Tuesday, February 20, 2007

In Houston, We Don't Have a Problem

There are familiar phrases that are useful tools in your writing; they get a point across in a way that's familiar to readers, they illustrate something perfectly through cultural references. Then there are phrases so worn out that they need to be given a rest. And one of those is "Houston, we have a problem."

Maybe I'm just especially tired of it after hearing it used repeatedly because of the recent "astronaut gone wild!" news story. But this morning, when I was scanning ZDNet's tech update email, I saw a link to a story titled, Houston, Wii have a problem!

(By the way, the whole "Wii"/"we" thing is already getting tired.)

There's actually nothing in this story about Houston. If you do a Google News search on the phrase, you find similar pointless uses of it.

Enough, really. Houston has enough image problems without that phrase being the most common use of our city's name.

As a Houstonian, the name of our city conjures up all kinds of other things, all more appealing that that: Summer evenings sitting on a patio enjoying a cool beverage surrounded by foliage, muggy air, and the electric hum of the city. Watching the arcs of the bridges over the Southwest Freeway slowly moving through their color changes at dusk. Downtown silhouetted against the sky with two entirely different kinds of weather happening at different places in the background. A sudden heavy rain releasing the armies of frogs into my narrow street as the storm ditches overflow - before it all disappears ten minutes later. Bungalows in Montrose tucked among tropical trees. The median on Heights Boulevard crammed with people preparing for the Art Car Parade. A quiet moment in the Rothko Chapel, escaping a busy day for a few minutes of solitude, watching the light change as clouds pass overhead. Running over to 19th Street to get a sandwich taking twice as long as I planned because you have to catch up on neighborhood news with all the shopkeepers. People-watching on the patio at Cafe Brasil as the traffic starts and stops along Westheimer. Coming home at night past rustling palms listening to trains in the distance.

But for most of the world, it's "Houston, we have a problem!" Yes, it's a bit of sore point for us down here; we realize that this big sprawl of a city makes a horrible first impression, and visitors often leave having missed the soul of the city. We know that the world sees us as a big polluted sprawl.

Mostly, that's okay; it can be our little secret that this is a fantastic, dynamic town, that the people are the nicest ones you'll meet on this earth, that it's a mecca of diversity in an often polarized world, that if we tend to be large it's because there's just so much good food everywhere you go, and that if sometimes people are brash here it's because their city always makes them feel like they the world is just endless possibilities waiting to be seized.

Sure, we know our problems, but the soul of Houston is that they don't define us. Or, as a someone commented on the Houston, It's Worth It site:

If Houston were a dog, she'd be a mutt with 3 legs, one bad eye, fleas the size of corn nuts, and buck teeth. Despite all that, she'd be the best dog you'll ever know.

So please, enough with that tired old phrase. It's a long way to express a short idea. And if you have a problem... well, it's not Houston's.

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