Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Right Start

Yesterday morning my cube neighbor rushed his kid to a band trip, arriving just in the nick of time, only to discover he'd forgotten the kid's trombone.

There's a special sound effect tailor-made for just such an occasion - but you need a trombone to make it.

Sometimes life is like an O. Henry story.

But then, sometimes, it's like this:
This is my new morning commute, the boardwalk I was looking forward to a few months ago. It's so worth the wait. The boardwalk portion is about two miles long, and completes the 10-ish-mile hike-and-bike trail loop around the river-shaped lake thingy in the middle of Austin.

It's about a half-mile coast down a quiet neighborhood street to the boardwalk ramp off of Riverside Drive. It's a beautiful ride in the cool of early morning, with the last of an overnight mist burning off the smooth surface of the water.

Unfortunately, you can't follow the same route back because the afternoon traffic pattern is much less conducive to jaywalking across Riverside - traffic is backed up just enough to get good and angry, without quite coming to a stop - so you have to cross half a mile away at the light and climb up a much steeper street. And it's 97 degrees.

But you don't need a trombone, so that's something.

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Saturday, July 26, 2014

How About FahrvergNOgen

My friendly neighborhood credit union has agreed to purchase this vehicle and let me stick a Flying Spaghetti Monster emblem on it and park it in my carport.

You think that's silly? Progressive has agreed to let me drive it!

Being without a car for a couple of years has probably skewed my view of car "ownership." It's hard to spend money on a car (as opposed to a bike, amirite??), because it's a ridiculously expensive thing just to keep around idle, even more ridiculously expensive actually to use - that's if it doesn't break down or get bashed up - and loses value faster than Broom Hilda went through bobby pins. But, as cars go, this seems like a decent value for the money. It's small, it's a stick shift, and the miles are very low. It has paint, upholstery, and air conditioning. The radio works, as do all the doors and windows. So it's pretty short on character, but I guess you can't have everything.

What I really wanted was a 1967 Karmann Ghia listed on Craigslist for $3000, which was perfect, except for missing part of the floor. I was cool with that. So you have a little additional stopping power, right? But "practicality" prevailed.

The argument for a "practical" car was that I'm going back to school this fall. It means my schedule is full, with long days, and a limited amount of time to get from work, to the UT campus for one class, to ACC campus for another one. It isn't the distance, and as far as time goes, it's definitely faster to get around central Austin by bike than by car. It's more the part of town and the time of night I'd need to be there. Austin Community College's East Riverside campus is where that woman was sexually assaulted last Saturday, and just a couple of blocks from Cody Johnson's ghost bike.

Driving is scary, when you aren't used to it. The responsibility of operating even a little bitty car like this one is a bit overwhelming. Plus, it's unwieldy and inconvenient. You're restricted to going where cars go - highways and parking lots - which often travel at about the same speed, and in any case are not pretty or fun.

Oh, but I wish everyone would bike. Just to try it! It really should scare the crap out of you to drive, you know? You should approach it as if you were carrying a primed bomb with you, everywhere you went. And if people would get over the idea of cars as an indispensable convenience, when they so often aren't convenient at all, the world would be a considerably quieter and less smelly place. Well, at least until you got to the office.

Anyway, I signed up for one of Progressive's "Snapshot" devices, which it's my goal to confound thoroughly by driving my car as little as humanly possible. Maybe I can sell it in 40 years as a classic, missing a floor maybe, but with under 100K miles! What a bargain.

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Friday, July 25, 2014

Aquarena Springs Eternal

A feature of the Balcones Fault, which runs roughly along the alignment of Interstate 35 through Texas and divides the Hill Country from the plains, the San Marcos Springs emerge from the ground twenty feet below the surface of the water, ice-cold and so crystal clear that you can see the sand bubbling below the glass bottom of the boat.

In fact, many tourist attractions are the Balcones' fault* - Natural Bridge Caverns in New Braunfels, Wonder World in San Marcos, and Inner Space Caverns in Georgetown, to name a few.

The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment (formerly known as Aquarena Center, formerly known as Aquarena Springs) spent many years as a seminal Texas tourist attraction. It's now run by Texas State University in San Marcos as an environmental conservation site. This is a somewhat different fate than what was envisioned by an earlier owner, pictured above.

Only the building on the far bank of the river ever actually existed, and still does; a former resort hotel, it now serves as The Texas Rivers Institute. You can still take a tour on a glass-bottomed boat. But Ralph the Swimming Pig**, the mermaids, the submarine theater, Johnny Weismuller, and wanton disregard for nature are things of the past - at least, at Aquarena.

But it is a pity that the submarine theater's gone. It looked sort of like a big, rusty Airstream trailer, and was removed only a couple of years ago after resting, skewed and abandoned, halfway in and halfway out of the water. Back in the day, you see, you bought your ticket and entered the theater above water. It then lowered beneath the surface so you could watch the mermaids do stunts, like sipping a drink. This is not particularly impressive under normal circumstances, but under water that shit's dynamite.

It's a beautiful place, and a good thing the visionary entrepreneurs of the 1950s didn't succeed in paving it over.

* I'm so terribly sorry
** I don't know if any special training was involved in this. I think swimming is just what pigs do if you toss them in the water. Not that I've tried.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Death and Income Taxes

So, about mortality - a topic which may have come up before:

How do you handle coming to grips with ultimate oblivion? Is it something you're cool with? See, I continue to have trouble figuring out the whole thing, despite the fact that at this point I have pretty much the whole entire 1980s on my iPhone in iTunes form (thanks, Obama).

My job description now requires a bachelor's degree in "business, communications, engineering, or a related field," whatever that means. It does not, according (initially) to our Human Resources Division, mean a degree from the University of Texas in Rhetoric and Writing. I had to write a justification they'd accept to explain that "Rhetoric and Writing" counts as communications. The fact that I succeeded, I feel rather strongly, ought to be good for at least a few hours' credit. It is not.

I am grandfathered in (despite my abundantly evident youth and femininity) to my job, even though I don't possess the required bachelor's degree. But I can't advance any further in my career. As a cyclist, I know a lot about getting doored, but apparently it's also possible to get ceilinged. Who knew?

The flood of memories associated with going back to school has come as a bit of a surprise. Hello, the dreams about forgetting it was finals day and what the hell is my locker combination again?? Hello, the dreams of forgetting the class schedule until midterms... when I suddenly show up dressed in what I thought was a bath towel, but it turns out was just a washcloth??? Why are all my teeth falling out????

There is much more to write, if I ever get around to collecting my thoughts (which I will most likely have to as I am taking an Advanced Writing course at UT this fall) about the human experience, dealing with concepts of mortality, and how selfies with cats often involve unfortunate red-wine teeth stains. But I'm not getting a grade for this post so bite me.

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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Unexpected Falls

Ah, summer, vacation, travel... Tahiti, Banff, Venice, Paris! And Wichita Falls!

Completely different subject, I wonder why no one's ever approached me to advertise on my blog?

Having been there a couple of times now, you know, I really like Wichita Falls a lot. It's - I guess the word I'm looking for is scrappy. They've now been in Stage 5 drought for a while, so eventually they just shrugged and started recycling all their water. Yes, all of it. I heard that one city official bought a bunch of coffee mugs shaped like toilets and slapped stickers with the city's logo on them. And you can now buy a T-shirt that says, "Wichita Falls: Our water is the S#!t."

My contact at the city sighed and shook her head, telling my boss and me about this. "Well, what can you say?" she said. "It is what it is."

It is that, and I admire the calm spirit and clear eyes with which the good folks of the Falls cast aside squeamishness and embrace the practical. In fact, practicality is one of the striking features of this town. This is the town that was named for a set of rapids and falls in the Wichita River, so when a flood washed them away, they just built some new ones. They're very pretty. Sometimes the city turns them off.

They build stuff there that you might not expect in a town that size. There is a paved hike-and-bike trail nearing completion, which will completely circle the city, over 20 miles long. There are mountain bike trails aplenty. Wichita Falls is, of course, the home of the Hotter 'n Hell Hundred, so there's a certain cycling mentality there. They get mad props for the logo alone.

But to me, maybe the most charming thing of all about Wichita Falls is that it isn't charming. It's not cute, it's not precious, it's not the kind of town where you go to buy fudge and knick-knacks (though, that said, you'd be pretty silly to miss out on The Pecan Shed - and there is an antiques district downtown, if you must).

To understand fully what I mean, go visit the Bar-L, or the P2 (I'm partial to the Bar-L because of its beautiful, smoky, unapologetically grungy retro-glamour), sit in your car under the awning, and have the carhop bring you a red draw. In your car. In a to-go cup, if you ask for it.

Not that you're likely to get drunk off them, because a red draw consists of light beer (Bud Light being the preferred variety) mixed liberally with tomato juice. The cognoscenti order them spicy, with creole and salt, so that in effect, you're drinking a Bloody Mary with limited sexual experience. Or the carhop will just bring you a bottle of beer. Whatever.

You can go to an actual dinner theater in Wichita Falls. Who has dinner theater anymore? If you're me, you get the backstage tour, which is incredibly cool because the Backdoor Theatre is housed in the old icehouse, and behind one stage you can see the pulley system for hoisting blocks of ice up from the loading dock. At the spectacular River Bend Nature Center, our guide let us pet snakes, lizards, turtles, and a tame prairie dog, and demonstrated how brown recluses will just back away slowly if you stick your finger in their cage and try to touch them (warning: do not try this at home). I'm itching to get into the Railroad Museum, which has lots of vintage railroad cars and is next door to the old depot, which now holds a farmers' market on weekends. But best of all the Railroad Museum holds the little hut that was the very first Texas Travel Information Center in Wichita Falls, circa 1936. Made me mist right up, it did.

You can tour a city founding father's home at the Kell House, or browse the galleries and sculpture garden at the Kemp Center for the Arts (the city's first public library building, and conveniently right across the street from the Bar-L). The Museum of North Texas History is huge and extensive, and takes up the former offices of a bank downtown, still decorated with the cheap paneling and shag carpet that defined the well-dressed 1970s workplace. And oh, my gosh, the Fire and Police Museum! They haven't got a building yet, just a couple of tin quonset huts, but they have a breathtaking collection of fire engines, fire chief cars, police cars, artifacts, and memorabilia, all carefully stored away with military precision and brought out to display on special occasions.

And, of course, there's the Littlest Skyscraper, the generally accepted story of whose origin seems fairly unlikely, but there it is.

Just outside of town, Lake Arrowhead State Park remains beautiful, though the lake is terribly low. A huge prairie dog colony shares space with picnic arbors and campgrounds, and the prairie dogs have probably eaten their share of french fries, exhibiting neither shyness, nor the girlish figures that wild dogs have. They are ridiculously cute.

So that's Wichita Falls: go there if you can, bring your mountain bike or your road bike or both, and you don't have to drink the water if it bothers you. Just stick to red draws and you'll be fine.

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