Journey back to your junior year of high school. You just saw a movie while seated next to the crush of your dreams, with your feet propped up on the back of the seat in front of you. Your hands touched in the giant tub o' popcorn. Happiness shot straight through you. You drove separately. Afterward, you walk to your car. Standing outside the vehicle you say you had a good time and you kiss goodnight. (Getting in the car together would be too much of a commitment.) Crowds coming out of the Alanis Morissette concert, or whatever basketball game is playing, thunder by. Wasn't there a cop? you ask, looking around. "There's three right over your shoulder," your date says. But you forget about the pigs in spitting distance as the kiss deepens, and one of you drops to your knees. More people pass, and since you're not 16 anymore, one of you starts worrying about whether this classifies as lewd and lascivious behavior, and your date wonders if he's going to get disbarred -- or lose his medical license. (Damn being a responsible grown-up!) You stand up, kiss goodnight, get a high school hug and a happy memory. Sure, there isn't a meadow or a brook or trees, but kneeling on the concrete by your car, to us, is an essential Houston experience.

Best Reason Not to Take Public Transportation

Smog ranking

Finally, now that Houston ranks No. 1 in something, why should we give that up? You thnk it's easy being top dog when it comes to ozone violations? This year shows all signs of a tough competition with Los Angeles, the traditional winner of the smog crown. Consider this: Houston's weather (hot air and weak winds) should serve to our advantage, since warmer weather is more conducive to forming ozone, yet L.A. has beat us out in the past. Last year we were lucky; weather was on our side. But this year, with L.A. due for some warmer La Nina-inspired weather, we may lose our ranking. By late summer L.A. already had logged 34 violations, while we had only 26. Last year we finished with 52 ozone violation days, beating L.A. by 11 whole days. So keep up the good work! Drive on (preferably in SUVs and vans). Forget about rail. Who needs decent public transportation when there's gasoline to buy and a title to defend?
Seventy-two-year-old Billie Carr has finally retired from her DNC position, and she'll leave plenty of devoted fans behind, including her old friend President Bill Clinton. Having fought her way to the top through the ranks of conservative Democrats who once dominated the party, Carr, by necessity, also adopted many of their hard-fisted tactics. That has left plenty of moderates bruised and dismayed as the party moved to the left over the years. In the process, many of them switched ranks and helped Republicans to their domination of Texas, holding every statewide elected position. After fighting cancer to a draw through radiation and chemotherapy, Carr is now working on her memoirs at her southwest Houston bungalow, and predicts it's just a matter of time before the pendulum swings back to the Democrats. "We seem to go through seasons where people burn out, sell out or drop out, for whatever reason," reflects Carr. "And we have to go back and work some more, because there are certainly more Democrats than there are Republicans. We have a lot of work to do, and I think that we can do it." For sure, there's nobody who has clocked more hours over the last half-century on behalf of Texas Democrats than Billie Carr.
The settlement of the mega-nasty divorce suit between Christopher and Valerie Sarofim in June suited more than just the parties themselves. Former mayor Bob Lanier's adopted daughter Courtney, who had paired off with Chris when he moved out on Val, would likely have gotten a ski ride through the mud. Val's attorney, Earle Lilly, had Courtney fitted out for the role of home-busting paramour, had the drug- and sex-spiced saga gone forward. The Sarofims apparently decided to settle their differences after the Houston Chronicle jumped in, threatening daily dispatches from the courtroom by Clifford Pugh. Instead, Courtney, the daughter of former first lady Elyse Lanier by a previous marriage, now has the son of billionaire Fayez all to herself, and a December wedding is on the drawing board. "He's a professor kind of geek who loves to sit and talk about economics," reports Courtney, head of the acquisitions section of her dad's Landar Corporation. The Laniers and Sarofim also make a chummy foursome. "They get along great," explains Courtney of the bond between Sarofim and her parents. "Christopher and my dad spend four hours talking about business. And what mother doesn't like a man who's nice to her daughter?" Particularly one with a credit line like Sarofim's.
To grab your attention, billboards should be as explosive as a child's temper tantrum, and just as unsubtle. Vasectomy reversal! Who's the father?! When half's not enough! The best billboards are amusing as much for what they don't say as for what they do. "The church found out about our family planning!" "The asshole won't fess up to fathering the kid!" "I'm going to bleed the cheap son of a bitch for every penny he's worth!" Tony's signage on the Southwest Freeway is the perfect example: "Why fly to MANHATTAN?" it purrs, then shouts. "Tony's. Houston's great restaurant." The subtext smacks of residual boomtown arrogance and insecurity: Doesn't everyone dash off to the Big Apple for fresh Atlantic salmon in béarnaise sauce? Tony's alone will rescue us from our own inferiority complex; it will soothe our frazzled nerves and remind us that we don't have to jet halfway across the country for a decent meal, for God's sake. We can finally stop the insanity and enjoy a four-star meal right here in Houston.READERS' CHOICE: Absolut on West Loop 610

Houston boosters are fond of reminding the uninitiated that Bob Hope once said the view from the Warwick penthouse was the most beautiful he had ever seen. If only the Main Street Coalition had as juicy a celebrity quote about the hotel at street level. Light rail or no light rail, the coalition hopes to turn Main Street into Houston's "signature boulevard," lined with plazas, parks, shops, sidewalks and (would you believe?) pedestrians. And if the plans are for more places like the Terrace, then we're all for it. From the wrought-iron chairs atop its sweeping staircase, you can nurse an expensive cocktail and take in a veritable panorama of high culture and Houston civility. To the south is the gurgling Mecom Fountain. Across Main Street, behind a shady tangle of live oaks and sculpture, is the classical facade of the old Museum of Fine Arts building. And to the north, toward downtown, is the animated side of Houston's building-of-the-moment, Rafael Moneo's new Beck building for the MFA. Perhaps we should invite Mr. Hope to stop by for a drink.
If Houston's Spanish-speaking community has a paper of record, El Día is it. More than simply recap police blotter sagas, this daily diligently covers news affecting the city's diverse Hispanic community that otherwise wouldn't get covered. El Día has kept a watchful eye on police brutality, the fire department's handling of emergency services, schools and other critical issues. The paper took an active role in promoting the 2000 census, in hopes that Hispanics would not be undercounted, as in the past. El Día includes daily news from Mexico and the rest of Latin America, allowing immigrants to keep up with developments in their homelands. Specialty sections on entertainment, the home and other areas round out the news with a light touch. And no publication in Houston offers better coverage of international soccer.
Rothko Chapel
After a year and a half with its doors shut for a $1.8 million face-lift, the Rothko Chapel reopened in June, radiating renewed richness in its muted simplicity. The renovation work reached from the ground up, bringing the shrine closer to what Rothko had intended, says Suna Umari, the chapel's executive director. The brick structure's foundation was elevated, the roof and skylight were replaced, and the famous paintings got a much-needed sprucing up. The work paid off. The canvases never looked better. Their violet, charcoal and jet-black surfaces are generous receptacles for spiritual yearnings and add deep layers to the chapel's silence. The new skylight and baffle are a particularly effective stroke, distributing light onto the whole of the canvases, where before light spilled onto the upper halves only. The eight interior walls are the color of raw cement. They join the canvases, stone floor, wood benches and black meditation rugs to evoke the sparseness of a Shinto temple or an otherworldly crypt.

Afternoon rush hour. Traffic oozes south from the Cullen Center garage and north from Brazos Street, battling for the turn that will take commuters onto the Interstate 45 ramp at Pease. Others are roaring off the exit ramp onto Jefferson. The light turns red and stays that way just long enough for motorists to gaze beyond rolled-up windows at a seeming mirage, an isle of calm amid this crazy concrete- and car-infested corner of southwest downtown. Yes. It is a park -- a real one, only feet from the throbbing traffic of the highway. This small wedge of green space serves as a surprise oasis. At its center is a soothing pool, perhaps 20 yards across. At its center is a fountain splashing water upward some 15 feet, then cascading down to create robust waves lapping against the edges. Once within this green space, the perimeter of hedges and trees is tall enough to nicely strangle the worst type A in us. Enjoy this touch of Eden on any of five picnic tables or four benches. Or on foot -- or yes, even from behind the steering wheel. Savor the calm. In a few seconds, the green light will flash and the angst of another freeway commute will commence.
The Texas Department of Transportation has the cookie-cutter approach to rest stops. Most of them are no more than off- and on-ramps from freeways, where the harried masses of motorists huddle at basic tables as traffic roars by a few yards away. The no-frills approach suits drivers just fine. But how sweet it is to steer away from the standard every now and then. That's the case for the crowds celebrating their final westward exodus from the anxiety of the Houston area, or those heading toward the big inner city about 30 miles to the east. This rest stop (technically, a TxDOT "picnic area," since there's no indoor restroom) straddles the divided I-10 median. The path to the outdoor tables is a descent of sorts, giving drivers a small natural barrier from the freeway traffic whizzing by. Both directions exit left to reach this isle of calm. Best of all, a buffer of trees and vegetation separates each side from the other. The small ravine running through the middle is a nice divider, a bit of nature known as Bessie's Creek. As Hollywood might say about this tranquil rest stop, a river runs through it.

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