Thursday, May 28, 2009

Whatever You Do, Don’t Tell Lance Armstrong

Austin, Texas. Live Music Capital of the World, home of the University of Texas, Barton Springs, great Tex Mex food, the start of the beautiful Texas Hill Country, and the Capitol of our fair State. And, of course, the home of famed, 7-time winner of the Tour de France – Lance Armstrong. All of these are things any self respecting Austinite is proud of, and as one of the dwindling few, true Austin natives – born and raised here – I am too.

Listen, I know that Austin is Lance’s town and all and everyone here is supposed to be all into bicycling but I have to tell you I am getting kinda tired of all these cyclists myself. Now I know I am going to make a lot of my friends mad, but I need to point out a few things.

I drive on Exposition almost every day and I keep discovering that suddenly I am driving in the bike lane and need to move back over to the car lane. I guess because I have driven down that street for more than 30 years, I still think of it is a two lane street, but now that it has those bike lanes it is really like a four lane street with much skinnier lanes for the cars to drive on. The other day I started thinking, “Where are all these cyclists this lane was built for?” Only once in about the past three months have I seen anyone cycling in that lane and it wasn’t a child either. I have, however, seen thousands of cars, now squeezing past each other nose to nose, on that curving street due to the fact that what used to be a much wider street has now become a narrow, winding thoroughfare so we can accommodate those bike lanes that I never see anyone riding in.

Now I am all for safety and stuff but why do all those bicyclists need to have a special designation to use Exposition (or Loop 360 or 2222 for that matter?) – Why can’t they just take one of the side streets? And on top of that why do we have to give up such prime street passages for them? Remember the Shoal Creek Blvd. debacle a just a few years ago? The one where the City put all those bump thingys in the road up and down Shoal Creek in hopes of forcing cars to stay out of the bike lanes and all it did was cause a bunch of wrecks for both cars and bicyclists. I think those cost us like a million dollars or something to put in and then they had to spend a bunch more than that to take them out again! I don’t have the exact numbers but I know that there are a whole heck of a lot more cars than bicycles on our streets. But it sure seems to me like the odds are getting stacked in the bike’s favor.

It’s fine with me if they want to ride bikes all over our streets, and I will even promise to keep thier safety top of mind, but why do the rest of us have to do something special for them? I don’t really have a sport, but if I did I don’t think I would be as demanding as some of these cyclists are…although come to think of it, I would like to request that shopping become a recognizeable Olympic Sport – I am pretty sure I could medal in that one. I also know some guys who are really into the sport of Cheese Rolling (Yes, it’s a sport. Google it if you don’t believe me.) but I haven’t heard our City Council recommending setting aside lanes of 2222 to accommodate that activity.

And what’s up with all these bicycle people thinking that the traffic laws don’t apply to them? Several times just in this past month I have been at stoplights where the bicyclists just breeze right through the red light or the cross walk expecting the cars to just magically give them the right away. Or how about the way they ride several people deep on the streets actually blocking more than one lane? And the other day I was walking down the sidewalk near Lady Bird Lake and this bicyclist was coming toward me (going the wrong way!) and even though I stepped over to the side to let him pass, he still yelled “WTF” at me like I had done something wrong when clearly he was the one going the wrong way and riding his bike on the sidewalk! I just don’t get it. Has there been some sort of Papal blessing bestowed upon these cyclists that I don’t know about? Have they suddenly become royalty?

Of course, I must mention the outfits. I would be remiss if I did not. And yes, I do call them outfits because they are color coordinated and carefully selected to ensure that everyone realizes the wearer is a true cyclist. Now you wouldn’t catch me dead in one of those cycling outfits, first of all because there is probably some sort of law against something like that and second of all because no one should be forced to face that kind of horror. As to why someone would voluntarily don one I can’t really say. I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings but what self respecting grown man actually chooses to wear body hugging lycra and spandex that not only grip personal areas that are best left to the imagination, but also make you look like some multi-colored Doofus?

Just in case you think I am being too hard on these cyclists, let me tell you what happened to me a few weeks ago and maybe then you can see why I am feeling a wee bit bitter. I ran out of gas, and yes, I know it was stupid, but I had a hysterical 14-year old girl in the car who apparently thought the earth would stop spinning and she would die if she did not make it to the movies to meet her friends within the next seven minutes, so I foolishly thought I would get gas after I dropped her off. Anyway, I ran out of gas and got stuck on the big hill going east up Loop 360 just past 2222. My first thought, was “great, now we are really going to be late and CeCe is going to have a fit.” My second thought was “(insert expletive here) I am going to block up all the traffic on 360 and somebody is probably going to hit us.”

Fortunately for us, I got far enough over to make it safe from the onslaught of car traffic whizzing by. Unfortunately for us, the only safe place for me to pull over was onto the shoulder, which even though it is not marked as such, is clearly considered the "bike lane." (Imagine me saying that while making little finger quotation marks in the air.) At least it seems to be considered such by the cyclists. If you haven’t been on Loop 360 lately let me remind you of a few things.

First of all the traffic is very steady no matter what day of the week or time of the day it is and Austin drivers show no mercy. It is all about getting them where they want to go as fast as possible. Also, for reasons I can not even begin to fathom, bicyclists love to ride on Loop 360 – especially on the weekends. So here you have this strange dichotomy of 2,000 pound steel vehicles whizzing by at speeds of 60-80 miles per hour juxtaposed with all these tiny bicyclists one tenth that weight and size geared out in bizarre multi-colored, form fitting outfits peddling with all their might to get up and down the multitude of hills.

Add into that mix, one middle aged slightly deranged woman in a large suburban with a hugely impatient 14-year old daughter as her passenger who are both now sitting ducks smack dab in the middle of that Loop 360 self designated "bike lane" with the flashers on. And what you get is not good.

At first I was feeling pretty sorry for myself. Here I was I had run out of gas because I had spent my entire Saturday rushing from carpool, to errand, to carpool to more errands – all for other people mind you – and, it was almost 4:00 pm and I had to be home, showered and dressed by 6:00 pm to go to yet another event that had nothing to do with what I wanted to be doing. Now if you think road rage is bad amongst Austin drivers, let me tell you that is nothing compared to the road rage Austin bicyclists experience.

Funny me, I would have thought a stranded woman and her daughter alone, sitting in a car with the flashers on, on the side of a busy road would engender, if not immediate aid from strangers, at least some sympathy. But what we got was somewhat shocking at first and then it just pissed me off.

While cars continued to whiz past us at high speeds, many of them switched lanes, no one honked at us, and two actually pulled over and walked back to ask us if we needed help. "No, but thank you," I explained as I told them my husband would be here in just a few minutes. But then there were the bicyclists. Because I was so scared when I first realized I was going to be stuck on 360, I really didn’t realize I had pulled into the so called "bike lane". All I felt was relief that I was not going to block traffic and possibly get hit or cause an accident.

As I realized that I was blocking the "bike lane", I got worried because I know how dangerous that road is and I did not want the cyclists to be in any danger either. So I valiantly leaned out of my window and made my, by now totally humiliated, daughter do the same on her side to keep on the lookout for cyclists. We added the frantic waving of arms to the car flashers we had on just to be sure that oncoming cyclists could see well in advance that we were blocking the "bike lane" and that they were going to have to ride a little over to the rocky side of said "bike lane" to be safe.

Now not being a cyclist myself I guess I was kind of naive about the sport. First of all, just how many crazy people could there be going up Loop 360 on a hot Saturday afternoon? Two, maybe three extremists? Nope. Try about 35! And all of them acted as though I had just decided to pull my Suburban over to the side of the road on purpose for some unfathomable reason.

Every single rider shot me the bird, yelled an obscenity, or did both as they rode by. At one point I began to have fantasies of opening up my passenger side door just as they were riding by and knocking them off their bikes. I even encouraged my daughter to just stick her hand out the window and give someone a quick little shove just as they came even with the car but she’s a Wuss and wouldn’t do it.

“Well, excuse me for getting in the way of your bike ride. I just felt like pulling over my car to the side of this busy road in 90 degree heat, cars blowing by me with inches to spare while my daughter weeps and yells at me, just so I can enjoy this lovely view of asphalt and traffic anchored by industrial buildings and concrete apartments on both sides. It’s just so peaceful here STUCK ON THE FREEWAY."

"Oh, and by the way, what are YOU doing here?"

I realize that this is your sport and all and that you are serious about your passion and I even understand that some of your anger might be caused by the fact that you got a bit freaked out by having me blocking your "bike lane." Ok, I can get that. But what I don’t get is WHY anyone would actually choose to cycle on a road like that. It is scary, dangerous, hot and grueling uphill work and no matter how hard I try I just don’t think that looks like very much fun.

And P.S. you look really stupid in those cycling clothes they are seriously ugly.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Pandemics, Panics and Peanut Butter

All this Swine Flu panic has made me miss my Mom so much. She died May 6, 2009 and I miss her every single day. No, she did not die of Swine Flu, but she was the world’s foremost authority on anything that might be even remotely dangerous, scary or possibly some sort of conspiracy. And my phone line would have been burning up with calls from her over this Swine Flu scare. She would have urged me to buy masks, take our temperature and worried over whether we had enough food stored up in the house just in case we needed to quarantine ourselves. She was always big on having made preparations for potential world disasters.

My Dad still bears the scars from the time during the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1964 when my mom was pregnant with my brother and she became convinced that there was going to be Nuclear War and she needed to store up food and water. She made Daddy go out and buy a bunch of those huge water bottles - the 100 pound kind that go on water coolers – and he threw his back out and crushed vertebrae in his neck and had to have emergency surgery. He says he may have made sure they were prepared to make through a food and water shortage but Mom’s extensive preparations kept him from being able to help her out with any childcare duties for her 7 year old, 4 year old and newborn for the next six months while he was recovering from his surgery! Not that he would have been much help any way, this was the 1960’s after all. But it still makes a good story.

When the big SARS scare occurred in 2003 I very distinctly remember her calling me up at work one day, telling me I had to come over right away to check out this package they had received from China. She left a message for me that went something like this “Reenie, I need you to come over to the house right away. Your Daddy got that painting he ordered from China today and we are worried that it might have that SARS thing so we left it out on the front porch and we need you to come on over here and check to make sure if it is safe for us to bring in the house…”

"Right. Uhmm well, let me see, I can use my super powers and x-ray vision to check out that package and certify it to be SARS free. Oh, yea and never mind the fact that Mom does not want to touch it in case she contracts SARS, let me go ahead and open it up to make sure it is safe!” Have I mentioned before that my family is just slightly insane?

My Mother earned her degree from The University of Texas around 1945 and I think she majored in Worry with a minor in Paranoia and probably did her dissertation on Identifying Suspicious Persons. I honestly can not remember a time period of my life that she was not obsessing over something. Because worrying was a part of her genetic DNA, she unfortunately passed that along to her children – well three of her four children - I have refused to succumb to the constant temptation of potential danger lurking in every corner. My siblings on the other hand, well, let’s just say each of them has their own struggles with this worrisome gene that seems to have been passed down by Mom’s side of the family.

I remember growing up and hearing all kinds of helpful warnings and advice. Things like, “Watch out for people who drive around in cars with tinted windows. Those kind of people are up to no good.” “Never put a cat around a baby. It will suck their breath right out of their mouth.” My personal favorite was not exactly a particular warning; it was the way my Mom would take little notes on suspicious people she saw around the neighborhood just in case she found out later some sort of crime had been committed so she could turn in her notes to the police!

Now here’s a handy little tip I learned from my childhood - never put your arm out of an open window when driving around in a car. There might be a wreck and the car could tip over and land on the side that had the open window your arm was hanging out of and your arm would be cut off! According to my Mom, she saw that very thing happen so all throughout my childhood whenever one of us would hang our arm out of the window she would tell us that story. Personally, I think she made that one up because she thought it looked tacky to drive around with your arms hanging out of the window.

I can’t even begin to remember the number of times she would call me to tell me about some horrible disease or accident that had happened to the second cousin of a friend of a friend's ex-wife or some such and how I needed to now add whatever calamity that had befallen to them to my long list of things to be on the lookout for. I am pretty sure my Mom is probably personally responsible for at least several dozen of the Urban Legends currently floating around the Internet.

All of this came from the same woman who one time I found scraping mold off of some bread as she was making sandwhiches and when I asked her if she was actually going to eat the bread, she said that a little mold never hurt anyone and didn’t I know penicillin came from mold? There was really no way to understand the convoluted way her brain worked, but it made sense to her.

My mother, who when she died at 83 was still called Puddin by everyone she knew, did not like to turn left when I was growing up. Whenever possible, she preferred to take multiple right hand turns until she was headed in the direction she wanted to go. Why? Well, that was easy. Because it was dangerous! Same thing with driving on the freeway. Dangerous! There is a legendary story among some of my childhood friends about the time my mother accidentally got on I-H35 (imagine that last word being said in a horrified voice!)- I-H35. She had a car load of 14 year old girls all going down town to Town Lake to enjoy the Battle of the Bands Night at the local Aqua Festival. Well, somehow, and to this day we still don’t know how such a mishap could have occurred, somehow Puddin got onto THE FREEWAY by accident. My friends still imitate her saying “Girls. Girls. Be quiet. Did I just get on I-H35? Is this THE FREEWAY?” “Yes, Ma'am.” Next thing you know we were not only on the freeway, but we had somehow been diverted to the UPPER LEVEL of I-H35. Suddenly, she was explaining to my friends that she just could not drive on I-H35. It made her too nervous. So, she just pulls over to the side of the road near a police car that happened to be stationed there to direct the traffic flow and says, “Girls, Girls. Get out of the car now. I have to get off this freeway. You just go on over to that policeman and get in his car and tell him to drop you off at Aqua Festival.” So we did. And he did. And she got off.

Can you imagine a policeman today seeing a group of five or six teenage girls walking up to his car parked on 35 and having them explain that they just needed a ride on over to the festival area because "Mrs. Harwood gets too nervous to drive on the freeway" and agreeing to take them like it was nothing out of the ordinary? Somehow I just can't see that going over too well today, but I guess in 1974 it must not have caused much of a stir because he did drop us right off at the front gate!

You should have been with us the first few years MoPac (the freeway that was built in Austin in the early 1970’s) was built. I had to suffer the humiliation of her driving across town using only the feeder roads. THE Mopac, as she called it, just went too fast. But hey, she loved us and was determined to keep us safe, right?

She also gave me helpful advice like whenever you are traveling out of town and someone you meet in that new city asks you where you are from, you always say “Dallas.” Never say Austin. “Why?” you might ask. Well that’s simple. If you tell a stranger you are from Austin they might figure out your, name, address and phone number and send someone to rob you while you are out of town. Or even worse, travel back to your hometown later and murder you in your sleep! I will never forget the time when I was right out of college and we were in New Orleans and this darling guy I had met at our hotel asked me where we were from. Just as I was about to open my mouth and say “Austin, Texas” in my cutest little Texas Drawl, my mother shot me The Look, stood lightly on my toe and said “Dallas” in her haughtiest voice. You all know The Look. It’s the one that all mothers can shoot to their children across a room that immediately and telepathically imports into their minds words like DON’T. STOP. JUST WAIT UNTIL WE GET TO THE CAR… So there I was probably missing the opportunity to meet my future husband, all because this boy might, just could perhaps, possibly, maybe, track me down to Austin, Texas ("Please God", I prayed!)and do who knows what.

Then there was the time during my high school years when I seemed to have been involved in quite a few accidents in a short period of time and my mother and her sisters got together to discuss my many calamities. Shortly thereafter, it was determined that I had begun wearing some opal jewelry recently and that "everyone" knew that wearing opals was bad luck unless they were your birthstone. So off came my two opal rings and my opal necklace. And sure enough, all that bad luck that had been the cause of my misfortune just stopped. I ran across that jewelry the other day in my parent’s safety deposit box and thought they would make a wonderful gift for my 14-year old daughter, CeCe, but I just couldn’t quite bring myself to give them to her. She was born in June.

So what does all this have to do with Swine Flu? Well all this panic over the potenial pandemic, got me to remembering last year when the Salmonella outbreak happened with peanut butter. It was all over the TV News just like this Swine Flu thing and of course my mother called to tell me about it because she knew my kids ate a lot of peanut butter. She had very carefully written down the lot numbers of the bad jars and gave them to me over the phone. Because by this time she was in the nursing home and really very,very sick and I knew that writing down those numbers must have been excruciatingly hard for her, I decided to humor her. I actually wrote them down too instead of just saying "uh, uh" and pretending that I was going to follow up like I ususally did.

Since the peanut butter in question was Peter Pan brand and Peter Pan Peanut Butter is the kind my kids eat, and since I had actually written down the serial numbers she gave me, I figured I might finally be able to put to use that ability to be on the constant lookout for possible danger that my mother so graciously passed along to me and my siblings. I decided I really would take that slip of paper downstairs and check out the Peanut Butter.

Amazingly, I remembered to take the slip of paper with me when I went downstairs to go to work, and then I actually remembered to look in our pantry, pull out the peanut butter and peruse the top to see if my jar was one of the polluted ones. I could not believe my eyes. Right there right in front of me was Potential Peril! Looming Danger! Advancing Doom! My Peter Pan Peanut Butter actually had the recalled serial numbers on it.

Finally! After 47 years of vigilance I had actually averted danger. I was so excited I even took a picture of the jar so that I could show everyone how heroic I had been. I could not wait to tell my mother how all her paranoia had finally paid off.

I then left the jar on the counter and raced out to work feeling like such a great mother for having saved my children from sure death or worse.

Later that day as I rushed back in the door to start dinner I saw Tye, our 7-year old, sitting happily at the kitchen table eating his afternoon snack complete with a huge spoon, some crackers and the jar of Peter Pan Peanut Butter.