Thursday, August 27, 2009

New Frontiers

It's a really good thing the Ford Escapes in the state fleet have an auxiliary jack you can plug your iPod into. Otherwise I would have had to sing a capella.

I would also otherwise have had Barry Manilow stuck in my head for 723 miles. Or, say, 690 miles - because somewhere between Dripping Springs and Fredericksburg, I passed a sign for a ranch advertising "Showgoats." Some people are just sick.

This week's was my first solo outing for the state: my boss, who was supposed to accompany me, had something come up at the last minute. So I headed out to inspect the visitor center in Langtry all by myself. It's a long way, but a wonderful drive if you enjoy that sort of thing (what luck - I do!). I took the scenic route to Langtry: out 290 through Fredericksburg to I-10 to Junction, where I got lost. First of all, the exit sign for US 377 just says "North" - I guess on the grounds that nobody really wants to go south anyway. So I kept driving west, assuming that the southbound exit came later.

But it was soon apparent - luckily soon, because otherwise I'd have found myself in Sonora - that this was not the case, so I exited, turned around, backtracked, exited again in Junction, headed south on 377, and found a gas station, where I discovered that I don't know how to use the state card provided with the vehicle. (I've always gassed up at a District office.) Ten hilarious minutes during which I thought I'd be stranded forever in Kimble County, an amused convenience store clerk, and a few panicked phone calls later, I got it figured out, but this only enabled me to get lost some more. You have to make a right turn in Junction to stay on 377, otherwise you end up on Loop 481 which eventually deposits you, wailing curses, right back onto I-10 heading east. So be careful!

Eventually I found my highway. US 377 south of Junction looks like an FM (that's Farm-to-Market road, for you non-Texans) - a little two-lane affair with a yellow stripe down the middle and narrow shoulders. The speed limit is 75. Way too fast, way too fast for this road! I thought. An hour later I found myself doing ninety.

When you reach US 90, you turn left to go to Del Rio - and you're pretty much there, just on the west side of town - but you turn right to go to Langtry. Langtry is unincorporated. Although the 2000 census gave its population as 150, it's declined in recent years; and one of my coworkers in the visitor center guessed the current population is around 19.

"What do you do for entertainment way out here?" another coworker said she was asked by a visitor. She laughed. "Heck, when you're my age, a muumuu and an easy chair are all the entertainment you need!"

The US 90 drive from Del Rio to Langtry takes you across the Amistad Reservoir - blue and beautiful in a stark landscape of scrubby brownish-green - through Comstock (don't blink!), and a border control checkpoint (I wasn't the droids they were looking for, and was immediately waved along), through large, lumpy hills with a sparse growth of brush, and across Seminole Canyon and the Pecos River - the US 90 span across it is the tallest bridge in Texas, and the third highest in the United States.

Langtry is on the west side of the Pecos, as anyone familiar with Judge Roy Bean will be aware. The scenery is breathtaking and desolate, not readily captured with the least expensive digital camera money could buy, and the road was virtually empty except for the occasional 18-wheeler, border patrols, and vultures swooping down to pick at the pulped remains of a skunk on the pavement, identiable only by the smell - waiting until the last instant to wing out of the way of the speeding car, flapping away within inches of my windshield. If you don't set your cruise control, you glance down and realize you're doing 100.

Del Rio was not much of an adventure, since (1) I was incredibly tired by the time I got to my hotel room, and (2) going out on the (border) town alone might not be the best idea for a woman in my, um, position. So I picked up dinner, took it to my room, and slept until 5:30 - needing to be back in Langtry by 8am to finish the inspection, wrap up, and make it to Austin for Diane's retirement reception back at work. I drove like - like a state employee out of Langtry. And I made it in time, too.

I love my job. And I love, love, love my iPod!

Click here for photos.

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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

West Texas: It's Pretty Big

Today I drove from Austin through Fredericksburg to Junction to Del Rio through Comstock to Langtry, worked for four hours, and then drove another hour back to Del Rio where I'm spending the night before following roughly the same schedule in reverse tomorrow. I got to see some things I don't often get to see, like 80mph speed limit signs, and a scorpion on the wall.

I'm too tired to blog about it. At some point I may post pictures. It's starkly beautiful out here, but the tap water tastes like ass.

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Sunday, August 23, 2009

Overdue Book Report

The best part of "Lord Jim" is the sentence, near the end: "With these words Marlow had ended his narrative..." But it turns out Joseph Conrad is only fooling. You're not as near the end of the book as you hoped you were.

Marlow is just a character, not really the narrator. But apparently nobody told him that. So he rambles on interminably, his speech embellished with elaborate imagery, profound metaphor, and enough subordinate clauses to smother a rhinoceros.* Every so often, after slogging through several pages, you'll realize that somewhere back there Marlow began relating a story told to him by some other character, and that for the last page and a half you've been reading somebody else's subordinate clauses.

Not that it's a bad story, and even thought-provoking, once you can get past all the damn words. Our hero, Jim, when a very young man first making his way in the world, is serving as first mate on a steamer carrying eight hundred Muslim passengers on a pilgrimage. The boat strikes something, and the rest of the crew, convinced that she's doomed, abandon ship in a lifeboat, leaving their human cargo to a watery grave. Jim, with the most romantic notion of his own courage, coldly ignores their calls for assistance with the lifeboat, intending to go down with the ship - but in one instant his nerve fails him and, after the lifeboat casts away, he dives in after it. His crewmates invent a story that they took the lifeboat down to examine the damage, and while they were in the water, the steamer sank. But the steamer doesn't sink, and a couple of days later, it's found, rescued, and towed safely into port. There's a hearing, and the crew are disgraced and stripped of their credentials. Jim's problem is that he can't get past it, that nothing he ever does can redeem himself in his own eyes. Marlow meanwhile does quite a bit of hand-wringing about whether any of us can really trust ourselves if someone as bright and promising and right as Jim could fail so terribly. He's not the only one - about a third of the way into the book, the fine, upstanding old sea captain who had presided at the hearings commits suicide. Right out in the middle of the ocean, just up and jumps overboard, leaving everything ship-shape with detailed instructions and a written recommendation of promotion for his first mate. Oddly, Marlow is not talking to him at the time.

Not so much out of pity for Jim (whom he meets at the hearing), but rather out of an effort to quell the disturbing questions Jim has raised about himself and all his fellow sailor men, Marlow sets out to help Jim find gainful employment. But the story of Jim's desertion eventually turns up wherever the boy goes, and he flees to some new locale. Of course, after this happens a few times, everybody in the whole dang maritime industry knows Jim's terrible "secret"** - and finally, Marlow conveniently remembers an old friend who has an insect collection, a penchant for armchair psychology, and a job opening on a remote Malaysian island. Jim is sent there to be the only white guy and serve as a lord protector for a bunch of stupid natives.***

This goes simply swimmingly for Jim, who becomes a hero by setting local politics to rights and rescuing a pretty girl from her nasty old stepfather, until Marlow abruptly ceases droning on and his listeners "drifted off the verandah in pairs or alone without loss of time, without offering a remark," and you can hardly blame them.

But Marlow isn't done. A couple of years later, one of his listeners receives a very long letter from him, and wouldn't you know the bastard writes just like he talks? In a rather strange ending, which has the feeling of being tacked on as hastily as the use of about a half-million words will allow, a nasty old reprobate of a pirate invades Jim's island paradise with a view towards provisioning his ship for further plunders. He's surprised and angry to find the islanders organized and capable of self-defense, and his small crew is immediately besieged on top of a hill. So he falsely negotiates a deal with Jim to be allowed to escape. But, through the treachery of Jim's girlfriend's nasty old stepfather (remember him?), he ambushes the forces that have been staged to escort him back to his ship and kills several of them before escaping, including the son of the chieftain with whose blessing Jim's been lording over the island.

The thing is, Jim's people didn't want to let the pirates go, they wanted to kill them; Jim, still trying to redeem himself for his one moment of ignominy years ago, insisted on the merciful approach and gambled the trust of the islanders that everything would go well. The betrayer knew that Jim's hold over the islanders would be destroyed by this. Jim surrenders himself to the grieving chieftain, who shoots him dead. The girlfriend's quite upset.

And with that, my friends, I have saved you the trouble of reading 271 pages (in 6-point type, too) of stuff like this:

"He was silent again with a still, far-away look of fierce yearning after that missed distinction, with his nostrils for an instant dilated, sniffing the intoxicating breath of that wasted opportunity. If you think I was either surprised or shocked you do me an injustice in more ways than one! Ah, he was an imaginative beggar! He would give himself away; he would give himself up. I could see in his glance darted into the night all his inner being carried on, projected headlong into th fanciful realm of recklessly heroic aspirations. He had no leisure to regret what he had lost, he was so wholly and naturally concerned for what he had failed to obtain. He was very far away from me who watched him across three feet of space..."

...and so on. I made myself read 20 pages a day.

So there it is, "Lord Jim" in a single blog post. I was assigned to read this book in high school. It's the only reading assignment that was ever too much for me - the only Cliff Notes I ever bought. The book was in my dad's basement, so I brought it back with me after my visit, determined to read the damn thing or die in the attempt. And here I am!

But it did get me to thinking about human nature, about learning from mistakes, about redemption and forgiveness, about moving on. And fate and stuff, you know. But then, I'm 40. Why on earth anyone would possibly think a high school student would get anything out of this other than a profound desire to punch Joseph Conrad in the face, I couldn't say.

*Rhinoceroses are noted for their dislike of complicated grammatical structure.
**I like this touch; I tend to think this is generally true. Everbody knows the things about us that we thing are terrible secrets, only nobody else thinks they're that big of a deal.
***Nobody had ever explained the concept of racism to Joseph Conrad, I don't believe.

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Friday, August 21, 2009

A Gentler Time

I've been digging through some old files at work, and darned if I didn't discover today that phishing predates the internet by a long, long time - who knew?

From the monthly newsletter of a certain Texas Chamber of Commerce, Vol 3. No. 4, April 1968

National BB Bureau Warns of “Bank Examiner” Swindle

The National Better Business Bureau warned today that the so-called “bank examiner” swindle – a bizarre con game widely used a few years ago to bilk elderly widows of their savings – has cropped up again in some areas of the country.

NBBB said the most recent case involved an elderly La Salle, Illinois, woman who was defrauded of $1,800 by a fast-talking con man who represented himself as an officer of the local bank.

Typically, the victim was led to believe she was helping the bank lay a trap for a dishonest bank employee.

According to the National Better Business Bureau, with which the local Chamber is affiliated through membership, the swindle was widespread two years ago and may be on the rise again.

NBBB, which first exposed the racket in 1964, said the swindlers, generally two or three men working as a team and posing as bank examiners, security officers or FBI agents, choose their victims carefully.

They often spend time in lines in front of bank tellers’ windows in an attempt to observe account numbers, withdrawals or deposits of potential victims.

In the case of the Illinois woman, the swindler, posing as a bank officer, used a name that was familiar to the victim and cited the number on her passbook.

Convinced that she was being asked to help the bank in its efforts to check on the honesty of a teller, the woman, following instructions, withdrew $1,800 from her account, took the money home, and later turned it over to a man who flashed a gold badge. The woman was told the money would be redeposited in her account and a new passbook issued. When the victim finally began to worry and called the bank for reassurance, it was too late.

According to NBBB, the best advice is this: If you are contacted by a self-proclaimed bank examiner, FBI agent or bank security officer, advise him that you will call back. Disregard the number he provides and contact the local police or FBI office and explain why you are calling.

I also examined the 1954 blueprints (which are blue, I'll be darned!) for a Tourist Information Bureau on a well-traveled highway. The floor plan includes a spacious lobby with window seats and wide double entrances for visitors, a service counter, workspace behind the counter, office space, and a private restroom for the employees. There is no restroom for the public. Apparently that sort of thing wasn't necessary in the 1950's.

You gave travelers a free state highway map. They wrote you a four-page thank-you letter. Even their complaints were polite and constructive, like the one guy who gently suggested striping the center of the highway in some bright, highly visible color in order to avoid head-on collisions at night. He concluded his letter with the hope he had not made himself tiresome. I could kiss him.

Of course, he was probably a traveling con artist.

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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Is There a Happy Ending?

What do you do if your neighbor's large trees, within a few feet of the property line, are overhanging your yard?

Enjoy the shade, I'd say; but life is rarely that simple. The actual answer - as far as I have been able to determine from a good four hours' online research today - is that you are entitled to cut back the overhanging limbs, at your own expense, because your property line extends from the center of the Earth into the most infinite reaches of space. (No charging tolls on passing airplanes / satellites / asteroids / alien spaceships / comets / the incalculable array of matter floating through the boundless unknown! I mean, let's be reasonable here.)

But if you cut back the limbs (this also applies to encroaching roots, which are trickier) so severely that it damages or kills the neighbor's tree, your neighbor can sue you for damages.

If your neighbor is behaving in good faith, he may (but is not necessarily obligated to - this is a matter for local jurisdiction or civil action) pay for the trimming, or assist with payment. The neighbor may be motivated to do so because it ensures he has a say in how, exactly, the trimming is performed. You may (as long as it doesn't kill the tree) cut the limbs right back to the property line; imagine a laser beam, one poster remarked, raking straight up from the fence to the sky. If the neighbor finds this aesthetically or otherwise objectionable, it's certainly in his interest to work with you.

If your neighbor's tree drops limbs onto your roof or cars and causes damage, this is actually (unless the neighbor knew the tree to be unhealthy, and therefore predisposed to socially unacceptable behavior) an Act of God - or even, if you've failed to trim back the limbs that overhang your property - a result of your own negligence. You can file a claim with your homeowner's insurance, or sue God for damages. Either course is likely to be equally effective.

Excessive brush due to the incursion of overhanging limbs, and the wildlife dwelling therein, is definitely your own problem.

Do you know, I've worked on this issue, doing the best research I could, for about 8 hours so far. I asked a coworker for help with city ordinances in the jurisdiction in question, and he came back with detailed instructions on how to open a massage parlor.

Then my boss set me to 10-keying travel and tourism stats from the 50's. This is a day in my life. I can't figure out if I'm under- or overpaid. At least I don't have to trim trees.

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Thursday, August 13, 2009

Ring In the Old

Just when I'd almost forgotten I work in state government, a reminder dropped into my lap in the form of some righteous blog fodd - er, I mean, in the form of this handy booklet, published during (I'd estimate) the Kennedy administration to train state employees how to comport themselves on that newfangled phone thingummy.

The kicker is that WE STILL USE THIS BOOKLET. I shit you not, it's still distributed to employees who have extensive telephone dealings with the public, apparently on the idea that the guy in the picture above is exactly what you hope people are imagining when they're on the phone with you.

Check out that phone - that is one high-tech piece of desk candy, n'est-ce pas?

Some things haven't changed much since the Kennedy administration, apparently - I swear I've worked with this guy.

And they were some sick little bastards back then too, weren't they? This is a truly disturbing image. The page goes on to tell you what not to say when answering a coworker's or boss' phone (remember that voicemail will not be invented for a few decades yet): he's hasn't come in, he left early, he's on break, I don't know where he is. Or "He was last seen going into the men's room with a newspaper tucked under his arm 45 minutes ago, and if he hasn't come out in twenty more minutes, I'm sending in a HAZMAT team."

Or "He preferred a violent, untimely death to the prospect of conversation with you."

Well, this is still valid advice, I suppose. Have writing materials. On your desk. Where you work.

I don't know, based on Mr. Question Mark's paper cutouts and the fact that this guy can take notes in the accumulated dust on his desk, something tells me the agency that published this booklet didn't have the highest expectations of its employees' productivity. Just a thought.

UR DOIN IT RONG!!!1!11!!!

Einstein? Seriously?? Given the rest of this booklet, though, I kind of think they're being sarcastic. The other guy looks kind of cool.

Um, because I've become convinced that I'm a frog and hopped onto a levitating lily pad, which just happens to pass right outside my caller's window?

The caller has no one but himself to blame; clearly it's after hours.

I keep in pretty close touch with Paoonel Heisii, myself.

Yes. These are detailed, step-by-step instructions on how to talk on the phone. I guess the agency was afraid the more subtle insults contained earlier in the booklet might be missed on its employees, so in one last desperate attempt, decided to make everything perfectly clear on the last page. "Our employees are such morons they don't even know which way to hold the phone," they are saying. "For God's sake. Are you paying attention to what we're saying here? This is the public you're talking to here. They can HEAR you."

Act your extension, not your IQ.

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Monday, August 10, 2009

Inbox Intervention

Geez, take one Friday off from work and come back to find out in terrible, grisly detail exactly what the interwebz think of you. Why, I'm out of shape, undereducated, and lousy in bed - though I could still make untold millions working from home, so that's something. I'll need the money, since my accounts with numerous banks have been frozen; I might also want to rustle up some quick cash through online gambling. But first and foremost, I really need a new watch, because mine is just an embarrassment. No wonder I have no luck with the ladies! I've received several order confirmations, so hopefully a replacement is on the way.

It's possible I have some work-related emails in my inbox too, but I haven't found them yet, because they're hopelessly buried under all the subject-line notifications our spam-filtering software thoughtfully sends along so that I'll know how many spam messages I'm not receiving.

And for some reason I seem to be subscribed to the "Maritime News."

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Sunday, August 09, 2009

And So It Begins

Katie and I stopped by the AT&T store yesterday. For about a month, I haven't been able to send text messages, though I could still receive them. It takes time to get yourself worked up to do something, okay?

I explained the problem to the friendly rep by the door and handed her my phone. "Oh, your mailbox is full," she said. "There's not enough memory to send or receive messages when you have that many in your inbox."

"I don't think that's it," I objected, "I can still get texts, it just won't let me send." But I emptied my inbox. "Here, let me show you the error message I get," and I composed a test message to Robbie and hit send.

"Yay!" Robbie texted back, because texting is one of our primary means of communication. The AT&T rep was very nice, and waited until I had left the store to laugh at me.

Katie insisted on loitering a while to play with the iPhone on display. She wants one, which means I get one - I can't very well buy my teenaged daughter a fancier phone than mine - but I found the touchscreen keyboard incredibly difficult to use, and kept missing and hitting the wrong letters with clumsy thumbs, and it doesn't work if you try to press with the tips of your fingernails. "Oh my gosh, I can't use this," I wailed, though Katie (who has a certain vested interest here) kept insisting I'd get used to it quickly.

Someone I once knew said he'd know he was old when a popular gadget came out that he was unable to make heads or tails of. "You know," he said, "like your grandparents with the VCR forever blinking 12:00. When something new comes out and I can't figure out how to work it, like that, I'll know... but I can't wait to see it!"

I hope the iPhone is not that gadget for me, not already, not yet, I'm too young!

Friday I visited a dermatology "medical spa" to have a mole removed, and while there I asked the doctor about how to offset the very beginnings of fine lines around my eyes that I'm beginning to notice. "I've read about retinoid cream, and how it lessens wrinkles by accelerating skin cell turnover," I said, "and I found some at the grocery store, but is there a brand you recommend?"

It turns out there is, indeed - in prescription strength, and they sell it for $83.00 a tube (but with a 20% discount it's only $66!), but the dermatologist, without half a moment's hesitation, cheerfully recommended Botox. "Look," he said, handing me a mirror, "smile, and I'll show you." He put his fingers beside my eyes and stretched the smile-crinkles apart. "Botox will just relax the muscles that squinch up your skin like that."

"I think I'll get the cream," I said, because (1) I think I'd rather get wrinkles than lose the ability to smile with my eyes, and (2) forget my incompetence with the iPhone, thinking of myself as a person who gets Botox would really make me feel old.

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Thursday, August 06, 2009

Wash Your Hands

Apologies if this is gross, but I have a complaint to make.

Bitchez need to wash their hands after they go potty! I don't care if it's #1 or #2 (though #2 is worse). But if I'm in the bathroom and I see or hear you leave without washing, I am not shaking hands with you when we're introduced. That's just nasty.

It's not the women I work with, I should add. It's the women from that other division, the ones who for whatever reason prefer to come across the hall and use our restroom instead of the one nearer to them, the ones who always make a beeline for the handicapped stall, preferring a nice open space to spread out in while they do their business, so I end up having to get changed in the little stall.

Last week it happened while I was washing out my coffee cup (a kitchen, like a locker room, is something my building lacks). A woman from across the way flushed the toilet and emerged from her stall. "Sorry," I said, hastily rinsing my cup, "I'll be right out of your way."

"Oh, that's all right," she responded as she opened the door and walked out. I was shocked, frankly. "No!" I wanted to call after her. "No, it's not all right!"

Then it happened again yesterday: I, back from my lunchtime walk, sweaty, in workout clothes, backpack slung over my shoulder, walked into the restroom right behind a small blonde thing who headed straight for the handicapped stall. I sighed and changed in the smaller stall while she availed herself of the facilities, heard as she flushed, opened the stall door, and simply left.

What, was she raised in a barn?!?

The worst culprit I ever knew was the president of the internet marketing company from Hell I worked for in Corpus. She never washed her hands, never, no matter what she'd just done in the restroom. She's a well-known internet marketing personality, too. I could write "[Name of well-known internet marketing personality] never washes her hands in the restroom even after doing a #2!" on this blog, and people who were searching for information about her would read it. I'd get sued, I'm sure. But it would still be true.

Bitchez need to wash their hands!!

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Tuesday, August 04, 2009

The Other Side

Pet cats have a pretty good life, with certain caveats. You only live to be 16-20, and you have to eat cat food. I don't think I'd enjoy the litter box that much. Yowling at the neighbors at 3 a.m. is probably less pleasant than keeping an agreeable smile plastered to your face while avoiding eye contact, which is how I generally deal with them. Actually the worst part of being a cat - and I base this on the experience of my own well-treated and (ahem - take the hint, honey) amply-fed Peachy - is that of not really having much of any idea who your children are.

I say this, but I can think of ways in which it would be a distinct advantage. Have you ever watched "My Super Sweet Sixteen"? I admire this show greatly, inasmuch as it serves as a cautionary tale for my own sixteen-year-old, Katie, who otherwise might exhibit tendencies in that direction. But I digress. The point, assuming there was one, was that there are situations where it would be somewhat advantageous, emotionally speaking, to forget after a week or so without any contact that your offspring had ever existed.

The unfortunate corollary to this, and it would be fair in my book to call it a deal-breaker, is that a child (kitten) can be introduced to you, and within a fairly short span of time you've forgotten that it is not actually yours. Witness the kitten my abovementioned Katie brought home at the beginning of spring break this year. "My friend just needs us to watch her this week," Katie told me. "We'll take her back after break. "

If anyone on Earth knows how long break can last, you'd think, it really should be me.

Naturally, the kitten was nursing on Peachy within a few short weeks; naturally, the kitten, now nearly as large as her "mother," routinely knocks Peachy over to demand some nursies, or perhaps a tussle. Peach doesn't care. She purrs, but deep in her eyes is that long-suffering look known to all maternal creatures since time immemorial.

"We could get another kitten," I mentioned to my kids, "and after a week or so, Peachy would never know. She'd just be sitting there, nursing it, thinking, 'Why did I go and do this again?'"

I shouldn't give them ideas. Eric, who lives with his grandmother now, recently adopted a new kitten. She's at least 10 times tinier than our kitten. He brought it over to visit. Our kitten gave it one sniff and promptly dashed off to hide behind the stove. She reacted the same way when my friend Robbie brought his young miniature Dachshund over in a crate so we could have movie night. The puppy was whining. My kitten hid from the sound of whining.

I make fun of it, but I'm pretty much the same way about the dentist.

Being a human ain't bad, but my gosh, you end up having to take care of so many cats.

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Sunday, August 02, 2009


This may come as a bit of a shock, but it turns out wine is quite nice, and vineyards are pretty places. Who knew?

Robbie brought his friend Emily and me along yesterday on a hike down the Central Texas Wine Trail. Well, you don't actually hike it, you're supposed to drive, though frankly it would be a lot more convenient if all the vineyards were within a mile of each other so that you could simply stumble from one to the next. But then I suppose there wouldn't be enough room to grow the grapes. Really, how inconvenient.

We started out with a printed map listing the locations of about 25 vineyards within a 100-mile radius of Austin. Emily is an old hand at this - she's been on a Napa Valley wine tour, and is already familiar with many of the Central Texas wineries, and knows that she usually likes Sauvignon Blanc and doesn't care much for Sangiovese. She's fancy that way.

I drink wine out of a box.

We started with Driftwood Estates Vineyard, which is a beautiful place just south of Dripping Springs (the locals call it "Dripping" or even "Drippin'"), where Robbie and Emily favored the sweet plum red and I cottoned to the Lone Star Cabernet.

Have you ever done a wine tasting? See, I never had really. My stepfather and grandmother, sisters and I did visit a vineyard in central Alabama once, where they made wine from muscadyne grapes. The facility was spotless and beautiful, and the vineyards spread out lush and green before us. As far as I remember, they didn't charge anything for the tastings or the tour; but, seduced by the heady beauty of our surroundings, we probably bought more than a dozen bottles among us. We brought it back to my grandparents' suburban Birmingham home. It was just awful. We practically had to pinch our noses shut while we were drinking it.

These central Texas wineries have their act much more together. You belly up to a shiny blond wood bar, or sit at a high table in a pale stone room, dusty with newness. You can also relax outside on sloping lawns overlooking the vineyards in the valley below, or on a wooden deck surrounded by oak trees; and - unlike the place in Alabama - you are far from alone; wine tourism is popular, and though you're out in the middle of nowhere, the place is thronged. Visit two or more wineries on the trail, and you'll spot some of the same customers again and again.

You get about six tastings for 5 or 6 bucks - the equivalent of a glass of wine, more or less. You and your companions compare notes and discuss the nose, overtones, and aftertaste of each sample as if you were an elegant bunch who had never seen a box of Franzia in your lives. Then you order a glass and/or buy a bottle of the one that you particularly liked, relax and enjoy the atmosphere, and eventually - this is a highly leisurely pursuit - you head off to the next winery. There are dozens and dozens of them within an hour's drive. We managed to visit two.

After Driftwood we headed to Woodrose Winery outside Stonewall, close to the LBJ Ranch. Driftwood with its hilly vistas had a Tuscan feel, but Woodrose has a deck nestled in the woods behind it, with an acoustic guitarist/singer (most singers are acoustic as a general rule) providing a little ambience. Woodrose has fixed tasting menus laid out in a particular order, because "if you start with the port, nothing else is going to taste good," the woman explained to us. "Your taste buds will be fried."

This is good to know.

But don't be deceived by the inflexibility of the menu. Our waitress - probably an owner, I'm guessing - overheard Robbie expressing curiosity about one of the reds, and slipped a sample of it in for him before the port (which - this is extremely important - comes with chocolate). In fact she very good-humoredly gave all of us a couple of extra samples. My last tasting was a Merlot and she poured a sample for me twice, simply shrugging at me and smiling when I told her she'd already given me my last one. "Damn, she's nice," we agreed as she left.

My pick from Woodrose was the Wicked Red, so I ordered a glass to enjoy on the wooded deck and bought a bottle to take home, too. It's sitting on my kitchen counter. How it feels about the box of Merlot lurking six feet away is nobody's business but its own.

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