10.25.2011

AUSTIN, TEXAS AND MY NERVOUS BREAKDOWN


You know how sometimes you push yourself too far, too fast, zero to 80 in five seconds, every hour, all day long, for months--and then wham. 80 to minus zero in two seconds flat and flattened. That's where I went last night. I was already broken down anyway, having gone to Texas with an unspeakably awful cold, the kind that feels as though someone is sitting on your lungs. I was so sick I had to beg off my first night's dinner plans. I'm sure I have pneumonia.


Then there was Austin, and a cascading panic of loss.

Then I got home from Austin, after hours and hours and hours of delayed flights, and I realized I had left my cell phone and eyeglasses on the plane in Charlotte (no sign of them yet)...and after frantic calls to airports in Austin, Charlotte, Birmingham, and wherever else the plane might have gone, I began to smell something odd in the house, saw mysterious clumps of fat dead flies piled near the vents, went to the basement to find a broken sump pump, ground water rising, tiny corpses heaving with maggots and blow flies swarming lazily past me. And that was that. My house broke down. I broke down.

Nothing goes against the grain of slow love like going out and selling slow love.

And I'd do the whole thing over again in a heartbeat. It has been what in my day was called a blast. Meeting readers, sharing stories, listening to questions and finding ways to clarify what I'm groping towards, has been phenomenally rewarding. Thank you, all of you.


The Texas Book Festival, where I was to speak on Sunday, got an early morning groove in the Music Tent, where my old pal Larry Wright was on keyboard. Yes, The Looming Tower, his Pulitzer-prize winning book about Al Qaeda, is a magnificent achievement, and his recent pieces in the New Yorker on Scientology are terrific. But you don't really know Larry till you hear him (vocals, too--he sings the blues) with his band, Who Do. As I listened I thought back to my incredible colleagues at Texas Monthly--Stephen Harrigan, author of The Gates of the Alamo; Fred Woodward, who went to Rolling Stone from TM and is now the art director of GQ; Joe Nocera, now a columnist at the New York Times, and so many others. Given these accomplishments it is funny to remember what we were like in our late twenties and early thirties.

My festival session was guided by the inimitably elegant Helen Thompson asking lively questions (check out her design blog, too. Helen is one of those Texas women who is always perfectly turned out. A friend saw her out running at sunrise one day--she was in exercise clothes and her long red hair was in curlers. "You're not supposed to be here!" said Helen.)

A woman in the audience stood up and thanked me for writing Slow Love. "A friend of mine and I read it together, and we talked a long time about it. You changed my life. I had built up a very successful career online. But I wanted to make a change. Your book gave me the courage to do what I'd always wanted to do. I didn't want to be online anymore. I wanted to help people, touch their souls. So I became a chaplain. I talk to people. I break bread with them. I comfort them. You showed me that it was possible to make a radical change in life--and thrive."

It doesn't get better than that.

So where's the nervous breakdown, you ask? I was living in Austin when I got married, and had my first son. Austin is where we bought our first house, and did a major building project to add bedrooms for our family, and where I planted my first garden. Austin is where my son spoke his first sentence. Austin is where I wrote my first long magazine pieces. Austin is a place of so many significant memories.

And where did Austin go? I could hardly find my way around. Where there had been a sleepy downtown with one "tall" building, there was a booming skyline with weird, dazzling towers and glitzy shops. I just couldn't get my bearings.


Then I found the stunningly beautiful State Capitol Building, which, when it was completed in 1888, was billed as the "seventh largest building in the world", a classic piece of Texas hokum of course. When I landed in Austin the very first time, late one evening right at the beginning of the 80s, I was picked up at the airport by one of my new colleagues at Texas Monthly, a rollicking Harry Hurt III. He was driving an old convertible, wearing a Stetson and shit kickers, and smoking a cigar. Of course. He toured me through town, waving grandly at the capitol, shouting, "The Bloodshot Eyes of Texas are always upon you, little darlin', don't you forget it, you cannot get away." We had to circle the building several times till I noticed those red lights shining forth. Those blood-shot eyes are still upon us.

I decided to find what else was still there...and that took me to Barton Springs, the world's most beautiful swimming pool, reason enough to live in Austin.

Its frigid waters bubble up from an aquifer, filling an enormous limestone basin (enhanced long ago by the hand of a developer, shaped into the pool we know). I spent every summer day of my late pregnancy wallowing, literally, in that cold water, with my friend Julie Rose dandling her baby Kate next to me. (And I do wish someone had told me that my bathing suit, stretched thin by my vast belly, had become transparent, as I saw to my dismay in a photograph I recently found.) I was so sick that I couldn't swim, my chest heavy and my heart fluttering, but I sat and looked at the water for an hour and let the feeling of it wash through me.


Driving back, I stumbled upon a mountain bike park, lumpy earthen jumps built up in what used to be a regular old park (as I recall it.) I slammed on the breaks and watched the guys spin and whirl, and thought what a shame we left before Theo was born, because he would have loved growing up in Austin, what with the music scene and the boarder and biker scene.

There's something divinely inspired about creatures who want to defy gravity and fly through the air. I could spend hours watching kids on skateboards and trick bikes. Come to think of it, I have.


As I admired the dirt ballet, I started doing that internal whining/yearning for the past thing that I do so well especially when I am sick, featuring lamentations and the aria called "What if..."  What if we had stayed in Austin, we never should have left, we should have raised the boys there, etc etc etc. Until suddenly I realized that if we had not left, we would never have had Theo, because of course that unique and beloved combo of sperm and egg could only have happened exactly when it did and anything different, even something so small as missing a train, or so large as staying in Austin, would have meant that Theo would not have happened along. So that cured that particular monologue from the fifteen hundredth rerun of that internal soap opera.

As it always does. That's one thing you can say about children and divorce. No matter what went wrong, they were right. And they're there to remind you of the rightness.


I got a lecture from my friend Anne Barnstone about how urban density was good, the tall buildings meant a lively downtown scene; her husband had had a vision of what Austin could be thirty years ago and did a lot to get it built as it is. And that evening, as I pulled over a hill, I was startled by the apparition of a gigantic horrible bug magnified a zillion times, its mandibles ready to bite into the sky, but it was just what someone else called "oh, the toe clipper building." Surreal. And right then and there, I made my peace with the old Austin, the new Austin, the Austin that was, the Austin that never was, the Austin that might have been, and the Austin that never could have been.  

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