the joys of audiobooks

One of the major counter-culture-shocks I experienced upon moving back to Texas from Scotland was the amount of driving I had to do. I had lived without a car for six years in the UK and managed both daily life and international travel without one. I took public transport, cycled, or walked. There was no need for a car.

Not so in Texas.

2017-07-01 - Highway 380

I may live only 2.6 miles away from where I teach, but the public transport that connects where I live and where I work takes 45 minutes for what is a 10 min drive; there are no bicycle lanes and Texas drivers don’t know how to drive around cyclists; nor are there footpaths/sidewalks between there and here; and also, it’s too hot for me to walk or cycle even if there were the appropriate lanes and paths for me to do so. The same problems apply for if I wanted to go to the grocery store, or anywhere else in my city.

Add to that: My best friends live in another city 30 miles away (approximately 45 minutes without traffic), my second job is in a different city also 30 miles away (40 minutes without traffic), and my church is in a third city (20 minutes without traffic). My health specialists are also scattered across the north DFW area and range from 35 min to an hour to get to, without traffic. Have you noticed a theme here? Without traffic. It seems like all of the major arteries in the metroplex have some amount of road construction, meaning that more often than not there is traffic.

2016-10-14 - I35 modern ruins

I haven’t mentioned yet that I hate driving. I get bored in the car. I find it stressful. I get tense even when the roads are relatively clear. I hate having to find parking. The first year or so back in the States I avoided driving as much as I could. I tried to use public transport. I tried cycling and walking. I didn’t go to weekly game nights at my friends’ house because I didn’t want to drive that far at rush hour. I didn’t have a church in my city. It was lonely.

That’s when K. handed me her copy of The Hobbit on audiobook. She hates driving, too, and also wanted me to come over more often. She promised that listening to audiobooks would make driving more bearable.

And it does.

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DIY fail: Operation Cool(er) Catio

Usually my DIY projects mostly turn out how I expect them to. But not always.

The Problem

It gets hot in Texas; no surprise there. My patio has high walls and is shaded inside, but the outside walls get direct sunlight all day. There are also some air conditioning units next to one wall and occasionally I can feel the hot air they are expelling blow in through the slats in the fence on that side. I’ve put in a lot of work to make the patio/catio one for both Willow and myself to enjoy, and I want to be able to! But it’s too darn hot.

The Hypothesis

So I had an idea: What if I could line the walls with something that would reflect the heat outwards, away from my patio? I ordered some emergency blankets from Amazon, the kind that have a reflective side that is supposed to reflect 90% of heat. Several of the reviews mentioned using the blankets for the purpose I had in mind. Why I bought these particular blankets was because of the color on the reverse side: I didn’t want my patio walls to be bright orange or green. My theory was that the emergency blankets would reflect enough of the heat outwards to make the patio noticeably cooler.

The Experiment

Before I put up the blankets, I monitored the temperature on the patio for a week using an outdoor thermometer. Because my patio fence gets direct sunlight all day, and also faces the car park and the heat that is reflected off of the asphalt, I suspected that it might be hotter on my patio than the temperature reported on my Wunderground Weather app. To my surprise, the temperature on the patio was consistently one to two degrees cooler (Fahrenheit) than the temperature reported by my app. That the interior of my patio is shaded has an effect after all.

patio emergency blanket wall

It isn’t pretty, but I’d put up with it if it worked.*

We had a heat advisory forecast for this weekend and I wanted to put the emergency blankets to the test. I put the blankets up on two of the three exterior walls (only two, because I ran out of staples for my staple gun), and frequently compared the patio thermometer with my weather app.

The Result

Well, my theory proved to be false:

Since putting up the emergency blankets, the temperature on the patio has been consistently a few degrees higher than the temperature reported by my weather app. I will be taking the blankets down once it gets cooler later in the evening.

The Conclusion

One reason the experiment failed, I think, is that it reduced the air flow in the patio. Although the patio is fenced in on three sides, it’s a wood fence with small gaps between the slats that can get a good cross breeze depending on the direction the wind is blowing. I had hoped to counteract the blankets’ reduction of air flow by opening up the bottom of the fence (it had been closed off with bricks, which I replaced with a lattice**) in order to have the convection effect from allowing air flow below and above the fence. I don’t know if the effect actually occurred (as it was too hot for personal observation), but even if it did, it wasn’t enough to cool the patio.

Obviously, this wasn’t a very scientific experiment. I didn’t explore or account for all the variables. But at least it was empirical, right?

Now I’m back to the drawing board for Operation Cool(er) Catio. I’d really like to be able to make the patio a bit cooler for the sake of myself, my cat, and my plants! I already have a few plants that have succumbed to the Texas heat and would prefer to not lose any more of them.

Do you have any suggestions? Leave a note in the comments if you do!


*  You’re getting a sneak peek of one part of the catio. I’ll write more about the catio in a later post!
** Else Miss Adventure Paws, a.k.a. Willow, would escape.

here, now: egg cups for expats

egg cups 2015

When I moved back to the U.S. about a year ago, one of the first instances of culture shock I experienced was the lack of egg cups. While in Europe, I had been introduced to eating soft-boiled eggs and adopted it into my usual breakfast. But in my parents’ house, there was nary an egg cup to be found! I used my ingenuity and used narrow-necked jars, but that was hardly ideal.

Fortunately, my friends rose to the challenge of providing me with egg cups! Pictured above are egg cups I have received from Kelly, Ros, and Lola — from Texas, England, and Poland. Not pictured here is a white egg cup my dad bought for me in New Zealand; it’s at my parents’ house to use when I visit them.

My sister also gave me a couple of perfect egg timers, so now I have a perfectly boiled egg every day for breakfast. Yes, I take my breakfast — however simple — seriously!

Now all I need are more egg spoons…

Photo: Five egg cups.

here, now: st matthew’s passion

DBS Matthew Passion 2015

The first thing I do when I move somewhere is to join a choir: I sang in the women’s chorus in university, the Balliol College Choir in Oxford, the St Andrews Renaissance Singers in St Andrews, and now the Denton Bach Society Choir. I have been part of choirs since I was thirteen; my routine feels incomplete without the steady rhythm of rehearsals. When I am singing in rehearsal, there is no room for me to think about work or chores or things that need doing outside of that moment. What matters is the pitch, the words, the breath, listening and blending with the other parts, the beating heart of the piece as the director keeps time, shaping the notes, the breath, and the time into music. There have been several times over the past months when I felt that the best thing about living here is the Denton Bach Society Choir.

Today we will be performing St Matthew’s Passion by Johannes Sebastian Bach. I am excited, because it is a challenging piece and it’s come together very well during our full rehearsals this weekend. And also because it is the second of Bach’s Passions that I will perform: the Balliol College Choir performed St John’s Passion the term that I studied in Oxford. But I’m disappointed, too. After today I won’t have my regular dose of choral singing. The choir won’t reconvene until next autumn–and I don’t know yet if I will still be in North Texas. This could be my last concert with them.

And so I’m glad it’s going to be a good one. The concert is going to be streamed live on the UNT music website, which you can watch here. Tune in at 3.00PM U.S. Central Time and enjoy!

Photo: The Denton Bach Society rehearsing in the Murchison Performing Arts Center, UNT Campus.

here, now: little red wagon

San Antonio - Nursery - 2015

When was the last time I had been to a plant nursery? Too long ago to remember; long enough to be amazed at the rows upon rows of plants in the open air nursery: on tables, hanging from rafters, organized by type or purpose. Our goal was to find the succulents and add to my small but growing collection of houseplants. I took the handle of a red wagon and pulled it along with us. Other customers with their own wagons passed by, their wagons filled to the brim with flowers of varying hues, or with herbs and vegetables, or others with plants I did not immediately recognize. Once my mum and I found the succulents, described as being “made by God with Texas in mind,” we chose a couple of ghost rosettes and hen and chicks. Nearby was a stand of miniature rosebushes. I already had one at home, but I had bought it from the supermarket and it was a bit unhappy. Here were miniature roses that were lush and full, with dark green leaves and vivid red, yellow, or pink blooms. I have an aversion to solid-colored roses of all three of these colors; I prefer multi-colored blooms. Among the other roses were three of the pinstripe red and white variety. I chose one and added it to our wagon. Perhaps it would inspire my other rosebush to grow.

Now I want to find a Mexican flower pot while I am in San Antonio to take back with me to North Texas.

Photo: Rainbow Gardens in San Antonio, TX.

here, now: morrison’s corn-kits

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The air in the prairie, in the city, is not as clear as the air by the sea. Full of dust and pollution, it lends a different quality to the sky, a warmer tone, perhaps, a haziness, as the sky darkens into night. Against the pale orange and grey sky stands one of the city’s landmarks. I was momentarily confused when I first saw it, months ago now. “I didn’t know Morrison’s was here,” I thought, thinking of the supermarket I would often go to in the UK. But of course, this wasn’t a supermarket. Morrison’s Corn-Kits has been manufacturing ready-to-make cornbread mixes for nearly a century; it has been a mill for even longer. This is one building I don’t mind rising above the horizon. Despite still being in use, it has a neglected, abandoned quality to it; a nostalgia for times past. Some buildings seem to have grown out of the land–something about their design, their age, I can’t quite put my finger on it–so that it feels as though they have always been there, or, at least, belong there. When I see Morrison’s Corn-Kits, I feel its connection to the land and the community. It is rough and bare, as the land the farmers would have tended to grow their wheat, their corn, to bring to the mill. And yet, it also feels like some version of Dr Eckleburg’s eyes for North Texas, watching the city’s comings and goings in this dry and flat dusty land, keeping its judgment to itself.

Photo: Morrison’s Corn-Kits in Denton, TX.

here, now: a snow day

On weekends I will post a “here, now” post that will feature where I live now. These posts might feature thoughts on repatriating to the U.S. (as this one does), or about teaching, what I’m reading, knitting, or life in general.

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Ever since I moved back to America, I have felt claustrophobic. I am always inside: inside my flat, my office, my classrooms, my car. There is nowhere I can go to see the unbroken horizon, to go where I can’t hear any cars or see any buildings. Even from my eleventh-storey office the horizon comprises buildings and interstate-highways.

In Scotland, I lived in a town by the sea. Sometimes I would walk home “the long way,” which meant along one of the beaches until I reached my street at the other end. The openness of the air, the unending sky, the regular hushing of the waves would calm and quiet my thoughts after a long day. Here, in Texas, I end up standing in the car park texting a friend also recently repatriated from Scotland, “Are there some days you just wish you could walk down the pier or East Sands?

Yes,” she answered. “All the time.”

It snowed this weekend, and I had to get out of the flat. I love snow; I’m used to snow; I needed to be outside in the snow. But not here, in my flat near the university, surrounded by buildings and car parks.

So I braved the icy, slushy roads and drove north, to a nature reserve outside of the city. I had only been there once before. My car was the only one in the lot; I had the entire park to myself. The park had been transformed: snow hid the brown grass, frosted the bare trees. I chose a path at random, across the plain and into the forest.

There, finally, I could stop and drink in the silence. Snow, gently tapping my jacket, the trees. A dove, a jay. The creaking of branches. A noisy quiet, the forest, with no human sound nearby except my own. A flash of red swooped across my path; if I had blinked, I’d have missed it. Another cardinal followed. Back across the plain, I watched a flock of swallows fly overhead, a contrast of black on the white sky. Out there in the cold, warm enough with all my layers, my face wet with melted snow, I felt a little less “out of place.” The cold, the falling snow, being outside, the smell of damp wool from my scarf–this is what is familiar. I was reluctant to return to my car and thus return to the city, with even more cars and streets and buildings. But, I didn’t want to drive back in the dark, and I did have to go back eventually.

My brief sojourn did center me, for a little while. In Scotland, I was out of doors daily and naturally because I did not have a car–I walked or cycled anywhere I had to go. Here, I have to be intentional about finding refuge outside of the city. I have the nature reserve for now and I hope to find other places like it, especially places with water, to fulfill my need for trees and the open air.

Photo: Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center.