Parking Lots, or Lots of Parks?

Although I feel completely unqualified to make this comparison, I think I’ll piggyback on Samantha’s Austin/New York analogy idea and say that Central Park is to New York City as Zilker Park is to Austin. Granted, I’ve never lived in NYC, but it’s at least the same general idea. Right?

In my estimation, green spaces are a commodity that too few of us stop to really appreciate. Can you imagine living in a concrete jungle every day of your life and not having a park, river or garden to stroll along? On the UT campus, think of the South Mall. Even today, December 2, I sat there and ate my lunch with 30-40 other students. People love being able to relax under the shade of a Spanish Oak or soak up the rays on the cool grass (although, to be honest, it’s more like hay now).

My little town of Beaver, Pa. was laid out on a grid by the founders. The centerpiece of the town? Four parks. And the perimeter of the town (at the time, although now it has expanded) was dotted by a park at each corner, as well. The quaintness of this was ruined for me when I arrived at soccer conditioning in high school and we were required to run “the four parks” (2.2 miles), as they were known, all day long.

Below is a “greatest hits” of sorts of Zilker Park in Austin, produced by Laurel Stalla. Enjoy!



Austin-Bergstrom International

When someone has writer’s block or isn’t able to think creatively about their writing, he or she is often told to “write about what you know.” (As an aside–that link to the Purdue OWL Web site is invaluable for writers. They have tremendous resources. Aside ended.) I’m not insinuating that I currently suffer from “the block,” but I am saying we’re going to be talking about a place I know very well: the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.

While it’s probably true that I’ve spent more total hours at my layover destinations (Dallas/Ft. Worth or, God help me, Chicago O’Hare), I’m always one to arrive with plenty of time before my flight, so I’ve logged some hours at ABIA. For starters, it’s a smaller airport with only 25 gates. As soon as you walk in the sliding glass doors, the “vibe” of the place grabs you. It doesn’t have the half-sterilized, over-trafficked feel that most airports do.

The Austin-Bergstrom International Airport served nearly 8.9 million passengers in 2007.  It was also the first facility in the nation to be converted from an Air Force base to a commercial airport.

The Austin-Bergstrom International Airport served nearly 8.9 million passengers in 2007. It was also the first facility in the nation to be converted from an Air Force base to a commercial airport.

This so-called “vibe” isn’t an accidental by-product of engineering, either. Rather, the City of Austin, who owns the airport since its conversion from a U.S. Air Force base, made a concerted effort to capture the “character of Austin.” The airport’s Web site reads:

The airport immediately reminds visitors that they have arrived at a place that is mindful of its heritage — political, cultural, and natural. A Live Music Stage features local performers. Well-known Austin-based companies operate many restaurant and gift concessions. Landscaping consists of native and xeriscape plantings.

On Wednesday, I enjoyed a bit of this “well-known, Austin-based” restaurant food at 5:30 a.m. as I was flying home to Pittsburgh. Two breakfast tacos with egg and sausage and a cup of coffee from The Salt Lick’s airport stand: $9.90. Breathe it in–that’s the smell of getting ripped off, my friends. I’m not saying they weren’t delicious, but for $9.90 I’m fairly confident in my ability to find a hen myself and demand it produce an egg for me.

Structurally and aesthetically, it’s a beautiful public building. Airport terminals can often feel oppressive with low ceilings and thousands of people (I’m lookin’ at you, O’Hare), but the lofty feel of the (somewhat ridiculously) high ceilings at ABIA give you room to breathe. Security can sometimes have lines that wrap around for days, but I’m always astonished at how quickly they move. On Wednesday, TSA was so well prepared that I had no wait at all. Even though I appreciate the peace of mind that added security brings to the flying experience, I never thought I’d actually be tipping my hat to the people who feel you up before your flight. And speaking of TSA, they’ve produced a “Holiday Travel Guide” for what you can and can’t bring on the plane. If you’re traveling soon, this will save you time (and potentially embarrassment).

And a tip from my own personal experience with ABIA–arriving an hour before your flight (if you know what you’re doing) is all the time you’ll ever need. Don’t believe the hype.


Walkin’ on Sunshine

Thanksgiving is right around the corner, folks! It’s a little hard to believe that we’re less than a week away from December already. Is it just me, or does it feel like we just finished sweeping up from the “Happy 2008” New Year’s parties?

A beautiful West Texas sunset, as provided by

A beautiful West Texas sunset, as provided by

Like many people, we’re coming up on my favorite time of the year. Thanksgiving is actually my favorite holiday–you get the family part, like Christmas, but without all the glitz and glamor. Living in Austin these past four years has been an odd adjustment though. Namely, where are all the clouds?

For starters, Texas is one of the country’s top 5 “sun states.” Oh sure, Florida claims to be the “Sunshine State,” but anyone who’s been there knows it rains at about 2 p.m. every day. Growing up in Pennsylvania, cold temperatures arrived toward the end of September, and along with them came the gray clouds of winter. The sun makes its next appearance in mid-March. This may sound like a ridiculous hyperbole, and of course I’m exaggerating, but if you’ve lived there, you know what I mean. Austin, on the other hand, averages about 300 days of sun each year. I’m no mathematician, (hence the journalism major,) but that’s a high percentage. [Editor’s note: So I was torn between what I wrote above or “I’m no mathematician, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night, and that seems like a high percentage.” Preference?]

Anyway, I know the majority of native-Texans go about their daily lives without ever giving this any thought. But move north and find out what Joni Mitchell (or these people) is (are) singing about—you don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone. So, bottom line… be thankful.


Coffee Bar Talent

I swear this isn’t a shameless plug, but I’ll let you determine whether that’s true after you read this post.  To be perfectly honest, I don’t frequent coffee bars (or houses, or shacks, or whatever people call them) too often.  I know some find them to be a great place to study, but I need a sterile environment with horrifyingly graphic fluorescent lighting.

But recently I’ve been doing a little coffee bar hopping.  From Mozarts on Lake Austin, to Dominican Joe on South Congress, to Clementine on Manor—I’ve started to get a sense of “the scene.”  What caused this sudden interest?  Well, I’m not doing it for my health.  No, I’ve been following around a pair of “Singing Sarahs” known as “The Reliques.” (Pronounced “rel-icks”)

Jackie Gilles.

The Reliques, comprised of Sarah Dossey and Sarah Walters, are singer/songwriters based in Austin and performing in local coffee bars. Photo credit: Jackie Gilles.

Confession time:  one of the Sarahs is a good friend of mine.  But the larger point of this post is that the talent of some of the people that play these places is amazing.  It seems like almost any night of the week you can walk into a different coffee bar and someone’s bearing their soul into a microphone while gently strumming an acoustic guitar.  And this isn’t “Smelly Cat” stuff, either, for fans of “Friends.”  (And no, that was not worth embedding.)

The MySpace page of the Reliques reads:

We hope to grow with you and learn with you and eat and drink with you as well.  Please remember that if there is anything we can do for you let us know.  We want to be there for you as you are for us.  We hope that our songs please you.  We hope that our voices calm you.  We hope you will tell us when they do.

It’s a little refreshing, after constantly listening to artists who have “made it,” to go to a coffee bar and hear the raw power of singer/songwriters that are performing for the pure enjoyment of performance.  There’s an authenticity there that’s not found in many things in life.  I’ll leave you with the final line of “Disappointed” by the Reliques:

“I feel like everybody wants the same thing, darling, and when they find it there always disappointed.” -The Reliques


Austin Activism

For starters, I’m no activist. I believe in my causes and I’m actively involved in making people care about politics, but I was raised a good Presbyterian. I keep my thoughts, opinions, feelings and emotions to myself. One day I’m sure they’ll all burst forth in a horrible rage, but for now, this is working for me.

But there was something about arriving in Austin that started getting me interested in “causes.” In early 2006, I watched a movie screening in the William C. Hogg building called “Invisible Children.” You may have heard of it, as it was a fairly sizeable “movement” a few years ago. Their Web site asks: If the Greatest Generation sacrificed for war, what will our generation be known as if we sacrifice for peace? Essentially, their movement started with a movie that brought to light terrible atrocities affecting children in Uganda. If you’re interested in watching the film, you can search for screenings or buy the rough cut.

Invisible Children is an activist group that raises money to help make the lives of children in Uganda and throughout Africa a little better.

Invisible Children is an activist group that raises money to help make the lives of children in Uganda and throughout Africa a little better.

Now, like I said, I’m not really an activist, but something about this message and the atmosphere that it fostered in Austin and the UT campus was captivating. On April 29, 2006, they had me camping out on the lawn of the Texas Capitol for their event “The Global Night Commute,” intended to somewhat relate to the journey that many children in Uganda must take each night in order not to be abducted and placed in a militia.

Who’s to say what touched a nerve in me about attending this, or why I have worn a “One” bracelet for nearly four years? The point is that people in Austin are energized. There’s more excitement here about social issues–on either side of the aisle (or neither side, for that matter)–than any other place that I’ve spent significant amounts of time. It’s very exciting to be in a place like this because, dare I say it, this is the type of environment in which ideas are fostered that “change the world.”

What are you passionate about? What really drives your actions and beliefs? I can say almost without a doubt that there is probably an organization in this city for you. If you lean left, might be a starting place for you. Or, if you lean right, The Young Conservatives of Texas might support your interests. Web junkie Michael Bluejay has set up a mini-directory for Austin activism, so check it out and see if something there is “for you.” Whatever you do, stop reading this blog and get out there! (Is this bad for business?)

As a brief post-script, if you want to see a short video that was both moving and energizing for me, watch below.  It’s from 2004, so it’s a bit dated, but still excellent.  (Stick with it–it gets good after the first 30 seconds or so.)  Without further ado:  Sarah McLachlan — “World on Fire.”


The Texas Two-Step

I’m going to put all my cards on the table right away: this post is likely to be fairly embarrassing for me. But as someone who’s already posted a video sitting in my bathroom, I’m willing to roll the dice. For those of you keeping score at home, that’s two casino references in two sentences.

About two weeks ago I went two-stepping for the first time. For those of you unfamiliar with how this works, Wikipedia’s got you covered. The sad thing is, after reading the first few sentences of this description, not only was I terrible at it, but according to this site, I was also doing it incorrectly. Counterclockwise, you say? Great.

A group of my friends decided that Halloween just wouldn’t be complete without a little two-steppin’ at the Broken Spoke on South Lamar. I’d driven by this place, and it sure screams “Texas” as you go by, but believe me, that’s nothing compared to inside. A hardwood, beer-stained floor sprawls out in front of you as you enter, leading right up to a five- or six-piece band (mustache required!) that jams the night away. But this stage has seen its fair share of celebrities–on their Web site, you can see pictures of all the famous visitors of the Broken Spoke including Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson.

The Midnight Rodeo, on East Ben White Blvd., offers a great venue for concerts and two-stepping.

The Midnight Rodeo, on East Ben White Blvd., offers a great venue for concerts and two-stepping.

After I made a fool of myself with someone who knew what she was doing, I took my friend Kristin out on the floor. She was visiting from Pennsylvania and, granted she’s not from Texas either, but she took dance all her life. I figured I was in safe hands. We’re still sending out apology letters to couples we bumped in to.

If you’ve been to the Broken Spoke and you’re looking for someplace else, I’ve heard good things about Midnight Rodeo. Admittedly, I know nothing about this place, but their Web site seems pretty informative. Check out the drink specials, and upcoming concerts and events.
I thought I’d leave you with a deliciously awkward video of a couple doing the two-step. I don’t know exactly how terrible I looked when I was out on the floor, but there’s no way it was this bad. Right?


What Not To… Eat?

We’ve all been there—you’ve got out-of-towners coming to visit and you want to show them the best Austin has to offer.  In particular, good food is what so many of my visitors expect when they come to visit.  And so, how is one to separate the good from the bad?  The real Austin from the faux Austin?  Here’s one thought:

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