Wednesday, March 26, 2014

gone crazy. back later.

Anna, who is now almost 13 years old, visibly winced last time I used the term "cray cray." She probably has a point.

For the last several years, the advent of spring has meant two things in my little world: wildflowers, of which I get to be the Voice of the Official Report, unless I'm out of the office. In that case, it's Joe. Joe is not flowery by nature. Joe reads the script like a broken man. "It looks to be a wonderful year for wildflowers," he reads, miserably. "Vibrant displays carpet the slopes of the Central Texas Hill Country."

You can totally hear how badly he wants a riding lawnmower.

And of course the other harbinger of spring is my descent into madness as I put the finishing details on our annual travel conference. In a former life as a corporate meeting planner, I worked with mostly stationary targets: hotels and conference centers, caterers and audiovisual contractors, and attendees who tended to sit quietly in the same spot for 8 hours a day. But "tourism boot camp," as one of my regular attendees calls our conference, is a little different: 12-hour days on three buses, sweeping through a region with choreographed precision; discharging 100 participants for a sampler-platter taste of museums, restaurants, parks, restaurants, educational exhibits, and historic sites; splitting up and rotating to fit in the smaller-capacity attractions; meeting up at the next appointed time without missing a beat - usually staying 25 minutes, tops, at each stop.

Since everything is planned to the minute, the slightest delay or mishap can cause the whole carefully crafted schedule to come crashing down, which is why I get a little hostile if anyone requests a bathroom break.

However, since it's apparently still winter, I slipped away for a long weekend to visit my aunt Barbara, who lives in Charleston, South Carolina, and see a concert given by my sister Jessie from Brooklyn and her little violinist friend, and catch up with my cousin Gwen, who is very awesome. When she was 16 and I was 12, Gwen was the coolest human being on the face of the earth on account of having permed hair and driving an MG Midget. But it turns out she's still cool without those things. If you get a chance, ask her for some pointers on pool.

Plus I got the opportunity to explore Charleston by rental bicycle, which is a good idea if you're going to subsist on shrimp and grits and drink as much wine as my aunt and cousin do. (My aunt is widowed now, but was married to an Italian, and drinks accordingly.) It's bike-friendlier than I anticipated, though there aren't many dedicated bike lanes. There are a lot of cyclists, few helmets, and plenty of bike traffic on both sidewalks and streets.

And there's a separate pathway, with clear delineation for bikes and pedestrians, that runs across the high Arthur Ravenel Jr. bridge over the Cooper River, which is a shipping lane. It's almost the only climb Charleston offers as the land between the Cooper and the Ashley is completely flat. On the other side, Mount Pleasant offers a park, pier, and gift shop, where you can't buy your daughter a model ship even though she'd totally love it because it would get crushed in your backpack on the way home.

I think this year I'll put my attendees on 100 bikes and see how that works out. It'll be cray cray.

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Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Taking Jaywalking Lightly

Twice in as many days, I walked through downtown at lunchtime, dodging cars in the crosswalk, admiring mighty pedicabbers, doing the not-quite-making-eye-contact thing with oncoming pedestrians about who's going to swerve right and who's going to swerve left. Downtown Austin during South By Southwest is kind of like a miniature Times Square, only without quite so many weatherbeaten costumed characters of uncertain foreign extraction.

Then again, I've pretty much stayed away from the Convention Center.

It's fun to see your home city as a foreign place, though. Yesterday and today I approached two different crosswalks which already had groups of people waiting at them. When the light turned green, we didn't get a WALK signal. The first time, I just pushed the button and waited gamely with a European family through a second cycle of the light. Today, though, I darted around the startled-looking Asian couple waiting at the crosswalk and ran across the street with the green light. They waited. The red hand told them to wait.

And though the immediate impulse - stressed out from walking through what's normally a relatively sleepy downtown area, temporarily teeming with Out-of-Towners - is to turn up one's nose and relish one's superiority in knowing how things work, actually it's rather humbling. They didn't push the pedestrian button because they come from a place where pedestrians aren't scum. Why should you have to prove you exist by pushing a button? Doesn't downtown Austin have enough pedestrian activity, even without a major festival in town, to justify letting drivers wait 30 seconds longer for a green light on the off chance that someone needs to cross? You should always get a WALK signal, dammit. You shouldn't have to push a button.

I would argue that the "no push, don't walk" logic is dangerous, anyway. You don't always know if the reason you aren't getting a WALK signal is because the button didn't get pushed in time (in which case the law-abiding citizen stands there waiting through a green light for no reason like an idiot) or because there's a traffic pattern you aren't immediately aware of, such as a currently unoccupied lane of traffic that has a green arrow through the crosswalk, and you're about to step into the right-of-way of someone who hasn't approached the intersection just yet. DON'T WALK, in other words, might not necessarily mean DON'T WALK. Or it might. Or it might mean the button's out of order, because that happens too. You can't really be sure.

And don't even get me started on sensor-activated traffic lights that don't detect cyclists.

Tomorrow I'm going to rent an Elmo costume from Lucy in Disguise and see if I can get credulous tourists to pay me to take a picture with them.

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Friday, March 07, 2014


An Austin cabbie insulted a customer today.

I know. I know. We're friendly, we're welcoming, we're nice, if you don't take personal offense to all those shirts that say "Welcome to Austin! Please don't move here" that people who moved here in the late-90s-to-early-aught-aughts start sporting this time of year. So this is quite out of character!

Be that as it may, a lady called our offices today (offices which are part of an agency which builds and maintains the state highway system) absolutely purple with rage that her cabbie had said something that offended her, and she wanted us to Do Something About It.

"Are you married?" he asked her, at some point during the ride. She responded that she was not.

"Well, maybe if you took a bath, someone would want to marry you," he concluded.

Who wouldn't be angry? So she called us, a highway agency with no jurisdiction over this particular issue. That's fine; she wasn't to know - being, presumably, Not From Here - but she was not ready to give up that easily.

"What do you mean, you can't help me?" she demanded of our section admin, who answered the call. "You're the something something transportation something or other. It's your job to take care of this!"

"I'm sorry, but I can't help you," our admin told her. "You need to call the cab company and file a complaint against the driver."

"Which cab company was it?!" the woman shouted.

South By Southwest is one of the times when I avoid public places while muttering to myself "I love tourists... I love tourists... I love tourists..." I have every right to take this attitude, because I moved to Austin in 1986, PLUS having spent a couple of years here as a very small child when my stepfather worked at Texas Instruments just outside of town on Ed Bluestein. During that time I got a couple of opportunities to see the Austin Ballet perform at Armadillo World Headquarters, and that's more Austin cred than darn near anybody else has these days, so there you go.

Today I read an article entitled "14 tips for surviving SXSW," and not one of them was "Stock up on imperishables and hide under your kitchen table with the doors locked and the blinds drawn," which I think is a good indicator that the article's author was not from Austin.

Meanwhile, the city suggests you avoid congestion and parking issues by getting around using transit, or by bike. This is great, only they've helpfully closed off all the downtown streets that have bike lanes.

I guess I could take a cab.