Wednesday, January 22, 2014

"Wintry Mix:" May Contain Raccoons

In Syracuse, where my parents live, they get snow. They get a fair amount of snow. When they are done getting snow, they get some more snow. Then the weather rolls up its sleeves, flexes its elbows, and gets down to some serious snowing. Upstate New York is like that.

Here in Texas, we get something called "wintry mix." It's kind of like trail mix, only not as tasty. It's made of fairly unpleasant ingredients, like snow, freezing rain, sleet, and bewildered Texas drivers.*

Adverse weather events mean emergency operations and extra hours in the office, unfortunately, though it would be much more pleasant to stay home, huddle under the covers, and warm myself with cats and possibly the odd raccoon (though Dave hasn't come banging on the locked cat door for many a night now). So, because I have committed to a car-free lifestyle, my boyfriend will come and pick up Anna and me in his Jeep Liberty and drive us to school and work.

It's easy to commit to a car-free lifestyle when you have someone who will drive you anywhere you want.

Like happy hour, for which it will hopefully be warm enough on Friday. We should go to Deep Eddy Cabaret, because it may be our last chance. Deep Eddy Cabaret is one of those grand Austin traditions of which I don't have much experience - I think I've even been to the Poodle Dog Lounge more often. Trophy's was another; I went two, or maybe three times with my sister Margie, when she had a friend working the bar who would give us free Lone Stars. Even though it's just about half a mile from my house, I hadn't seen Trophy's since they started working it over, so was a little shocked to see it looking lit up and shiny a couple of nights ago, with red and white striped awnings. Awnings! It makes me sad to think of all the displaced cockroaches - probably hanging out with Dave behind the dumpster, licking a scant sustenance out of discarded Lone Star bottles.

Deep Eddy, though, is the last place I ever got carded. It was a few years ago - I might even have been on the right side of 40 - but still, being asked for ID was enough to get me all tingly. I handed the bartender my license. He squinted at it in the low light of the bar.

"Hold on, let me get my glasses," he said. "I can't see for shit."

An experience like that is well worth braving a little wintry mix.

*From California

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Monday, January 20, 2014

Cedar Blows

A sunny, 82-degree day sandwiched between freeze warnings in January demands a bike ride, but a ride along the South Walnut Creek Trail on such a day is basically the same as snorting a 14-mile long line of cedar pollen.

So keep a few tissues in your jersey pocket.

The paved trail runs from just north of Govalle Park to Loyola Lane, roughly parallel to US 183. The total paved distance, for now, is about 5 1/2 miles. But the trail continues north a mile and a half or so further, unpaved for now, so today we brought mountain bikes to see just where it goes.

If you want to avoid the cedar, you can follow the example of many visitors to Govalle Park, and enjoy the beautiful weather from inside your car with the windows rolled up and the engine running. There's presumably a reason people do this - I've seen a lot of it, at this particular park, on several different occasions.

Many people where I work also seem to feel most at home in an idling car, spending their lunch hour in the parking lot ensuring that their personal pollution quotas don't go unmet. But then, you kind of expect that from state employees.

If you're going to drive to a park, it seems reasonable to expect that you might get out of your car once you get there.

Then again, this level of cedar would make anyone a little irrational.

Bless you!

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Saturday, January 18, 2014

Watch It!

Recently, my employer implemented a new policy where all employees are required to have a spotter when backing agency vehicles.

There's a logic to this: namely, that some employees (like most human beings) are not actually competent to operate heavy equipment, and have been running over things that were left in their path that were not easily seen when backing up. Material piles, I'm guessing. Coworkers. Things like that.

The thing is, this blanket policy makes sense for employees whose job involves operating heavy equipment, but perhaps not so much for desk-job employees whose interaction with fleet vehicles never goes beyond taking a trip in a Toyota Prius.

Nothing inspires public confidence in an agency like the sight of an employee using a professional flagger to back a sub-compact out of a gas station parking lot.

Another method of putting greater ownership on employees has been the implementation of an inspection sheet, similar to the ones that you ignore from the rental car company, which come back to bite you in the ass when it turns out your Taurus had chocolate sauce stains in the glove compartment.

I resent these. We pick up an agency car from the agency shop, which, as I understand it, is almost entirely staffed by mechanics. So I fail to see why I have to test the horn, lights, brakes, and fluid levels. On my most recent trip to South Padre Island, I walked back into the shop as soon as I started up the engine. "The 'low tire pressure' warning light is on," I told them.

"Do the tires actually look low?" they asked me.

"I'm not really sure," I said. I mean, they didn't look flat. But what do I know?

They sighed. "It's cold out, that's all," they told me. "Once you start driving and the tires warm up, the light will go off. Of course, we can take a look at it, if you're really worried."

They looked at me. They were eating lunch. "I guess it will be fine," I said.

It never did go off, but at least I made it to South Padre and back without a blowout.

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Tuesday, January 14, 2014

All Dressed Up and Covered in Cat Hair

An industry acquaintance and Facebook friend called me up at work yesterday. "Hey, a bunch of us girls are coming to Austin this weekend!" she said. "And I thought about you right away. You're still single, right? So, can you recommend some good bars for older people?"

The joke's on her, because I usually just get drunk at home with my cats.

Actually I do know a couple. Donn's Depot is probably my favorite. It's a very, very relaxed place, to the point where I don't think they've dusted the rafters since the Reagan administration. But it's comfortable, it's unpretentious, and it's made of an old train depot (moved down from McNeil) and a couple of train cars and, of course, the famous caboose. The drinks are cheap, and the service is fantastic and Tammy will always remember your usual even if you only show up three or four times a year.

Firehouse Lounge is cool too, or at least the entrance to it is (through a "secret door" bookcase in the hostel lobby). Once you're in there, the bar is a little too artisinal: artisinal cocktails, with artisinal prices. It's hard to get properly buzzed at $10-12 a drink. There's a mathematical formula involved, where the alcohol content per drink must be equal to or greater than the amount of anxiety you feel over your inexorably mounting bar tab.

Our Friday happy hour group has a few regular rotating spots: NXNW and Billy's on Burnet in the "way the hell too far north for me to ride a bike at the end of a long workweek" category; Donn's Depot, of course, which I'll generally try to make; Texas Chili Parlor, Shoal Creek Saloon, and Opal Divine's at Penn Field which are all within easy reach. And then there's Uncle Billy's on Barton Springs Road, which is very conveniently located but has nothing but beer beer beer and the type of barbecue you shouldn't attempt eating without first adjusting your beer goggles to cover your mouth.

My friend listened politely to all my suggestions, thanked me, and said they'd just go dancing at the Broken Spoke. So there you go! They'll have fun.

Maybe it's time to get another kitten.

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Sunday, January 12, 2014

I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream for Our Team

Are you a sports fan? Apparently nobody isn't these days.

My boyfriend insists on watching football. He cooks, so I put up with it. And, since I fell in love with Seattle when we went to visit Margie last month, I was pleased that the Seattle Seahawks won their game against whoever it was they were playing. "Hey, they won," I said at the end of the game. "Isn't that nice."

Fans don't get much more die-hard than that.

I wasn't in Seattle this past week, but might as well have been:
Tuesday night it was a business dinner followed by a panel discussion at an industry meeting in San Antonio on Wednesday, and from there my favorite photographer Kevin and I drove down to South Padre Island to conduct a site visit for our April conference.

This is what winter in South Padre looks like. It's almost never really cold, but the weekend and much of the week were damp, gray, and chilly. The Winter Texans are pissed. They didn't schlep a fifth wheel all the way down from Manitoba for this crap.

The weather was no problem for us; it was 12 degrees in Austin the morning we left, and frankly, walking along the beach is monotonous under the best of circumstances.

It was much colder in San Antonio on Tuesday night. Dining at a restaurant where the 6-ounce filet costs about what I spend on a weeks' groceries with my boss' boss' boss and a handful of high-ranking strangers (our panelists) made me feel like a kid permitted to sit at the grown-ups' table.

And unfortunately, the conversation neatly sidestepped any mention of topics about which I am knowledgeable - say, tourism, or opera, or (if you want to be naughty) salacious gossip about people who work in tourism or opera - and focused almost entirely on two areas where I can't say anything at all: 1, football, about which I understand nothing whatsoever; and 2, politics, about which I have opinions I won't air in mixed company. I think I was the odd man out on both fronts.

So aside from a few pleasantries with my boss' boss' boss (whom I really like a lot, and who had brought me along with her to help with planning the logistics for the panel session), I had nothing at all to say during dinner, and got the distinct feeling that my only function was to be needlessly expensive, kind of like government relief programs, but not at all like Mack Brown or whoever that other guy is they got in to replace him.

I wonder if I could find a tourism job in Seattle?

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Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Haute Hell

High-end froofy hotels which charge $250 a night, $25/day for self parking, and $13 for a waffle with fruit compote, should really toss in the wi-fi for free.

Which they don't.

In which case, if one is forced to pay for it in order to check work email, for which one will be out of pocket because employees don't get reimbursed for incidentals while traveling, even if said incidentals are necessary for conducting one's duties, then one is forced to blog in order that the money is not a complete waste, without regard to whether or not one has anything to say.

Which one doesn't.

In which case, well, goodnight. The bed is quite comfy.

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Monday, January 06, 2014

Cubicle with a View

Money is the only thing that has value. Consequently, only things that yield immediate monetary gain are important. The more immediate, the more important.

Don't worry about the long term, baby. We'll be halfway to Buenos Aires by then.

We were watching "Antiques Roadshow" tonight. How many items that were picked up for $25, $50 have come to be worth tens of thousands of dollars, now that the artistic merit of their creator has finally (many years after burial in a pauper's grave, of course) come to be fully recognized? And why is it that serious material benefit only shows up once the actual creator of the work is long gone?

It pays to be an artist, eventually, but it pays someone else. Not you.

My sisters are artists. Jessie, a concert pianist in Brooklyn, actually manages to scrape out a sparse living at it. Margie, a free spirit in Seattle? Not so much. Jessie is a brilliant musician. And Margie is just a genius: she composes, plays piano and cello beautifully, sketches, paints... and works in a pizza parlor, if she can get work.

I'm the least talented of the three of us by far. And I'm also easily the best off: I have a very comfortable middle-class job with a retirement plan and good health insurance. I guess contentment with mediocrity is more valuable than genius.

My staid government agency employer has recently become a vehicle for a handful of brilliant career climbers, rocketing through on their way to bigger and greater things, leaving decades of bureaucracy swirling in tumult like jetstream in their wake. Our new executive director has recently announced his departure for the next big thing.

He brought an entire new upper-managementourage with him, when he arrived about two years ago, and has fundamentally shaken our tired old agency structure to its roots. This is not necessarily a bad thing. But, having wrenched us off the deeply rutted old path, it seems unfair to leave the people who were contentedly trudging along it to figure out how to convert the maelstroms of change he's stirred up into a productive route forward. What do we do? Hire a batch of new, dynamic visionaries who will rile things up a bit more along the same lines, then probably follow in this guy's footsteps? Or try to forget, try to get back to the way things used to be?

Because the thing is, all the cronies he brought with him, who understand this way of doing things, are all going out with him. It's just like when the Enterprise makes unauthorized first contact with a Stone Age culture because Kirk just HAS to bone the girl in the leopardskin bikini and tosses everything they've come to believe about the universe on its ear, when suddenly the Fleet Admiral is all like "JAMES TIBERIUS KIRK YOU GET BACK TO STARBASE RIGHT NOW" and just like that, poof! they're gone.

And the Stone Age culture is all like, well, shit. Now what?

I was talking about this to my boyfriend tonight, since he also works for the same agency. He was inclined to be hopeful. He suggested that one of the old guard who had not been run off might take back over as the new executive director.

"At least he's an engineer," he said.

Were sadder words ever spoken?

Mind you, I've put in my time with soulless marketing types. When I first started working for this agency (eight years ago (TODAY!)) I looked around me at the freak show of decaying, defective career government employees. I looked at the old-timey phones with the blinking red "hold" lights. I saw the DOS-based mainframe applications. I smelled the cigarette smoke, the microwave popcorn, the Phantom Pharts in cubicle-land. And I said, "Well, you know, at least they aren't soulless marketing types."

What goes around comes around, I guess.

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Sunday, January 05, 2014

True Blue

A flat tire is no way to start the new year.

Well, technically it was the end of the old year, since it happened on Dec. 31. But the bike wasn't back in rideable condition until today. And that's just shameful.

The tires on my commuter were CSTs. I bought them for one reason and one reason alone: they are a deep, vivid blue. The bike is a shiny black Cannondale with white lettering and electric blue pin striping. Shimano makes a frame-mounted minipump in black and electric blue, which looks great on the bike and, as a bonus, worked quite well on the couple of occasions where I actually had to use it. And I found a couple of electric blue water bottle cages, which pick up the color scheme nicely.

I'm stupid about colors. My first "real" bike (after the old Walmart Schwinn, which by the way held up pretty damn well with next to no maintenance for about four years until I gave it to my son and he left it outside a convenience store while he ran inside for "just a minute") was a women's Trek 7.2. I really had no idea how much of a difference it would make to go from 26-inch MTB wheels to 700's mounted with city tires. I felt like I could fly.

But the bike was a nauseating shade of pale powder blue reminiscent of Care Bears and mental hospitals, and in the end I just couldn't get past that. I sold it after a year and got the Cannondale instead. (And might have picked up a couple of other bikes along the way.)

Anyway, I ran those tires for several months - $12 apiece, as I recall - and they proved quite reliable. I liked the way they looked, though they were more royal than electric blue, and since they're 25's they are not nearly as well suited to the crushed-gravel trails which are a big part of my daily commute. Also, they looked really sharp only right after a bath, because it turns out roads are not all that clean. Worst of all, I couldn't even mount the tires myself when they arrived. I ended up just taking the wheels off and doing the walk of shame to my friends at Tsunami (which is fortunately only about half a mile from my house, but even a half-mile walk of shame is about half a mile too far).

So, when the front tire flatted out on the way to work the morning of New Year's Eve, it was time to put the old boring black 32's back on. And somehow knock my front brake completely out of whack in the process. Anyway, it's all fixed now. Thanks Tsunami!

They are so good to me. But I can't imagine they think I am very bright.

Anybody know where I could get an electric blue saddle? The one I have is super comfy, but I'd swap it out in a heartbeat for something that really ties the bike together.

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Friday, January 03, 2014

I Just Work Here

"CLEARANCE ON HIGHWAY BRIDGE OVER [redacted] RIVER FROM [redacted town] TO [redacted neighboring state town]," read the full text of a customer's email, submitted through our agency's website, that came to me for handling yesterday.

Any worthwhile job involves a little detective work.

So, first thing, I pulled up our agency's maps, Google Maps, Bing Maps, whatever, of the bridge in question. There are no overpasses within that expanse. So, I reasoned, the customer must be inquiring about clearance over the roadways spanned by the roadway specified. But there aren't any, no grade-separated crossings, none. The highway neither crosses, nor is crossed by, any other highway between the two towns mentioned.

In fact the only thing it does cross is the river mentioned in the customer's email, a dammed-off reservoir in popular use as a recreational boating and fishing facility. And since the customer lives in a coastal city, and gives an address whose street name has a nautical theme, this must be a boating question. Right?

Well, my employer doesn't handle boating, unless you're talking about commercial shipping. Which this clearly is not. Still, first rule of my job is IT'S YOUR JOB. Kind of like Fight Club, only it's Tourism Club and there is no right answer because whatever, I get to punch you. Bwah!

I spent a lot of time doing research yesterday afternoon. I looked up boating charts from the U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard. I checked in with Texas Parks & Wildlife. I made phone calls to the local area office. I looked up information from private marinas in the area. I thought about calling a local fishing charter service incognito, pretending to be a tourist.

Finally, from a river basin water authority (Stephen the water management specialist is my new BFF, by the way), I was able to obtain the required information. I sent it to the customer. I felt like a god. Who's your mama? I. I am your straight-up resourceful-as-shit mama, beeyotches. Bow down to the master!

This morning I got in to find a response from the customer. "Actually, I was looking for information on transporting my motor home," he wrote. "We figured it out. But thanks for the info!"

Hey. Any time.

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Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Once More Into the Breach

New Year's Eve is the best holiday.

You can, of course, polish off an entire bottle of champagne by yourself (it makes a good chaser for six glasses of boxed wine) and pass out on your bed fully clothed with a cat on your head any old night of the year. But on New Year's, you can still respect yourself in the morning.

Not that you should.

Okay, "Portlandia" is now getting a little out of control. Not only does Carrie Brownstein look uncannily like my sister Jessica, but in Season 3, Episode 3, they go to Seattle (which happens to be where my other sister Margie lives) to recruit new residents. One of the Seattleites they meet looks and acts just like Margie. I mean, has her haircut and everything.

Later in the episode she turns up and nonchalantly says she's decided to come live in Portland. They ask her, what will you do? Where will you live?

"I guess I'll just live with you guys," she says, nonchalantly.

If there's one word that describes Margie, "chalant" is not that word.

So now I'm waiting for the episode where the trying-desperately-not-to-be-middle-aged friend comes up from Austin in order to experience the bike culture. She'll have a flat-bar road bike she tries to pass off as hip by color-coordinating it as if it were a custom fixie. But it has 27 speeds and she still can't make it up hills without walking.

She's pretty damn chalant, I'm sorry to say. However, because the champagne hasn't quite worn off yet, she'll be played by the beautiful, brilliant, and still-living Madeline Kahn.

Happy New Year! Now for chrissakes get that damn cat off your head.

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