Thursday, October 24, 2013

Fall at Last, Austin, Book Festival

**photo of Barton Springs, Austin, Tex., by AnnainAustin, Flickr Creative Commons.

In Seattle, the desire for cold-water swimming was about seeking clarity and a bright sharpness in gray weather. It’s also about the feeling of sinking into cool water--even if that water turns out to be fiercely cold in lakes shaded by mountains, ha.

Here in the state where I was raised, Texas, it’s mid-October and the long, wild summer seems to have abated for now. Labor Day is a false "end' to the season--we maintained 90s temperatures until around Oct. 15. This weekend I head out for cool-water swimming at Barton Springs, in Austin. The water temperature will likely be around 66 degrees, which will be lovely and compares pretty favorably with the average Cascade lake.

It’s going to be a great weekend, heading from green Houston to tawny Austin in the golden fall, in light that plays especially well on the bone-white Hill Country limestone surfaces.

**photo of Pedernales River, Texas Hill Country, by Jdeeringdavis on Flickr Creative Commons.

I'm going for the Texas Book Festival, where I hope to hear readings by Jonathan Lethem, Sherman Alexie, Geoff Dyer, and maybe Marion Winik, Meg Wolitzer, and Diana Kennedy. I also hope to see a few friends, and maybe attend a taping of the arts radio show Overheard with Evan Smith.

Re-charging myself is another purpose of the trip. Austin, like Seattle, has more 30s and 40s creative workers than Houston, and is a bit more densely populated as well. I’m hoping that Austin will be a nice trial run for deciding whether I should move to another city, like New York or somewhere else.

So, don’t I like Houston a lot? I do like Houston, and it has much that is not known elsewhere as Houston-defining. It has truly original food twists and developments, and an interesting art scene. It has many really great people. That said, it has the dichotomy of politics that we’ve recently seen in the U.S. House of Representatives. It has Maseratis and Porsche SUVs and people who seem not to care about the extreme social inequalities here. Its inner loop neighborhoods have many bike trails, which is great—but the city also has people who are afraid to bicycle because drivers are habitually unaware of anyone but themselves on the road. Its racial and social inequities are evident on its bus system.

So, yes, I don’t love everything here. And, you might say, does one ever? Here’s the thing—let's hope some things will change. Even in other Texas cities, there’s more driver respect for pedestrians and cyclists, from what I’ve seen. When I visited Fort Worth in May, I was struck by the non-flashy cars and the fact that cars didn’t pull up right next to pedestrians when they walked along a sidewalk and crossed a parking lot entrance. The so-called rolling stop is standard in Houston—drivers’ way of saying they’re more important and that you should just hurry up and get out of the way—and, we’ll skip the pun here, it has to stop.

All that said, here in Houston I’ve found that thinking in a Zen way has helped me. I recently was told by friends about the website, by Leo Babauta.

If you’ve seen Babauta’s website, you know it’s the tale of a mid-30s, married father of six who simplified his life and makes a living writing and talking about what he loves. He shows us how to live minimally, be at peace, and still travel. Behind it all, he demonstrates a healthy relationship and parenthood. It’s inspiring stuff, and the website is appealingly simple—generally without photos, featuring instead large-print text on white, working to avoid jarring us with more online images. It seems to work.

This kind of calmness is what I need. It’s maybe what we all need. A recent passage tells how to deal with people who annoy us:  people who behave badly in traffic, talk too loudly, are rude to us. One approach is to think that others are like twigs in a stream in which we all float. Each twig is doing its own thing, and isn’t trying to annoy us. We’ll peacefully interact with the other twigs, and won’t let them bother us. Another is to recognize that others act badly out of fear or discomfort. If we think about this, and maybe give them mental hugs, we’re better off, too.  

Learning to deal with things that annoy us has been useful in Houston, because there is so much here that I'd like to change. Treating these things as twigs in a stream is actually a bit better for my blood pressure. I’d like good transit again, and to see greater density on the streets. I’d like to be among more people in their 30s and 40s who are out doing things, rather than arriving by car and departing the same way.

Having said that, I’ve enjoyed living again in a garden-y city. Houston is green, it is lush, with bougainvilleas blooming and tangerines and limes starting--here in nearly-November. New York has parks and tree-lined streets in some neighborhoods, but I recall walking (when I lived there) and wishing for a bit of green to break up the wide sidewalks that extend to the curbs.

Here in Houston, the inner-loop streets are green, but I seldom see many pedestrians, and I miss that. Frequently I’m walking along a sidewalk and see another person, and my heart leaps: company in pedestrianism! Then they get into a car. This happens with sad frequency. At times I see someone else walking and, because I’m so unused to having others on the streets with me, I feel slightly antisocial. This is the feeling that isolation-by-car-culture builds, quite frankly. In September, a visitor from Cleveland talked about crowds on the street in Montreal, as he and I sat in a Houston cafĂ©, and we looked out the windows onto a main thoroughfare and saw no crowds at all. I recall crowds, from Seattle and Chicago and New York and elsewhere. But I almost had to be reminded of their presence elsewhere.

The fact is, July through September, and sometimes earlier or later, Houston is not a pleasant place to walk. The heat, sun, and humidity are everything. Throughout the summer, I rode my bike, and I saw others biking. But I had to be careful in the same ways that I did when walking on near-zero days in Chicago, when the wind whipped between buildings and I flexed my fingers in double-ply gloves. I had to carry water, keep to shade, and survive. In mid-June, a Boston visitor asked about my decision to be car-free here. Although he was moving to New York and looked forward to selling his car and taking the train, he was astounded that I would go without a car in Houston. I asked if he wondered because it was so hot, or because it was spread out. He said for both reasons.

Yes, getting through the summer in Houston without a car was not easy. At first, riding my bike in sunlight was fun. After seven years in Seattle, I am still glad for all sunlit days. Even when days were long and hot, as long as they were unhumid—and humidity is less frequent in the ongoing drought—I was in pretty good spirits. But oppressive heat causes cabin fever. There’s nowhere to go, unless we have swimming pools or get in cars and drive to large, air-conditioned spaces.

How I did it, car-free: I learned to live differently, to live simply. But I also felt oppressed by heat. I biked, but then I collapsed at home and rested, and I felt that the long hot day was eating up my life. I stayed indoors for much of the afternoon. The evenings were often nearly as hot.

It became clear to me: Although I am infinitely happier where there is sunlight, and I was never as bereft in Houston as in Seattle, I’d be better off spending summers in cooler climates. But in a place with light.

So, what is ideal in cities, in your opinion? It seems to me that escaping from crowds--as one can do in Chicago, Seattle, Philadelphia, and some other cities--can be nice. In New York, the fact that people are almost always everywhere that one is—that’s wearing to me. I grew up with vegetable farms and horses and raccoons and camping, and I love having those things as an option—not as a difficult mental transition to make from one's daily life.

Some European cities are good at balancing nature with urban: Copenhagen, and cities in Germany and the Netherlands, have large parks and trees that ring cities. Barcelona has promenades to the ocean.

Are the streets of very old cities sufficiently green? One friend in Scotland says they're too tightly set for her, and she misses the trees of Austin. Would I tire of cobbled streets, narrow lanes, houses everywhere? In some cities, I feel like Heidi, looking for a church tower to climb, trying to see the Alps.

At any rate, now the weather is gorgeous: Cool, sudsy, brisk in the mornings and calmly cloudless in the afternoons. Days begin and end with genial sun. We have earned it, and hope to continue it. I am happy that the outdoor weather matches my idea of fall: golden air. Here's to a trip to Austin, and to continuing to reevaulate our cities. 

**photo of foliage in Texas Hill Country by Gruenemann, Flickr Creative Commons.ere's to a trip to 

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Early Summertime

photo of Wortham Fountain by Buffalo Bayou Park, Houston, by eflon, Flickr Creative Commons.
            For Memorial Day weekend, the traditional gateway to summer, I bused to Fort Worth to see two cousins. They're old enough to have 40-something kids, but these cousins run an active organ-building shop that employs people as passionate about music as themselves. They also busily interact with neighbors and friends, and sit each day on the porch to watch birds pull antics in tall pecan trees, red oaks, and blue chaste trees.
            They live all summer in their rambling, high-ceilinged old north Texas house with open windows. The cousins don’t use air conditioning, it seems.  
            Each morning of my visit, cool air wafted in the tall old casement windows, along with sharp and detailed bird-calls.
            In Houston--four hours south of Fort Worth and 20 miles from the Gulf  -- I had had the a/c on, at night, for exactly one week. My 1943 building has old windows, some of which stick. Plus, Houston is a place where humidity eventually descends. Of my three neighbors, two had used a/c since mid-March. I was being a hold-out, waiting till late May to turn on air in coastal Texas.

photo of Westheimer Street in Houston, J. Jackson Photography, Flickr Creative Commons.

            Still, I was a happy hold-out. The natural way pleases me: open windows, saving energy, feeling air. There are many things I could say about heat and humidity--one is that I learned to adjust more easily to both by living in northern states.

            Surprising, yes. In New York when humidity rose from the ground, women wore sundresses and skirts, and men wore the lightest fabrics. We opened windows, employed fans. The same was true in Chicago, in Missoula, MT (where part of the summer can be fire-cracker hot), and in Seattle for the occasional heat waves of a week or two.  
           Heat varied greatly, from place to place -- like the types of plants that can grow in each particular soil.
             Philadelphia, 80 miles inland, was hotter and more humid, for longer, than New York. In Chicago, as they say, it's cooler by the lake. My first Chicago summer was spent three miles west of the lake, where my roommate (a European) and I sometimes lay on the floor like beached cats, to feel the better air along the floorboards. When I moved nearer to Lake Michigan, I could usually catch a breeze by walking along the lake. On certain days, though, nothing short of setting sail toward Michigan seemed to help.
            Naturally, all this experience in withstanding heat on certain days, while being aware that eventually the heat will go away – as one is certain in northern climates – tended to build my hubris. I began to feel that I was a heat expert.
            (Yes, I was all about the high-velocity fan. My favorite brand is Vornado, if you want to know.)
            It’s true that sometimes heat is hard to take, even in northern climates. In normally temperate Seattle, a heat wave of a week’s duration could bring many of us to work with raccoon eyes -- not having slept well on our overheated bed sheets the previous night.
            Maybe peculiarly, I regarded all this as character-building. I thought of it as what we did to make up for weeks and weeks of cool weather, or for having lolled in sunlight on Lake Washington beaches crowded with suddenly lively Northwest-dwellers.
            Because I still feel a bit that way, I’m glad that I was able to sleep at the cousins’ house with the windows open on Memorial Day weekend in north Texas. Lying there with breezes wafting in, hearing the trees stir -- felt lovely. With a good-enough fan, there are nights when it could be done here in Houston as well.
            I guess that's what's changed for me: Now I see Houston's weather as varying, too. I see the individual parts, the mornings and late afternoons. In the same way that I now notice which plants we have at different points, I now see that some mornings start out cooler, while others don't--and that some evenings, after the crush of certain days, are sublime for sitting in wafting breezes with an iced coffee.

Photo of interior of Brasil coffeehouse, Houston, by Sarah Fleming, Flickr Creative Commons.

            It’s still early, but I like things about the summer. Definitely, it's a thing to prepare for, like winter in Chicago. Handily, my apartment is old, shady, and wasn't built with only a/c in mind. Dressing for the weather is important. This means choosing fabrics that breathe--which I can find at Goodwill but not at TJ Maxx and Marshall’s, which sell a baffling selection of synthetic-material, short-sleeved “sundresses." I carry Gatorade and water. During the heat of the day, I walk slowly and in the shade, and am not outside for long periods. Working indoors during the main part of the day helps. Because evenings can be nice, I probably wouldn’t want to spend them working, anyhow.
            Does this mean I'm finished with cold climates? Not really, no. It just means, I think, that I want to experience the many flavors of a place's most emblematic season. I want to hold back summer a bit, so that I can look at it more closely. I don't want it rushing by outside of some air-conditioned car--not all the time, at least.

            By the same token, I think I'd like to spend at least a week (or more) in fall and winter in the Northeast or in mountains. Because those are traditionally my favorite seasons, in crisp, golden-aired climates. And guess where the cousins always spent their summer vacations? Colorado or New Mexico. "We wanted to escape the heat!" said one of the cousins. Yep, I can get that.

            But it's early yet, and I'm enjoying getting to know the seasons here. A week after Fort Worth, I sat one night with two new friends at Brasil, a Houston coffeehouse with a large courtyard next to an arty street. In the leafy shade of palmettos and other plants, we can spend time with our weather. All three of us had returned this spring to Houston, and we knew the city. We looked around at the late-night shadows of trees, felt the light air, and collectively agreed, “You know, I like it here.”
photo of crape myrtles at Menil Collection, Houston, by J.E. Theriot, Flickr Creative Commons.


Tuesday, April 16, 2013

A lush environment, loquats, mulberries, urban change

**Photo of loquat fruit by DeusXFlorida, Flickr Creative Commons.

I haven’t mentioned it outright, but some of you may have noticed that this blog's focus has shifted away from the Northwest. That’s because I’ve relocated to Houston. I grew up here, but I’ve lived away for more than 10 years, in New York/New Jersey, Chicago, and Seattle.

Perhaps more surprising, I’m excited to be back.
Houston is a strange and interesting, multicultural place. I like the sunny, garden-like feel of my daily walks. While the city has room for improvement, I’m thrilled by the work we are doing toward sustainability and change.

**Photo of a bike against flag mural, by Adam Baker, Flickr Creative Commons.
These are exciting times for American cities. I base that on a $500 million plan to increase transit and trees in one Houston corridor; and an award recently granted to a similarly sprawling, sun-belt city, Phoenix, to improve walkability along its light-rail corridors. If you want more updates, look here.
Back to gardens, I’ve recently compared greenery with a Los Angeles friend (who also moved there from Seattle). As it turns out, we share many of the same plants. Houston, like LA, is within a few hours of the Mexican border, and has the warmth of a lower latitude.

Everything around smells like jasmine, says my LA friend. I have to say, excitedly: This is true for me, too.
On my walks, I see star jasmine, vivid and RCA-trumpet-like hibiscus flowers, and red, fuchsia, and white sprays of bougainvillea that cascade over fences.

**Photo of bougainvillea, by jchatoff, Flickr Creative Commons.

There's also plenty of citrus. Most walks pass trees hung with the small, egg-shaped orange kumquats – those lovely pellets of Vitamin C -- and orange and yellow, plum-like fruit on the long-leaved loquat trees. The latter are called nospero in Spanish.

My mom recently asked what fruits I use in smoothies. Back in Seattle, each summer I gathered blueberries, and the blackberries that thrive on invasive vines in all the Northwest's untended spaces. My mom sighed, saying she wished more fruit grew here in Houston.
It's a common complaint. Houston's often called a concrete jungle, although anyone who has spent time in more densely populated cities probably wouldn't agree.  

These days, I can see that although Houston isn't a place of mountains or dramatic landscape, the city's near-downtown areas have the lushness of the Louisiana lowlands. Plants grow, vines twist, frogs sing at night in curb-side puddles. While some parts of town, such as the mall-centered Galleria, have expanded too heedlessly -- and it's still important that we continue to put forward initiatives for parks and green spaces -- my perspective on the city has changed.
These days, I feel that edible things *do* grow everywhere here. We just have to learn how to see them. At the moment, I'm excited about several plants. The first is loquats, from which we can make preserves, chutneys, garnishes for meats.

**Photo of loquats in a bowl, by Infrogmation, Flickr Creative Commons.

Second is jasmine, whose vines and starry white flowers form most hedge-rows here. From its heady flowers, we can make infusions for cocktails and to top ice creams.
**Photo of star jasmine is by Herry Lawford, Flickr Creative Commons.

Third is mulberries, which are turning dark purple-black on their shade-providing trees. These are strange fruit, like blackberries in a worm shape, with their distinctly mulberry, slightly bland flavor. But they grow so plentifully, and in such pleasant spots alongside bayous, that I have to like them. From them, we can make sorbets, jams, pies, and many other things.

**Photo of mulberries by BionicTeaching, Flickr Creative Commons.

That's just the beginning, though. Much else will grow, as summer comes (and stays) upon the land.

**Photo at Menil Collection, Houston, by kimbo_swift, Flickr Creative Commons. ##

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Thin-skinned lemons

Photo of Persian lemons (sometimes called sweet limes or sweet lemons) at the La Cienega farmers' market, in Los Angeles, by Chotda, Flickr Creative Commons.

The lemons from Clear Lake, it turns out, were likely Ujukitsu lemons. They were and are wonderful, and I’ll be back soon with more information on citrus in unexpected places.
Here's the thing: With more than 70 varieties of citrus grown in Houston these days, and nearly 200 grown by one gardener 50 miles southwest of here, things in the tart and sweet scenario have grown confusing, to say the least.
Here's my piece on Houston Press's food blog, Eating Our Words, about my mistake in citrus ID-ing.
(Next, here's what I wrote, *before* doing the research for the Houston Press piece:)

When life gives you lemons in your very own yard, pick them gleefully. That is, do so if they’re Persian lemons. 

These lemons are a recent discovery for me.  Until this week, they were just the curiously round, thin-skinned yellow fruit that I picked from a friend’s back-yard. 

The yard ran down to a canal from Clear Lake, an arm of Texas’ Galveston Bay. It’s an area near NASA, so maybe space-age citrus was in order. Still, these lemons turned out to be ancient fruit. 

Like, Gardens-of-Babylon-age fruit. Or, at the very least, they’ve been popular in Iran and the Middle East for a long time, and people eat them at the first sign of a cold. 

We brought those decidedly lumpish fruits inside, thinking that they resembled ungrown grapefruit more than lemons. My pal sliced them in half, juiced them as we watched raptly, and handed me a glass an inch or so full of the opaque yellow juice. 

I looked dubiously, noticing that no sharp, lemon-fresh scent rose from the glass. What was this?
Cautiously, I allowed my lips to meet the juice and drank. Wha-at? The juice from these lemons was that strangest of all considerations: sweet. 

The juice was foamy, frothy, soft to the mouth. Its citrus flavor was delicate, like the kindest of grapefruit. 

We’d established that this was not a Meyer lemon – the yard had Meyers as well, on a different tree, which we had left alone.  I haven’t been a fan of Meyers from the store, although I’ve yet to have one fresh.  

I’m saying, though, that these lumpy lemons were different. 

At my pal’s urging, we each happily filled a carrier bag with the charmingly misshapen citrus, carrying them home like pleasing treasure. 

I waited a couple of days to juice one or two more. In the meantime, the thin-skinned darlings lay in a crisper drawer on their sides. 

A few times, I pulled open the drawer just to look at them. I waited, because I didn't want to sully them with the wrong approach. 

Then, I juiced. I filled the bottom of a glass once more with the opaque liquid. I tasted.

Would the lemons taste the same, away from the citrus trees along the leafy edge of the canal? 

Their flavor was…exactly the same. Even in my kitchen, they had the same beautiful and surprising mouth-feel.
But what were these lemons?

They remained a wonderful mystery. My mother, who works at a natural food grocery, insisted they were Meyers. 

I felt strongly that they weren’t, because I liked them so much better. 

A few days later, I found Chowhound discussing the topic, followed by a link to a blog with the LA Times.

Persian lemons.

They could be grown from seeds, the blog said. An Iranian-American kid in LA had grown some in a back-yard, from a seed from a local Mediterranean grocery. 


New lemon enthusiasm!

{p.s. Since then, I also ran across this cool So-Cal blog that also mentions Persian lemons.}