"Oh, hi!" one hears on the wide streets of Marfa. "I didn’t know you were here, too. Hey, I’ve been meaning to chat with you about something."
Amazingly enough, Austinites drive more than six hours into the Chihuahuan desert for tête-à-têtes that evade them back home.
That’s one of the social allures before, during and after the annual New Year’s Eve party hosted by Austin communications strategist Steven Tomlinson and social entrepreneur and philanthropist Eugene Sepulveda at the Rock Hudson Suite of Marfa’s Hotel Paisano.
When we weren’t reading, napping, walking or snacking over the course of four days, we were talking. Here’s what I learned:
From musician Graham Reynolds: Why melancholy is associated with minor keys, especially in jazz. Despite feelings sparked by the rarer key, the blues is almost always performed in a major key.
From environmental specialist Susan Ghertner: That water is and will remain the chief ecological concern of companies like H-E-B, where she works. It’s especially key in making the enlightened grocery chain’s in-house products.
From Ghertner and fellow San Antonio resident Hazel Barbour: That one can revive the adventurous spirit of the strong-willed women who explored the world, as lovingly portrayed in the 1985 play "Eleemosynary."
From Texas Nature Conservancy fundraiser Renee King: That it is crucial make this group’s nature preserves available to the public in at least a limited way. How else to spread the good word?
From Austin-to-Marfa artist Julie Speed during a long visit to her studios near the Chinati Foundation: Why she has returned to portraying nudes (no need to decide on which clothes her subjects should wear). Also, how to turn an old jail into a magical space for the making and showing of paintings, prints and other works.
From OwnLocal product manager Will Roman: That the younger generation is as engaged in thoughtful political discourse as any other. Roman also makes almost any encounter fun.
From charming pair Kim and Kyle Hughes: That they were married in the otherwise off-limits copula of the Presidio County Courthouse in Marfa. She wore a pink coat and jeans, he dressed in a Stubbs T-shirt.
From theater director Shawn Sides: That she’s putting the last touches on "Stop Hitting Yourself," which will premiere at Lincoln Center in about a month. (Glad she could take a West Texas break. I would be a wreck.)
From electrical field operator Evan based in Odessa (missed the last name): That there’s an enormous need for high-wattage electrical generators out in West Texas these days. He turned his life around by training to fix them.
From public health specialist Klaus Kroyer Madsen: That one can maintain a benevolent sense of humor and dignity in challenging situations, even on the back of a donkey.
From activists and social benefactors Richard Hartgrove and Gary Cooper: That even if you retired decades ago, you can easily conquer all the Marfa extra-curriculars: Hiking Mount Livermore, star-gazing at McDonald’s Observatory on a frigid night, touring the Mexican side of the border across from Big Bend National Park.
From filmmaker Greg Kwedar: He’s working on a planned documentary about the Border Patrol and a mysterious death. Also heard about his years playing rugby and footie at high levels of skill.
From law school student Micah King: That he plans to join the prosecutorial side of the law, then reform it through political activism.
From movie producer Molly Christie Benson: That movie-making is a complicated business, especially when you are part of a tremendously active and intrepid family.
From art director Peter Benson: All about his youth spent in Miami during the "Scarface" 1980s. Glad he came out on the other side without visible scars.
From hosts Steven and Eugene: That one can orchestrate the good times of several dozen guests, long-distance and up-close, through thorough organizing, clear messaging and great patience.
Sweetening the social pool
This year, schoolteacher and traveling companion Lawrence Morgan and I joined a small subset of Marfa guests who first dined and slept at the Gage Hotel and Restaurant in Marathon, lunched in the rustic Mexican village of Boquillas del Carmen, Coahuila, and then spun around Terlingua on the other end of Bend Bend National Park.
The international crossing at Boquillas is made possible by a new Department of Homeland Security customs station on the American side of the Rio Grande. The village of 40 or so families, cut off from the rest of Mexico by the wall-like Sierra del Carmen, has always depended on a trickle of tourists from the park. Yet that link was severed for too long after 9/11.
During this trip, the return to our side was complicated by malfunctioning kiosks that are supposed to read one’s passport, then link the traveler up by phone to a customs officer in El Paso. The three federal employees who tried to help us through the 90-minute wait in line kept their cools, but not all the tourists, some of whose behavior can be frankly qualified as ugly.
Why is is OK to disrespect — even curse — federal workers in uniform, honorably doing their jobs, while reserving demonstrative respect for the military, also federal employees doing a job? It seems that pundits and politicians have poisoned the social pool against one set of workers, while demanding esteem for the other, sometimes executing the same functions with similar risks.
Some day, that will change.