Archive for October, 2009

Chris is interviewing…

Tuesday, October 27th, 2009

Three months ago, my brother Chris lost his job when UH closed the preschool where he taught for more than a decade. He’s been working hard to find a new job since then, but good options have been hard to come by in this economy. So far, all of his options would require taking a significant pay cut that his family cannot afford.

However, I’m delighted to report that Chris has his sights on a good position at University of Houston’s Downtown campus (UHD). One of the departments is hiring for a junior academic advising role, to help interested undergrads get plugged into the major requirements and degree program early. Since Chris’ role at the lab school involved coaching and evaluating undergraduate student teachers, he’s surprisingly qualified to be an academic advisor. All he needed was for a recruiting manager to see past the “preschool teacher” label and offer him an interview, which UHD did.

Chris interviewed today and he seems cautiously optimistic. He asked me whether it’s a good sign that the interview went long and concluded with them telling him more about the department, explaining their long-term plan for the school, and giving him a tour around the campus. I would say so!

UHD is interviewing other candidates this week, and I’m hoping there aren’t any ringers. This position would be a great opportunity for Chris to grow, transitioning from a teaching job into a professional career, and I really hope he gets it. Chris hopes to hear something by next week. In the meantime, please keep your fingers crossed for him!

Pomme frites at the Broken Spoke

Sunday, October 25th, 2009

One of the things we like about our neighborhood is that there are lots of good restaurants available nearby. Whether it is Mark’s or DaMarco at the high-end or Aladdin and La Mexicana lower-down, we’ve got some decent eats nearby. Once upon a time, we used to even have a “down market” French restaurant (really Belgian) called Cafe Montrose. Cafe Montrose was the place you went when you wanted to get good French (Belgian) country food. Alas, it shuttered its doors not too long ago, and we were perplexed about what happened.

Without getting into the details, Catherine Duwez, the female half of what used to be Cafe Montrose, has partnered with a local guy who was running a cafe for bicyclists called Broken Spoke Cafe. The menu is a bit of a mix between the old Broken Spoke (mostly burgers and bar food) plus some of the favorites from Cafe Montrose. As one would expect the Fries (don’t call them French…) are quite good. Prices are “reasonable”, though serving sizes are closer to what one would expect in Europe than here. However, the food was great (my chicken sandwich had really tasty grilled onions — yum!). Bob also had a lambic framboise, though that wasn’t quite how it was put on the menu.


Since this is a Belgian place now, and a bar to-boot, the beer selection looked top-notch. Seriously, if you are into Belgian beers, this may be THE place to go in central Houston, even if you aren’t into the food or cycling (but really, shouldn’t you be?). The selection seems to rotate, and several of the options made me wish I had time to just sit and drink today. I don’t know that we can go back fast enough. Anyone want to come with?

Bill dreams of rain… no more!

Saturday, October 24th, 2009

Bill enjoys bathing. Specifically, Bill enjoys lingering in a swimming pool, a whirlpool, an ample tub, a “rainfall” shower, or anywhere really that supplies *lots* of water at an appropriate temperature.

Unfortunately, Bill long ago deemed the showers in our house inadequate. Not. Enough. Water. I assumed the problem was household water pressure, but Bill was convinced that a new shower head — something like Kramer had on Seinfeld — would make all the difference.

Mere days before Bill’s birthday in August, the New York Times published a review of shower heads that emphasized which models provide the most drenching shower feel. Since a 1992 federal regulation capped shower head flow rates at 2.5 gallons per minute, the question is which design feels like it delivers more water without more water. (Of course, several manufacturers provide instructions for removing the flow limiters.)

I decided a shower head would make a great birthday gift, but that Bill should get to choose. While I was interested in the Consumer Reports ratings, Bill was most excited about the Speakman Anystream heads like they have at Westin and Sheraton hotels. Go figure!

Bill loves Speakman
Bill really likes the Speakman Anystream shower head

Given his schedule, we finally went shopping today. Once at the Depot, Bill quickly began contemplating which items would best contribute to his desired shower experience. He soon had two shower heads and an array of other parts.

I convinced him to unwrap them and try a test assembly before we bought them, which he did. Soon thereafter, he presented me with an assembly he named “Frankenshower.” Bill explained that one head can be directed at your back/chest while the other points down at the top of your head, combining for a truly drenching experience. It sounded wonderful, and Bill could hardly wait.

Bill at the Depot
Bill picking parts for Frankenshower

Once home again, Bill wasted no time removing the tired old shower head and reassembling the new one.

Behold! Frankenshower!

Frankenshower fails
Frankenshower fails to deliver the drench

But much to Bill’s dismay, our water supply lacks the oomph to make Frankenshower go. Not. Enough. Water. He took away new bits one by one until all that was left was the new Speakman shower head. And then he took a shower.

When I asked him what he thought, Bill smiled and pronounced it “adequate.” He added that it is much better than the old one. It’s no Frankenshower, but it will do.

Seeing NYC with Amy from on High…

Sunday, October 18th, 2009

No trip to New York is complete for me without good quality time with my friend Amy, and this trip was no exception. We enjoyed lunch Tuesday at Tea & Sympathy and several dinners with Bill. But the best part was Thursday when I brought Amy along on my conference “walk shop” of the High Line.

High Line starts

Our tour was guided by Peter Mullan, director of planning for Friends of the High Line. In a nutshell, the High Line is an elevated freight rail track, built in the 1930s to get freight trains off the street in New York’s meatpacking district. It was an active freight line for fifty years, but the neighborhood changed and the last train ran in 1980. In the years it sat unused, an amazing array of foundling plants took root, giving home to birds and other critters. When some started calling for its demolition, two neighborhood artists organized Friends of the High Line to plan and fund the High Line’s preservation and adaptive reuse as a public open space. After 10 years of effort, the first section from Gansevoort Street to 20th Street opened in June 2009:

High Line users
This brand new park space is attracting lots of local users

High Line rail bed
The landscape architecture incorporates the rail tracks

High Line design
The hardscape design is incredibly fluid

High Line elevated meadow
Meadows incorporate indigenous foundling grasses

High Line at West 14th
The view of West 14th seems more panoramic from 30 feet up

The High Line actually runs right through a building that once housed the Nabisco factory where Oreos were invented. Today, its former loading dock includes open space for group programs and art projects. This installation by Spencer Finch replaced the factory’s casement windows with 700 panes of glass, each individually tinted to reflect the color of the surface of the adjacent Hudson river captured in each of 700 photos in a single day:

Hudson palette windows
Finch’s window installation captures the colors of the Hudson

Amy and I easily spent two hours ambling and enjoying this approximately one-mile stretch of park, and we enjoyed it immensely. Suffice it to say the High Line is very well done and an amenity to the surrounding neighborhood. It’s no wonder that several new residential and commercial projects have started nearby. And while it took 10 years, I’m inspired to see this neighborhood vision become reality.

Bob & Amy on High Line
Bob and Amy on the High Line

My thanks to fellow conference-goer Thomas Gotschi, director of research for the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, for snapping this photo of Amy and me!

Bike Around the Bay: Bolivar Needs a New Fairy

Sunday, October 18th, 2009

Godmother, that is. At the beginning of Bike Around the Bay, one of the announcers mentioned that we would be riding through some places that were still struggling to recover from Ike. That would be Bolivar, especially the part northeast of Rollover Pass (a cut through the peninsula linking the bay to the gulf).

This area was hit most directly by the force of Hurricane Ike. There are lots of places where you can tell there was something there, and there are lots of places where things are being rebuilt, and lots of  places that seem to be caught in some sort of purgatory in between — neither being demolished nor fixed. Very little of the peninsula is anywhere close to “normal”. I think Crystal Beach (?) comes closest, though place names were a little shaky given the signage that was still being installed in a few places and my inability to take notes. However, a year gone by, and clearly that is an area that is still trying to figure out what it is going to do next.

The local billboard advertising industry seems to be entirely driven by people wanting to help other people out with various storm-related claims: insurance, government, building issues, etc. There were two open gas stations that I can recall, though three or four were in various states of disrepair/destruction. I don’t recall seeing a real grocery store, though there was a brand new school.

This last was what causes me to highlight this aspect of the ride. Given that insurance rates are going through the proverbial roof and lenders are going to be very unwilling to lend into areas with a “challenged” valuation environment for the foreseeable future, I am not sure that the best course of action for Bolivar isn’t to spend some of the funds earmarked for recovery on turning significant portions of the peninsula into State or National Park/Seashore. Getting people out of harm’s way in a vaguely permanent fashion seems to me to be the best course of action for the area. The problem is that some politicians are intent to let people rebuild as if nothing had happened. While no doubt well-intentioned, I’m not sure that this is the type of fairy godmother the area needs.

Time will ultimately tell whether the economy and larger market forces cause the area’s depopulation to become more permanent, but I sure hope that when I ride through the area next year it is either much improved (more populous) or the signs of rebuilding have given way to something that indicates that it is being given back to nature. Somehow, though, I doubt that either will really be happening.

Bike Around the Bay – Day 1

Sunday, October 18th, 2009

So I grabbed Bob from the airport “late” Friday night, and she was nice enough to return the favor gawdawful early Saturday morning and take me out to Anahuac (Home of the Texas Alligator, or some such) for the start of Bike Around the Bay. This is the second running of the event, a two day ride around Galveston Bay.  The first time the event was held was in 2007. In 2008, it was canceled due to Ike. So, in 2009, we get the second running in year three. While it is billed as 148 miles, in reality, it is a bit more. Day 1 was 78.4 miles, and Day 2 was spec’ed at 75.4. Not really meaningful differences at these distances, but 150 miles just sounds better to me than 148. I know: I’m odd that way.

Under normal circumstances, the trip towards Galveston would face headwinds from the prevailing sea breeze, and the trip North would have tail winds. However, an early cold front turned that around, and also brought a fair bit of overcast skies to the event (visible in Bob’s pictures).

2009 Bike Around the Bay - Day 1

One of the things that was well done about the ride was that the routing seemed to take us through areas that had some significance, and weren’t just selected for convenience or safety. For example, the first rest stop was about 12 miles into the ride, but was next to a historic marker that talked about oil discoveries in Anahuac. The rest stop on High Island was also at a historic marker talking about birds.

2009 Bike Around the Bay - Day 1 SpeedWhile Bob mentioned tailwinds, this was really only effective on the 17 mile leg from Stowell to High Island, where you can see that I was cruising at about 22 mph. This was the first extended time where aerodynamics were actually working for me, rather than against me! The fun ended, of course, climbing the bridge over the intracoastal waterway — the big dip in speed followed by the big spike (Lee-roy Jenk-ins!). That was a nice climb, and it was a good capstone for the “fun” leg, putting us squarely onto the salt dome that is High Island. After a brief pit stop in High Island, we turned down the Bolivar Peninsula, where the wind was mostly coming across us.

I’ll save thoughts on Bolivar for a separate post, but it did include a quick restroom break and about 45 minutes for lunch (mmm… PB&J!). Needless to say, Bolivar is not connected to Galveston, so we crossed over to Galveston on the ferry. Since the ferry also acted as an effective aggregator of cyclists, we were met on the Galveston side by three of Galveston’s Finest for a grouped police escort through the city. But apparently a UH alumnus (he had on a UH jersey) and I had other plans.

2009 Bike Around the Bay - Galveston Detail

When I got off the Ferry, I dutifully headed out with everyone else behind our three motorcycle police escort. GPD had put up traffic cones for us, dedicating a lane of traffic to the bicyclists. Very cool! However, the pace was a little slower than I was wanting to do, so I found myself passing people. We got about a half mile off the landing, and the pace at the front started getting faster. The front of our pack hit the turn from Ferry Road to Harborside, and it was full-gas.

For the first half-mile or so, the police escort kept up. The cops pacing us essentially played a modified version of leapfrog. The trailing rider would ride up to the intersection controlled by the middle rider, who would then go to the next intersection, where the lead officer would race ahead of us to the upcoming intersection. It’s a nice theory, but it is predicated upon two important factors: 1) that the rest of the group is riding such that they are through the intersection in a timely fashion versus the leaders, and 2) that you have enough police officers to keep up with the pace of the “protected” vehicles (aka us).

The UH alumnus was playing lead sled dog until I caught him around 15th Street, and then I shot past him. On an ordinary day, I’d have been thrilled to draft off of someone at 19 mph, but, well, I was “feeling it” and wanted to see how far I could go how fast before blowing up. Somewhere in there, the two trailing cops realized that we had gapped the rest of the group so they slowed down to give the rest of our ferry group a police escort. So much for condition #1. I missed the turn onto 25th street, so UH Guy got ahead of me. However, that only lasted until somewhere between Post Office and Avenue G (Winnie). There was a steel plate in the road covering over a construction hole of some sort, and UH Guy slowed just a touch to get over it.

I bunny hopped it.

Yes, I don’t know who was more surprised. Me or him. I don’t know how often one gets to see a 300 pound man in spandex get airborne on a bicycle in one’s peripheral and then primary vision, but I doubt the queue is long for repeat experiences. Me? I’m pretty surprised when something idiotic vaguely athletic that I plan to do actually executes right. No time to savor the moment, though, since it is back off the saddle and pumping my legs. I’m in what should be pretty close to my red zone (heart rate in the 160+ range), my quads are hurting, but I’ve got time to make up from my missed turn, and I need to focus on not letting the trolley tracks in the road eat my wheel.

We hit the turn onto Avenue O, and now our lone motorcycle cop is starting to struggle. UH Guy is pretty safely tucked into my slipstream, and I’m having to sprint-and-drift to let the cop get ahead of us from one intersection to the next. He’s having to really gun his motorcycle to get far enough past us into the intersection to stop the mostly non-existent traffic ahead of us. We go past Kempner Park and Garten Verein, and I have enough presence of mind to yet again be impressed by the route (emphasizing some of the interesting/historic aspects of the Bay area). By the time we hit 31st Street, the cop is cooked. It’s just unsafe for him to keep up, and I’m sure that the rest of the peloton needs him more. I only know that it was 31st Street because it was the intersection where DiBella’s Restaurant is. THAT I recognized, but the rest of the streets are really pretty much a blur. So much  for condition #2.

We go past Bob’s alma mater, Ball High School.  I get a little smile and push a little harder. We get to 53rd street and make the left, headed for Stewart. I’m slowing down a bit to get into “city traffic” mode. Somehow, I still have enough lung power left to call warnings to UH Guy. We make the turn onto Stewart, and the right lane is sectioned off for us with a cop in the intersection controlling traffic at 61st and Stewart. I know this intersection pretty well. Time to sprint.

We go flying past the cop, and I have almost dropped UH Guy. I turn my head to yell “Thanks!” to the cop, and UH Guy is about four bike lengths back and losing ground. A mini-van jumps into our lane and gets stopped at a light (Texas First Bank). That’s not a supported feature! He’s about to kill my buzz! I coast and then have to slam on my brakes as the light turns green, but mini-van guy is pondering the miracle that is traffic signalization. Mini-van guy catches a clue, perhaps sensing the depths of karmic shame he will be inflicted with should he get beaten “off the line” by a 300 pound man in spandex on a bicycle while suffering the added indignity of doing so in a mini-van, and he takes off. This distraction gives UH Guy the opportunity he needs, and he makes it back onto my wheel as I am accelerating down Stewart. We get past the “Y” where Jones Road splits from Stewart to carry us into Moody Gardens. The home stretch.

A woman in a Grand Cherokee really, really wants to cut across our lane, making a right into an apartment complex. I start shouting, “Don’t F-ing do it. Don’t you F-ing do it!” as the gap has closed such that at best I am slamming on my brakes to miss her (and potentially wearing UH Guy like a stole), and at worst, I am slamming into her door trying to fly sans bike. Fortunately, while she makes a couple of feints, she ends up letting us go past before cutting across the closed lane.

The bridge over Offut’s Bayou on Jones Road is not tall in any absolute sense. But Einstein must have been a cyclist, because that bridge’s height is entirely relative. Having blown through Galveston at 20+ mph, I had to down shift and get out of my saddle to get over that bridge. Wow my quads are screaming, and I am expecting UH Guy to come flying past me for The Win. Instead, he gets close enough to me on “the climb” to say, “Great Pull!”, and then I am off onto the downhill side ahead of him. Victory is mine!

I make the turn into Moody Gardens and there are no signs. Nothing saying, “Riders this way”, no “FINISH” banner, nothing. I am now confused. I am also utterly spent. I back down on the pace, as I blow past the front entrance to the hotel and wonder what the valet would say if I tried to have him “park” my bike. Oh, well. No signs are present, so I guess we are in The Very Back.

I cruise through the parking lot, looking for idiots who might want to run me over, and then catch sight of the big “FINISH” banner. Full-gas. At this point, that means a whopping 20 mph. That’s it. That’s all I’ve got left. I kick through the finish, and I’m done. For Day 1. According to my Garmin, I expended 8,700 calories, and covered 78.37 miles. UH Guy crosses the line shortly after I do, and I congratulate him on his ride. The next finishers won’t be coming by for more than five minutes, including several of the people I have met on the Taco Ride. I feel a little smug, but I also know it was really a race against me and my expectations and that my antics through Galveston may have hurt me for the next day. However, it was probably the single most fun ride I’ve had on my bicycle.

Time to hydrate, grab some dinner with Chuck and Jean and get to bed. But first, a shower and a nap. A GREAT Day 1.

Walk21 draws Bob back to NYC…

Sunday, October 18th, 2009

I spent the first week of October in New York City for a fantastic, international conference on walking and biking. To get a sense of what I was up to, check out this 4-minute video by Streetfilms:

Walk21 is dedicated to enabling walking and bicycling as safe, affordable, sustainable alternatives to driving. This conference focused on how cities around the world are addressing climate change by systematically enabling walking and biking, and drew 650 participants from 30 countries on “every” continent. We heard about major projects in London, Stockholm, San Francisco, Mexico City, New York, and more, and shared ideas with planners, engineers, and activists from all over. I learned a lot!

I also did a little teaching. I participated in a panel presentation and discussion about how local activists are using the internet to build livable streets coalitions. (Right up my alley, no?) It was fun, and also my first time presenting to an international audience.

As a bonus, I was one of several advocates invited to come meet one-on-one with NY DOT’s bicycle and pedestrian project team. While Bill joked about what a “behind the scenes” tour of a planning office might include (e.g. “here is the desk where we sketched the 8th Avenue bike lanes, and here is the workstation where our summer intern mapped them in GIS…”), it was really a great opportunity to meet the project planners and pick their brains.

inside the NY DOT
Behind-the-scenes with the NY DOT bike-ped teams

The coolest parts of the conference were “walk-shops” each afternoon. NY DOT team members led small groups of us out to show us some of their projects and answer questions. I got to see the new 8th and 9th Avenue bike lanes, and also the High Line (more on that in another post). Getting out into the city was way better than sitting inside listening to another PowerPoint!

8th Avenue bike lane
New protected bike lane on 8th Avenue sees a lot of cyclists

One day, I had a little time to walk around the city on my own.

When I worked in Manhattan briefly in 1996, I lived in Battery Park City, and commuted through the Wall Street subway station. I hadn’t been to the Exchange since Bill and I went that fall (another of our pre-couple protodates), and I was curious to see how the area had changed in the decade since. The first thing I noticed are huge new hydraulic barricades that limit auto traffic on all the streets around the stock exchange to authorized vehicles only. The second change is there are a LOT more people in the streets. That’s partly a direct result of reduced auto traffic, and partly the result of increased residential development nearby. Jane Jacobs would be pleased.

Exchange Place barricade
Exchange Place and Wall Street have new security measures

The southern-most portion of downtown Manhattan was originally settled in the 17th century by Dutch colonists (New Amsterdam). As a result, the scale and style of the streets in the area still feel very European today. I had not yet been to Europe in 1996 and consequently hadn’t noticed.

Nassau Street
Nassau Street in the original walled part of the city feels European

Finally, I wrapped up my walk at the South Street Seaport. While the historic district is now home to a “destination” shopping mall, the pier still boasts a fantastic view of Brooklyn:

Brooklyn Bridge
Brooklyn and the Brooklyn Bridge viewed from the South Street Seaport

More Galveston Bay pelicans…

Thursday, October 15th, 2009

Bill is working hard in NYC and I’m not sure when he’ll write about his Bike Around the Bay experience. In the meantime, I took a brief side trip Sunday morning to check out Sylvan Beach Park in La Porte and flirt with more waterfoul:

Sylvan Beach pier

Sylvan Beach pelicans
Lots of pelicans, seagulls, and the occasional heron

I love that the cold weather scared off most of the recreational boaters and fisherman, so the pelicans had the pier and its surrounding bounty of fish to themselves!

You know you want to…

Tuesday, October 13th, 2009

When Stubbie and Anglea got married, it was our first visit to Lake Tahoe. On the trek from Reno, we passed several bicyclists climbing the same pass our rental car wasn’t too thrilled with. I have a new-found appreciation for that effort and/or brain damage. Tahoe was, of course, absolutely stunning, and I’d love to have an excuse to go back.

So, several of our friends have been cyclists at one point or another in their lives, even the groom at that particular event. It turns out that there is a semi-annual ride around Tahoe to raise money for various causes, though personally the June timeframe looks to be the more inviting.

Anyone interested? 2010? 2011? (3,000 feet of climbing over 70+ miles really isn’t that bad, and think of the downhills!!)

Bill is off to bike around the bay!

Sunday, October 11th, 2009

This weekend, Bill is tackling his next big bike-venture. He’s participating in Bike around the Bay, a 150-mile charity ride around Galveston Bay benefiting the Galveston Bay Foundation.

map of Galveston Bay
Galveston and Trinity bays

Saturday morning I managed to shake off (temporarily) a week’s worth of conference fatigue (more on that soon) to get up at 5:00 am and accompany Bill to the start of the ride. After a quick visit to his dealer (Starbuck’s), we drove to Anahuac, about an hour away, where he joined ~600 riders in Fort Anahuac Park.

Bill at Starbuck's
Bill fueling up before the ride

Bill at the start
Bill queued at the start of the ride

bikable Bill
Bill’s new Giro helmet is in Team Astana colors

Bill and cyclists heading out
By 8:20 am, the cyclists were headed south down Main Street

The weather seemed adequate for the ride. While 60 degrees and overcast skies kept things cool, the 15-20 mph wind out of the northeast was a tail wind for most of the day. Bill reported making GREAT time down to Galveston, but I’ll let him tell you about his ride. In the meantime, I leave you with some images of Trinity Bay I snapped before driving the Yeti home:

Trinity Bay
Trinity Bay soon after sunrise

Pelican standing watch

heron and egret
A heron and egret I startled away