Sunday, June 1, 2014

A Review of Houston

I am going to review Houston.

I was going to review the Houston Ballet’s mixed repertoire performance titled “Modern Masters”, which I saw twice and which was fabulous, but I’m still a little timid about reviewing ballet and opera because I don’t actually know that much about them, so I’m always second-guessing my opinions. I need to get over that. In the meantime, though, it occurred to me that I have a lot to say about Houston, as we’ve been living here for a little over ten years now. So I’m going to pretend this is a review of Houston, with, um, a lot of long-winded background thrown in. I understand completely if you want to skip all this!

(One more ballet aside – we’ll see if I’ve learned anything – I think Katherine Precourt is likely to be the next female dancer promoted to principal, and that James Gotesky is the male dancer to watch. His technical and artistic growth has been a pleasure to watch over the last several years. And may I say that I hope Houston Ballet never lets Artistic Director Stanton Welch leave? Hold him hostage if necessary!)

Ballet photos property of Houston Ballet; Katherine Precourt and Simon Ball, and James Gotesky.

Before Houston, we lived in upstate New York for seven years while my husband got his Ph.D. It was gorgeous there, especially in the autumn, and we were happy enough, although more than ready for him to finish the degree and get on with his career. I’d suspected that we’d end up in Houston because NASA was the logical place for him, and then we found out he’d gotten a one-year post-doc fellowship here. I’d assumed we would keep renting, but everyone in Houston advised us to just go ahead and buy a house because the mortgage would be cheaper than renting (plus we had some pets that might have made it hard to rent). We came out in August to look for houses, and I remember that as the plane landed, the pilot came on to tell us it was “only” about 105 degrees outside. I remember turning to my husband and saying “You’ve brought us to hell.”

As it turns out, house-hunting moves quickly in Texas. I was accustomed to east coast real estate; I knew from friends and families that you might make an offer and hope to close within three months or so. Since we planned to move in December, we thought house-hunting in August made sense. Our real estate agent, when she found out we weren’t coming until December, told us to come back in mid-October, because people here want to close in 30 days. All well and good, but my husband would be deep in his dissertation revisions by then and wouldn’t be able to come back with me. So I got to (make that “had to”) choose our first house all by myself. Fortunately, my mom was kind enough to come along to offer a second opinion and moral support.

I still love our house. Houses are cheap here. If we were living on the east coast today, we probably still wouldn’t have a house.

So, Paul and I had an agreement that we would try out Houston for that first year. If, towards the end of that year, we liked it here well enough, we would try to see whether he could get his post-doc renewed.

After our first three months in Houston, I told Paul that we didn’t need to wait the year, because I was planning to stay with or without him. OK, that was an exaggeration -- I wouldn’t really have let him leave without me. But I knew very quickly that I wanted to stay here. Fortunately, he got his post-doc renewed for a second year and then a third, which is the maximum. Then he was allowed to stay at NASA if he could provide his own salary through grant money, so he did that for a few years. Then he became an American citizen (he was born in England and grew up in Canada), and then he was hired as a civil servant. So here we are ten years later.

I probably should eventually talk about Houston, though, shouldn’t I? Here are the reasons I love living here:

• Inexpensive housing compared to everywhere else we’ve lived. Our house is honestly a little bigger than two people need, but I don't mind because we’ve filled it with books. Plus it has an open floor plan downstairs which is great for giving parties.

• Cost-of-living in general. Not everything is cheaper here, but lots of things are. I laugh when Houstonians complain about property taxes, because I find them quite low – and we don’t have state income tax here either.

• The arts. They’re amazing here, and we’ve barely even scratched the surface. We’ve had season tickets to the Houston Ballet for about seven years now, and to the Houston Grand Opera for about three years. Some years we’ve gotten mini-packages to the Houston Symphony as well. I’m not an expert, but I think these are world-class companies. My only regret is that the Houston Ballet doesn’t get the amount of recognition I think it deserves – while the house gets pretty full for classics such as Swan Lake, the mixed rep performances are woefully underattended, which is too bad because they’re often more dynamic and creative than the traditional ballets. For those who prefer musicals, there’s TUTS, or Theater Under the Stars, which hosts the traveling Broadway shows. There are tons of other theaters, plus free outdoor performances by the ballet, opera, symphony, and all sorts of other groups.

Another thing about the arts is that here, they don’t take long to get to. If it’s not rush hour, we can be at the ballet or opera within 25-30 minutes of leaving our house. This is opposed to where I grew up in New Jersey, where going in to New York City for any performance was an all-day, incredibly expensive affair, consisting of car to train to taxi to dinner to (possibly another taxi to) theater to taxi to train to car.

• The diversity. When we told friends we were moving to Texas, many of them said hopefully, “To Austin, right? I’ve heard Austin is really cool….” “No,” we had to tell them. “Houston.” But it turns out Houston is pretty cool too. We were worried that we’d be surrounded by nothing but the famous Texas conservatism, but we needn’t have worried, because it turned out that many of the people in the circles we move in are either imports, or they come from Houston or Texas but did not automatically accept the conservatism they grew up with. The younger NASA crowd (by which I mean the post-Apollo-era folks), the library crowd (that’s my day job field), and the science fiction crowd (the field to which I aspire) – none of these groups are dominated by a conservative mindset.

Plus our mayor, Annise Parker, is the first openly lesbian mayor of any major U.S. city. How cool is that? She’s pretty popular here. She just married her long-time partner, too, in the wake of certain recent court decisions. Gay rights are extremely important to me, so I’m glad to live in a part of Texas that’s comparatively progressive in that area.

There’s also cultural diversity. A lot of different cultural groups hold annual festivals to showcase their heritage, and when I ride the light rail or am at work in the Medical Center, I'm pleased to see many cultural backgrounds represented.

• Restaurants. I wouldn’t consider us to be foodies by any stretch of the imagination, but we do like nice restaurants. Actually, some of the best food we’ve found is at the ballet and opera, where Elegant Events by Michael provides catered Prix fixe dinners on performance nights. But we have a favorite sushi restaurant, and there’s lots of Italian, and you can generally find everything in between. Actually, this is one area in which we haven’t explored nearly enough, but then it can be an expensive hobby. We haven’t explored the food truck scene yet either. We need to do something about that.

• The job market. This isn’t meant to diminish the plight of many people I know who have been laid off in the last few years, but I do think the situation is better in Houston than elsewhere. Amazingly, I was able to line up a librarian job in Houston before we even left the state of New York, and I’ve been fortunate enough not to face layoffs in my line of work. And I can also say this about my various employers: they’ve all been very understanding and generous when it comes to hurricane evacuations. They do not expect us to stick around if we need to get ourselves somewhere more safe.

The downsides:

• The three H’s: heat, humidity, and hurricanes. We expected the heat and humidity. We did not expect that our neighborhood would become a mandatory evacuation zone twice in our first ten years here. The first time was Hurricane Rita, which was a nightmare. It was such a short time after the Katrina disaster in New Orleans that almost the entire city of Houston tried to leave. We were fortunate in that we had friends in Ft. Worth willing to take us and our animal menagerie in, but it took us 20 straight hours (for what’s normally a 4.5 hour drive) in two cars with freaked out animals in 100+ degree heat and not knowing if we could refuel at any point. I hope never to experience that again. Fortunately, Houston learned from the experience, and our Hurricane Ike evacuation took only 10 hours, plus we felt more confident we could get help and fuel if needed. We did need a new roof after Ike, though….

• Flat real estate market in many areas. Houses don’t just start cheap, they stay cheap, meaning that you can live in a house for ten years and be lucky to sell it for a smidge more than what you paid, and that only if you put some real effort into it. There are some trendy areas of Houston where your house will appreciate noticeably, but the Clear lake area isn’t one of them. I’m OK with this, but it probably would mean we’d have difficulty buying a house anywhere else in the country if we had to move.

• The traffic. Ye gods, the traffic. While house-hunting, we knew that Paul would work at NASA but didn’t know where in Houston I would end up. We figured at least one of us should have an easy commute, so we settled in the Clear Lake area. I’ve since worked all over Houston, and am currently at Medical Center. I feel fortunate that I can take public transportation, because I think it’s the right thing to do, it’s cheaper than driving and parking, and it’s slightly less stressful than driving myself through rush hour. But it takes forever. I’m still spending a daily total 2.25 to 2.5 hours per day commuting, and that’s after much experimenting to find the shortest route. Driving my own car would take less time, but would add to the stress and expense.

• Politics. Well, it is still Texas. Let’s put it this way: when we arrived here, we were in Tom DeLay’s district. ’Nuff said.

• Lack of ice hockey. OK, I admit this isn’t a problem for most people, but when you’re married to a Canadian, and learned to love hockey yourself while attending the University of North Dakota, you’re going to miss live hockey. We did have the minor league Houston Aeros, but they moved to Iowa last year. Rumor has it that the NBA Rockets owner didn’t really care to share his arena with the hockey team. We do have major league football, baseball, basketball, and soccer. It boggles my mind that we now have no professional hockey, not even minor league, when we’re in the fourth largest city in the United States.

• Lack of natural beauty. There are certain areas around Houston where you can drive for miles and see nothing but refineries, and then you hit the stretches with nothing but car dealerships and strip malls…. We haven’t explored the hill country yet, but I think you have a get a ways from Houston before you start seeing a lot of pretty scenery. The second half of the drive from Houston to Austin is quite nice, but Houston itself is not a place I would move to I wanted to be inspired by the landscape.

• Terrible driving. Not even the police can be bothered to use turn signals around here. I have gone through traffic lights when they’re dark, dark yellow (mainly because I knew I'd get rear-ended if I stopped) and had four cars continue to turn left behind me.

I'm sure that the minute I post this, I'm going to think of something else to say about Houston, but for now, let me end by saying the good far outweighs the bad. I'll end with one more thing I love about Houston: the skyline. I've gotten to see it from almost every possible angle, and it makes me feel happy and optimistic every time I see it.

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