The Wave

We’ve lived in Alpine now for 8 months. Hard to believe it’s almost been a year. I’m slowly getting used to it. Slowly. It’s so quiet here. Except for the train that rolls through town several times a day. It honks and toots and wails. I don’t mind it anymore. When we first arrived here back in April, I cursed that blaring, echoing horn when it woke me up at 3 a.m. on our first night. “Are you serious?” I hissed, bolting up in bed. Bret mumbled something about how I’d get used to it and then fell back to sleep. I quietly wept and whispered that we’d moved to hell. Lo and behold, Bret was right. Now, I sleep through that train. And during the day, I welcome its blaring, proud cry because it helps break up the long stretches of quiet in this town. That kind of quiet can easily unnerve a city girl like me.

Mostly, I’m adjusting though. I like that it only takes me 3 minutes to get to the grocery store and parking is usually hassle-free. They also don’t have parking meters anywhere in the city limits so parking is not just hassle-free, it’s actually free. I guess there aren’t that many people clamoring to get into those spots. I also like the sense of community I feel here. People know each other. I’ve gone to potlucks with almost all of my neighbors and I see many of the same faces at the grocery store. I don’t know everyone in town but I do feel like people generally keep an eye out for each other.

Admittedly, there are some small town rituals I’m still struggling to adopt.

For example, strangers wave at us. Perfect strangers. We’re driving down the street, let’s say, on our way home and a perfectly normal-looking man or woman in a perfectly normal-looking car passes us on the opposite side of the road, smiles, and waves. Bret always waves back and nods his head while I sit there, at once fascinated and uncomfortable. Why us? I wonder. Why is that person waving at us? Does she wave at everyone?

Bret grew up in the sticks outside Tucson so this kind of behavior is normal to him. “It’s just the way it is in a small town, babe,” he tells me, waving at an elderly man walking his overweight beagle. The man waves back. I half-expect the beagle to wave back too. “Do they wave at every single person they see?” I inquire. Bret shrugs, “Maybe. Or maybe just people they pass on the road.”

Wow.

I tried to imagine people doing that in Los Angeles. LA is a city of 13 million people. Freeways twist and turn like giant, concrete snakes and there’s less walking and more driving there. I spent a good portion of my life in my car when I lived in LA. I actually thought of it as my little apartment on wheels. I always made sure my car was stocked with snacks, makeup, a hairbrush, bottled water, an emergency first aid kit, a cell phone charger, road flares, and books and magazines in case I ever got stuck waiting somewhere. This was normal. Now that I live in a small town, I’ve come to realize that maybe it’s not so normal to spend that much time in one’s car; common in Los Angeles, perhaps, but not especially healthy.

As for the waving? I don’t think anyone ever waved at me in LA. When I would occasionally take my dog, Ruby, for a hike in Runyon Canyon, people smiled and said hi as they passed me on the trail. Sometimes I would be the one to initiate the greeting if I were feeling especially friendly that day. Sometimes the stranger and I would stop and commiserate about our dogs for a minute or so. It always felt so nice. So connected.

But waving at random people on the street? No way. People kept to themselves. Didn’t make eye contact. Didn’t engage. It’s a crowded place, Los Angeles. It’s hard enough to make it to your destination in under 30 minutes no matter where you’re going. So, there’s no time for waving. The thousands of other people on the road are a hazard at worst, a nuisance at best. Why on earth would one engage in waving at one of them, let alone all of them? Who has that kind of time or patience aside from a parade float queen?

The only time I ever saw a driver in LA personally interact with another driver was to curse him out for violating the rules of the road. I once saw two old men in tennis whites get into a fistfight over a parking spot in Old Town Pasadena. Occasionally you’ll see someone pause to let another person cut in front on a crowded freeway or intersection. And you can almost hear the collective “Awwww” from the other drivers on the road because it’s such a rare and wonderful event. But nobody waves at each other. Not for the hell of it. Not to say hi. Not to acknowledge each other’s existence. It never occurred to me to wave at anyone I didn’t know. It didn’t matter that we were sharing the same air, the same road, and the same city for, quite possibly, years. What happens to the human psyche in a society where we cease to have the time or interest enough to offer a simple hello? Do we become more suspicious? Cautious? Do we lose awareness of ourselves as part of a bigger community? Do our own needs become more important above all else? I don’t know the answer to that. But I do know that the more time that passes here and the more people wave at me, the more a part of the community I feel. The more I sense that my actions affect the lives of those around me. I’m understanding in a much more profound way than I ever understood living in Los Angeles that not only do I matter, but the people in my community matter too.

I still can’t bring myself to wave at strangers, though. I mean, I can reciprocate when someone waves at me first. I’m not a complete asshole. I wave back. I smile. I pretend not to feel totally and utterly awkward. I just haven’t reached the place where I feel comfortable initiating the wave. I never know quite when to wave and to whom. If the Sheriff drives by am I obliged to wave? What about a group of kids walking along the street? Do I wave at them or would that seem creepy? What if seven cars pass me on my way to the grocery store? Am I supposed to wave at all seven, or can I wave at one or two and the others will understand?

If we stay in Alpine long enough I suppose I’ll eventually feel comfortable waving at strangers. Maybe it’ll become second nature. We have this one neighbor named Shirley. She’s about 80 years old with short white hair and she’s just about the nicest person you’ve ever met. Full of energy too. She bounds around, smiling and waving at passersby whenever she’s outside weeding her front yard. She’s 80 and she weeds her own yard! I don’t even weed my yard and I’m 37. Shirley is an inspiration to me. She makes waving at strangers look so natural, so effortless, so un-awkward. I think it all comes from the fact that she doesn’t care how she looks. The kindness just emanates from her and it doesn’t occur to her to think about herself in those moments, let alone how she appears. Why should she? She’s downright lovely. And more importantly, it doesn’t matter. Kindness is beautiful.

So, for all the complaints I have about Alpine (too small, not enough decent restaurants, lack of an ocean), living here is slowly turning me into a nicer person, a humbler person, a person who can see the beauty in strangers stopping to say hello.

Happy Holidays! With love and a wave from West Texas.

I’m Back

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I’m back.

I took a wee hiatus from the blog for …oh, about 8 months. Not that you were counting. But you missed me. Tell me you did.  I missed me. I missed writing.

A lot has happened since my last post in September. In short, Bret and I quit our jobs at RSICA, left Amman, and we’re now living in Alpine, Texas. WTF, you ask?

In short, the film school in Jordan where Bret and I were both teaching, RSICA, was in dire financial shape. It was a precarious situation for us. So, after many hours of careful (often tearful) deliberation, Bret and I decided to cut our losses and quit. It was a painful decision, but ultimately the right one. We gave our two weeks notice, packed up our shit, and moved home to the states. That was in mid-February.

And the end of our Jordan adventure. Poof!

It was surreal coming home for good. Looking back on it now, our time in Jordan feels like a distant dream. I had always compared traveling there to tumbling through the wardrobe and finding ourselves in Narnia. When we would return to the US for vacation, nothing much had changed stateside. We would reappear as if we’d never been gone. Although, we felt different, even if only in perspective.  And then vacation would end and we’d sift our way through the layers of the wardrobe and find ourselves back in Narnia.

This time, we were leaving Narnia for good.

In late February, Abby and I moved into my mom’s garage in Grass Valley while Bret went to Los Angeles in search of a temp gig.

There are few things in life more humbling than living in your mom’s garage. Abby and I slept on what was essentially a beach ball even though it was technically an “inflatable bed.” My mom did everything she could to make us comfortable. She gussied up the garage with shelving units, a rolling clothes rack, and a quaint turquoise trash can from Ikea.

But it was still a garage and I was still 36 and living in it. I had hit a low point.

But in many ways, my time in Grass Valley was an important interlude. A time to reflect and deal with my feelings about what had transpired in Jordan. It took me several weeks to process my feelings about our premature repatriation. When I finally did allow myself to feel, what I experienced was a mixture of sadness and relief.

Relief because we were finally coming home to the US! Land of the free, home of the brave. I could wear a tank top in public without being ogled and possibly groped. The drivers, more or less, follow the rules of the road here. Whole Foods! Trader Joe’s! In ‘N Out! Abundance! Equality for women! No more call to prayer waking me up at 5:30 every morning!

But sadness because I was leaving the people I’d met and grown to adore. My producing colleague with whom I’d developed a deep friendship and my wonderful students! The RSICA students and my Aqaba International students will forever hold a place in my heart. I’m so grateful for Skype and Facebook because if I never get the chance to see my students again in the flesh, at least I get to see them online.

And sadness that I had left behind this amazing adventure, this life of an expat; an identity to which I had grown attached. There was an intrigue to my life, a sexiness. I was the American woman living in the middle east. My friends and family and even strangers remarked on how brave I was to live and work in a muslim country surrounded by warn-torn Syria and Iraq and the instability of Egypt and Libya. How positively brave!

I knew the truth. Jordan was reasonably stable and living there was actually no riskier than living in Los Angeles. But the middle east was far away, exotic, unusual. And as a result, I felt special. I felt like people thought I was interesting. It’s taken me a few months to realize that I was no more interesting in Aqaba or Amman than I was in Pasadena. I’m still me. I had some cool experiences and certainly learned many things about the other side of the world. But wherever I go, there I am.

And here I am. In Alpine, Texas!

WTF?

Yeah, it’s weird. Much like our move to Jordan, totally unexpected and yet singularly awesome. Bret got an assistant professorship at Sul Ross State University and so now we’re living in a different foreign country known as Texas. The Lone Star state. A state in which I never thought I’d live. A state that Louise from Thelma & Louise refused to even drive through while she was on the run from the law.

Alpine is a tiny (population < 7,000) West Texas town three and a half hours east of El Paso and six hours west of Austin. There is no Starbucks, no Target, and the nearest Wal-Mart is 45 minutes away. We do have a drive-thru liquor store though.

You may have seen the recent 60 Minutes piece on Marfa, Texas. It’s the artsy enclave 26 miles west of Alpine, and I kid you not when I say it puts Silverlake to shame in the hipster department. Marfa is so deeply hip that it has a state-of-the-art drive-in movie theater and a boot company that makes only one style of unisex vintage boot. These boots cost $500 a pair and are backordered 10 months due to popular demand. Here’s a link in case you want to up your hipster ante: www.cobrarock.com/

Marfa is also the place where No Country for Old Men, Giant, and There Will Be Blood were filmed. Very hip.

Alpine is less hipster-ish, although we do have a food truck. It’s called Cow Dog and it’s awesome. www.cowdogdog.com

Here’s the thing. I grew up in Northern California and then spent my entire adult life living in Los Angeles. Aside from our year and a half in Jordan I’ve only ever lived in the Golden State. I’ve traveled fairly extensively to Europe and around the continental U.S. but never actually lived anywhere else.

I’m being terribly blunt when I say that I’ve always believed California was the greatest state in the union. It’s beautiful, it has culture, and fabulous weather. It has Yosemite, Lake Tahoe, and the PCH! San Francisco and LA. And if you get tired of those places, you could always go to San Diego or Mendocino or Santa Barbara or Santa Cruz. California is beauty and more beauty. The Beach Boys wrote a song about its women and Jim Morrison too, although he was partial to the chicks in LA. My point is, California is amazing. Why would I ever leave?

Because it’s fucking expensive.

And if you don’t have a job, then it’s impossible to survive there. Unless you’re a trust fund baby. And while my parents have been more than generous with me throughout the years, trust fund baby I am not.

So, Bret and I were forced out of LA. Squeezed out like pus from a zit. Crass. Sorry. But it’s how I felt when we first left LA. I felt awful, pathetic, lame. I couldn’t hack it. I had tried and failed and was being kicked out of the club. A part of my brain still resides in the halls of junior high where I was the gawky new girl who didn’t belong.

But here’s what I’ve discovered since we moved here in April. I like Texas. At least, I like Alpine. It’s charming and interesting. It has yoga and pilates studios, some decent restaurants (albeit not many of them), a natural food store, and a park within walking distance from my house. There’s an ice cream and shaved ice shop called Murphy Street Raspa Company that my daughter adores and it’s housed in an old historical building made of wood and owned by a young woman with a dog named Rodeo. www.raspaland.com

Here are some photos of Murphy Street Raspa Co.

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And here’s a picture of Rodeo in his “cave:”

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There are train tracks that run through town, a volunteer fire department, and a tiny farmer’s market every Saturday morning. And I’m on a first-name basis with my local postmaster. She even stopped by our house to apologize in person when a package didn’t get delivered to us on time. This place has character. It’s unique and, while small, it has most of what one needs to get through the day. And then some.

As for the people, there are some rednecks. Like the owner of this truck (zoom in on the photo below to get a good view of those bumper stickers): Image

There are also big-haired anchors on the local Odessa news channel. And bugs the size of my arm. But there are also intelligent, kind, generous people here who come from all walks of life. One of Bret’s colleagues is from Ireland, and a fellow mom I met at the toddler library group hails from India. I’ve also met people from California and other states in the US.

And the people actually born and raised in Texas aren’t all closed-minded redneck bigots. I’m going to tell you straight up that that was my prejudice before we moved here. I had a deep-seated fear of Texas. I thought most Texans wore cowboy hats and shit-kickers and chewed tobacco and beat their wives. I knew that Austin had a cool music scene and prided itself on being a liberal-ish town. But Alpine? What was I to find here? Would my free-spirited daughter turn into a big-haired debutante who believes in creationism? And what about me? What on earth would I do in Alpine? Who would my friends be? Big-haired former debutantes who believe in creationism?

As a matter of fact, no. Not at all.

I’ve met liberal artists, writers, teachers, lawyers, and small business owners. I’ve also met and befriended some conservative folks and they have invited me into their home for dinner and made me feel welcome. And none of them have big hair.

See, Alpine is a college town. And while it’s not Harvard Square it has a student body of 2,000 and a faculty count just shy of 200. And where there are universities there are liberals. Incidentally, Alpine is in Brewster County and Brewster County is one of six (or so) blue counties in Texas.

Alpine is also starkly beautiful. It sits at an altitude of 4800 feet and is surrounded by mountains. Huge white clouds billow in a blue sky that goes on for miles. We have electric thunderstorms and the wind is not shy about making her presence known. I’m listening to the wind right now as she rustles through the trees outside my bedroom window. It sounds like ocean waves.

One downside is that it’s really dry and dusty here. I drink gallons of water and apply face cream a million times a day. But April and May are apparently the driest months. I welcome the humidity of summer.

And admittedly, I’m a city mouse so living in Alpine is taking some adjustment. I’m used to more noise, more places to shop, more people, more options. Life moves faster in the city. But these days, I find a little less of all of that quite appealing. Sure, I miss Trader Joe’s and the Hollywood Bowl but I like that I can get to the grocery store in literally 3 minutes. And I don’t hear helicopters flying overhead every night. Sure, the train that runs through Alpine a few times a day (and night!) isn’t exactly quiet but it’s a beautiful sound. Haunting. Like something from a bygone era. And the starkness of the landscape here is a constant reminder that the world is big and I am small. And that’s a good thing.

So, I’m back.

The evolution of a blog. First Aqaba, then Amman, now Alpine. Each place unique, each its own little world.

I will keep you posted.

And here is Abby. My girl. She’s almost three. Image