getting around

Stroller Walking

The sidewalks of Houston are a study in extreme disrepair.  They are broken, multi-level, interrupted, sometimes non-existent, often blocked by vehicles, frequently encroached on by rowdy plant matter, and definitely not wheelchair or stroller-friendly.  As a result, I expected to grow extremely annoyed with my neighborhood while walking with the stroller.  The opposite has happened; I have grown more fond of this area as our daily walks have caused me to notice more features which have further endeared it to me.  Also I feel gratitude for the sturdy construction of our stroller.

I discovered, and later visited, a museum of print history.  It is on a side street and in an unassuming building that I almost didn't notice when I initially passed by.  Eventually it turned out to be a pleasant and stroller-friendly activity while my mom was visiting for the weekend.  It was especially excellent that there was a food truck out front and we were pleased with said truck's offerings.

I have also located two parks previously unnoticed.  One is a young family magnet and has amazing wide flat sidewalks, a big grassy area, and a playground which is quite nice.  The other one is a little tiny pocket park with two benches and lots of trees located randomly in-between two homes on a quiet block near my favorite coffee shop.

I have grown even more fond than I previously was of my grocery store.  In the past I avoided the store in the evenings during the very busy post-work-dinner-hour rush, but lately it has served as a nice window into neighborhood socializing.  Aside from it being a pleasant time of year to be out walking and good for both the baby and I to get some fresh air, stroller walks have become my main tool for powering through the witching hour.  As a result, I have stopped trying to cook dinner in the early evening and instead pick up something fresh to eat from the grocery deli.  Seeing all of the people out on the patio, splitting bottles of wine purchased in the store and enjoying their deli dinners in the fresh fall air, makes me happy.  Even though it is a chain grocery store, it has a friendly, neighborly vibe that I appreciate.  Plus who can argue with a grocery store that boasts a wine and beer bar and a gourmet macaroni and cheese station?

Walking with the baby in these evenings has also given me a more personal link to my neighbors.  I've also been able to meet the owner of the magic yard near our house: the yard in which a family was dining outside last Thanksgiving and it looked so inviting and cozy that I wished for us to be invited to join them even though we had never met that family.  It turns out that he is a very sweet guy with three grown children, and he is also the photographer who makes greeting cards with photos of Houston that I have actually purchased before at the aforementioned grocery store.

Every afternoon I look forward to our stroller outing; I'm thankful for the fresh air this time of year and for the new discoveries that brighten my days.  And I'm especially thankful to have my husband home this month to walk with us.

W(h)ine To Go

Our son is just over three weeks old now, which I find a little shocking in light of the fact that we haven't yet reached his due date.  The learning curve has been steep and the emotions are intense.  A flood of love and affection, both for him and my husband, who is turning out to be quite the baby-whisperer, but also emotions that are not always positive...fear and worry...discomfort at the loss of my old familiar self and worry for the future of our son in such a messy world.  We are managing pretty well, I think, one day at a time.  Our son has been reasonably accommodating, in my opinion.  Considering that he is technically a preemie, he is eating well and sleeping pretty well and we feel lucky that he hasn't had any other health challenges.

I have had a handful of health challenges which have made newborn care slightly more trying, but the assistance of my husband and several friends has made a huge difference.  The conditions of our son's early delivery necessitated a Caesarean section for me, which kept us in the hospital for a full week when combined with the blood pressure complications that I experienced.  As a result, the last three weeks have involved juggling extra medicine, simultaneous mandates to rest more and pump more and feed more but sleep more, and a also ban on driving.  I feel foolish because I never knew that newborns eat every two or three hours (sometimes even more) and trying to learn how to function as a normal human at the same time as these other tricky things finally built up in a big pile and left me ornery yesterday.  It all would have been impossible without the full-time help of my husband, but still there was no denying that even with his excellent help, I woke up cantankerous.

On paper, things were looking up; I just needed to pause and take a breath.  I had been cleared to drive finally and the muscles in my tummy and mid-section no longer felt sore; I was ready to leave the house on a little mission.  This will probably sound nuts, but the first time I left the house alone (for a short walk last week, on foot), I cried a little.  I felt guilty for leaving, and to be honest it also felt strange being out in the world alone after spending every minute of multiple weeks in private rooms with my husband and the baby.  That's how bizarre all of this is.

So yesterday morning when the urge to drive overcame me, and I had to get out.  It was almost like a jailbreak.  I made a run for the local drugstore after a feeding and a green light from my husband.  When I hopped in the car and cranked up my favorite nineties music station, I felt pretty excited and almost like my old self for a few minutes.  Then by the time I reached the drugstore, a mile down the road, I had tears in my eyes again.  I felt like a terrible wimp and cursed the sappy song playing on the overhead speakers.  I persevered and tried to enjoy my brief and wonderous jaunt through the store.  After weeks of letting my husband be my eyes, ears, wallet, and personal assistant, it felt so nice to just look around and make some decisions on the fly.  After a few minutes, emboldened by my dry eyes and the report from home of continuing infant slumber, I made my way across the street to the grocery store.

You know your life has changed a lot when you are excited to go to the grocery store.  So I ran around in there, grabbing a few items that I knew we needed.  When I was checking out, I noticed some miniature bottles of wine at the checkout, right there next to the bug spray and the chocolate bars.  At first I had the familiar eye-rolling response that life in Texas often provokes.  And since there is a bar in the grocery store, too, I guess I shouldn't have been surprised that there was wine at the checkout area.  I was trying to imagine a scenario when while standing in line at the checkout, a person would be overtaken by an impulse to purchase these little travel-sized doses of wine.

And then my attitude changed and I thought of what a lunatic I was feeling like that day, and I began to view that wine differently.  Maybe just a little dose of wine is exactly what a person needs once and a while, while they are on the go.  Maybe that wine was there for me?  I didn't buy it, but I did come to the conclusion that perhaps living in a state where shots of wine are positioned like candy bars is a privilege for which  I should be grateful, rather than another sign that I live somewhere ridiculous.  I definitely live somewhere ridiculous right now, but maybe the convenience wine is a redeeming quality, rather than a disappointing one.

Neighborhood Limes

The house that we're buying is only three blocks away from the townhouse that we are currently renting.  Also, it is empty while renovations are being completed.  As a result, I have become a stalker.  Luckily the seller/builder completely understands, and is on board with me visiting, taking measurements, and generally being around.

I have started thinking more about this idea of 'neighbor' now that we are committed...will we have nice neighbors?  Fun ones?  Mean or crazy ones?  Who knows.  In this old neighborhood, as in many big cities, homes are nearly on top of one another and the result is lots and lots of fences.  Our fence is tall, giving us the illusion of privacy, even though technically people are all around us.

One thing I have also noticed a few blocks from said new house is that there is a neighbor with a lime tree, and a couple of branches currently hang heavily over the sidewalk, laden with limes.  I want some!  Can I pick some?  Probably not, but if this one branch hangs outside of their fence and over the sidewalk (which it does), does that make it more ok?  Vegetation in old Houston urban neighborhoods frequently crowds over sidewalks, something I have noted while running this year.  I am forever dodging scratchy tree branches and sticking my arms out to brush aside palm fronds ahead of me.  During those moments, I have cursed lazy home and business owners for not respecting pedestrian traffic.

Now is my chance to take care of a little bit of sidewalk!  The whole universe suddenly feels different.  This is just like falling in love.

This morning I went on a little neighborhood bike ride, looking for signs of life or signs of trouble.  Better to perform an in-depth investigation before we risk more than earnest money.  Now that we are invested in our surroundings, I want to know more about those around us.  Plus, I needed to further investigate the lime situation.  I rang the doorbell, but did not experience satisfaction or free limes; no one answered.

At Home

A Texan's Right to Valet

I haven't been writing very much about Texas, which is strange for me.  There is a lot of good material here, but I wasn't feeling it for a little while.  I worry people will think that I stopped examining culture and our daily intersections with it; but fear not.  On the matter of Houstonian daily life, I just went quiet, like a submarine.  But I'm back at the surface now.

There is something that has struck me from day one here, and I'm told it is common practice in Texas.  Almost everywhere you go, there is valet parking.  Every restaurant, which in most cases means in every strip mall since that's where most of the restaurants are, even in every shopping area...I can't think of a place where you can't roll up to the front door and hand over your keys for a couple of bucks.  There is usually a little handful of front row parking spots marked off with orange cones right in plain view of the entrance to said destination.

My husband and I find it hilarious because you can emerge from dinner in the curious position of standing directly in front of your car, but not being able to drive away in it because you gave your keys the the valet guy who is now nowhere to be seen.  Where we are from, valet is only for the weak of spirit, or for when it is forty below and you are forced to wear special-occasion clothing that exposes your skin to the frigid air, or possibly for when you are faced with undeniable evidence that if you try to park your own car, you will have such a long walk to your destination that you will miss the engagement for which you were parking in the first place.

A few weekends ago we had a big discussion about all of this valet business with our friend who is (sort of) from here.  He said, "that's just the way we do it in Texas," and I told him that that did not exempt it from being silly.  However, I must be getting used to it, because later that week, I used valet parking twice in one day, even though regular parking was available and it was sixty-five degrees: once for a doctor's appointment and later on a quick errand to a clothing store.

Tonight we ate at a Texan-taco response to the Chipotle craze: Torchy's Tacos.  Cheap, fresh, generally delightful.  As we sat outside in the balmy evening having a beer and eating cilantro-infused queso, I felt relaxed in a way I don't normally feel at restaurants here.  There was something about this place reminding me of home, even though there was nothing Minnesota about the menu.  Half-way through dinner, I realized that Torchy's hadn't gotten the memo about the valet parking.  We found a casual, yummy restaurant that didn't involve surrendering our keys or making a cash transaction in the parking lot.  We had to hunt around a little for a parking spot and it made me feel right at home.

Inversion

I have mentioned in previous posts my efforts to look on the bright side more than I used to.  I have been lucky and life is good, and there is truly no reason for me to grumble about small matters.  My thoughts on moving to Houston are governed by this policy.  But, as I've also mentioned, there has been a bit of a life hangover lately. Definitely not an uncommon sensation after the holidays, although my case feels more move-related than holiday-related.  It takes considerable time and energy to find the people and resources that make one feel at home in a place, and I have been dragging.

However, yesterday morning, my sluggishness about what needs to get done, and my recent lukewarm feelings on Houston dissipated during a routine household errand.  I walked a few blocks from our place to pick up some espresso beans from a place a few blocks away.  There were some local fliers and newspapers, which I read while enjoying an excellent cappuccino and an almond croissant.  In the fliers, I found tidbits and news items which gave me some ideas about how to find more of what I'm looking for in Houston.

It sounds trivial, but it got me excited again.  I have been excited to come and be part of a vibrant, creative city ever since I left Minneapolis (again) in 2010.  My husband and I had heard that Houston was a concrete jungle, polluted and gross, sprawling and without personality.  Calgary had been gravely disappointing to me, not in those ways, but in the sense that it was a healthy city with a strong economy, and a fair amount of people, but it still somehow lacked creative energy and spirit.  So after that experience, and knowing that Luanda would also have been unlikely to make us feel part of an urban experience that we liked, we decided to look at Houston as an opportunity.  After all, as the fourth largest city in the country, it seemed that there must be some creative and progressive initiatives under way.

But my first month in Houston did not bear the foodie fruit or unveil the energetic local creative economy that I sought, and that I miss so much from Minneapolis.  We don't eat at restaurants as often as we used to, but when faced with a city like this, we love to find some places we like.  We have been to maybe a dozen restaurants in the immediate 5 mile radius around us, and not once have we eaten somewhere to which I can't wait to return.  At the end of the meals we've had we usually feel bloated and a little gross.  When I feel that way at the end of a meal, I am not compelled to go back, and I don't like to feel both guilty and unhealthy after what is supposed to be a relaxing treat.

So, yesterday morning, with my caffeine buzz in full force, I left the coffee house, ready to tackle annoying life tasks and to forge ahead with my Houston exploration.  Right next door to Inversion is an art supply store, and I need some paint for a project at home, so I stopped in.  It looks very plain on the outside, like a warehouse building, but on the inside it was inspiring.  It had a strong collection of fashion and textile books, along with all kind of other bits that made me want to run home and figure out how to make everything.  The staff was thorough and friendly, and I ended up wandering around there for over an hour.

Relieved and energized, I strolled home in the seventy-degree sunny weather and got myself back on track.  While the power of the internet for situating oneself in a new place cannot be denied, there is still some ground-level investigation that has to be done.  I was happy to have rediscovered my appetite for the hunt.

Holiday Service

The people I have encountered in Houston are so nice, and the service I have been receiving is above and beyond.  When my veterinarian provided me a ride home so I wouldn't have to bring my cat in a cab, I was astounded.  The following week it happened again at my neighborhood liquor store.  I walked there since it was only two blocks away.  But after I decided to buy more than I could carry, they insisted on driving me home instead of letting me go back to get my car. I was pleasantly flummoxed; it seemed that Houston might be the best-kept secret in the U.S.


Tis the season for customer service.  At this time last year, I was working to provide good customer service at the new Anthropologie in Calgary.  I can't lie, it was a terrible Christmas.  The store was unprepared for the grand opening Christmas week, and shoppers were mostly not in the mood for our missteps.  This year, moving, in addition to the holiday season, has provided many customer service experiences.  In addition to the exceptional gestures from my vet and liquor store, I have received friendly and helpful assistance while running holiday errands at the stores in my neighborhood.  Even if you technically don't celebrate Christmas, in our culture you are going to have to be involved in some way, since no corner of this land is untouched by it.  So I really feel for all of those who work during this week in order to keep things up and running.

The magical Houstonian service I receive seems to not extend through all companies; it turns out that AT&T remains AT&T.  We signed up for their wireless service after our landlord recommended a switch from his own lackluster Comcast experience.  We hesitated, as we had disliked AT&T for our phones a few years back.  But, believing in second chances (foolishly), we went ahead with AT&T.  Since then, in two weeks, I have enjoyed two lackluster repair appointments, two lackluster phone experiences, and two unhelpful online chats.  Their left arm definitely does not know what their right arm is doing.

Anyway, now I'm off to reward my exceptional vet with some holiday treats.  It's not every day anymore that neighborhood service is available and exceptional, and people like that give me a warm holiday feeling.

Merry Christmas!  Especially if you are working this week.

There's No Walking in Houston

Houstonians, I am learning, don't walk, at least not as a common mode of transportation.  I had always heard this, but I thought maybe if we moved into a neighborhood where restaurants and shops were within easy walking distances (at least in the pleasant-temperature winter months), maybe then I would see some people on foot.


Not so.  Yesterday I went for a walk to do a couple of errands downtown.  Downtown is not far from here, maybe ten blocks or so.  I arrived at my first stop after an easy fifteen minute walk along a street which serves as a main artery from my part of town into downtown.  I was told I needed to head to another building to complete my mission.  I said that was no problem, and to clarify, asked if I would be able to complete my errand on foot, or if I would need a vehicle.  Oh no, she shook her head, that's much to far to walk.  The security guard hanging out at her counter looked at her, shook his head, rolled his eyes at her, and looked at me.  "Don't listen to her," he said, "it's only three blocks".  She just doesn't like to walk.  As I thanked them, and prepared to continue my walk, she warned me more again that it was much too far.

I walked, and while it wasn't the prettiest part of town, it was 65 degrees in December and quite pleasant.  Plus, I had the entire sidewalk to myself almost the whole way.

Live Smaller

Note: This entry was written originally in 2008.

I have a new ride. She is black and has two wheels, and she is named Louise. Louise is sleek and Italian and lovely, and my husband and I bought her one recent afternoon in the French Quarter. The quality of my commute has improved, as her wheels handle the considerable potholes of the old streets of New Orleans without leaving me rattled. She has lights and a dainty black basket.

Working at the motorcycle store has been every bit the adventure that I anticipated. The woman that owns it has done a remarkable job building her business, and the men in her life (her husband and two sons) are all thoroughly engaged in running it. Conflicts arise, as they naturally would in any business setting. Since the conflicts affect family members instead of mere colleagues, they take on a slightly more heated tone than do the average water-cooler situations. But the they also laugh with each other, help each other, and enjoy each other. They work really, really hard.

Every day I continue to try to understand what I seek in a career, and in a life. I have come embarrassingly slowly to the realization that had I chosen to live a little smaller at some key times in my past, I would have felt less trapped and more able to explore options. I have often chosen expensive instant gratification, rather than the more fruitful slow and careful path to resolving my questions. I admire my friends who lived carefully on a new teacher’s (writer’s, accountant’s, advocate’s…) salary and still managed to save instead of going negative. I admire my sister and her family, who long ago set down a vision for their family, and have continued to steadfastly follow their path. If they have ever been distracted from it, I have seen no such evidence.

Slowly I work to make better choices with my wallet and my time. Choosing a light and fun job over the serious and never-ending task of spreading English around was a good start. However, lately we have noticed that when I spend more time at home, and less time selling European helmets and motorcycle replica shirts to people, I have time to cook and keep things more organized. Voila, improved domestic harmony, better physical health, and the financial cost to the household is exactly the same. This is news to me, and perhaps others in my generation, but surely not my mom, or others in her generation. I am in quiet awe of my friends and family who have taken on the challenge of simultaneously working full-time and parenting. Sometimes I feel barely able to keep the cat up and running during busy weeks.

In New Orleans it is easier to live smaller than it was in Minnesota. The lack of grueling winter simplifies maintaining a two-wheel commute throughout the year, instead of only 6 months out of the year. It also means that there is not much of a heating bill. Maybe it is not just New Orleans though…maybe it is Chip, or the time in my life, or the uncertainty of what is next. Maybe I am just sick of having stuff because having stuff means packing and moving stuff. More and more, I notice that having stuff also means finding ways of disposing of it, and often far too quickly to make it worth the original cost, environmental or financial. For whatever the reason, I can finally report that living smaller provides satisfaction more often than pain. Not that I’m great at it, but I’m making progress.

I was really excited to buy a Vespa…I have had a crush on those beautiful scooters since I moved to New Orleans. But ultimately, it was not the most reasonable choice for Chip and I. It was more vehicle than we needed in our household right now, and it was better to save our money for other things. Ultimately, that is what led me to Louise: a beautiful and sleek bicycle. Who knows how long Chip and I will be down here, and of course I still have no idea what I will be when I grow up, but I do know that because we are living smaller, we feel free to make new choices, rather than to be bound by our previous ones.