So I love making goals for the new year, and I definitely have some for 2018, but for this moment I prefer to suck in a deep breath, slow down for a few minutes, and reflect on the passing of 2017.
The flea market near our lake cabin has long been a major source of inspiration to me. I have always felt intrigued by the old objects on offer, as well as the people willing to travel the region (or country), gathering and selling these tidbits. This particular flea market happens every Sunday morning during the summer.
It used to be solely populated by collected items and a few homemade tidbits. Now new products are offered alongside the old, in an Anthropologie-style new-but-looks-old way, but luckily the old treasures still abound. While in high school, I found a vintage flapper dress there which later became a prom dress. My mom has furnished many a room with re-fashioned pieces from there, and it was also there almost twenty years later, where I finally felt the spark of inspiration for the nursery for my first son.
Houston is doing that to me a little bit right now. I have been hanging around, waiting for Houston to come into its creative own, looking for signs of creative life. Hints of it surfaced here and there, but still it has sometimes felt difficult to actually find people to do creative things with.
Last week, literally weeks before our departure, a new place opened for people to rent space and make things. People close to me know that I have wanted to try this for sewing; every time I pack up my heavy machines that do not get daily use, I wonder why more us don't share these things. I have even sketched out a rough idea for a business model. But the constant moving has stopped me from actually going for it because I was terrified of having to leave it behind. Anyway, I'm not bitter that someone else did it first; I'm happy it exists because it makes so much sense. I'm just disappointed that it didn't happen two years ago, when I could be part of it.
Regardless, Houston, you are looking better already, and I'm sure it's not out of the question that I will be back. Maybe we will make things together at some point in the future. In the meantime, good luck to Houston Makerspace!
Then the offer fell through and in the ensuing weeks of house showings and various other low-grade life challenges, I started to feel quite sour at Houston in general. When I shared this feeling with a friend of mine, and expressed my surprise at my change of heart, she astutely observed that "you have to break up with a place". She had been describing her husband's growing impatience with some circumstances at his place of work; little things he had been willing to overlook in the past had now become unbearable now that he was planning to begin working elsewhere. It struck me how much that sounded like what had happened to my relationship with Houston. I had been feeling good here, and then suddenly I wasn't; my affectionate thoughts and concerns about our departure evaporated in the space of days. And so, as our house faces its inspection today, I am feeling hopeful for the strength of this current offer and am allowing my specific complaints about Houston to float to the surface.
It probably sounds silly, but one of the things I hate most is the deplorable condition of the streets and sidewalks. While running outside, or walking the baby in the stroller, I face sidewalks that are broken, interrupted, missing, filthy and in one instance even blocked (for months) by a fallen telephone pole. Once, I tripped on a broken piece of sidewalk which abutted a huge tree root, and a half-block stretch of no sidewalk. When I put my arms down to break my fall, my hand and wrist were both gouged by the broken sidewalk and attacked by a swarm of nasty ants who bit me all over. As if all of that were not enough to deter a committed urban pedestrian, I was also recently bitten by a (leashed) dog. Ugh.
An additional headache day after day are the residents of my neighborhood who park their large vehicles on tiny driveways, blocking any hoped-for passage and forcing pedestrians onto the equally treacherous streets. People who park this way do it over and over again, never receiving any type of citation from the city. Luckily I am able-bodied and have a sturdy stroller, but I feel anger in my heart for the challenges that such obstacles pose to wheelchair-bound and other people with mobility challenges.
I will also not miss Houston's aggressive and terrible drivers, who are so bad and scary that I will not ride my bike in the city, nor will I allow my husband to bicycle with the baby. Lanes are narrow, drivers are fast and careless, and the bike lanes are a joke. Recently on the radio there was a story about a rash pedestrian and bicycle deaths in Houston, and the spokesperson for the police had the audacity to blame the pedestrians and remark that jaywalking would be in the future more aggressively ticketed. Shame on you, Houston.
I will not miss living in a place where the air quality is terrible enough to warrant warnings as part of the weather forecast. I will not miss living somewhere where I am sometimes hesitant to speak my mind in case the other party is trigger-happy. I will not miss being "governed' by Rick Perry. I will not miss living without lakes. I will not miss living in a place which celebrates "freedom" in the name of lawlessness, but is only too happy to deny freedom to women trying to take care of their health.
There are lots of things I like about Houston, and I have spent much energy in the last couple of years enumerating them on this blog. Most of what I appreciate about being here relates to food and our friends. As with any breakup, this is a messy decision, pocked with grey areas of emotion. It is possible that we have put home on a pedestal, and once we get there, we may find it not worth the fuss. Perhaps ultimately we will have to break up with the idea that there is a "home" for us which can be marked on a map.
In the meantime, Houston, it's not me, it's you.
Dear Random Man Who Believes Secession is the Solution,
I frequently run past your truck while you are working in my neighborhood and your "Secede" bumper sticker gets me riled up every time I see it.
I just want you to know that Texas will run out of oil, and therefore its primary means of supporting itself, long before the rest of us will exhaust our ability to govern ourselves peacefully without you.
I guess your expenses will remain low, since your government only convenes briefly once every two years and doesn't believe in raising taxes to maintain infrastructure. Unfortunately though, your crumbling sidewalks will disintegrate completely, your aging highways will cease to allow the passage of vehicles from far-away ranches to urban workplaces, and your citizens who lack healthcare and education will gradually bankrupt the rest of your citizens who do not see the link between themselves and those who go regularly without. However, I am sure you will resolve all of that whenever your leaders finally reconvene in a couple years.
Maybe the nation of Texas will have enough water, but I guess if you don't you will figure something out. I'm sure you won't need any help recovering from any drought, hurricane or fire issues like you have in the past, or any financial aid like the $44 billion dollars you received from the United States federal government in 2010.
Anyway, it sounds like you have thought long and hard about this, and we wish you the best.
Warm regards, and we will see you at the U.N.,
The Rest of the States
It can be hard to get excited about making dinner. But it never fails, as soon as I get my lazy tush into the kitchen and get the chopped onion into the pan (because don't all recipes start with that?) the awesome smell of caramelizing onion cooking causes me to forget my resistance, and to relax in general.
People ask me often if I cook while my husband is overseas and they are surprised to learn that I do. For me it is not strange for cooking to sometimes be private and solo; I starting learning to cook while living alone in my first apartment, and lived alone for much of my twenties. While eating at restaurants a pastime that I have enjoyed as much as most in my age group, cooking still strikes me as a critical life skill, not mention a good pillar of long-term health. My skills have been slow but steady enough in their evolution. Interestingly, and perhaps leading to my willingness to cook even when no one is looking, I experience cooking as nice creative outlet of the hands-on variety. For now anyway; I'm sure motherhood could change that, although I hope it doesn't.
Just as the onion lights my cooking fire even when I'm just not feeling it, books and fabric and yarn ignite my sewing and design excitement, especially if I'm not sure where to start. I recently splurged on a book like that; it has some beautiful images that remind me why textiles and sewing make me excited. I am particularly enamored because I have been harboring a big crush on blue colors for a couple of years now. Here are a few images from the book:
I was also having a hard time getting inspired with ideas for our nursery (nursery-slash-guest-bedroom, more accurately). Babies do not come naturally to me, nor does the soft and sweet vibe that I see in so many photos of suggested nurseries. I kept coming back to some hand-dyed cotton knitting yarn that I had picked up at a craft fair in NYC years ago while visiting a friend. I was working on knitting a baby blanket with it, so when her mom offered to make us a quilt in our choice of colors, I suggested those same colors: red and orange, turquoise and indigo, in a variety of shades.
Still, in spite of that, I had no vision for the rest of it. Especially with the room already full of home office and guest bed furniture and my husband on the other side of the planet with only a fuzzy timeline for return.
Not to worry; I found my inspiration when I went home in June, right where if I'd been thinking, I would have expected to find it: the flea market that I've been going to with mom since I was a kid (see photo above) and a place where in high school I even found a prom dress, a vintage flapper dress that mom altered and that I've been known to still wear once in a blue moon.
The market occurs every Sunday, as it has for 45 years; since long before Anthropologie figured out that people would pay hundreds for shabby-chic objects that their buyers found in France for a few Euros. I'm not as devoted a flea market attendee as my mom; I'm willing to skip vendors that I don't find promising and I do get distracted by some of the old-looking new goods that have crept in over the years, while she easily finds beauty in objects you couldn't pay me to bring home.
Regardless, that's where it came together. A wall shelf made from metal and wire fashioned into a canoe-style boat washed in an aqua color (old-looking but new), and a metal minnow bucket with orange print (actually old but clean and free of minnows), to be transported home in my carry-on back to Texas. Our little guy will surrounded by reds, oranges, and blues and more importantly by some evidence of his Northern roots while he gets comfy in his Southern home.
We are also the proud owners of a new shed, which takes the place of the garage we do not have. Who knew sheds were expensive?? Who ever wanted a shed before? Now, I understand. Even the shed makes me happy.
I have my coffee in the little back yard or on the big front porch and feel good. Maybe I never wanted this before because my inner survivalist knew that it wasn't financially feasible, but now that it does feel like the right time, it is exciting. Also it is a little bit scary...I can feel the risk. Not a feeling of financial risk necessarily, but more an emotional one, or a complicated mix of the two. Here I am, my loved ones and my favorite stuff and my little bit of investment, right on the road for anyone else to mess with, or for any kind of natural disaster to crush. There is a vulnerability to it which I did not anticipate. The stakes are higher.
But all is well right now and we love our little tiny new-old house.
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.
To be clear, my position on guns has not changed. I understand guns for hunting, and I can support that, with sufficient regulation. The idea that guns should not be traceable is ridiculous. Guns for non-hunting civilian pleasure are a recipe for mayhem, and Americans are not proving worthy of the responsibility.
However, Garden & Gun is good. It feels similar to my favorite Twin Cities publication, Metro Magazine. It is a fresh and hip report of southern food and lifestyle, and is proving to be a handy resource. Aside from advertisements, articles about guns are far outnumbered compared to lifestyle, food, and culture articles. The only reason I haven't yet subscribed is that we are still in the throes of finalizing next year's address. Stay tuned.
In the meantime, in spite of August weather that drags me down, alligators in garages, and over-abundances of churches, guns and crazy Tea Party people, Texas is creeping into me. I'm happy here. How can you not love a place that harbors such enthusiasm for chili peppers and cowboy boots? I even like the little lizards that skitter around on the sidewalks when I run past.
For whatever reason, I'm in. The call of home was strong, but living there at this stage would mean significant separation from my husband, and for now, we like it here enough that it doesn't seem worth signing up for that unless we have to. Luckily, it doesn't feel like a sacrifice to settle in right here for a bit.
As far as I can tell, many people like Houston only because they thought it would be the worst thing that ever happened to them, and then it wasn't. A common chorus sounds: "it's not as bad as I expected." It's not just me; out-of-towners repeat this descriptor of life here with uncanny frequency. Those here for work from other, much more expensive, (European) countries are especially enamored. So much shopping! Such low taxes! Such enormous living spaces! I can relate to them in some ways; the instinct to consume here kicks in like no other place I have experienced. So far my favorite days here have all involved shopping and usually a fair amount of alcohol, too. And while those were genuinely fun days, I'm worried that it is not a sustainable method for finding my bliss.
When we have told people that we are considering a move home to Minnesota next year, instead of continuing to base ourselves in Houston, eyebrows go up. I also find this funny; even though Houston is mostly unremarkable and derives much of its personality from other cultures, Minneapolis somehow sounds like a questionable choice to them. People that live in warm places find it shocking that other people would prefer to live in cold places, especially if said cold places are in the mysteriously boring-sounding Midwest. To our friends here from other countries, Minnesota sounds snowy and rural, with little else to offer.
But here is the secret. The mysteriously boring Midwest is also a healthy and delicious place. You can grow food there in the relatively unpolluted ground, and breathe in the air that doesn't come with safety warnings. You can swim in clean and cool water there without worrying about snakes, alligators, and chemicals. You can run around lakes and along well-maintained paths without fear of the sidewalk abruptly coming to an end or of trucks chasing you. If you are cold, you can put more clothes on, and get warm. You can drink a hot toddy, make a fire, and snuggle. And all of these things will bring you warmth.
If you are hot, you are hot, and that's it. There's no taking off more clothes, unless you want to go to jail. Which is not advisable, because as I learned recently, only twenty-one out of 111 prisons in Texas are fully air-conditioned. And while I understand the politician who pointed out that he is not inclined to make prisoners more comfortable when he can't afford to do that for poor law-abiding folks, I'm also unconvinced that slowly baking to death in a concrete oven (which happened to five prisoners in Texas last year) is an appropriate punishment for your garden-variety car thief.
Each day that I have run, since early May, I have been sweatier and more uncomfortable than I was during the run before, and all of them were all completed before 9 a.m. The average highs for June, July and August are all well into the nineties, and in spite of that, it was considered a kind of gentle July here. What feels difficult to me is that the lows don't drop much below eighty at night. The cat won't come near us to cuddle and I've even begun putting ice in my water, something that I haven't done since before living in France. We are lucky to have only had a few days over one hundred degrees so far, but I'm told that there are more coming now that it's August.
I would be lying if I said that I'm excited about Houston in the summer. I realize that the entire country is hot right now, and many people are struggling. Our heat this year is not considered serious compared to last year. On the other hand, our heat will not abate. It is not a heat wave, it is just normal summer. Today is the beginning of our hottest month, and most of my instincts scream to hide inside, away from the extreme conditions...just like I would be doing in Minneapolis in February.
I've never read Augusten Burroughs before, but when I saw his new book, "This is How", on the library shelf, and I took a moment to leaf through it. I immediately happened upon a page that raises the very topic of habitually small-radius behavior.
"The reason I live in Manhattan is not because I 'enjoy taking advantage of everything the city has to offer' like a dubious personal ad; it's because I'm both wasteful and a glutton. I like knowing that everything is right there beside me so I can let it all spoil in the refrigerator next to the broccoli...
...For example, if you take a subway or walk to work each day, do you alter your course? Do you ever get on the wrong train, on purpose?...
...Do you seek out fresh neighborhoods in parts of town you've never seen so you can discover a brand-new dentist every time you need your teeth cleaned?
...When you run out of saltines, are you going to go to the nearest store, or spice it up and head over the supermarket on the other side of town?..."
The passage made me laugh and also reassured me. Sometimes I feel guilty that we don't take more advantage of what's around us, but on the other hand, we choose neighborhoods because they feel comfortable to us, and meet our needs in whatever ways we have defined those needs. I wouldn't necessarily conclude that my husband and I are "both wasteful and a glutton", but I do admit that I miss many events out of sheer laziness. We are more adventurous when it comes to restaurants, but after paying a city price for a mediocre meal, I often remain reluctant for weeks before feeling interested in trying another new one. This is especially true when I have already identified a few consistent favorites.
Having said all of that, I can report that each time we've moved away from the trail of cities behind us, I can identify regrets of omission. I'm sorry that we didn't experience Commander's Palace in New Orleans, and I'm a little bit sad that I didn't see Vancouver or Montreal while we were in Canada. Part of my urge to avoid early departure from Houston resides somewhere in this feeling; I'd like to rack up a few more new adventures, in addition to enjoying the comfy daily rhythms already in place. It doesn't seem likely that I will want to travel frequently to Texas after we move away, so it feels important to soak up more of it now, while it is handy.
And yet when my husband and I picture our future, we do not picture ourselves here. This isn't surprising in the sense that we never intended to be here, but our transition coming here was so smooth that we did briefly imagine ourselves staying longer than planned.
We've recently been called upon to make some decisions about what we plan to do when his current contract finishes in November. We have mentally tried on various scenarios as the last six months have marched by, knowing that this decision would sneak up fast, and after the initial lure of the cheap and easy dissipated, we have been able to reach one conclusion at least: that we will not purchase the home that we are currently renting, and that we will most likely not remain in Houston for a second year.
It's always real estate that gets me. After living in all manner of spaces and in so many environments, I feel that to put real cash down on a building, a lot, a neighborhood, a community, is a commitment that I take very seriously. I want to actually live where I live, not just pass through. If the value crashes or it's hard to sell, I want to know that I lived there for a reason...that I felt good there...that I loved my neighborhood...that I went for my dream job...that I was part of a community. Our homes are an investment not only of money but hopefully of heart and soul, and I often think the real estate market went off the rails in our nation because of collective cultural amnesia in that matter.
Cheap and easy has been a fantastic respite after expensive and prickly Calgary, but that still doesn't make it necessarily the best fit for us. I have never excelled when it comes to the path of least resistance, and buying a home is no different for me, it turns out.
Much the same way that I can't prevent people down here from parroting "Minn-e-SOH-tah" back to me down here when I say where I'm from, it's common for non-Texans to immediately mention guns when we say where we live now. I thought the gun thing was an exaggeration, like "Minn-e-SOH-tah", but as with many stereotypes, a generous nugget of reality probably gave birth to the depiction.
Shortly after we arrived last winter, a book called Chicks with Guns was released nationwide, featuring a variety of women posing with their preferred weapons and other props. Not surprisingly, Texas was well-represented. The situation first came to my attention while I was reading the society gossip rag here in Houston over morning coffee (see above clipping). Even though the paper lacks substance and is mainly a city shopping and party list, I do find useful restaurant and culture tidbits there once and a while. It's a nice way to take the pulse of this place. And gawk at the fancy people, of course. What I have learned is that there are certain key players, who host every fundraiser and have new unbelievable outfits for every party. One such figure is Lynn Wyatt. You can tell just by looking at her that she does what she wants, and that people pay attention. I'm dying to be a fly on the wall just once when she walks through a room. Regardless, when I came across the spread of the book-signing party for Chicks with Guns, I should not have been even a little surprised that the after-party was hosted at her house, and that she was dressed in clingy leopard prints for the occasion.
Also there is a magazine, Gardens and Guns. Really. Not only does it exist, but it isn't something you would hide in a nightstand drawer, like Playboy. It's more of a coffee-table magazine, complete with recipes for fried green tomatoes and interviews with Norah Jones (who grew up in Dallas, I learned while nosing around on the site). In fact, there is a nice city profile of Houston which nails the can-do, high-energy friendliness and go-big-or-go-home character of the place.
It was clear to me when I lived in Louisiana, as it is again now, that Southern women are different. It is easy to make fun of their focus on appearance, but I do think there is is much more to them than that. Plus it's kind of cool how they frequently do look fabulous. I have hesitated to comment so far on this topic because I do not yet feel qualified; such a vast region, so many women. Luckily, another woman did write some thoughts down for us, conveniently located on the Garden and Gun website. I am intrigued with her general assessment. In particular, I agree with her that the sense of place and belonging seems much stronger down here; people, food, family and place seem to have certain unbreakable bonds. Perhaps that is what draws me in while I'm here, in spite of knowing that this place will never my my place.
We've been exploring neighborhoods here in Houston, as we try to figure out where we would buy a house if we stay here. We have a pretty good idea about what the market looks like at the higher end of our budget, but I am trying to get a good sense of what we could do with the lower end of the budget.
As it turned out, I was slightly annoyed by tourist trappings of Cancun, but my curiosity about daily Mexico overruled my disdain for the standardized vacation chosen by my peers. I was more interested in the taxi drivers than the goings-on at the nightclubs, and I was intrigued by the hair-braiding ladies in the market and the brands of food in the downtown grocery store. I noticed women of all ages with tummies showing a little, or shorts that were quite short; they seemed so comfortable showing their skin, regardless of their shape. To my body-obsessed eighteen-year-old brain, this was amazing. Now, it is very logical to my thirty-five year-old brain: it's about comfort in the heat.
I have been to Mexico three more times since then, and each time, I loved it. I would go multiple times a year, if I could. In fact, it is the only other place besides Minnesota where I have hoped to live with my husband.
These feelings about Mexico, combined with many, many positive interactions that I had with Mexican students learning English, led me to feel that life in Houston and it's proximity to Mexico would very naturally lead me to a better understanding of Mexico and more frequent interactions with true Mexican culture. I consider it a great misstep to have not studied Spanish in college and for the most part I consider the general American attitude toward Mexican immigrants both unbelievably heartless and incredibly short-sighted. Mexico should be viewed as a neighbor and asset, albeit one that could some help at the moment.
In the meantime, on a smaller scale, I'm on the hunt for all things Mexico in Houston. I am afraid that I shouldn't have assumed that it would be easier than it has been so far. My online searches have revealed little, leading me for the most part to Tex-Mex restaurants, most of which serve food that Americans love and think is Mexican food: bland refried beans and enchiladas covered in a pile of melted cheese. But I have all kinds of time and more checking to do, so I like my chances.