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