Sunday, September 28, 2008

Austin...where even the atheists worship on Sunday

A couple of weeks ago I went to the PMIP workshop in Estes Park. Since I was "in the area" (about as close as Tokyo to Beijing perhaps but we haven't yet popped to Beijing for tea) Michael Tobis and Charles Jackson arranged for me to visit Austin and the grand new climate science initiative at the University of Texas, although even now I am not quite sure if saying "climate" in the USA is really allowed. Even more excitingly, I arrived in Austin on Saturday so had a whole weekend to enjoy the city. For recreation I rented a carbon-forked vision of loveliness (but still their cheapest road bike) from the local vast glittering mecca of bicycleness. Of course I'd read doom laden apocalyptic warnings like this and this, and so was wondering if I'd get out alive. Yet I found that Austin surpassed all other US cities I've tried cycling in, including Boulder, the self-proclaimed cycling capital of America. I only cycled at the weekend, and I'm sure traffic is considerably heavier on weekdays, but in 7 hours of cycling I felt uniformly safe and unthreatened. For comparison, I usually get cross with a driver or two when riding my single bike in Japan, and urban Merseyside cycling was open warfare. The Austin drivers treated me with generosity, taking care at junctions and even changing lanes to overtake. There are a large number of wide, relatively clear bicycle lanes along the sides of many of the roads and I also had no trouble cycling on the roads that had no cycle lanes. Maybe I am just too comfortable jostling along with cars. The cycle paths are prone to stopping just before important junctions, but such is the way of the world, and things seemed nowhere near as foolish as in the UK. Finding my way was more of a challenge, and my compass was as invaluable in Austin as it is in Tokyo. Out of the city grid, there is some great cycling. Although the hills are too short, there are quite a lot of them, and there are trees and deer and stuff like that just a few miles from the city centre.

As I touristed around I found religion everywhere: the First Methodists, Second Baptists, Seventh Day Adventists, and I stopped for coffee in the Tenth St Arbucks. Not having stumbled upon an Episcopalian of any numeral, on Sunday morning I rejoined the minority bicycling sect instead. The roads were very clear. This seems to be because, on Sunday mornings in Austin, absolutely everyone is indoors expressing their beliefs, even the atheists, and the humanists. Although everyone else looked at me very very oddly when I remarked on how hilarious I found this, I suppose it is all the better for the cyclists. I was misunderstood on a number of other occasions too, those same odd looks appeared when I had been expecting a smile. Is this because Austin is Weird? I think it is rather because there is a tendency to take things literally. I even heard Biblical Literalism used in a positive sense, by some proponents of the teaching of Intelligent Design. To fend off all this literalism, perhaps it is British humour that should be taught in American schools.

8 comments:

Silver Fox said...

Nice reading about Austin, haven't been there in many years, a nice city overall like you noted, pretty "cosmopolitan" for the deep south (did you check out ranchers/cowboys/hillbillies living nearby? and ex-hippies turned country?). I'm not very familiar with the church and church-like scene there, but former inlaws were Unitarians and descendants of Quakers, and 1/2 churchy (she was, he wasn't).

Michael Tobis said...

Jules does not tell all, but what she tells she tells true.

I can attest to quizzical expressions in response to Julia's clever and not entirely dry wit, as it was not usually followed by guffaws and slapping of knees on her part.

Speaking as someone who usually noticed, it was a bit embarassing. On the other hand, when you drive into Texas, the big sign at the road stop (I am not making this up) includes a statement to the effect that "Texans are not known for subtlety".

On the other hand, last Sunday was indeed a lovely morning in Austin, and I indeed spent it indoors with my fellow humanists, singing my favorite hymn, "To Whom It May Concern". I don't see anything amusing about that.

Another good friend of mine blogged another brief trip to Austin in case you find the topic interesting.

It was, as always, a great pleasure to see Jules. Regards from Irene as well.

Chuck said...

Isn't Austin where Lance Armstrong lives?

James Annan said...

Yes, Lance even has his own a temple to the maillot jaune (Mellow Johnny's). It seems that they have their own 8:30am Sunday service too.

John Fleck said...

I've always thought that long distance running (or cycling, now that my knees are bad) is a nice substitute for religious worship for the atheist. The bonding of the long distance athletes who suffer together in groups is not unlike the penitentes or, in more modest forms, the bond that forms through ritualistic song. And the solo ride is, for me, downright meditative.

Chuck said...

I'm wondering to what degree the hometown hero might be responsible for the cycle friendliness of the town.

James Annan said...

I think it largely predates his achievements, indeed he has been quoted as saying that things have gone badly downhill in the last couple of decades. OTOH his fame did probably play a part in getting his assault taken semi-seriously by the police.

dirty dingus said...

Perhaps fittingly (although it kind of buggers up the link), October's "Cycle Facilty of the Month) is in the USA...