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Life

Shiny & Blue

April 9, 2020

I live in the hills at the edge of Austin City Limits. We have no lawns where I live. My driveway is dirt. The post oaks in front of my house have been inching higher since the Civil War. But where I live is less country than when I moved in; the rolling ridge that shoulders the two-lane traffic from downtown past my small neighborhood has been lined by hundreds of new rooftops; the night’s dark sky isn’t as dark as it used to be; and the swoosh of tires across that ridge of pavement continues deep into the night. Austin has grown.

I bought my acre when that night road was silent. I chose this place because its small house sat on a cliff’s westerly edge, offered a 180-degree view of a valley below — no houses in sight — and was located within minutes of an extraordinarily vibrant and off-beat city with a voice all its own. I could listen to the birds in the morning and the Blues at night, and in-between was silence.

The 5 Stages of Cool:

Stage 1: Artists discover a beautiful affordable town. They set up shop.

Stage 2. Trendsetters discover the hidden art community and christen it hip. Tourism follows.

Stage 3. Chic visitors become residents. Wannabees follow their lead. The town becomes a city.

Stage 4. Corporations follow the money because wannabes love nothing more than white chocolate mocha lattes. The city’s unique personality withers under the weight of international branding.

Stage 5. Demand pushes prices higher. Local artists and entrepreneurs are forced out.

And all that’s left in their mirrors is the fog of once cool.

Austin has thrived since the 1990s. The influx of tech and its money has made us shinier, sexier, cosmopolitan. New York. LA. Miami. Austin.

This new chic has brought us dozens of rising skyscrapers along Lady Bird Lake. Their sparkling lights offer the facade of life. But those of us who lived here before their rise, those of us who knew Austin, recognize the city’s mortal coil growing colder. Austin has become increasingly a destination and less a home. Out-of-staters have priced the people who shaped us — artisans, musicians, regular folks who once could afford to march to their own beat — out of their homes and away from our city. Imitation has replaced authenticity. The brand has replaced the place. Austin has become a grayer shade of blue.

My parents both worked but were home by 5:30. We had four TV channels and a lot of lousy radio. The internet wasn’t a thing. Neither did we have the overly-scheduled lives that today’s children have. Our nights and weekends were our own. We rode bikes, played in our yards, found things to do with the clutter in our garage. Life was slow.

Last night, a man bored within a pandemic, I again found myself with time to burn. So I sat in my yard and listened. The two-laner between all those new rooftops — widened a few years back into a high-speed commute for the boom of newcomers who wanted a country existence within the shortest possible commute — was quiet like it used to be.

Friends of mine in Houston have made similar observations. Lives have, too, slowed around them. One wrote that for the first time since he moved into his neighborhood he saw the family across the street, parents and children, playing in their yard. I’ve read the same from strangers on social media. Soccer practices and high-dollar vacations have been canceled. Nights out with buddies have turned into evenings home with wives. The amplitude of our existence has been turned down. We are decelerating to our natural speed. The presence of death has offered us a remembrance of life.

The threat of the grave is everywhere now. We view everything with suspicion as if but for this virus our bodies would live eternal. But that, of course, is a lie. Death is always near: bullets, illness, weird accidents that would be funny except for the toll. The sheer variety of things which can kill us inoculates us to the truth that we’re not long for this world. A distracted driver could hit you three minutes from now.

…gone.

But succumbing to mortality is only one form of death. There are more subtle ways of dying than a final heartbeat. Do you sense them now that you’re still? They — as sure as a distracted driver, a stage-4 diagnosis, Big Macs — have been killing us for years. They are the quiet deaths that rob you no less than your conclusion: death of home, death of intimacy, the death of pieces of yourself. These are the deaths which no vaccine will cure.

Covid-19, like Austin, is the bright shiny object getting all our attention. But Covid can only end you, and surviving its passage won’t alone bring you life. Because life requires more than functioning lungs. Life requires wide eyes and open hearts that inhale the natural world around you and the love of your people. Life requires you to be present. It requires that you surrender your time today so that it may enrich the time you have left.

Covid-19 will pass. What will you do if you make it through? With what will you fill your time between the black death and white sheet? What will flow through your mortal coil?

Nobody wants a pandemic. But nobody says we can’t learn from one.

Use its time wisely.

Life

Terrorism

April 29, 2019

Terrorism is bigger than the destruction of a building. Terrorism changes your priorities far more than it changes your skyline. Terrorism plunders everything in service to that singular necessity: survival. 

It begins with the loss of equilibrium. Your brain feels like it’s unmooring from your skull, melting into fluid; the room spins around you. Your hearing, too, struggles to maintain its grip on reality. If these signals accurately represent the short-circuiting that’s going on within the wiring that is your brain, you then sense nothing at all, and you won’t until you regain consciousness.

You wake in a pool of urine. It’s wet and warm underneath you, or cool if it’s been awhile. During these first conscious moments, you cannot cognitively put words to your name, nor the day, nor the month, nor your location. And so when you’re asked questions, even the most basic questions, your response is that you don’t know. But you do know the people you love, and you’re comforted if they are there.

As you embrace your foggy cognizance, you are sleepy, very sleepy, and you should be. Your brain just ran a five minute marathon. It has nothing left to spend. Your body, too, has thrashed and pushed and contracted and contorted until it burned every ounce of fuel it had in reserve. Left with nothing, barely even thought, your bewilderment turns to calm, and you sleep. You wake an hour or two later feeling as if you have never before experienced such complete and perfect rest. You have never felt better.

I was nine-years-old when I had my first grand mal seizure. It was Chicago, 1970, at a Holiday Inn. My last memories are of a hamburger delivered by room service, the desk mirror mounted on the wall before me, and the feel of the biting winter air brushing against my skin.

Darkness.

I awoke in an ambulance. My mother was crouched beside me. She held my hand as the sirens wailed and I heard my detached voice scream, “Am I in Hell?! Is this Hell?!”

Sleep.

The seizure followed a day after my doctor changed my massive dose of prednisone, a week after my body, severely weakened by disease, stumbled and slammed head first onto a garage’s unforgiving concrete floor. My doctor said he didn’t know if it was one of those two events or my newly diagnosed autoimmune disorder, dermatomyositis, that caused my epilepsy. It didn’t matter. That seizure and the ones that followed, as much as my soon-to-be confinement to a wheelchair, would control my family’s life through my teens into early adulthood, not because the seizures were daily, but because their threat was.

Auras” sound spiritual. But to an epileptic like I had become, they were the precursor. Auras signified that I was on the cusp of a seizure and sent me fleeing to a space free of triggers. My flights became so common that we – my mother, my father, myself – developed an order: I closed my eyes and crawled into my head, attempted to tune out every stimuli; Daddy silenced the TV; Mother rushed my wheelchair into my bedroom.

Mother pulled the top covers down; Daddy lifted me onto the sheet; she pulled the window shades tightly shut (even the smallest gape in the curtain was an opening for light and a cause for panic); he left for the bathroom; she sat by my side and whispered that she was near; he returned with a cool damp washcloth that she placed over my eyes to remove light’s final opportunity. And we waited.

I was on the bed. Mother sat on a chair beside me. Daddy remained on his feet, reclined against a wall, watching. I shushed every utterance and dived deep into the protective void of isolation.

The quiet lasted a few minutes, or fifteen, or thirty; every episode was different, but it was always the same. The result, most days, was a clear head and a cautious return to the living room. But other days my parents watched their only child convulse and jerk and twist and growl unaware, until I stilled.

I awoke.

Groggily, “Did I pass out?” Rarely came the answer I hoped for. ‟You’re okay now. Daddy and I are here.” Mother’s words were without fail gentle and never without her touch. Daddy motioned to her. She removed the cloth from my forehead and he disappeared from the room. He returned, handed Mother the cloth freshly cooled with water, and sat on the bed. His powerful voice was tender like Mother’s, “How you feelin’, Pal?”

“I don’t know.” Words were too confusing. Answers impossible.

“Why don’t you go back to sleep?” Mother said. “I’ll be here.” I drifted off.

We believe as adults that we’re autonomous and strong. We dismiss the herd instinct we understood so well as children and imagine that individualism is somehow more sacred than conformity. But five minutes of uncontrolled shaking and writhing brings to mind nothing holy but everything sinister. Convulsions, the loss of control to unseen chaotic forces, are the bane of creatures who require conformity. People were feared for this, imprisoned for this, killed for this. And, when a child among children exhibits this demonic-like activity, our primitive nature is empowered; we are helpless before that kind of helplessness; especially scared are the young. Children observing this affliction become as afraid as the epileptic – afraid of the epileptic.

“People won’t understand,” Daddy said firmly. Though I never seized in public, there was within the urgency of his tone a warning: Even a hint that I might seize would doom me. My father was a private man who frequently urged me to keep our family business within the family. But his admonitions to keep my secret our secret were different, almost pleading, like my exposure put us all at risk. I was a young adult before I understood why. 

It happened in 1936, a car wreck on the outskirts of Granger, Texas. The vehicle flipped and a teenage boy was thrown head first from the old convertible. My father’s first seizure soon followed. Another would see him kicked out of the military during the war within which his best friend, my namesake, died. I don’t know how many more seizures there were or under what circumstances. He never told me. But I do know their possibility so terrorized him that our doctor in Michigan had no idea that he had ever convulsed. That secret was held exclusively by a doctor in Texas who prescribed the medication that arrived in unmarked white boxes from twelve hundred miles away. Yet, despite decades of caution, of silence, of clandestine plane rides to Texas, that thing which Daddy fled still found him. In his son. For him to watch.

Terrorism is unrelenting.