Posts filed under ‘Travel’


American VignetteEl Paso at the turn of the 1970s was blindingly bright. Even as I think of it now, my eyes start to squint at the memory: the relentless desert sun, the rows of white brick houses lined with white cement walkways and surrounded by white gravel yards.

They were matched by our white patio out back, the one with the small circular burn marks in the cement, a souvenir from the fireworks the neighborhood dads set off during Fourth of July parties.

Walking to the community playground, we’d pass the occasional cactus or spiky shrub, but shade was definitely in short supply. If a dust storm came through—and they often did—tumbleweeds would blow down the streets and sidewalks like a cliché. You didn’t get wet in an El Paso storm; you got grit in your eyes.

The playground itself was no oasis of greenery either, but who cared? There was a red-white-and-blue jungle gym shaped like a rocket, and metal swings shaped like birds.

The city seemed exotic even to a three-year-old. I knew this wasn’t typical. Checking your shoes and the bathtub for scorpions wasn’t what the average kid in America was doing. Looking out in the distance and seeing Mexico just over the river—this was different.

Outside our neighborhood, I was mostly a passenger. My favorite vantage point was the black leather back seat of Mrs. S’s cool, white Mustang. I was transfixed by my best friend’s mother, with her stick-straight, glossy hair parted perfectly down the middle, and her patterned ponchos of burnt orange, mustard and beige, their fringe dancing across the waist of her faded bell bottom jeans. In the rearview mirror, I’d catch her eyes smiling back at me through wide-framed sunglasses, a vain attempt to shield out the desert brightness.

Every Sunday morning my father and I would glide through the winding, prickly landscape in the family station wagon, off to pick up my brother and sister from Sunday school as he taught me to read the street signs along the way: Dawn Drive. Mesa. Southwind. Sunland.

On Sunday nights another ritual: We’d pass over the river to Juarez for a dinner of chile rellenos and tacos, my mother holding tightly onto my hand as we clicked our way up the crowded streets filled with music and candy and toys and chatter, both familiar and foreign all at once. Heading back to Texas with a full belly, I’d peer out the window as the soldier at the end of the hulking bridge peered back in, always asking the same question:

“What country are you a citizen of?”


When we moved to Shreveport, Louisiana, we moved from this world of whites and browns to one of blues and greens. We left behind the few, tiny one-and-a-half-year-old trees in our yard for towering pines and impressionistic oaks.

Dust storms were gone, replaced by thunderstorms and tornados, and the refreshing payoff of honeysuckle and puffy hydrangeas spreading across the spongy turf. We said good-bye to gravel and hello to bermuda. And I said adios to Sesame Street’s Spanish foreign language segments and bonjour to the Count reciting the numbers in French.

I was four. Cuatro. Quatre.


Because El Paso lies in the foothills of the Rockies, mountains weave their way through the city. Near our old neighborhood, there was a particular mountain that always served as my landmark for approaching home. It was topped with a rock formation that reminded me of a turtle.

When we returned to the city fifteen years later on a visit, it was so strange to come upon that mountain again. After so many years had past, it was almost as if I might have dreamed it up. Trees had grown. Playgrounds had moved past the space race. My friends had graduated and left the desert behind. Swaths of grass even covered a few lawns.

But there was the mountain, with the turtle on it, still pointing the way to the old neighborhood.




May 10, 2014 at 12:45 pm 4 comments

Only in Downtown Nashville

nashville music city

February 8, 2012 at 11:39 am Leave a comment

5 From the Bookshelf: On Language, Writing and Lifelong Learning


That's me, in Iceland. I swear this has a connection to the story.

Back in the dark ages when I was an undergrad student at Tulane, the English major was divided into two separate tracks: “Literature” and “Language, Writing and Rhetoric,” or LWR.

Those of us in the LWR track were fighting a losing battle against its gradual and eventual phasing out, which meant during registration each semester you could always spot a few LWR majors frantically pacing from table to table, looking for something – anything – to sign up for that would count towards our requirements.

There was some upside. I may have missed the opportunity to take Medieval English as a foreign language my senior year, but I ended up instead in a Medieval Literature seminar focused on early Icelandic sagas. A surprisingly entertaining class taught by a professor with a passion for all things Icelandic, it’s something I never would have considered taking if it hadn’t been essentially the last English class left with an open slot. And had I not taken it, I probably wouldn’t have been so motivated to take a trip to Iceland a few years ago.

But all those “history of the language” classes? I never did get them. That’s probably why I find myself picking up all kinds of language and writing books now – some easy-to-read and fun, others a little technical and dense (and I’m not even going to mention the various squads of The Atlantic’s Word Police Academy I’ve been inducted into).

More than just a hobby, though, these kinds of books can come in handy when you’re faced with a blank page or trying to decide if it should be “toward” or “towards,” so I thought I’d share some of my favorites with you. Whether you’re a recovering LWR major, want some context to make it easier to understand the quirky rules of English grammar and usage, or just have an unhealthy obsession with the language like I do, here’s my summer reading list for the classes I never took.


June 9, 2011 at 4:55 pm Leave a comment

Taking Some Heat from the Mother of all Fact Checkers

Really, I should have seen it coming.

I recently wrote about our family road trip adventures and, in particular, the endless drive to Santa Fe.

And that’s when I got the phone call.

Mom in the 60s

“What about the denim shirts? How could you leave out that part of the story?”

My mother called to remind me that she spent the entire drive (when not refereeing arguments between the kids) embroidering denim shirts for my sister and me.

Ah, those embroidered denim shirts. They were all the rage at the time (I’m guessing late 70s?), and my sister and I just had to have them. I have to admit, I don’t remember my mother actually working on those during the drive – and OH, I can feel the guilt trip coming just for saying that – but I do remember the shirts.

Since I can’t find any photos of us wearing those shirts, I’ll substitute a much earlier creation of my mother’s: the matching Raggedy Ann dresses.

Raggedy Ann girls and brother


But according to my mother, shocking though it may be, the Embroidered Denim Shirt Omission wasn’t actually the biggest historical inaccuracy of that post. The real issue is that Santa Fe wasn’t nearly the worst family road trip we ever took.

That distinction goes to the Disneyland trip.


August 7, 2010 at 12:51 pm Leave a comment

The Road to the Middle of Nowhere

I was a child of the 1970s. It was a time of bell bottoms, shag carpeting, Skylab, Schoolhouse Rock, the least appealing shades of orange and green, and…long family car trips.

Now, that’s not to say the children in my family weren’t experienced flyers. My father had his pilot’s license, and for a while in the 70s, he had a little two-seater plane, so we had all flown at young ages. (And when I say “flown,” I mean it. Let’s just say that, very early on, we had an inkling of how bad of a driver my sister would turn out to be.)

me in front of my dad's plane

Marla as a young (and stylish) flyer

But the big family car trips are what I remember most, probably because they seemed to last forever.


August 4, 2010 at 10:46 pm 4 comments

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