Walking with Dogs

Most of the folks around here celebrate Cinco de Mayo on May 5th; I celebrate my dear friend Petri Blue on this day. We were together 11 1/2 years, and six years ago today, she gave up the ghost.  Petri Blue

I covered a lot of terrain with that dog, as she was definitely the outdoorsy type. When we moved to Austin, we first got to know this town and surrounding areas by way of the greenbelts and trails: Bartholomew Park, Barton Springs Greenbelt, Wilderness Park and Zilker Park, Pease Park, Reimer’s Ranch, Bull Creek. I always felt safe exploring the woods with just her, assuming that her presence would deter any threats we might encounter (this was probably misplaced confidence – Petri never hurt a fly (and to me, never really looked remotely capable of such a thing), but all those folks back in Athens who used to yell “look at that big black dog!” and scream or shy away, and ask “does it bite?” made me think she was at least intimidating to unknowing strangers).

Today, I took my current furry companions (~1/6 and ~1/8 Petri-size) to Bull Creek, on a remembrance hike. Griffin & Busy, they are good sports, and provide an effective counterpoint to remembering a dog very different from them.

Pete, her prime directive was fetching (a thoroughly programmed labrador retriever). A ball, a stick, a broken old frisbee she found in the brush, whatever. She didn’t care about other dogs (unless they were going for her ball or stick), and might notice another person if they looked like they could potentially throw something. I let her off leash to run, because she never went far, and came back on command. She stayed on the move constantly, hunting up throwable items from the underbrush and only stopping to drop said item in the middle of the trail if/when she found something.

Griffin & Busy are all about territory. Sniffing, marking, barking their bloody little heads off when another dog comes by. Can’t let these two off leash no way no how – they need wranglin’! I try to distract them with treats from my pocket, and keep a good eye out ahead on the trail so I can be prepared for any close encounters.
As long as no one else is around, its a pretty peaceful time. I did feel a little vulnerable on the trail today, as I’m not as confident these dogs could protect me from harm, even though Griffin’s shriek is ear-piercing and frightening in its own right. These two have made me appreciate how amazingly easy Petri was to be with.

Needless to say, time and circumstances have kept me from walking/hiking with these dogs as much as I did with Petri. She required it, and made it easy, so we went out 3-4 times a week. I’m lucky to get these two weensies out beyond our neighborhood once a week.

It is so therapeutic out there, on the trail. I noticed on my walk today that my mind slowed down, and thoughts came at an comfortable, familiar pace, set by the rhythm of my footsteps, heartbeat, breath. That internal calmness is rare in me these days, as I’m usually fretting over money, my house, my job, my lack of creative activity, yadda yadda. Walking with dogs brings me solidly into the present. That’s how they roll, too, not regretting or worrying about an unknown future, but wholeheartedly in the present. Note to self.

As I pondered these canine-inspired wisdoms, Jennie the dog from Higglety-Pigglety-Pop came to mind. The main character in my favorite children’s book, Jennie thought there must be more to life, and wandered out to find it, without much of a plan (but following her instincts), and losing everything she had packed along the way. Over the course of her journey, she did acquire that elusive thing that would satisfy her yearning for something more: experience. Once she had that, everything else fell into place, and she lived happily ever after.

Maybe I should follow the dogs, and just trust that my journey is a good one, instead of trying to wrangle and pursue some pre-defined measure of success. Maybe the best path to a well-lived life is learning to live in the present.



A sense of place

Every March since 1987, Austin becomes the place where people from around the world flock for the annual South-by-Southwest (SXSW) festival & conference. Austin is many things, but SXSW defines a pretty big chunk of the city’s personality.  In 14 years, I’ve never splurged and bought a badge or wristband for this event, like so many thousands of people do every year, but I have had fantastic experiences in and around SXSW otherwise.  Fresh off SXSW2010, I’m reflecting on my life in Austin, growth & progress, and the spaces off the beaten path where I tend to find my bliss.

When I first moved to Austin, I was given the tip that “volunteers” were paid $50 a night to work the door at a SXSW music venue.  That sounded like a nice supplement to my minimum wage and the $$ I earned donating plasma.  I ended up volunteering for SXSW for 5 years  in a row (eventually, I had a job where spring break was paid vacation, so I was free to morph into a club-prowling night-owl, working downtown 5pm-2am ).

In 1996, I was assigned to the Driskill Hotel (a historic and reputedly haunted place) for a singer-songwriter showcase in 1996 (complimentary shrimp cocktails and chocolate covered strawberries from the kitchen next door made it feel even less like work).  The fact this venue was on the second floor was a blessing for a SXSW newbie like me – the drunken throngs couldn’t just wander in.  But boy, were they out there on 6th street when I exited the hotel around 1:30am!  Debauchery!

The next three years I worked at the Electric Lounge, Emo’s, and Liberty Lunch – (I don’t remember which year-which club), clubs where I saw some rockin’ shows over the years:  Sonic Youth, Sleater Kinney, the Butchies, the Donnas, Man or Astroman, Blond Readhead, Knife in the Water, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown are a few I recall, and they hosted poetry slams, puppet shows, and Beastie Boys dance parties, too.  Two of these places no longer exist, thanks to the  “progress” of  “downtown revitalization.”  ~Sigh~  Lofts and tech industry offices.  Yay.  “Let’s provide tons of new, expensive, chic housing downtown, and then reduce the number of entertainment options available.”  There is a flaw in this plan.  An equally disturbing cultural loss and administrative “whoops” is now being echoed in the pending closing of UT’s Cactus Cafe. But I digress…

One of my most persistent SXSW memories (not by choice, mind you) is the night I inadvertently screwed over one of  my favorite musicians:  I tried really hard to stick around to see Vic Chesnutt (I’d seen him previously at the aforementioned Cactus Cafe, as well as in Athens, GA venues), headlining at the Electric Lounge (I think that’s the right club)…alas, the volunteer pickup van wanted me and all the cash I was holding back at the cashier cash-out pronto.  In my frustration, I left without leaving Vic’s manager his payment check for the night (one of my cashier duties).  Double whammy – I missed his performance, and I jacked up his cash flow.  I heard he was pissed.  I hope he didn’ t hold a grudge.

On a lighter note, I think that was the same year it was freezing cold outside, and SXSW door duty was out on the curb – the club bouncers & I shoved pocket warmers in our skivvies and socks, and drank whiskey & hot chocolate all night – worked like a charm.  SXSW Survival Skills 101.

In 2000, The last year I volunteered for SXSW, I was assigned to work the Texas Union Ballroom (another UT Campus venue, although not currently endangered). Unfortunately, I wasn’t terribly present (fretting over my ornery 13yr old brother, who was living with me, and *not* thrilled I was working this gig) and didn’t pay attention while Daniel Johnston played.  Oh well.  That ballroom is a good space, and I’ve seen Ani DiFranco play and Maya Angelou speak there. I can’t complain.

So even though I haven’t club-hopped with my $300 badge to see all my fave bands play 30 minute sets at different locations around town, I had some really enjoyable & memorable experiences that solidified Austin as a place for me.  I got to be an insider in the night-club and music scene during spring break.  How cool is that?

The last few years, I’ve taken a different tack, enjoying the free peripheral events (much more laid-back, chummy little happenings just off the main thoroughfares officially booked for paying conference-goers).  There are shows at stores, restaurants, and clubs too tiny or seedy or off-the-beaten path to charge admission.  There are house parties all over the place.  The crowds are small, the free beer and festival food are great, the company (usually friends and acquaintances) is grand, and there isn’t much stress involved (worth big points in my book).  Maybe I’m getting lazy, but it sure is nice to not fight the crowds, to have room to explore, chat, sit, wander away and come back, whatevah.  I even performed at one of these shows, in front of people, in a costume, with a partner, in a clogging routine we made up to go with a song Amo’s band played, all on somewhat of a dare.  Good ol’ fashioned, from the heart, cheap-as-dirt fun.  Just can’t beat it.

This year, I didn’t look at the published SXSW schedule once (really, not even once).  I followed Amo & her band to 3 different venues (2 houses and one cafe).  DNN played three shows. We had the pleasure of seeing good friends unexpectedly.

The sun shone as we spent all day Friday at Cafe Mundi to support the Girls Rock Camp fundraiser and say goodbye to another favorite place (Mundi is closing today, thanks again you annoying s-o-b progress).  The local and international bands we saw gave spirited performances despite technical difficulties (who needs electricity anyway?).  We met up with our friend Sara from Atlanta.

We froze our booties off walking around on Saturday (crazy weather/temp swing is sooo Austin!).  We met up with our friend Abe from NYC, and wandered through the Austin Convention Center and into Flatstock (poster art show).  We ran into our friend and former landlord there – his family founded and runs the Austin Record Convention. They were selling records, so we bought a few for our newly-acquired turntable.

We passed back through the Rainey Manor house party (where we started) on the way back to the car, for a few more free performances by friend bands, free beer, and a sausage wrap.  Amo spontaneously asked the Garden Posse gals to screen-print her sweater.  Then home again, home again, jiggety-jig.

So even though this SXSW thing has grown exponentially, from a modest local music festival to an international music/film/interactive technology extravaganza (and many lament that it has grown too big for its britches), all is not lost to progress: there is still space where we can find intimate, moving experiences with people and places.  I am comforted to know that if I wander along the fringes, away from the epicenter of thronging masses, at the edge of progress, I will find what I’m looking for.


tree huggin’

I love Austin’s green spaces and places.  When I first moved here, I hiked several times a week with my best pal Petri Blue.  I remember thinking how fantastic this was, to have wild places within the city limits, that the people here didn’t let the urbanscape obliterate the natural beauty.  I remember wondering why these Texas woods smelled like hamsters, and how in the world I could so easily have a private walkabout away from the hustle and bustle of town without having to make a road trip.  I’ve since  learned about the overgrowth of Ash Junipers in the local landscape, commonly called “Cedars” and I think they smell like the cedar shavings used in hamster bedding – mystery solved.

This city has grown a LOT in the 15 years I’ve been here, but it still cherishes its watering holes and greenbelts.  Amo & I went for a long and lovely hike on part of the Barton Creek Greenbelt this past weekend, and among all those cedar were some treasures:  grand old oaks, sycamores, berry-bedecked holly, creeping vines, ruins, and a gushing-rushing creek (rare in this neck-o-the-woods) .  I forgot my camera, but Amo’s phone worked fine in a pinch.

We wandered off our main trail (aptly named the Hill of Life) on a whim, and found ourselves on an adventure, destination unknown – a controlled sense of being lost can be invigorating!

We found  a groovy tree with a needle-eye hole in one of its branches, and the spikiest, scariest greenbriar vines we’ve ever seen.  We found remnants of an old tree fort and rock wall.  We found other awesome things we can’t write about here because we want to surprise our friends on our next outing.  Take a gander:

I spent soooo much time as a kid wandering around in the woods alone, imagining fairies and elves and indians and such.  I’m so glad Austin has allowed me to keep the hobby as an adult, giving me plenty of stomping grounds to wander and find the hidden and unexpected things, spaces to let my imagination run wild.

Amo summed things up nicely when chatting with an acquaintance we met on the trail out (it is a small world after all):

My walking stick?  Never leave home without it.  I like to poke things.


2009 retrospective

Looking back over the last year, we realized a lot has happened, and we’ve done A LOT.  Remembering is a good mental and emotional exercise.  We are so grateful to have such wonderful family, friends, and colleagues, who make our lives so rich and fun.  The paragraphs below include many highlights from 2009 – we know we didn’t get everything, but this gives a pretty good overview of our year.

On the Home Front, we made lots of improvements inside and out.  Outside work included painting of trim, fascia, and doors (goodbye country blue!); backyard landscaping to address erosion and improve drought tolerance including a retaining wall and fill dirt to level out the walkway to the side gate, crushed granite to line the walkways and reduce the amount of water-needy grass, experimental swaths of native prairie grasses, and a rainbarrel installation.  Inside, we had roller shades installed on livingroom and kitchen windows, put up new stylish curtains on pantries, got a new microwave (glue wouldn’t keep the old one together – believe me, I tried), and a new credenza in the living room.

Between the two of us, we’ve enjoyed many professional accomplishments:  Amo was elected to the ISEA board, received a hefty University Continuing Fellowship Award, and attended four professional conferences: ASTE in Connecticut, AERA in San Diego, CAST in Galveston, and an NSF P.I. conference in D.C..  Mel attended the OR09 conference at GA Tech in Atlanta (conveniently also visiting with family & friends).  At the Library, Mel initiated a web committee and introduced the use of several Web 2.0 tools (a library news blog, internal Sharepoint wikis, LibGuides); coordinated completion of a Library website refresh (including a major facelift on the homepage); agreed to chair a professional committee; and hired/managed her first full-time supervisee (this list helps me assuage the nagging feeling of getting nothing done at work).

Even though much of 2009 was hotter than hell (literally), we still played outside alot:

  • Palmetto State Park camping with friends, twice, for birding, hiking, lounging, eating, drinking, laughing, eating, drinking, napping, storytelling, acoustical music playing, burning things, sharing.  Best campfire food experiment:  toasted marshmallows stuffed with homemade lemon curd.  yum!
  • Neighborhood park volunteer cleanup
  • Birding hike in Balcones Canyonland with neighbor friends
  • Water play – Barton Springing & pontoon boat play day out on Lake Travis with the posse
  • ~5 months of group training with friends, culminating in Mel biking on a relay team in the Danskin Triathlon
  • sweating it out at the Blanco Lavender Festival volunteering at our Juniper Hills Farms friends’ product tent, cured by blissful evening dips in their infinity pool
  • wandering streets and beaches of Galveston
  • hiking and picnicking with the posse at Reimer’s Ranch
  • riding our bikes as much as we could, to see free show at SxSW, explore the East Austin Studio Tour, and take weekend morning rides with our friends followed by diner breakfast grub-outs.

We have had much fun on the musical front:  we saw Amy Ray @ Stubbs, and Flight of the Conchords at Bass Hall (Amo won free tickets on KUT radio!); our West Lake Bitches garage band practiced for the first time in January and gave our first live performance for an audience (including strangers) on New Year’s Eve;  Amo’s bluegrass duo project the Honeytones (where she gets to vamp on her treasured Collings mandolin, newly acquired this year) has been gearing up for their first public performance;  Amo taught upcoming tweenage rockers at Girls Rock Camp; DNN news: the never-say-die band found a new best drummer Karl, celebrated the release of their second full-length self-produced album ROCKET, and played raucous fun show in San Antonio (among many other local shows at new venues like Club DeVille, Lambert’s, the Moose Lodge, etc.).

We celebrated well on the holidays: Valentine’s Day traditional dinner date at Little Thailand in Garfield (last time we would see the gregarious host/proprietor Mr. Dick Simcoe, RIP); Easter Brunch at Juniper Hills Farm; 4th of July swimmin’ & eating at Phe’s house in Arlington (mini-flag decorations included); Halloween candy give-out followed by backyard firepit fun with friends; Thanksgiving and Christmas in Arlington with family; New Year’s Eve WLB performance followed by dance party with unexpected drunk neighbors in attendance.

The family news bag was mixed this year:  In chronological order – Amo’s dad passed away unexpectedly (our friends planted a memorial tree in our backyard);  Phe turned 65 (we dined well and got cultured at the Dallas Museum of Art to mark the occasion); my brother-in-law enlisted in the Army, and shortly thereafter, he and my sister announced they were expecting their first child; my grandfather passed away.

Notable milestones: Inauguration of Barack Obama (hallelujah);  Amo’s birthday (swimming at Barton Springs, Paramount Marilyn Monroe movie, Tex-Mex at Polvo’s); new (ish) car – we love our Toyota Rav4; our 6 year anniversary (we got rings!); my birthday (Galveston b & b, beach-walking, seafood-eating).

Other travels and random fun: Amo went on family vacation to the Disney-parks in Orlando; Mel visited good friends in L.A.  We saw David Sedaris read; we put on costumes for our friend’s 40th birthday-Yacht Rock party and a pre-Christmas Wig party.  We dance a lot – it is good for the soul.

One Year Ago today

One year ago today, I lost my dad. He passed away in his sleep, probably due to a massive heart attack or another, would be 3rd, stroke. As I’m sure we all were, I was shocked to get the phone call, around 8am that my mom found him already passed, in his room, the next morning. But, I know he would have so much preferred to go that way, in his bed, in his sleep, than to have another stroke/heart crisis and end up hospitalized. I always thought there’d be that small window of time; time for me to get up to Arlington in 3 hours, and say my goodbyes at a hospital. But, that was my wish, not his. He would have never wanted a final hospital goodbye. Not in a million years.

The last time I saw him was Dec. 28, exactly one month earlier, after Christmas, before New Years, and before his magical 2 week trip back to Hawaii with mom. He was helping me pack Christmas-loot into the trunk of my car, a few minutes before I headed back to Austin, and handing me off yet another one of his beautiful lanterns for my own collection, which is really his collection transferred. I talked to him a couple of times while he was in Hawaii and I was in snowy Connecticut on a conference trip. He sounded fantastic and was punnily joking on the phone, I’m sure. He sounded better than he had all year, more life-like. We thought he was improving and so did he.

I was able to talk to him the night before he died, on the phone. He was eating a fantastic suth’n meal, home-cooked by the best chef I know, and was overall, chipper. I was asking him about drug expiration dates for my upcoming wisdom teeth surgery. Nothing more than a 4-minute shooting the breeze, giving the day’s reports, getting some medical advice, and then a “OK, love you too, here’s mom.”  And that was it.

I’m remembering him today. I’m walking, writing, and at noon, will go eat some Tex Mex and drink a margarita in his honor. Tex Mex and ‘Ritas, probably 2 of his favorite things.  Tonight, I will light a lantern.


Let’s imagine the mass of scientific evidence that points to climate change due to anthropogenic causes is a big warm fuzzy sweater. It fits, you can wear it anywhere.  You’ve had it for years. It’s tried and true. But over time there have been a few threads that have come loose or have entirely been pulled out of the sweater. Do you throw it away? Of course not, as you can still wear this sweater, and it continues to function as one. Logic would say, it would be silly to throw away the entire sweater over a few loose threads.

However, big oil, big industry, big business, big finance, big glenn beck gullibles, would all say, ‘throw it away! it’s useless! here, buy another one from Walmart.’ Manufacturing big doubt is all they got.

Healthy dispute is good for the advancement of science, denial is not….After all, the principal climate change deniers are in the US, the UK and Australia — the big polluters. – chandra bhushan, new delhi

As soon as the scientific community began to come together on the science of climate change, the pushback began. – Naomi Oreskes, U.C. San Diego


p.s. for added fun, read this whole post again but replace “climate change” with “evolution.”

remembering Papa

me & Papa

Pronounced PAH-paw, this is the name I gave my grandfather on my mother’s side, being the first grandchild. My younger cousins haven’t kept the distinctly southern pronunciation, clipping it to a quick PAH-puh. Drawls be gone, I guess.

My Papa struggled to breath in his last years, first fighting pulmonary fibrosis and then lung cancer in his last few months, even though he had given up smoking 30 years prior.  He bravely completed almost 3 months of radiation and chemo therapy in an effort to extend his life-expectancy beyond the doctor’s predictions.  The treatment was harder on him than he expected, and it did not stop the cancer from spreading.  He passed on December 5th, less than 12 hours after I arrived at Tallahassee Memorial Hospital to give him my love and support.

I remember that whenever I called Grammie & Papa on the phone, if he answered, he almost always passed the phone to Grammie.  In his later years the sustained conversations left him uncomfortably short of breath.  But he never failed to contribute to the conversation – I could hear him in the background, responding now and again to the side of the conversation he did hear, which Grammie would then repeat back into the phone for me.  Funny, but it worked.

Grammie & Papa

Grammie & Papa

Grammie  & Papa have lived down on the Gulf Coast just south of Tallahassee for 20+ (or is 30+?) years, and I have many fond memories of time spent there with them: fishing and hauling in crab traps off the docks my Papa built (and rebuilt after every storm that washed it away); Papa cooking oyster stew or frying up whatever we caught worth eating (or trying to eat, like the stingray we were epicurious about); mountains of Papa’s homegrown tomatoes on the table, for afternoon snacks or the obligatory side on a dinner plate with beans and cornbread; his encouragement to take the john boat or canoe out on adventures in the bay with my brothers, cousins, and aunt, plundering oyster bars, exploring the estuaries, and scouting for alligators; hearing stories about bears, eagles, hawks, jaguarundi, alligators, and other critters prowling about; walks on the beach, gathering shells and sand dollars; staying in their trailer on St. George Island, aptly dubbed the “Sea Shanty,” with friends and family while we bummed around on the beach for days on spring or summer breaks; fiesty debates and witty repartees with my Papa, over this, that, or the other (the man was always ready to engage in the sport of rhetorical discourse).

I had the benefit of spending much of my childhood with both sets of my grandparents, and I’ve maintained close relationships with them over the years.  Unique among my peers, I am 37 and have just lost my first grandparent.  I know that I am lucky to  have known them so well, and to have such a wealth of memories from the time spent with them.

Amo & I had been planning to visit Grammie and Papa over the 2009 winter break, rather than doing my typical family visit to Atlanta.  Amo hadn’t met these grandparents yet, nor the Brown side of my family that resides in Florida, so we thought it was high time.  We had a road trip planned, with dogs in tow.  Plans changed rather quickly, and I made a solo trip on short notice.

The upside is that I got there in time to hold Papa’s hand, tell him how much he means to me, and remind him how special our time together has been.  And it was really a Brown family reunion – I got to see my uncle Mark for the first time in 20 or so years, and meet my second cousin Elizabeth (Bonnie’s daughter) for the first time.  I even spent more time with my brothers than I think I normally get to on a routine annual visit (go figure).

We may all get together again in June, on Father’s day weekend (and his birthday weekend), to spread Papa’s ashes in north Georgia, up around Chattahoochee National Forest and  Vogel State Park, the family vacation spot he was so fond of.