Sunday, December 28, 2014

A conversation at the counter

The couple's generosity was the first thing I noticed. I mean, we had just met and they were insisting that I take a biscuit from their plate.

“They’re supposed to be the best in town,” Lydia told me. “You need to try one.”

We were sitting at the counter at Sawyer & Co., a diner along an industrial block in far East Austin. I had arrived there first. A plate of eggs sardou had just been placed in front of me when they took the seats on my right.

“That smells so good and looks delicious,” Lydia said, eyeing my plate.

“It is,” I said, and we all exchanged excited smiles like family about to sit down for Thanksgiving dinner.

I continued to read my book as they figured out what to order. The waitress came and went a few times, filling coffee cups and taking orders. At some point, I looked up from my book and, before I knew what was coming out of my mouth, I turned to Lydia and asked her if she ordered the eggs sardou.

“No, although it does look amazing,” she replied. “I just got a side order of biscuits. They’re supposed to be really good here.”

“Oh, I didn’t know that.”

“Is this your first time here?” she asked.

“Yes. Yours?”


Her husband, who had been leaning in and listening, piped up for the first time.

“Are you from Austin?”

“No. But I’ve been here since 1996.”

“Oh, well then, you’re from Austin,” Lydia confirmed. 

“I went to college here in the ‘70s,” Craig said. “MoPac didn’t even exist then.”

The waitress came and placed two steaming biscuits in front of Lydia, and a plate of eggs and biscuits in front of Craig.

“Here, you have to try one.” Lydia took a biscuit from her plate and prompted me to bring my plate closer.

“Oh, no! I couldn’t. I mean, maybe a bite. But not the whole thing! I won't eat the whole thing.”

“They’re supposed to be the best in town,” Lydia told me. “You need to try one.”

I looked at Craig.

“I have two here. I’m fine. It’ll just sit on her plate or yours.”

I took the biscuit and thanked them both.

“So, what’s that book about?” Craig nodded at the book next to my plate. 

I winced at the morbid title. 

“It's called 'A Year to Live.' It's by Stephen Levine. I realize it sounds dark, but the message is really life-affirming. It’s a meditative book, I guess. It’s about living each year as if it were your last. The author counsels people who are terminally ill, but the message is really for anyone.”

“Oh, I don’t think it sounds dark,” Lydia assured me. 

“The title intrigued me. I thought maybe it was a book about grieving," Craig said. "We lost our daughter."

He was leaning on his elbow and fully facing me. For the first time, I really looked at him and saw him. Lydia too. 

Both of them had olive skin, and faces and bodies that had softened with age. They spoke to me with a relaxed familiarity, no different than the tone they used with each other. His balding hair was mostly gray. Her wavy black hair was pulled together loosely at the nape of her neck. She wore glasses. He did not. They dressed almost identically in layers of dark hues.  

“Was it recently that you lost her?”

“Six years ago,” Craig offered.

“Then recently,” I said.

They both nodded in agreement. I felt a pop in my chest and a tenderness filled the cavity.

“I’m reading this book because my mom died the day before her 45th birthday." I felt a hotness in my eyes, a thickness in my throat. “I turn 44 next month. So, you know, I’m about to be older than she ever was, and that's… .”

My voice wavered, so I swallowed hard and smiled apologetically. Their kind, knowing faces told me the tears welling up in my eyes were OK.

I took a deep breath. "I feel like I need to mark this year somehow. I guess I'm looking for guidance on how to do that.” 

"Just start doing all the things you've always wanted to do," Craig said.  

“But I’m a responsible person. I don’t want to go crazy and blow through my savings.”

“Well, I'm not saying you have to do that. Just start doing things you've always wanted to do, and be responsible about it. The two don’t have to be mutually exclusive."

I took a few bites of my breakfast and marveled at the conversation unfolding in front of me. These two people who had sat down next to me.

“What was her name?” I asked.

“Lauren,” Lydia replied without hesitation. “She was 17.”

“It was a car accident,” Craig added. “She was on her way to a birthday party.”

I thought about a young teenager, still inexperienced behind the wheel, free from her parents and out on the road.

“She was with a friend, and the friend’s mother was driving,” he told me. “It was all very innocent. It happened on Hwy 71.”

I nodded, letting him know I had an accurate picture of the circumstances of his daughter's death.

I looked at Lydia. “Was she your only child?”

“No, we have another daughter, Natalie.”

“Is she here in Austin?”

“No, she’s in Aspen. She just moved there two weeks ago.”

As she spoke, I noticed tears in the corner of her eye. I thought twice about it and then put my hand on her back and gave her a few soft pats. I kept my eyes on Craig as she wiped her cheek with a napkin.

“She’s doing what your book says,” Craig told me with unmistakable pride. “She had a really good job in fashion in Dallas, but she was tired of Dallas. She’s always wanted to live in the mountains, so she looked for a job in Aspen, found one and went. Just like that.”

“It’s true,” Lydia said, a new playfulness in her voice. “She landed a job in less than a week and found an apartment the very next day!”

“I believe when you’re moving in the right direction, The Universe will work with you in that way -- like a cosmic confirmation that you're on the right track,” I said.

“That’s exactly what she said,” Lydia smiled. “She said the stars aligned for her.”

The three of us sat alone with our thoughts for a while and ate our breakfast. Craig eventually flagged down the waitress and handed her his credit card. The couple began to gather their things.

I looked at the two bites' worth of biscuit left on my plate.

“I lied to you both,” I said somberly. They both paused and looked over at me. “Turns out I am going to eat this whole damn biscuit.” And I stuffed the rest of the buttery goodness into my mouth.

Craig’s face broke into a wide grin and Lydia let out a laugh. 

“Good for you. I’m Lydia, by the way.” She offered me her hand and I shook it.


Lydia's husband then extended his hand.


The waitress returned with their bill, and Craig pulled out a pair of readers to sign it.

Lydia leaned in toward me, as if confiding something. "I think I might read that book.”

“A Year to Live,” I reminded her.

“Oh, I won’t forget the title.”

Craig stood up to put on his coat and Lydia followed suit. 

“I hope this coming year is everything you hope it to be,” Lydia said. She put her hand on my shoulder and gave it a squeeze.

"Thanks, Lydia."

Craig pointed at my book. "Don't wait. I wish all good things for you, Katie."

"Thank you. I wish you both the same. Happy new year."

And then I was alone again at the counter.

I ate the rest of my breakfast in silence, not wanting to distract myself with the book or my phone or other people. Like a tape recorder, my mind continued to rewind and fast-forward, replaying various parts of the conversation, which covered more terrain than I bothered to write here.

It wasn't long before new people filled the seats next to me and my plate was empty. I signaled the waitress for my check.

Instead of going to the register, the waitress smiled and nodded in the direction of the parking lot, where Craig and Lydia had gone.

“Not necessary. They took care of it.”

And, for a second time that morning, I found myself tearing up in a diner.

Friday, June 06, 2014

Storytelling and plot twists

Illustration by Amirocks73
In May, I was honored to be the featured speaker at Creative Mornings, a monthly breakfast lecture series for the creative community. My intention going into the experience was to raise awareness for Truth Be Told, but what I gained in the end was a whole new level of self-awareness. I'll let the video of my talk tell the rest of the story.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Pecha Kucha Austin #19

Poster design by Pentagram Design Inc.
For those who weren't able to attend, the video is out! And conveniently for you, I'm the first presenter of the evening. 

In March, I had the opportunity to speak about my volunteer prison work at Pecha Kucha Night #19. The 20x20 presentation format -- 20 slides, 20 seconds of narrative per slide -- was quite challenging. I rehearsed what felt like a gazillion times to get the words down and the pacing right. In fact, the night before, upon settling into bed, I found myself compulsively reciting the entire thing like a nervous tick. When I uttered the first line, my dog -- somewhere in the darkness at the foot of my bed -- let out a dramatic sigh and promptly left the room. True story.

"Srriously, Katie?" I imagined Martha Dog saying. "I'd really like to get some sleep."

I guess I put so much care into the preparation because I knew I was representing Truth Be Told, and I wanted to do well for this nonprofit that has come to mean so much to me. I felt like I was standing up for the more than 1,000 incarcerated women who have graduated from Truth Be Told's programs and the thousands more who will take our classes and graduate in the future.

In my volunteer roles at Lockhart prison, I routinely get up in front of people and talk. I've also spoken at Truth Be Told fundraising events. So, to a certain degree, I'm comfortable with public speaking.

However, Pecha Kucha proved a different ball game, and it wasn't just because of the 20x20 format. As I stood there, facing the biggest crowd I'd ever addressed, I had this strange sensation, like half of me was there, in downtown Austin among the hustle and bustle of SXSW. Yet, the other half of me was behind bars in Lockhart with the incarcerated women. I mean, right beside me on a giant screen were images of us in the prison classroom -- laughing, crying and sharing our stories. I know these women. They have names, histories, families, hopes, fears, dreams. I see them fully as fellow human beings.

But I wondered: What was the audience seeing?

On their faces I saw looks of fascination, concern, curiosity, thoughtfulness, indifference. Of course, these are the emotions I assigned to their expressions. Who knows what they were really feeling in that moment.

I know what I was feeling in that moment: passion. Passion and conviction. It occurred to me as I stood there that this might be the first time some of these people have stopped to think about the incarcerated population.

I wanted these people to SEE the women as fully as I do. 

Addict, thief, con artist, perpetrator, aggressor, drunk driver, prostitute, drug dealer, gangbanger. Yes, yes and yes. You will find all of these people and more in prison. It's depressing, ugly, frustrating, disheartening and scary.

But here's what you'll also find in prison: mothers, grandmothers, sisters, daughters, wives, college graduates, war veterans, degreed professionals, business owners, former foster children, survivors of childhood abuse, survivors of domestic violence. 

These women who are locked away and invisible to most of us are also our neighbors. They are members of our communities. And one day, when their sentences max out or when they make parole, they will be back among us.

Will they be safe, contributing members of our society, or will they continue in their old ways?

That's a good question. I think a lot of that depends on what they learn while they're incarcerated.

I have a 26-year-old woman in my class this semester. It's her first time in prison. She got locked up at age 22.

The other week in class she proclaimed that prison has taught her how to be "sneakier," how to be a "better hustler," a "better addict."

That is, until this class.

She said she loves this class. Why? Because Truth Be Told is teaching her how to be truthful to herself and to others, how to express her feelings in healthy ways, how to ask for help when she needs it. It's also showing her how to seek supportive community and how to be supportive to others, which can make a world of difference in this crazy ride called life.  

I feel hope for this young woman. I think she's onto something good. Something better. Something different than what she's been shown and taught in the past. I can't guarantee that anything will blossom from it, but I am certain that a seed has been planted.

I want to thank PK organizer Lana McGilvray for suggesting that I present at Pecha Kucha, and I want to thank the board for voting me in. It was an honor and a real pleasure.  

Monday, March 24, 2014

Casa de Corona | Oct. 14, 2009 - March 24, 2014

Casa de Corona was “born” on October 14, 2009, when I decided to join Facebook under a nom de plume inspired by my street address.

Originally a vocal critic of Facebook, I finally acquiesced and created a profile because I got tired of not knowing things that “everyone else” seemed to know.

You didn’t know that Jim is traveling through Central America right now? But he has been posting pics on Facebook!

You didn’t know Scott and Leslie got engaged? But they updated their relationship status on Facebook! 

After enough of these conversations, I bit the bullet and joined, but I did it on my terms.

I created Casa de Corona to maintain some level of anonymity on the social network. I wanted to make sure the people who had naturally drifted out of my life would stay that way. It’s not like I had a horrible past or anything. It’s just that I already found it hard to spend quality time with the people who were in my life presently. The idea of rekindling a friendship with, say, my physics lab partner from high school held zero appeal. (Sorry, Lee. It’s not you. It’s me.)

In addition to using an alias on Facebook, I set my privacy settings high and made Casa de Corona unsearchable. I sent Friend Requests to all the Contacts in my phone and — voila! — I was now officially “in the know.”

And, man, I had no idea how “in the know” I could be.

Not only was I now up to date on everyone’s vacation plans and relationship statuses, but I also knew what they ate for lunch, that they couldn’t sleep at all last night, that they slept for 11 hours straight last night, that they were having the most amazing night out with friends right now, that they were stuck in traffic, that they were relaxing on a beach, that they just listened to this MGMT song on Spotify, that their adorable dog was being even more adorable at this very moment, that their kid was at the ER and look at his tearstained face (#nofilter #whatachamp #poorlilguy), that they looked killer in their new sunglasses, that they stumbled upon this amazing article/photo/video and will never be the same again, that they made this delicious smoothie, that they laughed so hard at this meme, that they can’t get enough of House of Cards/Game of Thrones/Breaking Bad, that they think this quote is poignant and everyone should read it too, that they got a new haircut/bike/cat/girlfriend/tattoo, that they should really live in Cape Town, and — most importantly — that they would be Blanche Devereaux if they were a Golden Girl.

Before creating Casa de Corona, I didn’t know most of these things about my friends and I got along in life just fine. However, now that I knew these kinds of things, I had to keep knowing these things!

It became an involuntary habit to reach for my phone or open Facebook on my laptop whenever I wasn’t actively engaged in something. Waiting in line? Check Facebook. Eating alone? Check Facebook. Procrastinating? Check Facebook. Can’t sleep? Check Facebook. Bored? Check Facebook. Writer’s block? Check Facebook. And yes, I admit it: At a red light? Check Facebook.

It didn’t matter that I had just scrolled through my News Feed only minutes ago. I had to check it again because, you know, I might miss something important, like a gorgeously staged photo of the cocktail my friend just ordered at WeatherUp.

Over the past five years, I have allowed the lure of Facebook to routinely and regularly interrupt my productivity and creativity. A task that should take me only an hour drags over an afternoon because I take multiple "quick" breaks to troll through the News Feed.

I created Casa de Corona to stay more connected to others, but, for me, Facebook has morphed into The Ultimate Distraction.

I find it disturbing that I seemingly have forgotten how to stay present during the natural pauses in my day. Instead of welcoming a window of unoccupied stillness, my hand automatically reaches for my phone, my eyes leave the world around me, and all my attention and energy gets poured into a glowing screen.

It’s sick. Sick, sick, sick.

However, that’s not the worst of it.

What I find most disconcerting is that, for the most part, Casa de Corona has become my primary outlet for creative writing. I’ve started to regard most everything I experience as a potential Facebook post.

And this, ladies and gentlemen, is where I must draw the line.

Since joining Facebook, my writing life (that is, my non-billable and creative writing life) has looked somewhat like this: If The Universe graces me with a keen observation or a bit of humor, nostalgia or enlightenment, I don’t journal about it. I don’t turn it into a short story or an essay or a magazine article. I don’t sketch out the beginnings of The Next Great American Novel.

Oh, no, no, no. Why, that would be too much work!

Instead, I immediately reconfigure the thought or scene into a pithy Facebook post, cast it into the News Feed and wait hungrily to see how many Likes and Comments it’ll catch. It’s so quick and effortless, and I have an audience available to me 24-7.

Sweetening the lure is that people often tell me, both online and in person, how much they enjoy my Facebook posts — that they actually look forward to them. And let me tell you something about writers, people: We love receiving feedback like this! I love learning that my words have resonated with another human being, that my writing has made someone laugh, think or just feel less alone in that moment.

I admit: This part of Casa de Corona’s “life” has been rewarding and very positive. I am grateful to her to this end. Casa de Corona has given me a (somewhat) public platform to voice my take on this thing called life, whether it’s a scene I observed in a coffee shop or the inventorying of a rather remarkable day.

But here’s the rub, my friends: Writing Facebook status updates has nothing to do with real literature and everything to do with tossing my creativity into a bottomless cyberpit to immediately gratify my ego.

It is like witnessing The Slow, Unceremonious Death of a Writer.

All those status updates I referred to above? I’m guilty of posting most of them and more. I mean, how many times a day must I say: “Look at me, everyone!”? Because let’s face it: That’s basically what I’m doing every time Casa de Corona posts a status update.

Look at me! How clever. Look at me! How fun. Look at me! How pretty. Look at me! How smart. Look at me! How strong. Look at me! How crazy. Look at me! How cool.

Do I really need a collective thumbs up from the Facebook community to validate my experiences, thoughts and feelings throughout the day? Since when did I become so outwardly focused in affirming who I am on the inside?

I know better than this. I was born with an independent spirit and a desire to pursue the road less traveled, but Facebook has somehow hacked into my internal compass and made it too easy for me to stop and ask for directions, to demand a virtual pat on the back versus patting myself on the back and knowing that that is enough. 

The good news is that I’ve become acutely aware of what Facebook can (and can’t) do for me. I have traveled the full distance with Casa de Corona. And as it turns out, she is a dead-end street.

Simply put: I am killing Casa de Corona to rescue the writer in me.

The Next Chapter

Like most writers, I think I have at least one book in me. Right after my divorce, in the early 2000s, I had an idea for a novel and I pursued it by spending two months in Mexico and then traveling across Spain in a tiny Fiat with three amateur bullfighters. I wanted to write a novel about a rodeo-cowboy-turned-matador. My ex-husband was a pro bull rider, so I knew that lifestyle well. I just had to educate myself about the fiesta brava. I taped hours of interviews on cassettes and filled a few legal pads with notes and observations, but, in the end, the book never happened. For reasons not worth going into here, my fascination with the bullfighting subculture waned, and I no longer felt compelled to write the story.

For a long time I beat myself up for not writing that book, but now I look back on that time in my life and I feel in awe that I spent that kind of time and energy pursuing a creative writing project that had nothing to do with my paid writing jobs.

I want to do shit like that again.

I will do shit like that again.

The trick is — and I can feel this like a deep knowing in my bones — I need to relearn how to stay present in the natural pauses throughout my day. I need to stop filling my head with News Feed fodder and make room for stillness. That’s when Ideas are born.

Moreover, when The Universe throws me an idea, I want to write at length about it. I want to process things thoroughly. I want to sit and revisit. I want to throw away and start over. I want to write and revise — and write and revise again.

I want to spend real time on real things.

For those of you who want to continue reading my work, I encourage you to follow this blog so you’ll receive alerts whenever I write something new. Casa de Corona’s final status update will sit in the News Feed for a couple days and then her profile will be deleted forevermore. Amen.

For the time being, I’ve decided to keep my Instagram profile alive because it doesn’t feel threatening to my writing life like Facebook does. But who knows. I might kill that too eventually.

I trust that those who want to be in my life will remain in it, and I'm certain I will find ways to stay connected and accessible to those I love, admire and care about.

Isn't that how the original model for friendship has always worked?

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Mexico, Fancy Pants and Hypocrisy

Last night I dreamed that I was living in Mexico and getting ready for some kind of elaborate evening fiesta with an Old West theme. I looked in my closet and found these amazing high-waisted pants with fringe and conchos. I had no idea that I owned pants like these, but when I put them on, they fit perfectly. I remember feeling happy because I thought they looked good on me and they were very comfortable.

However, when I saw the look on my friend's face, I suddenly doubted the coolness of my fancy pants.
To which she replied:
Which I didn't really understand, because she was wearing this Davy Crocket knockoff: a suede jacket trimmed in black fringe.

And that's really all I remember about my dream last night.