on a Good Samaritan.