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"Windows," Written for SPARK


My family never flies.


We’re the road trip type. The camping and eating freeze dried spaghetti kind of family. We drive for hours and hours on end, and I rotate between scrolling on my phone and staring out the window as one version of White Sands blurs into the next, on and on and on. The landscape seems to unfold endlessly—it feels like we’re making no progress.


There are 473k more pictures under #whitesands. I guess we aren’t.




For about 95% of our species’ existence, we survived as hunter-gatherers, in tune with the natural world. We knew we were at the mercy of nature’s order, and calculated our every action accordingly. We followed the ebb and flow of the seasons, navigating the land with the intent to survive—just as other species did. 


At some point, some luck-of-the-draw combination of factors (a shift in environmental patterns, a larger brain, and a big toe, perhaps?) allowed for the development of agriculture, and from there, our relationship with nature changed. It was no longer something we were both a part of and subject to. We could interrupt the natural seed dispersal process to get more wheat! We could fence up a group of pigs to have readily-available meat! Nature became something to dominate, something to control to fulfill our needs. 


As mud villages turned into concrete cities and human labor turned into machine, the same regard for nature that enabled our mastery of agriculture sowed the seeds of capitalism. Our wheat dispersal hack is now a billion-dollar fertilizer industry. Our pig pen is a trillion-dollar meat market. From the comfort of our leather desk chairs in our glass high-rises, we’ve cemented our role as nature’s puppeteer, and in doing so, we’ve sucked the life out of Earth’s soil and ripped apart its atmosphere. 


Yet, somewhere deep within our psyche, we know we’re missing something. Somewhere not yet poisoned by the gospel of economic growth, our primordial affiliation with nature survives. 


So, to recreate what we have destroyed, we turn to technology. “Digital nature.” Virtual reality is on the rise. Video games featuring mythical woods and majestic mountains are more popular than ever. We can experience an outdoor run via an indoor treadmill. We can explore pristine beaches and luscious forests via #nature. 


And the best part? We get to create it all ourselves. With cameras and desktops that offer the newest and greatest computational abilities, we can make digital nature just like the real, physical thing.


But when we watch hiking vlogs or experience virtual reality, we can only see the river flow and the trees sway. We do not feel the wind or smell the soil. We hear the sky thunder and the bushes rustle. But we don’t have to listen, because we aren’t worried about a storm approaching or a bear lurking around the corner. We know we aren’t at the mercy of the nature we experience because we created it all — it's under our control.


And that’s the problem. Inherent to nature is the process of living in relation with the other, not in domination over it. Digital nature, as a human creation—a product of our utmost control—is not the same. It doesn’t even come close. Its very existence is contradictory to nature itself.


Our attempt to recreate what we have destroyed is not only futile—it’s destructive. Digital nature is an extension of the exact phenomenon that elicited its necessity. 




Smooth mounds of white gypsum blend into the painterly sky. The half-shrouded sun creates a soft glow over the deep blue mountains. 


My vision goes black for 1/2000 of a second. There is a loading icon, then the photo I have taken reveals itself. 


It’s just what I had envisioned. Better, even, compared to the ones I’ve seen. It’ll be the perfect cover for my White Sands post.


I lower my camera, and my eyes are flooded with light. My forehead is hot—maybe burnt. I recoil. I forget I am standing, completely exposed, in the middle of the desert. 


And the desert is much bigger than it was through my lens: the mountain range wraps around me and there is a cottonwood tree to my left.


I blink. The wind picks up again, and silence fades into song, stillness into waltz. The sand hisses in dissent as it is strewn about by the wind, the birds flutter in harmony as they too are carried along. Even the clouds are swept away, and as the sun spills onto the desert floor, the lizards and mice emerge from their burrows. My senses are heightened as the desert comes alive, my skin tingles as the sun and wind and sand caress my body all at once, and something inside is pulled outwards—something under my skin yearns to break free and fuse into the life around me. 


But it can’t. It’s tied down by the strap around my neck.


Suddenly, my camera weighs a thousand pounds. I have the urge to yank it off my body and throw it down the dune, watch it roll and roll until it is buried in the sand and the elements begin to break it down—the glass back into sand, the metal back into sediment. I wonder how it would feel to be here with no motive but to sit and soak up the way the wind tangles my hair and the sand tickles my skin—no preconception based off of the hundreds of photos and videos I’ve seen, no future Instagram post in the back of my mind. I wonder how it would feel to look at that cottonwood and see something that is just as alive as I am, that has veins and capillaries just as I do.


But I can only wonder. Because as soon as I saw the cottonwood, I deemed it an eye-sore: it didn’t match the way I expected White Sands to look, nor the way I wanted it to. 


So I cropped it out.


I felt something yesterday that I have not felt before, and that is solace in the shrouding of the sun. Had the world been flushed with light, it would have been gaudy. It would have felt like a slap in the face.

Humans crave empathy, and when we, inside, are nothing but desolate, what good can be found in color? What good can be found in the vibrancy of everything but ourselves?

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"Stories of Stories: Why there's Why there’s a marquee on the CVS building," Written for The Daily Texan


The next time you cross Guadalupe on 24th, look closely.


A red and green marquee adorns the building on the northwest corner, flashing bright against the night. Students, emptying their pockets of the money they’ve saved for weeks, buzz with excitement as streetcars rattle by. The air smells of butter-slathered popcorn and brand new velvet seats.


The year is 1936, and Varsity Theater welcomes its first guests.  


It will be 54 years before the theater becomes a symbol of The Drag’s transience, transforming into a Tower Records, bookstore, restaurant and finally, a CVS. As the neighborhood continues to make itself anew, the distinctively Art Deco building survives as one of the few physical reminders of the past. 


Jim Nicar, founder of The UT History Corner, said The Varsity Theater prevailed against odds during the Great Depression. 


“Opening a theater seems kind of chancy …, when people can’t really afford to go see movies,” Nicar said. “I wonder what film tickets cost, as they might have been considered a luxury for students watching every penny.” 


Despite the Depression, the Varsity thrived in its early years, Nicar said. Soon enough, it began to attract more than moviegoers, becoming a venue for fashion shows, town halls and Greek life socials. 


During the Civil Rights Movement, the theater, which at the time only admitted white patrons, made headlines as the site of one of the nation’s first stand-ins. According to a research article by Nicar, demonstrators would line up to ask if the theater was open to all, drawing attention to segregation and slowing ticketing. The Varsity soon integrated, and within a year, most of The Drag had followed.


However, with the rise of VHS tapes in the 1970s, the theater faced difficulties attracting patrons. In the 1980s, it became a "dollar theater” — $1 admission to see previously released films — and the upper lever closed so that two films could show concurrently.


One of the last films screened at The Varsity was 1989’s “Dead Poets Society.” Nicar said the film’s popularity prompted it to run for almost six months, inspiring UT students to form their own Dead Poets Society. 


“It was very inspiring, people loved Robin Williams. People (were) wondering, ‘Hey, Professor, why aren’t you as good as this guy on the bill?” Nicar said. “I saw (the movie) at least once, maybe twice …, we kept going to see it and it would be a full house.”


Alumnus Eric Chang, who attended UT during the theater’s last years and graduated in 1993, said he remembers watching “Casablanca” with his friend. 


“I think it was the first time I went to a theater like that …, (with) the red velvet seats and the old 1930s feel on the inside. It really left an impression,” Chang said. “When they turned it into a Tower Records, they completely gutted the place …, I remember how big of a cavity there was, how empty it felt.”


Unable to keep up with rising rent and dwindling patrons, the theater closed in 1990. But as years have passed, the Varsity marquee – though not the original – still stands. 


“We were sad to see (the theater) go because it had been an institution on The Drag for so long,” Nicar said. “It was special to a lot of people, that's why you still see the sign there. That's why you still see Varsity.”

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"Pickton," Written for SPARK


Pickton, Texas, 2014.


The moment I stepped into the house, I wanted to leave. It was as if I’d entered a time capsule, but not the cool type: dingy overhead lighting made the popcorn ceiling super obvious, while wood paneling and red floral wallpaper made the place feel like a haunted dollhouse. It didn’t help that the wallpaper was Asian-themed — I thought the coincidence was a little weird. 


Mom told us it was beautiful, but she said a lot of things that didn’t make sense. 


We fought constantly — Mom had been away for most of the school year, and at 10, I found her intentions rather confusing. She claimed to want the best for everyone, but I’d watched Dad all year, sallow-faced and sad while he drove me around to all the places she’d always taken me to. If she loved us as she said, why would she leave us for a dusty farmhouse in the middle of nowhere?


It turns out that a decade of suburban housewifery had taken a toll on her, a naturally enterprising woman, and the real tragedy was neither her discarded career or failing marriage. It was her children. No matter how hard she tried to pass down the values instilled in her, her children were growing up to be American kids: kids who expect their lunch to be packed and rides to be covered, who only visit their grandparents during the holidays, who don’t learn what gratitude is until it’s too late.


So, she wanted to change things. I can’t quite recall what she told me, but I remember sitting on the couch the way she hated — on top of the back pillows — when she turned around in her desk chair. 


“You know, Mommy grew up on a farm—”


“I know,” I interrupted. I knew where this was going; I had eavesdropped on her and Dad. “I'm not moving schools.”


“Don’t worry about that,” she said, changing the subject. “I found this place that’s not too far. It’s 120 acres and there’s a historic farmhouse right next to a church and…,” she trailed off.


“You know, lots of kids raise cows there. They even have a competition. You can win money if—”


“I’m not moving schools,” I interrupted again. “Also, raising a cow is weird.”


As it turns out, raising a cow is weird. It’s also difficult. But that was the point. The point of the farm was to teach us the things Mom learned in her childhood — the things we couldn’t learn from packed lunches and chauffeured rides. She wanted us to know the sulfurous stench of cow shit and the soreness from sowing fields and the stinging of the sun, because there is something beautiful about putting yourself into the fields and putting the fields into your animals and watching your animals bear offspring. There is something beautiful in watching your animals die, too, and returning them to the ground that had long fed them. To be a farmer is to bear witness to the rawest of life—to wake up each morning at the break of dawn and break your back feeding and feeding, but to sit down as the sun dips below the horizon knowing you’ll be fed back.


Or at least that is what Mom told me—I never did raise a cow.




Throughout the school year, Mom spent weeks restoring the farmhouse and sowing the ground for the growing season. Every so often, we’d meet her halfway at Cracker Barrel, where she’d tell us how cute the new piglets were and how many veggies she could grow once the USDA approved her grant request. As we’d part ways in the parking lot, she’d always say she wished to come back soon, but there was just so much work to do.


Only later would I realize that the work was much harder than she let on. 


The house had been abandoned for a decade, and the family member who’d been helping grew disenchanted, leaving Mom to manage everything alone. Money was tight. Mom tried to come back home as often as possible, but it wasn’t easy — poor people in Pickton were never kind to a house left by city folks.


By the time the grass had grown tall and the piglets fat, I had graduated 5th grade.




One afternoon under the limelight of the late summer sun, I strode through the fields behind the house. The wind tangled my hair and tickled my nose with the smell of wild grass, and every step I took set a hundred grasshoppers aside; their wings fluttered in applause, their shrieks rang out in triumph. This was my royal procession, and in my hot pink Nike shorts and Dollar Tree rain boots, I was every bit a queen.  


The next day, I was a country singer. Lounging around the chicken coop, I belted out Taylor Swift’s “Never Grow Up” while our dogs barked and my brother searched for eggs. The day after that, I was a bird, chasing my brother (who was a worm) around the church parking lot. 


Outside of the house, I was free to be who and what I wanted to be, free from the sound of my parents bickering about finances and parenting philosophy. Outside, I could find plenty of ways to entertain myself. 


Besides, no one could babysit but Mom, and she was constantly working. 


Only once in a while would Dad come to visit, and those were the days Mom could hand him the handyman work and take us to pick veggies. It wasn’t easy work — my jet-black hair would burn under the sun and my hands would ache from scissors holes and bucket handles — but I recall one evening we all sat down for dinner made from our harvest. 


“Mmm, do you taste how fresh the kale is?” Mom asked.


“I hate kale,” I said, my mouth filled with whatever at the table had carbs. In reality, I didn’t mind kale, but I couldn’t tell her that. 


“Katherine. It’s good for your brain. Plus, this is the kale we picked.”


My brother perked up. “I like the kale!”


Mom smiled. “That’s mama’s boy. Katherine, even your brother is eating the kale.”


“I’ll eat the tomatoes.” I said. 


A few minutes later, Dad spoke. He didn’t speak much at dinner.


“Looks like the AC is working well.”


“Yep,” Mom said. “You did a good job with it.”


Dad didn’t reply.


“Did the insurance company get back to you?”


Dad sighed. “No. I told you, the house is old—”


“I know. But someone will cover it.” 




By mid-July the USDA was due to notify Mom about her grant application, but it seemed things were starting to work out on their own. Mom’s veggie garden was so abundant with produce we had to learn how to preserve it all — Mom canned tomatoes, my brother and I made kale chips, and in preparation for the upcoming farmer’s market, Mom bought a blank business name sign for us to decorate with veggie-people and cartoon cows.


At the end of the month, Mom received two manilla envelopes. One of them was the approval for the grant. The other was my Dad’s request for a divorce.


All Dad ever wanted was a wife, kids, and a steady job, and the moment Mom stepped onto the farm, bright-eyed and bold as the cattlemen before her, he knew his dream had come to an end. Every time he’d visit, he’d tell Mom how wonderful her progress was — the hardwood flooring looked great, the greenhouse was impressive — but the more Mom put herself into the farm, the less she left for him. He was losing her.


He didn’t want to lose us too. 


Of course, Mom didn’t tell me anything. Dad didn’t either—he wasn’t there. He’d left a few days prior. Soon enough, his gray Honda Fit was in the church parking lot to retrieve me, and then I was home.


We never finished the sign for the farmer’s market.




Pickton, Texas, 2018.


Somewhere around Sulphur Springs on a drive back from the East, Dad turned to me from the driver’s seat. 


“We’re pretty close to the farm,” he said. “Do you want to stop by?”


The farm. I, like all of us, avoided any mention of the place. Why would Dad want to visit it now?


“Sure,” I said. 


As the sunset cast the world in soft red, we pulled into the church parking lot and headed towards the front door. Dad knocked. The new owners showered us in southern hospitality. 


When I walked in, I expected to see the house I remembered. Mom said the new owners wanted everything as it was—my childhood desk in the bedroom with the patchwork wallpaper, the heater Mom stuck into the fireplace during the winter, even the collection of outdoor decor in the corner of the living room.


But I walked into an American home, Civil War paintings and all. The couches were covered in cowboy-style pillows, the walls in photos of family members and show horses. The only thing I recognized was the wallpaper, that garish wallpaper —  fruit motifs for the dining room, florals for the bedrooms, red Chinoiserie for the living room.


I always thought the Chinoiserie was odd, even when I was 10. Really, what business did hanfu-clad women and lotus gardens have in a 1940s Texan farmhouse? 


As it turns out, not much.

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