Dancers at the Parroquia in San Miguel de Allende

Road trip: San Miguel de Allende

gto mapThe bus trip from Guanajuato to San Miguel de Allende only takes about an hour and fifteen minutes, but the two cities feel like different worlds in some ways.

I’m bringing it up because I spent a few days last week in San Miguel, which is the only place in Guanajuato (the state) that most Americans have ever heard of. That’s because in this part of Mexico, San Miguel is Gringo Heaven.

I like San Miguel, it’s a charming colonial town with a beautiful cathedral, old-fashioned anklebreaker cobbled streets and a thriving artists’ scene. Over the years, I’ve run with the bulls downtown (back when they still did that), partied until the wee hours in the local nightclubs (back when I still did that) and enjoyed restaurants and coffee shops that always seemed a notch above the offerings in Guanajuato (which feels a lot more urban than San Miguel).

But I’ve always gravitated to Guanajuato. It was my first love south of the Rio Grande, the first Mexican city I’d lived in, the place where I learned to speak the language and love the culture. I picked it over San Miguel, which had plenty of language schools of its own, because of the gringo factor. My friend Ramon (a Mexican journalist and Zorba-like lover of life and explorer of the world) had warned me: “In San Miguel, everyone will speak English to you,” he said. “Guanajuato, you’ll be forced to speak Spanish.”

He was right. And it’s still that way. San Miguel is the third-most popular destination for American ex-pats, behind Tijuana and Lake Chapala near Guadalajara, according to the 2010 Mexican census. Guanajuato (the city) didn’t make the top 20.

In San Miguel, a good portion of the locals who work in the restaurants and bars and gift shops switch to English when they see norteamericanos coming. The town is dotted with little gated communities filled with north-of-the-border retirees and part-time expats – it also has a lot of artists and fixed-income retirees who rent places among the locals.

In Guanajuato, the restaurants and bars and tour buses are packed with Spanish speakers – the tourists here are overwhelmingly Mexicans from other parts of the country. In the two weeks I’ve been here, I’ve run into two people in the service industry who have a good command of English. There’s no “American section” that I know of. It’s a challenging place to navigate if you don’t speak the language.

It’s not that one is better or worse than the other. It’s just what kind of experience you’re looking for as an outsider. I like coming to Mexico and having to adapt to life here rather than being where a lot of the locals have adapted to us.

Some Americans like to argue about whether the gringos have ruined San Miguel (or more likely, older expats complaining that the newcomers are ruining their Mexican nirvana). I don’t live there. I don’t know. But San Miguel doesn’t feel like an Americanized parody of Mexico to me – it’s still a very Mexican town — and I always leave San Miguel feeling pretty good about the whole Mexican-gringo relationship.

For all the hand-wringing about the American (and Canadian and European) presence in San Miguel de Allende, it strikes me as a place where foreigners can be as insulated or as integrated as they want to be.

I have a different perspective on the place now that I have family-by-marriage in San Miguel. My cousin Doug married a local about five years ago, and this month his wife Bety came back to San Miguel from Austin with their daughter for a long visit with her family, so I hopped a bus to see them.

church pews
Bety’s father’s handiwork

Bety played the tour guide, taking me to a couple of local restaurants and bars, visiting the Catholic temple that still had the heavy wooden pews her carpenter father had built three decades ago, strolling through the parks and the outdoor art fairs and the main plaza where a folkloric dance troupe had drawn a big crowd of locals, tourists and expats.

I first met her family when Doug and I – and my brother and sister-in-law – flew down for Doug’s first meeting with his future in-laws years ago. I was the official translator (No pressure). Bety’s family made me feel like a member of the family the moment I stepped through the door. It was the kind of hospitality I’ve encountered all across Mexico over the years.

Bety and her dad
Bety and her dad

A little snapshot of the cross-cultural stew in San Miguel: A couple of years ago her dad (now a widower) began renting out the extra space in his mostly empty nest — two self-contained apartments on the second floor — to a retiree from Dallas and a couple from Canada.

Bety and I sat on the new rooftop terrace with the woman from Dallas and drank wine and talked. She loves Mexico. Wants to live out her days there. Likes the people, the low cost of living, has both American and Mexican friends. Her Spanish is pretty rudimentary, but she makes an effort (and she gets a kick out of the irony of Americans complaining about Mexicans not learning English when so many Americans move to Mexico and don’t try to learn Spanish.). She has meals with Bety’s family sometimes. She and Bety’s dad (who speaks about as much English as she speaks Spanish) sit together and somehow cobble together conversations.

He gets extra income from his tenants. They get a nice, cheap place to live — with rooftop views of the city to boot. And there’s a lot of mutual respect. It works.

I hear Bety and her family talk about how much the town has changed over the years with all the foreigners moving in – the tourist/expat money pouring into the city is a big plus, the rising prices for property and other things is a minus. I know some longtime expats worry about San Miguel losing the small-town colonial charm they fell in love with.

But they’re all sharing the city in apparent harmony, and the place hasn’t lost its soul as far as I can tell.

It works.

The local grocery store, Comercial Mexicana

A gringo learns to shop in Mexico

One big advantage of renting an apartment in Guanajuato is that I get to live like a resident more than a tourist — because I have an actual kitchen. That requires grocery shopping — and a lot of walking.

I went to the grocery store on my second day here. It’s about a mile from the apartment and looks nothing like an American grocery store from the outside, mainly because of the steep flight of stone steps you have to climb to get in. Inside, it looks like a small version of a Wal-Mart: rows and rows of groceries, plus housewares, appliances, car tires and house paint. They even sell motorized scooters.

I wanted to stock up on all the necessities, but after a few aisles I realized how heavy my little plastic basket was getting. I thought about the walk back – a mile of weaving through crowds and traffic on skinny, uneven sidewalks. If you ever want to break yourself from impulse purchases, park a mile from the store and hump your groceries on foot. It’s revelatory.

I started re-tracing my route and putting things back, doing grocery triage based on weight and necessity. The grapefruit were too heavy. The family pack of paper towels was too bulky. No bottled water, no six-pack of Victoria. I ended up with three bags, which gained approximately 1 pound of weight every 5 blocks I walked. By the time I got to the apartment the plastic bag handles had nearly severed my fingers.

After that I decided to shop like most locals do, grabbing what I need, when I need it, from the little neighborhood shops that fill every major street in the city.

The walk from my apartment off Callejon Tecolote to the Embajadoras market is roughly a half mile, and I can get pretty much anything I need along the way. Embajadoras is an old-school Mexican market, with an ancient, dark building housing butchers, florists, produce stands and the obligatory countertop street food joint. Outside, a dozen or more vendors are selling fresh fruit, ice cream, cheap clothing, bread and all varieties of organ meats under plastic tarp roofs. It’s a riot of people and smells and colors.

On the walk there, Blood of Christ Street is lined with bakeries, tiny variety stores, clothing and electronics shops, pocket restaurants, you name it. Some of these places can’t be more than 6 feet wide and 12 feet deep, packed floor to ceiling with stuff. I’ve been in shops so small that there’s only room for me and the clerk. It’s a very intimate way to buy gum.

imageI like shopping this way. It’s less stressful, for one. I’m on foot, so traffic and parking are instantly eliminated. And buying from small shops is an entirely different experience for Americans used to big boxes and drive thrus. The butcher hand-cuts everything to order (including the bacon). The woman across the aisle weighs my eggs on an old metal scale with sliding weights and tucks them into a plastic bag for me. The woman at the bakery is brushing a tray of pastries with butter and singing along with the radio as I browse.

This morning I walked to Embajadoras and back and made six stops for six items. Total bill: about ten bucks. I figure it took roughly the same time it would have taken me to drive to H-E-B, park, navigate 30 aisles and drive home back in Austin. For about half the cost.

groceries

If you’re curious about the local prices, here’s today’s purchases, plus some other stuff I’ve bought:

Butcher 3 bone-in pork chops (1″ thick) $3.25
Produce stand Mushrooms (approx. 15) .55
General store Eggs (1 dozen) 1.15
Convenience store Mineral water (1.75 liter) 1.15
Coffee shop Coffee (1/2 lb, ground fresh) 3.20
Bakery 1 empanada w/ham, pineapple and cheese, 1 cookie 1.15
Taco stand 4 al pastor tacos and a coke 4.00
Water guy 5 gallons water, delivered 1.60
Gym 1 month membership (’70s prices, ’70s equipment) 20.00
Local bar

Movie ticket

1 craft beer, 1 shot house-infused mezcal 4.50

2.25

 

 

plaza rain painting

Guanajuato, day one: the alley of the owl

GTO balcony view
The view from the rooftop

I was bleary all the way here — finding out that your 7 a.m. flight was cancelled and you now have a seat on the 5:15 will do that — but getting off the plane Tuesday gave me the adrenaline buzz I always get when I come to Guanajuato. It’s been like that since I came here as a 25-year-old looking to improve his Spanish and have an adventure. Back then, I had just quit my job at a newspaper to finish a book I was working on…

Yeah. Here we are again, 20 years later.

Life is circular, I think. Guanajuato definitely is. More on that shortly…

Mario was waiting at the tiny airport. Mario works for the woman whose apartment I’m renting for the next six weeks. She lives in New Hampshire and bought the place in ’99. She’s planning to retire here someday. I get it. Guanajuato has a certain gravity to it once it gets into your skin.

Mario tends the house for her. He’s very polite and upright and friendly, like most guanajuatenses I’ve ever met. Good people. On the drive, I tell Mario this is my seventh or eighth trip to Guanajuato and that I studied Spanish here two decades ago. Turns out Mario is old friends with Jorge, the guy who ran the language school I attended. Great guy, I say. He sure was, Mario says. Jorge died a few years back, he adds. The car gets quiet.

callejon del tecolote
callejon del tecolote

He parks and we hump my luggage up a very steep pedestrian street called Callejon del Tecolote — the alley of the owl. It’s a marginally famous landmark around here: Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla marched down this alley in 1810 to start the revolution against the Spanish. A year later, his head was adorning a spike on the walls of the Alhondiga about a half mile from here. He’s on historical markers, murals and statues all over town; Mexico loves its martyrs.

The apartment is off a side alley so narrow I can nearly touch both sides at the same time and so picturesque that I take a picture. As Mario works the locks, a German Shepherd on the roof of the house across the alley starts barking and snarling — it’s amplified in the tight alley, as if we’re at the bottom of a stone well. Guanajuato is the most paved place I’ve ever seen, an endless maze of stone, brick and concrete. And because it’s in a valley, it becomes an immense bowl of echoing noise. I’m glad the apartment’s isolated from the cars and crowds of the main streets.

snarlario
click photo to see Snarlario up close

Mario opens the door and gives me a quick tour. It’s a spacious place, all tile floors and wood-beam ceilings and plaster walls. It even has a little side courtyard full of fruit trees and plants. The best part: a rooftop terrace with stunning views of the city. I take a few snapshots. The roof dog – who I’ve dubbed Snarlario – seems close enough to snag my camera.

I unpack, wander the rooms, think about a nap — I’m operating on about 4 hours’ sleep. But I’m too amped up, and too hungry. I stroll downtown and have lunch in one of the touristy places along the Plaza de la Paz, grabbing an outside table with a view of the basilica.

Lunch, in true Mexican fashion, runs two hours. The waiter is young and polite but in no hurry and assumes I’m not either. And he’s right. I’m just watching the city go by. And before long I’m watching re-runs. I noticed this about Guanajuato years ago: sit still long enough downtown and anyone you might be looking for (or avoiding) will pass by at some point. It’s like the works of some enormous antique clock, everyone orbiting on their own little gear, which is interlocked with all the other gears that all rotate toward the common center at regular intervals.

I spot the black-sweatered, philosophy-major-looking student for the second time. Then the young couple with the baby passes my table for the third time. The father has stud earrings and a modified Mohawk, mom has wild black hair with blonde highlights, and baby girl has her hair tugged into a dozen plastic barrettes so it’s poking off her head like fuzzy spikes. Then it’s the guy in the Red Sox cap and cargo shorts (thick-legged and scruff-jawed; he could pass for a Southie any day). He scowls at the prices on the menu; half an hour later he’s on a bench across the plaza eating street food out of a paper wrapper; half an hour after that he’s clomping across the plaza from an entirely different direction. It’s circular, this place.

I’m happy to see that the important stuff hasn’t changed: The Jardin (the city’s central plaza) is still bustling under the deep shade of the laurel trees, which are still clipped impossibly square. The mariachis still smoke in the shade, waiting for the tourists to come. The university still looms over everything like a Moorish castle. Truco 7, my favorite coffee shop/hangout, is still there, and so is La Dama de las Camelias, the quirky bar decorated with women’s shoes where I used to drink with my fellow Spanish students. The mountains still circle the city, the air still tastes like minerals and the people still speak that crisp Bajio Spanish that sounds like a song.

I see plenty of changes by the time I finish my walk back to the apartment (with a quick stop for tequila and beer. You know, writing supplies). Sure, I saw the expected American cultural incursions: a Starbucks off the Jardin, a KFC near another historic plaza. But they’re subdued, with modest signage, trying to fit in. TrucoEverywhere I look, the city seems … renewed. The downtown buildings have fresh paint. The corners all have snazzy new street signs and all the local points of interest have sprouted fancy metal information towers. There’s fewer street kids begging, fewer mongrel dogs sniffing around, less trash and dog shit to dodge – even the streets seem freshly scrubbed. Is the Pope coming or something?

But there’s something different about the people, too. Grown Mexican men walk around in short pants with no apparent embarrassment. I see two or three gay couples – also Mexican – being conspicuously together in public, also something you’d never see here in years past. Then the big shocker: a guy with a leashed dog leans over and picks up his dog’s fresh deposit with a plastic bag. Amazing.

Day One ends at a balcony table at El Gallo Pitagorico, a cliffside Italian restaurant with some of the best views of the city. Night falls, the city lights rise, the Estudiantinas – the city’s strolling minstrels who dress in medieval costumes – start leading the night’s throng of revelers up the narrow callejones, and their song echoes off the old stones as they climb into a perfect night.

estudiantina

(Here’s a short clip of the Estudiantinas)

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master new floor 2

How not to write a novel in six easy steps

So anyway… where was I? The Cook Islands, I think. Then a long silence. So let me recap the past six months or so; we’ll call this “Six ways to not work on your novel for months at a time.”

  1. Finish major editing and decide to put the thing down for a month or so. This was the plan – and I say that with the caveat that my life is almost completely unplanned at this point. I got back to Austin from Colorado in September after chopping 200 pages from the manuscript and had a big blowout weekend with my friends at ACL Fest in early October. Then everyone left and … well, I fell into a pretty good funk (guyspeak for “depression”). I clearly underestimated the psychological impact of blowing up some of my life’s main structural features. I’d been a journalist for more than 20 years, and now I was… what exactly? A writer? A wannabe novelist? I just knew I wasn’t ready to dive into the book again. I felt drifty and twitchy. Much pacing around the house. Which meant the only cure had to be…
  2. ripping out carpetStart a major house project. This began innocently, with a Craigslist post in November. I forget what I was actually looking for. A lamp? The ad I spotted said: bamboo flooring, 400-plus square feet, $50. Really? And it was the same flooring I used in the investment house that I’d sold to pay for this whole adventure. Floating floor, cut it and click it together. Easy. I called the woman and within a few hours I had a garage full of slightly used flooring, figuring it was enough to re-do my master bedroom (for the record, I’d never laid a floor in my life). That, of course, led to new baseboards, new door trim, fresh paint on the walls … and hey, guess what? She’d actually sold me about 650 square feet, enough for all three upstairs bedrooms. They gotta match, right? Two positives from this: a full renovation of the bedrooms, and it kept my mind and hands busy all the way through January (which is when I decided to build a platform bed, a headboard and two nightstands, because I’m a masochist). And by then I was starting to think, “Hey, weren’t you writing a novel or something?” So I decided to…
  3. Sign up for writing workshops and dabble around with the novel. The Writers League of Texas rocks. They really do. One way in which they rock is by doing these workshops for folks who are anonymously toiling away on their various books. I signed up for a couple of them focusing on revising and rewriting. They were great. They got me fired up. I started messing around with chapters, sketching out character bios in more depth. I showed my mess of a manuscript to my friend Lisa, who gave me great (and positive) feedback. I was back, baby. There was just one little thing I had to take care of first…AAS
  4. Become a writing consultant/part-time editor. Just before the Cook Islands trip in December, I ran into Bob Gee, the state desk editor at the American-Statesman (my former place of employment), who mentioned that he needed a backup editor to help during the legislative session for a few months starting in February. It paid reasonably well, and it was evenings only. Perfect, right? I could work on the novel during the day, then edit at night. Then I had lunch with another Statesman editor friend, Andy Alford, who wanted me to work with four of their younger metro reporters as a writing coach. Sure, I can do that too. We’ll meet in coffee shops and dissect their writing. Fun. Even more cash flow (my nest egg was shrinking). Plus, I love working with writers. She also wanted me to do a few round-table discussions on writing for the whole staff – which turned into a rather massive open-ended conversation about the state of writing at the newspaper, and that turned into me organizing seven critique groups for about 40 writers. When I looked up at the end of the legislative session, it was the end of May, time to…IMG_1787
  5. Renovate a house you’ve never seen, 750 miles from home. Somewhere in the middle of all that freelance work, Nathan called. Nathan’s the guy who bought the aforementioned investment house from me. He liked what I’d done to it. And he’d just bought a vacation house in Taos, New Mexico and wanted to know if I’d go up and work on it. Taos? Never been. Heard good things. Why not – can’t turn down another income opportunity, right? So a few days after finishing my consulting/editing gig, I left a set of keys for the California family that’s renting my house for the summer (thank you again Craigslist) and drove Nate’s F-150 up to Taos. The house was… well, not particularly fresh. Picture nicotine-tinted walls, rat shit in the corners, and a general air of neglect perfumed with a musty stink. About four days into my 3-week stay I got a nasty sinus infection that laid me up for a week. Taos is worth its own blog post, so I won’t get into the midnight bear visit and all the rest right now. The short of it is, I got the project finished, loaded up the F-150 last Wednesday and spent two exhausting days on the road (thanks to ear infection #2), getting back to Austin just in time to…WLT conf
  6. Go to a writing conference and get reminded what the hell you’re supposed to be doing. The Writers League’s Agents and Editors Conference was last weekend at the Austin Hyatt. Three days of schmoozing and drinking and going to panel discussions on all manner of writerly things. But the highlight is the agent consultations – if you’re willing to lay down $50 for 10 minutes of face time with an agent. Which I was. Even better, I got my first two choices among the agents (it’s a bit like 300 nerdy kids trying to buy dates with the same 10 or 15 prom queen finalists. Everyone walks around asking each other, “Who’d you get?”) And preparing for that first consult was exactly like getting ready for my first real date. Racing mind, sweaty palms, muttering to myself. Except this time I had a page of notes to study beforehand (but no Binaca). The nice volunteer lady showed me to the table, the agent smiled, and I blurted out the entire plot of my novel in about 3 ½ minutes without taking a breath. He smiled, nodded, and said: “Sounds interesting. Send me the manuscript when you’re done with it.” Which, to continue the analogy, felt like getting to second base – better than I did on that first date in 1985 in my dad’s monkeyshit brown Olds Omega. Two hours later, I was sitting across from another agent, who was a bit less amped about the book, but asked for the first 30 pages. First base. I’ll take it. And now that the conference is over, it’s time to…

IMG_4715Go to Mexico for six weeks and get back to work on the novel. My plane leaves in the morning. I’ve rented an apartment in Guanajuato, one of my favorite places in the world – and also the home of two of my characters. So hopefully I can channel them in the winding cobblestone streets while I whip this fractured mess of a book into some form of coherence. I’m not sure what to think about the past six or eight months. I was mostly very busy, mostly earning money, occasionally paralyzed by my freedom, intermittently guilty about not working on the book. But if nothing else, I spent most days doing something I love to do. Even if it wasn’t writing. I’m going to call that success.

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just married

Barefoot Christmas Wedding in Paradise (with Ukuleles)

Those of you who follow me on Facebook probably saw that I spent Christmas week in the Cook Islands. Where? Yeah, that’s what I said when my friend Eric (the same Eric who let me stay at his cabin last summer) said he and his fiancée were planning a beach wedding during the holidays. I had to google it. I’ll save you the trouble: it’s in the middle of the Pacific, thousands of miles from anywhere you’ve heard of. You know New Zeland? Kind of in that neighborhood… but not really. You fly Air New Zeland to get there, and the locals, who are Polynesian, speak English with that charming Kiwi accent and use New Zeland money (except for their odd little triangular coins, which are guaranteed not to roll under the couch when you drop them).

But as you’re flying to Rarotonga, the big island in the Cooks, you realize you are in the middle of f-ing nowhere. It’s a good 2,000 miles from New Zeland, or roughly the distance from New York to Albuquerque. The whole island is 20 miles around – you can bike it in about 2 ½ hours, including a beer break – and spiked with soaring, jungle-shrouded mountains, a la Jurassic Park. You half expect velociraptors to greet you at the airport. Instead, you get a sweet old man in a straw hat who plays the ukulele and sings for every arriving flight.

P1040859It’s that kind of place. It’s basically a small town (15,000 population) surrounded by thousands of miles of ocean. Which would drive me to anti-psychotics in about a month. But the first thing I noticed on Rarotonga is that these were the happiest, most chill collection of people I think I’ve ever met.

I can say that because I went Christmas shopping there. I live in a pretty chill town, but even Austinites get a typical American case of the crazies during the Christmas shopping season. They’re still polite in the mosh pits at the stores, but you can see the glint in people’s eyes, that cornered animal look that comes when they feel that someone’s gonna beat them to the last Ice Skating Elsa Doll west of the Mississippi.

Not on Rarotonga. After the wedding party got settled into our sweet beachfront resort and we all ate and drank ourselves catatonic for a few days, I decided it would be a good idea to get my Christmas shopping done. On Christmas Eve. So I hopped the local bus (they have two routes, “clockwise” and “counterclockwise.” Impossible to get lost there) to town and dove into the whirling Polynesian shopping throng.

The shops on Rarotonga were hopping on Christmas Eve. Jammed parking lots, lines at the counters, shoppers squeezing past each other to fondle hand-painted sarongs and black pearl earrings – the whole holiday scene, island-style. They even had decorations with Santa and the sleigh and reindeer — in a place that saw its last snow during the last ice age. It was cheery in a contextually jarring sort of way.

The thing is, nothing felt rushed or chaotic or stressful. The islanders were all smiling, relaxed… busy as hell, but completely unflustered by any of it. A woman at the cash register offered to help me pick out sarongs (and leave her post when people were lining up). “Aren’t you slammed?” I asked. “Nah, it’s fine, it’ll all get done,” she said. Nobody glared or rolled their eyes or anything. This is a special place.

It’s worth noting that this was my first Christmas away from my family. In my life. That was strange by itself, but even stranger was spending the holiday in the muggy, drizzly near-silence of a small tropical island that had shut down for the day. Peaceful, but disorienting. I was thinking about my family back in Texas: dad feeding logs into the fire, my niece and nephew tearing into what was surely an obscenely large stack of gifts. I felt very, very far away all of a sudden (which it was: 5,500 miles to be precise).

I went for a short bike ride. Ate at the resort restaurant for the 14th time. Read my book (aptly, it was Bill Bryson’s I’m a Stranger Here Myself). Waited for the hours to pass until the wedding the following day.

The wedding was storybook pretty and surf casual. I’ve never walked barefoot through sand at a wedding, but I consider it my karmic payback for all those toe-pinching tux shoes I wore in I don’t know how many weddings. Eric and Sarah got married on a little island just across the lagoon from the resort. We all packed into a glass-bottomed boat for the 3 ½ minute voyage through three-foot-deep water, hopped out, waited for the bride’s flotilla to arrive (bearing Sarah and her sarong-wrapped bridesmaids). The whole thing took maybe 15 minutes, then the ukulele serenade began, we all piled back into the boats and proceeded to eat and drink ourselves buggy again while Paul, our local friend/ambassador, tried to teach a group of drunken Americans how to dance like a Cook Islander.

P1050099

And that’s how the week ended, with a lot of knees and elbows and feet twisting and thrusting in unfamiliar positions while a deejay played typical American wedding fare (yes, including “You better shape up” from the Grease soundtrack) and we downed Matutu lagers and the sun set over the lagoon way out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

I think I was hung over all the way to Los Angeles.

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fall color 2

Autumn in Michigan

Pentwater in autumn
Pentwater in autumn

There’s a fire roaring in my uncle’s enormous fireplace, the red wine and cheese and crackers are disappearing fast, and Pentwater’s literature lovers are dissecting 30 pages of my novel. It’s my aunt Mary and her book club friends Bev and Ellen. They’re smart, well-read women, and I’ve given them several chapters about my main female character so they can spot any flaws or holes. They talk about those 30 pages for two hours.

This is good timing. I’m working on my characters now, trying to deepen them, give them more dimensions. I’m writing long bios on all of them, even the minor characters. I’m picturing them in my mind in different settings, listening to them talk like an eavesdropper. You can’t eavesdrop on your own imagination, can you?

I just returned from a quick visit to Michigan. I come up regularly, typically in July or August to escape Austin’s heat and get my fix of Michigan’s summer charms: swimming in Lake Michigan, walking on white sand beaches under a sun that doesn’t punish, eating my weight in lake perch and sweet corn and cherries. I stay in Pentwater with my aunt Mary and uncle Bert, who have spent most of their lives here and now live in a big home they built back in the woods, a short walk from the big lake. Every time I come they take me in like a lost son.

Pentwater seems eternally unchanged, swelling and shrinking with the seasons. It swells in the summer with tourists and beachcombers and pleasure boaters from Chicago and Wisconsin, then empties out after Labor Day weekend and sleeps all winter. I’ve been coming here for as long as I can remember. My grandparents had a cottage here, on Bass Lake, and my family made the drive from Kalamazoo (where I was born) on summer weekends so my brother and my cousins and I could spend our days playing in the lake and catching frogs in the drainage ditches and running off our energy outside while the grownups sipped manhattans and talked about whatever grownups talked about.

We left Michigan for Texas when I was 12, and it took me years to shake the pang of nostalgia that would strike every September when Texas was still mired in summer heat and I knew the leaves were changing and the air was turning cold and bright back in Michigan. It’s been more than a decade since I’ve experienced Michigan in autumn, and now that I don’t have to ration my vacation days, I wanted a big dose of it.

It was pretty much a perfect fall week: crisp air, pumpkins on porches, leaves painted red and orange and yellow, doused in slanting fall sunlight that makes it feel like the golden hour all day. Bert and Mary took me on our annual pilgrimage to Scotty’s in Ludington for perch, we’ve made homemade Italian sausage and pasta, I drove down to Grand Haven to catch up with my cousin Courtney (another literary soul who’s supported me throughout the writing process) and to South Bend to catch up with my cousin Megan (who’s about to move to Chicago to take a great new job running admissions at the University of Chicago’s business school).

A few years ago I came here for two weeks while I was writing the draft of my novel and wrote each day on their sun porch, then walked on the beach in the evenings. So it was nice to come back with a finished draft and let Mary and her friends have a look. They like the character, they think she’s believable, and more importantly, they care about what happens to her. Bev said she was disappointed when she finished – she wanted to read more. Also good. They gave me some suggestions, asked good questions, and had me jotting notes to myself about changes I need to make. Then we had homemade fettuccine and Italian sausage. A good night all around.

And a good visit. It was a nice break. Now, back to work.

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ACL 2014 at Zilker Park

Moshing for Beck

I’m going to get back to work on the novel. Really I am. As soon as I can take a breath.

Austin, you’re a beautiful distraction. But I really need to get back to work now, I have this book I’m trying to … what’s that? ACL? In the park, with highs in the mid-80s? Well … just for a few days.

Of course I was going to Austin City Limits. I’ve gone for 13 straight years, through the highest highs (more transcendent performances than I can count, from Arcade Fire to Café Tacuba to Los Lonely Boys in the gospel tent) and the lowest lows (the Year of Dust, the Year of Mud, the skin-melting 100-degree days, and we won’t speak of the night that Bob Dylan sent 10,000 people rushing for the exits after three songs). It’s an Austin ritual, an orgy of sun and bodies and sweat and flags fluttering above the writhing masses. And it kicks my ass every year.

It’s about more than seeing the bands and hitting the food tents (which are always good. Thai fried chicken at a festival?). For the last eight or nine years, it’s been an excuse for my core group of friends – guys I went to college with that have stayed close ever since – to get together for four nights of musical brotherhood.

Everyone stays at my house (which becomes a sort of middle-aged dorm all weekend).  Thursday night we party like it’s 1989: the kitchen counter fills with bottles, the fridge fills with beer, everyone makes a drink and catches up a little, then Jerry, my freshman year roommate and the group’s Minister of Music, plays cuts from a couple dozen obscure bands so the rest of us can figure out who we want to see. Most years we segue into a trip down musical memory lane, playing road trip anthems from long-defunct Austin bands, maybe breaking out some bad ’80s hair bands or old Sabbath.

We drink. We swap stories about jobs and kids and marriages, we talk about favorite shows from past ACLs, and at some point Buck – the group’s Minister of Jokes – starts throwing down some of his best material until some guys are laugh-crying. This year the festivities went until 4 a.m. (I was out by 1:30, for the record) before everyone flopped onto whatever bed, sofa or air mattress they’d claimed.

Walking past the Stevie Ray Vaugan statue to Zilker
Walking past Stevie Ray’s statue

Then, suitably sleep-deprived and hung over, we lather on sunscreen and walk all day in the heat and the sun – starting with our ritual mile-and-a-half hike along the lake from the American-Statesman parking lot to Zilker Park.

ACL always shrinks the city for me. My friend Dan, who I met at the UT student newspaper 25 years ago this summer (happy anniversary, brother), is always there with his neighborhood crew. I bump into co-workers, old friends, former students. It’s like going to a small-town July 4 parade, everyone you know is probably somewhere in the crowd.

Dan and Dave, ACL 2014
Dan and Dave, ACL 2014

It never fails to test my stamina. Every year the sun seems a little hotter, the crowds a little denser, the evening walk back to the car a little longer. And I know it’s just me getting older. This year, all of that was magnified by the shift from mountain to city. Going from the cabin’s solitude to a milling mass of 70,000 people was kind of dizzying the first day. Then Jimmy Cliff, decked out in gold and grinning like it was his first time on stage, started playing and everything was good.

This year gave us the best ACL weather ever, thanks to a perfectly-timed Thursday night cold front, but musically it didn’t have as many highlights for me – there wasn’t that early-in-the-day band each day that blew my mind.

Jimmy Cliff
Jimmy Cliff

But there were enough: Jimmy Cliff, Spoon, Ozomatli, Lana del Rey – I even got into Eminem’s show a lot more than I’d expected. And then there was Beck. A few of us moved up close to the stage for this one, which was only possible because Outkast had siphoned off most of the crowd to the other side of the park. Beck, who’s two years younger than me and still looks like a video store clerk, delivered a great big rock and roll show that made me glad I made it 13 in a row this year.

Now where did I leave that novel I was working on?

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Pearl Jam on the big stage
Pearl Jam on the big stage

Re-entry to civilization and my film debut

I remodeled the master bath in June and got to use the shower three times before leaving for the mountains.
I remodeled the master bath in June and got to use the shower three times before leaving for the mountains.

I was happiest to see the toilet. The shower was a close second.

I’ve been back in Austin nearly a week. It’s a strange sensation, going from mountain solitude to the fast river of a big city again. Traffic on I-35 felt like it was moving 100 mph for the first couple of days. The house smelled different. And suddenly it seemed like I had a hundred things I needed to do.

I’ve been in constant motion. Cleaning the house, finishing the final touches on the bathroom, re-stocking the fridge, knocking out some small house projects, and most important, re-connecting with my friends and with the city. I’ve met a half dozen friends and my aunt for lunch or dinner in less than a week, which is a lot of socializing for me. This weekend is the music festival, I’ll have five friends camped out for the long weekend. And I still have a long list of people I want to see. It’s been a lot of fun. Exhilarating. The novel will sit on the back burner until next week.

Yesterday, I drove to Victoria and shot a scene for a movie. Guillermo’s wife, June Griffin Garcia, is an actor and asked if I could play a magazine reporter in this indie film she’s in. Sure, why not. I shot a short video audition and emailed it to them, and they hired me (I suspected I was the only choice, but June tells me there were others, including TV anchor types). I only had to memorize about a dozen lines for two quick scenes (reporter interviewing a main character), and hey, I can play a reporter with my eyes closed, right?

The film is called The Sauce, and all I can say is that it’s a comedy about high finance. And most of it was shot in an empty office at the Austin American-Statesman, my recent ex-employer. Alas, my scene was shot 120 miles away in a semi-legendary Victoria barbecue joint called Mumphord’s. I drove down with the Kansas-based actress I would do the scene with, feeling very much an amateur after hearing her talk about beginning her singing/acting career at age 6.

My acting career, of course, was launched by American-Statesman reporter Andrea Ball’s straight-to-DVD production Destroy Roy, about a newspaper staff being roiled by budget cuts and Internet competition. I had two lines, I think. That was in 2008, and I have to say my acting career has been in a bit of a rut since then.

When we got to Mumphord’s, which was closed for the day, I hung out and chatted with the owner (a prince of a man named Ricky Mumphord) and watched the action until it was time for my scene. The crew was small, efficient, professional. They got the extras in place (eating barbecue in the background), then ran the first scene six or seven times, changing camera angles, changing the action, having to start over when a brisket-seeking customer barged in. I got my makeup done, changed into a reporterly button-down shirt, ran through my lines in my head again and again until they called for me.

Immediately, the director changed the order and had us do the second scene first. Which rattled me enough that I flubbed the pre-shoot practice. I had three little lines — 13 words total – and I couldn’t spit them out in the right order. My co-star was gracious enough not to roll her eyes, but I could feel the sweat beading up at my hair-sprayed hairline.

After the two whiffs, I took a deep breath, waited for the girl to snap that little clapper thing they use before each shot (“scene 92, take one”), then the director yelled “action” and we were off. Somehow I managed to get those 13 words in the right order this time, the director was satisfied, and we moved on to the first, longer scene. After the first try – in which I apparently sounded like that computer-generated weather service voice — the director basically said, “Don’t speak like a Vulcan. Use some inflection.” He said it in much nicer, gentler way, probably thinking that he didn’t want to rattle an amateur for an important scene.

This is actually the first scene in the movie, the director said. I had the first line in the first scene in the movie.

No pressure.

We shot it six or seven times. I blew my lines a few times, because I was focusing so hard on talking like an actual human being, and the director called it good and sent me home.

So if this fiction writing thing doesn’t work out…

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Coming down from the mountain

Words to live by: the paperweight my friends Buck and Patty gave me. It stayed next to my laptop all summer.
Words to live by: the paperweight my friends Buck and Patty gave me. It stayed next to my laptop all summer.

I’m packing up the cabin, cleaning out the mini-fridge and writing a goodbye note for the bear (we had some good times this summer). Tomorrow morning I’m heading back to Austin, where I’ll keep working on the novel.

I’m excited to get home. I’m not at all sure what my life’s going to look like when I get there. Hopefully I can bottle this mountain simplicity and bring it with me.

I know I’m going to be a little giddy at first as I get reacquainted with the wonders of civilization: turning a knob and getting clean water from the tap, the porcelain brilliance of a toilet (don’t get me started, I could write poetry about flush toilets at this point), Internet at your fingertips, cell reception everywhere you go. And more importantly, I get to see my family and my friends.

I’m going to miss the mountains, and living in a world that feels very compact and slow. The days seemed to drip by like winter syrup; I could almost feel my senses waking up again. The smell of pines and spruce and the scrubby little plants that give off this musky, herbal scent when it rains. The shifting shadows on the mountains every evening as the sun sets. The sound of a raven overhead (a raspy whoosh-whoosh, like an old foot-pump loom) or a grasshopper snapping past your ear like stripped electrical wires touching. And at night, silences so deep that I could close my eyes and swear I was in the Michigan woods after a heavy snow.

Living in the cabin never fails to remind me how little I really need to be happy. Even the little slice of my worldly possessions I packed into the Kia for the summer was too much. I could have left half of it at home. Give me my music, books, a laptop to work on, a camera, a few clothes, some favorite DVDs, and I’m good.

I’m looking at the top shelf of the little kitchen cupboard I nailed together 10 years ago – my first cabin improvement project. It’s filled with antacids, Pepto-bismol, Nyquil, ibuprofen, allergy pills — all the stuff I needed in Austin to knock down various bodily bothers that seemed to be coming with increasing regularity. After the first week or so up here, I haven’t touched any of it.

I suppose the explanation is simple: less stress, more peace. I’m doing exactly what I want to do, I’m exactly where I want to be and I control the rhythm of each day.

A little voice keeps whispering, “But this isn’t the real world.” Which is true. It’s easy to lose your mountain zen when you’re stuck in Austin traffic on a 100-degree day and the A/C conks out. But then I remember: I quit my job. Right now it’s very real, and right now is all I care about.

When I go back to Austin, for the first time in 18 years I won’t be going to the newsroom five days a week. I’ll have to find a new rhythm, and it’s going to be a big adjustment. In some ways, it’s going to be like a new city, I think.

I’m grateful that I’ve been able to spend so much time here (big thanks again to Eric and his parents for making that happen).

I could probably squeeze another month or two before the snows come and the cabin is truly cut off from civilization, but the Austin City Limits festival is coming up soon. I go every year, and every year my house fills up with friends for the weekend. It’ll be like a homecoming party.

My plan is to stay and write in Austin through the holidays, then head to a new writing destination early next year. So if people are still interested in reading, I’ll keep writing…

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The view from 12,000 feet

The Little Blanco Trail, where it gets a bit narrow and scary
The Little Blanco Trail, where it gets a bit narrow and scary

I wanted to do one last hike before I left Pagosa, and I wanted to challenge myself a little, so I picked the Little Blanco trail, not far from the cabin. It’s rated “difficult,” and they weren’t kidding. It’s one long climb, and in places, the combination of a narrow path, loose rock and gravel and steep drops made me wonder what the hell I was thinking. But once I got to the top, to a little mountaintop “lake” called Quartz Lake, the views took my breath away — what breath I had left after 5 miles of humping up a mountain.

I’ve fallen in love with my new camera, a Panasonic Lumix GF1, and decided to try some short videos so you can experience the hike a little more vividly. Hope you enjoy them.

quartz hike 1

quartz hike 2

quartz hike 3

quartz hike 4

A middle aged guy quits his job to finish his first novel. Will he get published or see his dream crushed like a bug?