Sure, they love him out in Sugar Land, but to many people across this country, U.S. Representative Tom DeLay is a bombastic, moralistic, self-righteous -- you get the idea. So when his adult daughter, who works for him, hit the newspapers in a story about Las Vegas hot tubs, lobbyists, and champagne being tossed on people's heads, it brought a smile to a lot of faces. Dani Ferro's brief moment in the spotlight began when the Capitol Hill weekly Roll Call broke the story last fall, quoting a witness as saying Ferro was "among the revelers" at a late-night party and "there were a lot of lobbyists in the hot tub, pouring champagne on each other." And no doubt discussing those sybaritic Democrats. DeLay quickly turned to his hometown newspaper to deliver the spin he wanted on the incident: "A totally innocent thing has been blown terribly out of proportion," the Houston Chronicle quoted one "steamed" (and anonymous) DeLay aide as saying. The Official And Complete Explanation of what happened, as delivered by the aide through the Chron: "Ferro and a female colleague donned swimming togs and climbed into the hot tub. A lobbyist came onto the balcony and, after a brief exchange with Ferro and her colleague, dumped a glass of champagne over Ferro's head, then left." Well, that explains everything...

Bradshaw v. Utility Marine Corporation, et al. is no one's idea of a landmark case, but the Galveston lawsuit has achieved the kind of instant immortality that's possible only now in the Internet age. Federal judge Sam Kent has long been known for his hair-trigger temper and utter lack of patience with attorneys whom he deems to be not up to his standards of professionalism. In tossing Bradshaw out of court this past June, he once more made sure his feelings were clear: "[T]his case involves two extremely likable lawyers, who have together delivered some of the most amateurish pleadings ever to cross the hallowed causeway into Galveston, an effort which leads the court to surmise but one plausible explanation. Both attorneys have obviously entered into a secret pact -- complete with hats, handshakes and cryptic words -- to draft their pleadings entirely in crayon on the back sides of gravy-stained paper place mats, in the hope that the court would be so charmed by their childlike efforts that their utter dearth of legal authorities in their briefing would go unnoticed." It gets worse after that. Within days, the opinion had been posted on the Internet and had traveled the globe, even earning mention in a London newspaper. Kent reportedly was mortified at the publicity and apologized to the lawyers involved.

"Trophy" may be too strong a word for this apparently abandoned behemoth: a concrete block, presumably of Portland cement, standing near seven feet high and about five feet wide, featuring a high relief of some sort of Greco-Roman figures, and the inscription: "Awarded Trinity Portland Cement Company Houston Texas Plant for a Perfect Safety Record in 1929." The block was re-awarded, and re-inscribed, for perfect safety records in 1945, 1947, 1959, and then, silence -- Trinity Portland Cement Company appears to have been Dallas-based, and the Houston plant was shuttered in 1975. How long it took the site to degenerate to its present state -- at the intersection of two abandoned roads to nowhere, scattered with illegally dumped trash, no sign at all of a cement plant -- is anyone's guess, but still the monument stands, too heavy to move, in silent remembrance to those few special years when no one got crushed in the machinery.
Four mammoth branches dangle to the ground like elephant trunks. They snake along the grass like knee-bound penitents scraping to a pilgrimage's end, only to rise again to the height of small trees to drink in the sun. The live oak at Elizabeth Baldwin Park is one twisted granddaddy of a tree. Despite relatively weak ordinances to protect local flora, Houston has a splendid mix of sycamores, maples, magnolias and countless others. But it is the stately live oak that defines the region. Some, like the venerable giant at Glenwood Cemetery and the strapping specimen that is Baytown's emblem, are woven into the fabric of local lore. Entire lanes around Rice University and elsewhere are graced with gnarled canopies. For its grand dimensions and gravity-defying posture, the live oak at Elizabeth Baldwin Park is truly unique. It stands amid a cluster of hoary, green old-timers whose delicious shade invites squirrels, blue jays and people looking for reprieve. The park dates back to 1909. Chances are the tree was there long before that. It remains an august presence amid new construction on Chenevert, Crawford and other surrounding streets.

Chido Nwangwu decries mainstream news coverage of Africa that depicts "a continent of natives who are sentenced and cursed to face bestial cycles of ethnic wars, genocidal slaughters and more wars." The eloquent Nigeria native specializes in debunking stereotypes. From an office off the Southwest Freeway, USAfrica crusades against government corruption in Africa and touts economic development, while dutifully covering the weddings and other celebrations of the roughly 100,000 Nigerians in Harris County. The paper has reporters in Houston, Washington, D.C., Nigeria and beyond. Founded as a magazine in August 1992, USAfrica has since evolved into its present form of a biweekly newspaper, which also appears on-line. The Web site receives thousands of hits each day, which prompted Nwangwu to launch two new on-line publications: Nigeria Central and The Black Business Journal.
We don't know who he (or she) is, but he's earned the moniker "Mad Faxer" around the Houston Press offices. Over the last two years, he has sent the editorial staff hand-drawn cartoons (a fish eating hippopotamus turds), possible tips ("Ask Ron J. Where is the cave?"), poems riddled with four-letter words and dictionary definitions of "heterosexual." The sly one sends us these tidbits from various Kinko's fax machines so we can't track him down. We keep the faxes because they are sometimes good for a laugh and -- who knows? -- they might become evidence someday. Here is an example from the Mad Faxer's oeuvre:

Bro-mo-Bibbit is at it again

(slaw too)

Dear Mrs. Bibbit

Your double-talk is not God

Disconnect hidden power source

and remote control thermostat

I am an island

My rights are absolute



For the uninitiated, hookah is not another rap artist term for ho. It is the "fragrant nargile" of Orientalist reveries, the hubble-bubble of General Allenby's Tommies. It is a device for smoking that passes the scented smoke -- a mixture of tobacco and dried fruit such as apples or apricots -- through a water bath, cooling it. A common sight at cafes throughout the Near East, hookah smoking has been slow to catch on in the USA. Middle Eastern cafes and nightclubs are offering a "hookah service" to their customers more and more frequently. Sometimes the pleasure can cost $20 an hour. At the charmingly frowzy R&R Lounge & Grill, the two principals offer a pipe of tobacco for a very reasonable $6. For those who attend the unique "Goth Belly Dance" events held every Tuesday night, a hookah of fruit-scented tobacco is the final prop in a multicultural stew of an evening that is, well, so gosh-darned American.
Like its namesake, the Forbidden Gardens is a well-kept secret. However, the spectacular 40-acre spread just off I-10 in Katy rewards those who chance the trip. The outdoor museum carefully reconstructs some of the great design feats of Imperial China, and on a breathtaking scale. The entire Forbidden City, the governmental center created by Ming emperors in the 15th century, is re-created in an astonishing 40,000-square-foot display. Enter at Tiananmen Gate, with its red base and sloping orange-tile roof, and saunter on past the Palace of Heavenly Purity, the Imperial Garden and other wonders, all rendered to scale. The model buildings are painted in lovely, painstaking detail, and the grounds of the reconstructed city teem with models of courtesans, concubines, soldiers, administrators and monks. Elsewhere at Forbidden Gardens, you'll find 6,000 terra-cotta soldiers in formation -- a faithful rendering of the same model army that China's first emperor, Qin, had placed in his tomb more than 2,000 years ago. The sounds of bubbling fountains and zither music waft through the air, and iridescent fish and large turtles grace the waters at the entrance. Forbidden Gardens displays ancient weapons, sedan chairs and a reconstruction of Suzhou, "the Venice of China." Tours with highly knowledgeable guides are available.

A year ago, historic Oyster Creek was on the verge of extinction. Today, it's got a chance, thanks to Lisa Rogers. On behalf of Brazoria County ranchers, including her husband, Rogers forced an investigation into the illegal diversion of the Oyster, which had watered her family's cattle for 175 years. The state put the blame on the Sienna Plantation Levee Improvement District, which employed the considerable legal and political power of Vinson & Elkins to stonewall the accusations. When state regulators backed down, Rogers upped the volume and threatened to drag the administration of former Texas governor George W. Bush into court. The levee district quickly put together an engineering plan to restore the downstream flow of Oyster Creek. While that work has yet to begin, it would be hard to bet against someone like Rogers. Not long ago, over lunch at the Sienna Plantation Country Club, a V&E lawyer asked Rogers to drop her threat of future legal action. She refused, of course, but not before she expressed some admiration for her host's youth and good looks.

Judge Burdette was popped for DWI on Montrose after he tried to leave the scene. Burdette is a good ol' boy Democrat who managed to hang on as a visiting district judge in Harris County after getting dumped by voters twice. But his days of holding court at local bars may have been permanently ended when he slammed his Jaguar into the rear of Patti Lyn Simon's pickup truck last March. According to Simon, Burdette was so polluted he tried to drive away, telling bystanders, "I'm drunk. I've got to go home now." The Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct sanctioned Burdette for his actions and ordered him to take educational courses on alcoholism and to attend antidrinking therapy sessions. Whether his judicial friends will continue to recommend him for visiting appointments remains to be seen.

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