Thursday, January 28, 2010

Will Wonders Never Cease

About two weeks ago, my state agency received an email through our website inquiring when the best time to see Texas wildflowers is.

Emails from the public are a mixed bag, of course. Human nature being what it is, people don't usually write to a faceless bureaucratic entity unless they're het up about something. A not-insignificant portion of my job involves answering hate mail.

I love it. Not the hate mail itself, but the whole process of coming to understand the other person's point of view; of moving through commingled frustration, annoyance, and compassion; of trying to figure out what can be done either to help the person, or at least to help him or her understand. Forging connections is amazing. The best thing in the world is when you write back to someone who's very angry - with or without good cause - and feel that you've made sense, that you've cleared things up, that the person received at least some sort of satisfaction from your answer. You've made a change in the world, and in someone else, and in yourself - just the littlest tiniest bit, but it's such a good thing.

Usually that's the end of it, but every so often someone writes back to me. Often they thank me. Many times they're surprised to have received a thoughtful response from a faceless, monolithic government entity at which they were, after all, only venting a little spleen. Sometimes they want to continue the discussion further. Obviously I can't answer everything - I mean, I personally sure as heck don't agree 100% with everything my employer does - but on balance, I love the process, and the contact and the interaction with these strangers seeking any acknowledgement whatsoever of their point of view, and get it. It's tremendously rewarding, really.

But this wildflower question just made me completely happy. Of course the inquirer wasn't upset; she wanted to know when the peak of wildflower season is, and where the best part of the state to visit is, and whether we're going to have a good wildflower season this year.

Well, on the last one, who knows. It's looking a heck of a lot better than last year. We had some good rain in the fall, and only one hard freeze so far this winter (till tomorrow and Saturday night, anyway), and it looks like we'll get some nice fields of bluebonnets, come late March to mid-April. Somewhere. You can generally count on east Texas, anyway.

So, a couple of weeks ago, I wrote back to this nice British nature photographer and said that, while it's too early to determine how colorful the show of wildflowers will be this year, there is a fair prospect of a good season; I sent a few links, and had a shipment of Texas travel literature sent off to her, along with last year's wildflower driving tour issue of the travel magazine, whose editor is a friend of mine. She wrote back and thanked me right away.

And today she wrote the friendliest note to say that she'd received all the literature in the mail, thanked me again for being helpful, and promised to send me photographs after her trip.

Do you remember before there was an internet? Can you imagine life without it? I do, and I can't. At this point I'm kind of wishing she'd look me up when she's in town. People are quite lovely, you know. Aren't I lucky to have a job where I get to be friends with so many of them?

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Saturday, January 09, 2010

Jehovah's Witlesses

'Tis the season to be accosted. Greenpeace can get fairly aggressive on the hike-and-bike trail, which is tiresome as I really have to be sure not to go over my hour for lunch, and I'm not going to give anybody any money, but when someone calls wheedlingly out to me, "Come on, you like trees, don't you?" it's hard to walk stonily past without feeling like a Republican.

I do indeed like trees. In fact, I might never get a live Christmas tree again, now that Jim's not making that call. Fresh flowers I don't mind, but I've always been troubled by the concept of sacrificing a tree's life just for a few weeks' holiday decor. Never mind the mess, the needles that will carpet the back of my car for as long as I own it, the cats' unfortunate tendency to attempt to mask the piney smell with more pungent aromas of their own. No, the worst part is taking all the lights and ornaments down on January 6th and hauling the poor forlorn husk to the curb. I can't even look it in the eye, and wouldn't be able to even if trees HAD eyes, which (unless you're a big Lillian Vernon shopper) they generally don't.

But the City of Austin has a nice program where they at least recycle your discarded trees by grinding them into mulch. You can leave your tree at the curb and they'll pick it up on your regular garbage day, but if it's over six feet tall, you're supposed to saw it in half. Do I look like a lumberjack to you?! So instead, I shoved it into the back of the Isuzu Behemoth which my amazing friend Diane is selling to me on ridiculously easy terms, to help me out through the divorce - Diane is a GOOD FRIEND - and took it to the temporary Christmas tree recycling drop-off at Zilker Park.

Have I mentioned that I love Austin, love it, love it, love it, love it? This morning's experience reminded me that I haven't said so for a while. The dropoff point at Zilker Park presumably had at least a few city employees, but was largely staffed by volunteers. It was extremely well-organized and efficient, with staffers directing traffic into separate lanes and hurrying to unload and haul away trees. And it was bitter cold out, for Austin - just under 20 degrees at the time I went - and, my gosh, they were so nice. Bundled up in coats, hats, and gloves, they bustled competently through their work, smiling and thanking me for bringing the tree in. And as I drove away, the person directing traffic out of the lot gave me a big, bright smile and a cheery wave. I felt as if I'd had a booster shot of holiday cheer to last me through the rest of this cold winter. The scent of pine needles in my car probably helped, too.

Worse yet than Greenpeace, on the hike-and-bike trail, is the short-shorts guy. I write this hesitantly, afraid that perhaps I know him from somewhere and am being inexcusably rude for not responding to his repeated salutations; but if (as I suspect) we've never met, he's kind of a creep. I avoid eye contact with him now, and I have my iPod and earbuds as a legitimate enough excuse for not hearing anything anyone happens to say to me, but he gives it a good try anyway, addressing me two or three times whenever he sees me, and sometimes turning after we pass and calling after me. I've changed my walking route, and may change my lunch hour as well.

And worse yet than the short-shorts guy are Jehovah's Witnesses. Jim came by today to use the Behemoth to move another large installment of his stuff out of my house. Staggering under a heavy armload of his belongings, I found myself face-to-face with a woman and her small daughter. She seemed taken aback. "Is this your mother?" she asked Katie, who explained later that the woman had stopped by and talked to her once before while I was at work.

Katie responded that yes, I was, and the woman asked her, surprised, "Are you moving?"

"My husband is moving out," I told her shortly.

Now, here's where Jehovah's Witnesses are different from you and me. Solicitors of any other product, however noxious, would probably gather from my reply and the fact that my arms were uncomfortably full that, perhaps, now was not an ideal time.

She, however, introduced herself, and attempted to hand me some literature.

But she had a little girl with her, so I smiled, and said pleasantly, "Thank you, but we're not interested," and got back to the business of loading up the Behemoth. And I guess I have to give her credit for not pressing the matter further.

Beth's rating for the week:
Diane: 8 million bajillion stars
Greenpeace: 2 stars
Guy in short-shorts: 1 star, with an option for a possible future restraining order
Jehovah's Witnesses: 0 stars, and a $50 gift certificate to Specs

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Wednesday, January 06, 2010

The Writing on the Wall

Under the South First bridge by the hike-and-bike today, I noticed a painted scrawl: "Houses are graves for the living."

It's supposed to get down below 20 degrees later this week.

I did wonder, bemused, at the hand and mind behind that sentiment. I thought of my own house, which I've been so enjoying decorating and claiming as my own space. It's a haven from the world, certainly; you leave for work, or visiting, or errands - or to stroll along the Town Lake hike-and-bike trail - and there is your very own warm house to come back to. You can also welcome friends, a delicious luxury I've been missing for many years. So I can't agree with the sentiment at all, though I suppose matters might be different if you hired Morticia Addams as your interior decorator.

Or Martha Stewart, for that matter.

There was another interesting series of graffiti along the South First bridge pedestrian walkway, on the high wall that separates joggers, hikers, strollers, and bicyclists from automobile traffic. "Fuck the laws," read one message; and fifteen or twenty feet further along, the next one read "Fuck rent," then "Fuck the system," "Fuck the police," and then, rather to my alarm, "Fuck this wall."

I was with the author up till that point - at least in a spirit of gentle sympathy for his possibly somewhat naive ideals. But as a trail regular, I'm a big fan of the wall between Austin traffic and my head. It's a lot easier to fight for your principles when you're not pinned underneath a Smart Car. (The irony factor alone would be fairly overwhelming.)

People have believed, pretty much as long as they've been around, that everything is going to hell in a handbasket. Well, maybe it is - though you'd need a fairly large handbasket, really, and who would even carry the darn thing? Heck if I know. Well, activism, and attempting to raise the awareness of others about causes that concern you, are noble enough. But the last two entries in the Bryl-Cream series on the South First bridge wall were "Think!" and "People wake up! Shit is NOT OK!"

And here's where specificity would come in fairly handy.

Not to argue, not by any means, that there aren't a lot of things in the world that aren't okay. I think it works well when people single out a particular cause (or two or three) to support, espouse it, possibly recruit others, but allow other people to follow their own paths as well. I donate a little money to Planned Parenthood through work; I give blood; I get a little long-winded (given the opportunity) on the importance of allowing nature and human instinct to take their course as much as possible in childbirth and parenting. This is a fairly tiny sliver of the myriad issues that need addressing, but it is a Thing, and it's mine. I think it's important to find your own cause and support it, whatever that may be, unless you're into defacing public property, in which case I feel the police are fully justified in arresting you and providing you some rent-free digs in the city jail; or unless you're trying to get Sarah Palin elected in 2012, in which case I hope you get run over by a Smart Car.

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Saturday, January 02, 2010

A Day at the Park

Bastrop State Park has gone all high-tech. Is nothing sacred?!?

Okay, so it's not actually high-tech, but they've reorganized the trail system since I was last there several years ago. The trails are all color-coded now, with signposts at each intersection indicating that, to stay on the red trail, you keep to the left. The blue trail is off to your right. The signposts have park maps with each trail indicated by a colored line. It's just like the Metro, only less expensive, and with slightly better odds of reaching your final destination, assuming you're trying to get back to your car.

They also have a cabin camping area. Cabins? We checked them out after our walk, driving among them slowly, scoping out our picks for some future weekend visit. Let me tell you what, those are some nice cabins. They are bigger than my house. They have fireplaces, too, and curtains. I haven't gone camping in several years now, but my dad used to take me all the time, so I know there are certain things that are a part of camping and certain things that are not a part of camping. Camping involves things like canned vegetables, Tang, collapsible 5-gallon water jugs, and (God help us all) pit toilets. It emphatically does not include curtains.

I've always hated pit toilets. I'm intrigued.

"Where would you recommend," asked my companion in the park office as he bought a year pass, "a good barbecue place in Bastrop?"

There was such a long silence that I wasn't sure the staffer had heard him. Finally her coworker piped up. "It's not a hard choice," she said, "there's only two."

"Billy's and Cartwright's," added the woman helping us at last.

"I saw Cartwright's as we were driving in," I said helpfully to my friend.

"Yeah," said the woman who had first spoken, "Cartwright's has a really big sign."

This didn't really strike either of us as a ringing endorsement. "So where would you go for barbecue?" pressed my friend.

There was another long pause. "Lockhart. I'd drive to Lockhart," they chorused.

Or Elgin, they went on to add, so we had dinner at Meyer's Barbecue there. I'd been to Southside Market once before, a year ago, on my work group's fam tour of Central Texas; and I thought it was really quite good, although a coworker of my friend's and mine, who lives in Elgin, was outraged that the tour took us there instead of Meyer's, which she insists is much better. So we checked out Meyer's, and I have to say, their sausage (for which Elgin is so well-known) really is tasty. At least I liked it, and I don't like sausage. But you can't go wrong with Southside Market either. I had a side of creamed corn and discovered that my companion thinks creamed corn is an abomination, which is something of a pity, as creamed corn, from a can, falls rather firmly into the things-that-go-with-camping camp.

But that's okay - so do marshmallows, a fact I don't have a problem with as long as the marshmallows are slowly immolated in flames until they drip, sizzling in sugary agony, into the glowing embers. Then you eat the chocolate and give the graham crackers to your kids: that's my recipe for S'Mores.

Happy New Year! 2010 is off to a good start. I'm looking forward to doing some camping.

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