Thursday, September 29, 2005

Autumn is finally here... I think.

One of the fun things about living in Texas is that you never really know for sure what the weather will be like from one year to the next, or one month to the next, or even one DAY to the next. Summer is pretty simple -- it's hot. And, more often than not, sunny. Winter, spring and autumn are more difficult. In the winter months, for instance, it's not uncommon for me to wrap myself up in a bathrobe and slip out onto the porch for several seconds to gauge the temperature and humidity before deciding what to wear. (Will it be a wool sweater? Or perhaps a nice cotton t-shirt? Maybe something in-between?) And springtime, while usually on the warm side, brings with it the unpredictability of surprise thunderstorms. You can flip through every local station forecast, AND check the Weather Channel just to be on the safe side, and still not have an accurate prediction of what's to come. You might, in fact, decide to take a short nap on a perfectly clear, not-a-cloud-in-the-azure-blue-sky spring day, and soon wake up to the eerie, greenish glow of severe thunderstorm clouds (yes, I'm speaking from experience...). It only takes one tornado warning -- and one afternoon of huddling in the hallway surrounded by pillows and a comforter, which, you hope, will be an effective safety barrier against anything that might happen -- to make you realize that napping is overrated...

And autumn can be equally confusing. This year is a perfect example. Yesterday was September 28th, and the high temperature was 106. I did check my calendar, and autumn officially began on the 22nd. Autumn -- you know, colored leaves, crisp air, maybe a light scent of chimney smoke when the evenings start getting chilly -- autumn. 106 degrees. Autumn. 106 degrees. And as if that wasn't confusing enough, I woke up this morning to a cloudy sky and a reading on the thermometer of 68 degrees. Only I didn't realize it was 68 degrees until I'd already dressed for what I assumed would be another ridiculously unseasonable day. And when you step outside on a 68-degree day after getting used to the weeks of 100-degree-plus weather, it's a bit like being thrown onto the Alaskan tundra without a parka. Okay, I'm probably exaggerating... never actually been to the Alaskan tundra (oh, I've been to ALASKA -- just not the tundra... :)). My point is, that 38-degree difference is quite noticeable. That's not to say it isn't appreciated -- for someone who grew up in the northeast and got used to an obvious line of demarcation between seasons, any hint of a new season is welcome.

Of course, "season" might not be the right word. I wouldn't say Austin has an "autumn" exactly. At least not in the sense I'm used to. I remember when autumn meant groves of brightly-hued trees. Leaves that glowed golden in the sun, and eventually drifted gently -- one by one -- to the ground. Here, it's a different story. True, there is the occasional misplaced maple that valiantly attempts to add a splash of color to the scenery -- but they are few and far between. In fact, I hardly ever notice an obvious change of color in the native vegetation. Instead, some time in October or November, the leaves seem to stage some sort of photosynthesis mutiny and morph from green to brown overnight. This leads to an overwhelming number of trees dropping their leaves at exactly the same time -- if you head outdoors when the conditions are precisely right, you can hear a muffled "whoomp" as millions of Austinite leaves decide to end it all and fling themselves from their branches.

The unpredictability of weather -- not just Austin weather -- is part of what makes every place unique. I'm always amazed by the northerners who assume I live in a flat desert filled with tumbleweeds. It's actually quite green and hilly here, with plenty of lakes and rivers and nary a tumbleweed in sight. Conversely, I'm amazed by the southerners who assume New Jersey is an industrial wasteland buried by a foot of snow every winter. In reality, my home in New Jersey was like some sort of New England picture postcard, and there were years we didn't see so much as one flake of snow. You know the old saying, "don't judge a man until you've walked a mile in his shoes"? I think the same goes for places -- it's hard to make an assumption about a city or a state or a country if you've never been there. I've been fortunate enough to visit all fifty states in the U.S., and if there's one thing I've learned, it's that EVERY place has something to offer; every place has something beautiful and unique. Sometimes the beauty isn't as obvious, but it's always there. And while I haven't visited every country in the world, I'm betting that's just as true for every country as it is for every state.

So maybe Austin has substantial temperature differences from day to day, and autumn leaves that can't quite figure out how to be any color other than brown, and surprise thunderstorms, and snow about once every decade (yes, we DO get snow now and then...). But the weather --like the topography, and the culture, and even the people -- is part of the diversity that a lot of people love about this city. So I guess -- as long as I have an ample supply of sweaters and shorts, t-shirts and jackets, umbrellas and sunscreen, swimsuits and scarves, boots and flip flops -- I should be okay here. :)

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

What's going on in there?

I don't have any kids of my own, but I have plenty of friends with kids. So it was a few years ago, when the first of my pseudo-nieces and nephews started entering toddlerhood, that I began to hear the phrase, "use your inside voice." Piercing screams would gang up with banging blocks and toy pianos, resulting in instant migranes and increased blood pressure for any adult within earshot. This would immediately be followed by mom's or dad's shushing finger over the lips and a stern, "use your INSIDE voice."

And I have to admit, the first few times I heard this phrase, I completely misunderstood its meaning. "Inside voice," I decided, must refer to that voice we all have inside ourselves -- conscience, if you will -- the voice that quietly tells us what's right and what's wrong and what we should be doing with our lives and whether or not we should have an extra piece of chocolate cake for dessert. And surely your inside voice would tell you it is NOT right to throw Elmo onto the kitchen table in the middle of lunch and then squeal in delight as Elmo's head makes direct contact with an extremely unstable bowl of vegetable soup. Of course, eventually I figured out that the actual meaning of "inside voice" in this case was much more simple. It's just the voice you'd use inside a building as opposed to outside a building. I imagine if someone explained this to me, it would sound something like this:

Me: I love how those parents just told their son to use his inside voice. I mean, you're never too young to start some serious introspection, you know?

Someone else: Uh, Lisa, they're talking about INSIDE the house. They don't want him yelling in here.

Me: Inside the house? But that's so much less profound.

Someone else: The kid is two years old.

Me: Touche.

Okay, so "inside voice" in the case of children isn't about some sort of existential reflection. But I wonder, sometimes, why that was the first thing that popped into my mind when I heard it. Is it because I spend so much time inside my OWN head, sorting out the things my "inside voice" is saying? I turn thoughts over and scrutinize each one, as if every small corner of my mind holds a puzzle, and solving it is of utmost importance. I suppose I never should've expected a two-year-old to sit quietly in one of those tiny little kid-sized overstuffed chairs, journal in hand, actively pursuing his "inside voice" and writing down all his enlightened insight in shaky aquamarine crayon. Not that it'd be such a bad thing -- mom and dad would have peace and quiet, and the kid would end up with really good handwriting and a journal full of preschool angst (is there such a thing as preschool angst?? "Mom and dad are making me sit in the corner and use my inside voice again...").

Anyway, I suppose we all use some sort of "inside voice" now and then. Some could probably benfit from using it a little more often, and some of us could benefit from telling it to shut up now and then. As long as I'm listening to mine, I'll probably just keep writing. And if I ever have kids, they're really gonna have to watch out for that "inside voice" phrase. Crayons and journals will be at the ready...

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Validation needed...

When I told Rick that I'd started a blog, he said, "blogs are for insecure people who need validation from other people... you know, people who rely on others for their happiness." Now, I'm not really sure where his logic is -- I mean, if you write out all your thoughts in an online forum for anyone and everyone to see, does it really mean you're insecure and hope some equally insecure person halfway around the world will "validate" you? I doubt it. However, I will admit that description pretty much fits me. So... please validate me. Justify my existence. Acknowledge my presence. Just, you know, basically allow me to feel as if my habitation here on this planet is not going to waste...

Okay, now that THAT'S out of the way... :) Writing about people "halfway around the world" has got me thinking about a trip I took several years ago -- a cruise in the Baltic Sea. A lot of the time, if you're on a cruise, and your itinerary takes you to a foreign country, you end up on a nicely-organized (or sometimes not-so-nicely organized) tour of your port of call, complete with air-conditioned bus and English-speaking guide. But at one of our stops -- Tallinn, Estonia -- we decided to wing it and simply walk around the city on our own. Rick and my dad and I wandered over to a church, where we met a man who will forever be known to us as Crazy Estonian Tour Guide Guy.

He was dressed in plain black slacks, a button-down shirt covered with a modest tweed jacket, and scuffed black loafers. He had a thin briefcase, which he clutched at his side with both arms, holding it against him as if it contained something precious. When we stopped to take pictures of the church, he asked us -- in heavily accented but very clear English -- if we'd like a tour of his city. There was some hesitation on our part. Was it wise, we wondered, to deviate from the travel-industry-approved recommendation of sticking with hired guides from reputable companies? Should we have hidden our cameras and wallets and worn something other than baseball caps and Gap t-shirts -- something nondescript that didn't scream "tourist"? Too late now... and besides, there was something about this man with the briefcase that was too interesting to ignore. He was charming, friendly and energetic. Perhaps it was his enthusiasm that convinced us to take him up on his offer. He was eager to show us his city – and since none of us had any idea where we were or what we were doing, who better to show us than a local?

He took off down a grassy dirt path past the church, walking quickly and glancing back every few seconds to make sure we were still following. We lined up behind him like a little band of ducklings – some kind of bizarre ducklings with backpacks and Canon Rebel EOS cameras. He led us over cobblestoned streets completely devoid of tourists, through quiet alleyways lined with apartments, over narrow and cracked concrete sidewalks – pretty much all the places we never would’ve seen had we been on our own or with a paid tour guide. At one point we came across a postcard vendor on a street corner who struck up a heated conversation with our new-found Estonian friend. Apparently she accused him of stealing all the tourists away from her business. Looking back now, I suppose I should’ve bought a postcard… although she did seem rather angry, and did I really want to buy a postcard from such an angry vendor? Then again, I WAS wandering aimlessly through Estonia with a man I'd only known for ten minutes. Buying a postcard shouldn't have seemed all that risky...

Eventually, we found ourselves at the top of a hill overlooking the city. A group of construction workers were lolling about on a break, hanging out underneath the shade of a tree. The views of the city were beautiful, and our cameras were out and at the ready. Suddenly, our guide jumped out over a stone wall onto a rickety old scaffolding, and climbed up onto the platform. He told us the views were better from that vantage point. “It’s okay,” he said, “come up!” We watched as the scaffolding swayed back and forth, seemingly on the verge of collapse. We all politely declined, and I was still able to get some great shots of the red roofs of Tallinn without leaving the safety of solid ground. I believe this was the point our friend went from just plain “tour guide” to Crazy Estonian Tour Guide Guy.

When we finished our tour and returned to the church where we started, we gave Tour Guide Guy a ten dollar bill. He thanked us profusely, and then reached into that briefcase he’d been holding onto so tightly and handed us a three-page typed memoir entitled “An Ordinary Soviet Custom.” We read it after we’d said our good-byes, and discovered our guide had been an unemployed civil engineer. His story told of living in the Soviet Union in the 80s, when he secretly listened to American radio and the BBC. He was taken from his home one night, and driven in the trunk of a car to a mental hospital, where he was held against his will for several days. Eventually he was able to escape from the hospital and ran to a friend's house, but after his ordeal he lost his job, divorced his wife, and suffered from poor health. Whether he'd been out of work for decades when we met him by the church, or simply fallen on hard times once again, I don't know. But the story was intriguing, to say the least.

Which brings me back to validation -- our guide's name, according to the memoir he'd been holding onto so closely, was Juri. And perhaps Juri simply wanted the freedom to say what he felt he needed to say. And he wanted someone to listen. He wanted what anyone wants -- validation, justification, acknowledgement. Maybe Crazy Estonian Tour Guide Guy wasn't so crazy after all.

Except for the rickety old scaffolding... that really WAS crazy. :)

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Happy blogday to me...

Okay, the title of this post is REALLY bad. (And nevermind the fact that "blog" sounds like something you might cough up after a particularly nasty case of bronchitis...) But I figure since I'm some kind of wannabe writer, I should take advantage of this whole World Wide Web thing and throw my hat into the blogger's ring. So here it is -- my very first blog. (If you haven't jumped up and down in excitement yet, I'll give you a moment...)

So what does one say in a blog, anyway? I wasn't really certain, which is why I'm calling this whole thing my "journal of random tangents." I'm pretty good with tangents. Distract me from my train of thought for a moment, and I'll give you a couple paragraphs about some long-forgotten moment in my childhood, or recall a completely pointless anecdote that makes no sense whatsoever.

But in the interest of staying on topic (wait -- did I HAVE a topic?) I suppose the logical thing to do would be to introduce myself. And I would, except I think anyone reading this probably already knows me. So I'll just skip that part and move on to something else...

Anyway, this first post is more of a test than anything else. I haven't explored this site too much, so I'm not sure what I can do with it. If you were nice enough (or bored enough) to read this, thanks! And if you're ever this bored again, please check back and see if I've added anything new. That's it for now...