Tag Archives: Texas

Six Weeks After the Storm

On Friday August 25th, Hurricane Harvey struck the Texas Coast, leaving 82 dead, thousands injured and thousands without power. For a large swath of the Texas coast, homes, and lives, were ruined.

Six weeks later, in the coastal area from Port Lavaca to Corpus Cristi, this was the scene in nearly every residential neighborhood. Houses covered in blue tarp where roofs were punctured and windows were shattered. Debris was piled up by the side of the road waiting to be hauled away. Texas still in mourning.

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Even driving through commercial zones, evidence of this recent destruction was all around.

After years of studying the weather, admiring storms from afar, and analyzing storm data, I decided it was time for me to actually chip in and help those whose lives are affected by these wonders of nature.

I flew to Houston.

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I rented a car.

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And I drove down to Victoria, TX, roughly two hours southwest of Houston, a place where people were still cleaning out from the storm.

But first, stayed at a seedy hotel on the Southwest side of Houston.

Seeing security officers, police lights, and being solicited made my accommodations for the remainder of the trip, in the gymnasium of Faith Family Church in Victoria, TX, feel quite comforting (as I knew I would not get robbed here).

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I actually found the accommodations made for us volunteers quite fitting. I had seen so many scenes in the news, where storm refuges were sleeping in quarters similar to this as they ride out or recover from a storm. While not exactly living the entire experience as those affected by these storms, it still, just, felt right.

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I also have to give a huge thank you to the organization I volunteered with, Samaritan’s Purse. They arranged the sleeping quarters for volunteers, and even provided us with three meals a day. This makes volunteering for disaster relief efforts quite inexpensive. I only had to pay for my flight, the rental car and gas, and that cheap hotel. Oh, and I decided on my way down to stop at What-a-Burger, because, when in Texas, right.

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The odd thing about volunteering for hurricane relief efforts is that each day had a flow that almost resembled many of the outdoor adventures I regularly take part in, like adventure cycling, backpacking and skiing.

Each day would start off breakfast. We would eat together, pack our lunches, and head out. We would spend most of the day outside, being physically active. We’d return in the late afternoon, shower, change, and then all eat dinner together. That flow felt natural to me.

What wasn’t natural to me, as both a “city-boy”, and a “millennial” was the work. We just don’t learn how to work with tools.

Thanks to volunteering, and the patience of the other volunteers with Samaritan’s Purse, I ended up learning a thing or two.

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Last year, when I read The Happiness Project, I was introduced to the concept of “fog happiness”. According to author Gretchen Rubin, fog happiness occurs when an activity does not necessarily bring you joy at the moment in which you are partaking in it. Rather, the happiness is spread out over a much longer time span, often both before and after an event. In a way, it is the antithesis of instant gratification.

The combination of seeing the result of my work, and knowing that I was part of a bigger mission with a clear positive outcome produced a clear example, for me, of fog happiness. Sweating in 90 degree heat, in October, with humidity only achieved on Long Island in the dead of summer, does not necessarily feel as good as sitting by the beach, or partying. I was, however, fulfilled.

As it turns out, I did get to go to the beach! Samaritan’s Purse, being a Christian Organization, takes Sundays off, giving me a chance to visit the Texas Gulf Coast.

The drive gave me a chance to see the true extent to the destruction all around me.

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I had hoped, maybe even believed, that six weeks after the storm the recovery effort would be further along than it was. Everywhere I drove, I kept seeing the same thing. It made me appreciate the true extent of the recovery effort, and how small of a part I really played in it, as I was in Texas for only four days. There were may volunteers who signed up for the entire effort, and will be there through the middle part of November.

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The four days I spent in Victoria felt like a trip back to the past, both with respect to my life, and society as a whole. The showers felt like dorm room showers. The presence of a lot of people doing the same thing all day felt like high school or college.

Also, the behavior and expectations felt like a trip back in time. Men and women slept in separate rooms. The organization did not permit one man and one woman to ride in a car together unless they are married. Phrases such as “I’m looking to nail something”, which have taken on newer, more sexually expressive meanings in the past few decades, reverted to their older, more innocent definitions.

IMG_1557 (1)I visited over half a dozen homes. Most of the people who needed assistance were people who have some other kind of poor circumstance; disability, previous home damage, etc. I even encountered someone who had recently had two strokes!

Oddly enough, although I felt appreciated for the work I did, it felt like some of the victims who I encountered were most appreciative of having some companionship when I would sit down and talk to them. In several instances I could sense a sadness in the eyes of those I was helping that had to do with factors beyond the storm. Worry about friends and family taking the wrong direction in life. Sadness about certain life events. Being lost. Perhaps most powerfully, being lonely.

It reminded me of the loneliness epidemic, as well as all of the other less obvious forms of human suffering currently going on. People are good at paying attention to suffering when its obvious. Other more subtle forms of suffering, such as loneliness, lack of fulfillment, lack of direction, and the feeling of being exploited by others, often go unaddressed.

I may not have the capability to travel to every major disaster and physically help the way I did this past weekend. What I can do is try, each and every day, to do something about all these other forms of suffering going on. These are the kinds of suffering I see every day. These people need help too.

A Weekend in Texas

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In my last post, I describe my experiences visiting the City of Austin, Texas.  Some people describe Austin as being “not really Texas”.  And, while that may be a simplification, or exaggeration of the experience there, the general point is that the experience of being in Austin is different than the the experience of being in any other part of Texas.  So, while I spent some time in Austin last weekend, I also got the opportunity to experience other places in Texas, and actually get immersed into the culture here.

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One of the first places I went to, just 20 miles or so outside of Austin, was the Salt Lick, for some high quality Texas barbecue.  I was surprised to see such a large establishment.  I had gone to BBQ in places like Oklahoma City and Tulsa in the past, and those experiences usually involved smaller, more side-of-the road type establishments.  I had come to, in my head, assume that was the standard BBQ experience, but the Salt Lick is pretty gigantic.  And, the first thing I saw when I entered the restaurant was a gigantic barbecue pit.  The last time I had seen so much meat in one place was at the World’s Largest Brat Festival in Wisconsin.

Texas style barbecue, of course, includes brisket.  In order to experience the full range of barbecue experience, I ordered a combination plate that included brisket, ribs, and sausage.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that the restaurant asks their patrons if they want their brisket “lean”, or “moist”.  Not being a fan of fatty meats, I chose “lean”, and really enjoyed the entire meal.

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In fact, I kind of felt like I spent the entire weekend eating brisket!  The other establishments I went to, like the Salt Lick, were sizable establishments.  Coopers, in New Braunfels, was big enough to accommodate a group of 16 people without really having to adjust anything from their normal operating experience.

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Whenever I was not eating barbecue food, I was eating Mexican food, which is plentiful in Texas due to it’s close proximity to, as well as history of being a part of, Mexico.  I visited several Mexican food establishments while in Texas, including a place many of us that live elsewhere should become familiar with: Torchy’s Tacos.  Later this year, they will expand beyond the borders of Texas, opening up a location in Denver, Colorado.  They may very well expand to some other areas as well.

In Bourne and New Braunfels (and places between), I got to experience a bit of the local culture.IMG_3949 IMG_3944

This area is often referred to as “Texas Hill Country”, as, well, unlike most of the Great Plains, it is kind of hilly.  Parts of it sort of remind me of the “Driftless Area” of Southwestern Wisconsin, with rolling hills one to several hundred feet tall.  Although, the geological history these regions is quite different.

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Here I attended a wedding, and took part in another local custom, floating the river.  At the wedding, the main thing I noticed about the culture here in Texas was the affinity for line dancing.  I had expected the country music line dancing.  But, what shocked me was how often people would just naturally form a line while dancing to other songs.  When YMCA, and Gangnam Style, came on, people here just naturally formed themselves into a line as if it were second nature.

In Texas, if is quite common for people to go on “floating”, or “tubing” trips.  It is basically an outdoorsy activity that is far more relaxing than the ones I usually take part in here in Colorado.  It mostly just involves laying in a tube, and gently floating down a river.  Many people here own their own tubes to float in, and bring floatable coolers, where they pack beer.  I have heard it is quite common for people to get quite intoxicated while taking part in a float trip.

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Texas hill country also contains a lot of natural features, some of which have become common family-type tourist destinations.  A few miles west of New Braunfels is a place called Natural Bridge Caverns, which, just as the name advertises, is a Natural Bridge above ground with a cavern below ground.

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Every time I visit a place like this, I always come away with mixed views regarding the commercialization of these natural features.  One one hand, I look at staircases, buildings, and all of these artificial looking features being present, and wonder if we are losing out on some of the experience.  But, I also see that having paved roads to get here, walkways through the area, and other comfort related conveniences opens up the experience of viewing these places to many people who otherwise would not have been able to see them.

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It was in San Antonio, however, where I learned about the history of Texas.  Downtown San Antonio kind of has an odd combination of historical significance.  On one end of downtown is The Alamo.  Originally a “mission“, the place later became a military post in the war for independence from Mexico, and now a museum, which is also considered a Shrine of Texas Liberty.  This place very much celebrates the people of Texas separating from Mexico, and, of course, later joining the United States.

On the other end of downtown is a place called Historic Market Square, a place that celebrates Mexican cultural heritage.  In the plaza, I saw T-Shirts for sale that exuded Mexican pride.  In fact, with authentic Mexican food and cultural items for sale everywhere, I almost felt like I could have actually been in Mexico.

It just makes me wonder.  Is this a City that is in conflict with itself?  How do those of Mexican decent here in San Antonio feel about Texas history?

The area between the Alamo and Historic Market Square was also kind of confusing.  On the surface, the city looked kind of dreary.  I kind of felt like I was in a bad part of Chicago, or any other big city that has a significant amount of blight.  But, underneath the surface was San Antonio’s Riverwalk, which is quite lively.

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In fact, San Antonio kind of pioneered the idea of riverwalks.  And, it appears other cities are trying to copy them.

After reading about Texas history, I kind of had a better understanding of the place.  Specifically, at the Alamo, they describe a struggle in Mexican politics.  On one side there was a group of people that strongly supported a Federalist type system of government based on a constitution that was modeled after the United States.  Under this system, some powers were devolved to the states, of which Texas (or Tejas) was one.  On the other side, was a group of centralizers that wanted more control in the hands of the central government in Mexico City.  Texans strongly supported the former over the latter, and when the latter won power, they felt their way of life threatened.  The successful defense of Texas, establishment of the Lone Star Republic, and later admission to a country whose values more closely resembled their own is viewed as a triumph.

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It is without a doubt that many Texans today see a lot of parallels (whether or not they are correct) to today’s political struggles in the United States.  Having this history, one in which many people in the state take pride, definitely explains why succession talk would be much more prevalent here than it would be in other states who strongly oppose some aspects of how our Federal government is operating.

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There was always some concern over whether I would fit in here in Texas.  Anyone that talks to me can clearly hear my Long Island accent.  I do not try to hide it.  Some people who have lived in Texas  told me that it would also be obvious that I am an outsider by the manner in which I conduct myself, and the types of topics I discuss on a regular basis.

But, I took a “leap of faith” of sorts, and just decided to be myself when interacting with people here.  And, I was actually received quite warmly here, by people who probably have a significantly different lifestyle and set of values than my own.  Everyone was friendly to me, and they were even receptive to the kinds of conversation topics I tend to engage people in.

As I thought through the acceptance I experienced here, as well as the history, the current succession talk and anger, I came to an important realization.  Maybe we are not nearly as divided as people make us out to be.  Maybe it is really only the most vocal (and angry) among us that display this division.  After all, if 1.4 Million people can live in a city which celebrates both it’s Mexican heritage and it’s struggle for independence from Mexico, maybe we can find a way to celebrate what makes everyone unique.

Lone Star Capital

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It is with some amount of hesitation that I visited Austin, Texas.  Compared to other cities in the same region, of similar size, and with similar recent economic fortune, it gets talked about a lot in certain circles.  I am quite cautious about simply parroting what is said and done by others.  I am not a complete hipster.  I do take part in some things that are very popular.  But, I just want to make sure that whatever I choose to do, particularly with my own time, I do for my own reasons.  It is for that reason I never read the Harry Potter books, or watched certain mega-popular television shows.

Additionally, I know a lot of people who care way more deeply about certain hot-button social issues than I do.  So, when I hear people talk about Austin instead of San Antonio, Houston, or Dallas, cities in Texas that are also rapidly growing, I can’t help but feel a bit skeptical.  I want to visit a place because it is interesting, not because it has people with certain viewpoints on things that others think is important.

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What I saw in Austin, Texas, though was that the place is interesting on its own merits.  As soon as I landed at the airport, I saw sculptures of guitars displaying Austin’s pivotal live music scene.

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The river that runs through the center of town, oddly enough also called the Colorado River (I am accustomed to thinking of the Colorado river as running from Rocky Mountain National Park, through the Grand Canyon and down to Mexico), is a center for all kinds of interesting outdoor activity.  Numerous kayaks, stand up paddleboards, and these water bicycle things that I haven’t before seen, could be found on the river at any time of day I rolled past it.  Additionally, it is on the Congress Ave. Bridge over this river that one of the largest bat colonies live.  Every evening, sometime around dusk, the colony of bats swarms outside for some reason.  People line up on this bridge before sundown to watch every day!

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The nightlife there is also quite amazing.  There are several areas of town that have bars, restaurants, and plenty of youthful, vibrant activity.  It felt like everywhere I went, even at times like 10 in the morning, I would hear some kind of live music coming from some direction.

There is certainly no shortage of things to do for fun people.  My evening in Austin ended at one of the best dancing bars I have ever been to, a place called Barbarella, which was recommended to me by a co-worker.  It is the kind of bar I wish I had in my hometown, a place where a lot of people are dancing, but without the high prices and pretention of some of the clubs one will find in major cities.  This bar had a large dance floor, which was periodically infused with fog from a fog machine, some interesting lighting, and affordable drinks.  And, on the night that I was there, they were playing nothing but 80s music.  It was the kind of crowd where a lot of people were just letting loose and seeing where the night takes them.  With the number of college students and recent grads in the area, I could not help but fixate on the high likelihood that at least one person there on the dance floor was “hooking up” with someone to the exact same (80s) song that their own parents first “hooked up” to without even knowing it!

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All over town were reminders of youth, and all things youthful.  Of course, there is the campus.  Last weekend, while I was there, a new student visit weekend was taking place.  So, the streets were filled with people, young and energetic, excited about the new chapter of their lives they were preparing to start.  Remembering it, there is nothing like this first time you go out on your own, something every 17 or 18 year old wearing those maroon t-shirts were preparing for in less than two months.  I could feel the excitement as people explored, formed new bonds, took pictures displaying the Longhorn signal, and just looked forward to what is to come.

Also, while at one of the live music clubs, I accidentally (as in I did not plan this) wandered into a room where one of the scenes in the movie Boyhood had taken place.  The movie, released last year, follows the life of a boy growing up from age 6 to age 18, when he goes off to college.  I particularly related to the main character in this movie, as he grew up and developed his own set of thoughts and values.  In one scene he goes on a rant about how people use facebook that seriously could have matched word for word something I had said a few years earlier!  All this served as a reminder of how magical that part of life really is.  The hope, the promise, and the excitement of making yourself into what you are to become is one that really cannot be matched.

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Oddly enough, in Austin, I may have found a place that shares my values, including the very values that made me hesitant to visit the place in the first place.  This poster particularly resonated with me.  I just wish I could have gotten a better picture of it.  It’s hard to get a picture of a lit up sign like this in Texas, in the sun, in the middle of the day.

The phrase “Stop Being Livestock” is definitely a play on the University’s team name; The Longhorns.  But it definitely also depicted how I, and many of us, feel sometimes in the working world.  I mean, every large organization has a department called “Human Resources”.  Just thinking about that phrase gives me goose bumps sometimes.  That person, sitting in the cubical farm, is a “resource”.  Maximizing that resources’ output sounds a lot like fattening up a cow, or getting as many eggs from a chicken as possible.

Around town I heard plenty of intellectual discussions like this one.  Some locals described Austin as having an uber-sized commitment to individuality.  It appeared as if this commitment was genuine, based on everything I had seen around town.

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From the intellectual nature of discussions, to the outdoor activities people engage in, as well as all of the bike lanes I saw all over town, it felt like a place that shared my values.  I would definitely be more likely to find people that understand me here than in many other places.  It is just ironic that these were the values that made me more hesitant to come to Austin in the first place.