Jim Blackburn Houston is a city where it's always good to have the phone number of an environmental attorney handy. After all, you never know when somebody's going to decide to build a container port on your favorite spread of wetlands, covertly spew toxins into your air or simply dump a bunch of crap in your backyard. So thank your lucky water lilies for Jim Blackburn, Houston's environmental lawyer extraordinaire. Blackburn might not always win his cases (hey, it's Texas), but he's almost always on the side of nature and the little guy. Winner of the National Wildlife Federation's 2001 Conservationist of the Year Award in the legal category, Blackburn also does his part to reach out to his community. He teaches environmental law at Rice University and helped organize this year's Global Forum on Water as well as an air pollution conference for the State Bar of Texas. This fall, keep an eye out for Blackburn's name on bookshelves. His Book of Texas Bays will be released in October.

Goode Co. Barbeque When it comes to native pride -- the kind that makes you want to hook your thumbs inside your overalls and throw your chest out -- no state in the union does it quite like ours. Everything is bigger in Texas; everything, that is, except for irony. Hey, we are bigger than France, aren't we? The entreaty tattooed on the side of Jim Goode's barbecue barn is no thrift-store kitsch phrase -- it's earnest, it's the real deal: "You just might give some serious thought to thanking your lucky stars that you're in Texas." The old-timey jukebox, the DIY ice chest of beer, the assorted horns and antlers on the wall and ol' Jim looking like the lost fourth member of ZZ Top -- in a culture of affectation, premature nostalgia and placeless chain eateries, these are artifacts without artifice. So slather up a plate with our finest national export and ask yourself this question: Is there anywhere you'd rather be?

Scott Gertner's Skybar For better or for worse, ours is a horizontal city. Actually, strike that. It's usually worse than better. At flood time, summer storms lay waste to our barely sloping topography. In traffic snarls, you're never quite sure if it's going to get better over the next hill, because there is no next hill. So it's not that we rejoice when we climb above the fourth floor somewhere -- it's that we're downright dumbstruck. From the heights of the swank Scott Gertner's Skybar in Montrose, you can gaze upon the empire of freeways and sprawl that the oil magnates see from their high-rise offices every day. At ten stories up, it may not be a Williams Tower penthouse, but if you need to get above it all, Skybar will suit you just fine.

Marfreless "I think I've made out with two chicks here," a patron says, adding, "not on the same night, though." When it comes to Marfreless, he's certainly not alone. This West Gray-area nightspot is so secretive, only a stenciled black street number marks the door. You can hardly blame the prurient for assuming it's a swingers bar. And while the prurient are wrong (as they so often are), it's only by a matter of degree. Marfreless is a grown-up version of the seventh-grade broom closet: a makeout bar. Downstairs you'll find attentive service, soft candles, dark wood. Upstairs -- well, let's just say you don't go there for the food. Two rooms and a fleet of sofas offer varying levels of intimacy perfect for necking and nibbling. If you can manage to coax your date up the stairs, you're probably well on your way. The drinks aren't cheap; there are plenty of $7 martinis and $9 glasses of wine. But when you think about what you're really getting, Marfreless might be the best deal in town.

Sherlock's Pub Hey, we don't specify what kind of single guy, so Sherlock's wins due to sheer volume. You'll find the dudes at any one of the seven Sherlock's locations around town, clad in backwards baseball caps, shorts and sandals. They pack into the Irish-themed pubs, hit on the cute waitresses in short khaki shorts and sing along to the unthreatening, familiar tunes of a cover band. The mostly college-aged crowd is drawn here by nightly drink specials and cheap, cheap bottled beer during the week, ensuring a generous crowd even on a Tuesday.

Hotel Derek Where better to party like a rock star than the hotel named after a fictional one? The Hotel Derek, situated in the middle of the world's largest traffic jam at Westheimer and Loop 610, is a far cry from the stuffy sanctuary of most Houston hotels, but that's the point: The Derek is a hotel for people who like luxury but aren't dead yet. Downstairs, the Maverick restaurant is loud and trendy -- the perfect place to get rip-roaring drunk in style. For maximum pleasure Derek-style, we recommend buying multiple rounds for the entire bar, picking up a groupie and sweeping her upstairs to your very own ultramodern oasis, complete with a crackling fire on the TV screen and a fully stocked minibar. Destroying the room à la Crazy Town is strictly optional.

William Martin With the presidential campaign season upon us, there's much talk of reds and blues, hawks and doves, and right and wrong. And while it's been nearly a decade since With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America was first published, the cultural tome is more relevant than ever. For that reason, we salute the author William Martin, recipient of the George R. Brown Life Honor Award in Rice University's Department of Sociology. Nearing retirement after 35 years of distinguished service at the school, professor Martin leaves behind an enduring legacy of insight.

Jade Buddha Temple Buddhism does not begin with the most hopeful of premises -- that all life is suffering -- but if you've ever battled evening rush hour on the Southwest Freeway, you realize Siddhartha Gautama knew what he was talking about. Do yourself a favor and jump off at Bellaire. After you glide out past the Chinese strip malls with the kanji-speckled signs and into the open lots of the far west side, you'll find the Jade Buddha Temple tucked inconspicuously behind an apartment complex. The magnificent two-and-a-half-acre compound offers ample opportunity for reflection and clarity. If you can't find tranquillity at Jade Buddha, you probably won't find it anywhere. Right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration? Right on.

KHOU-TV/Channel 11 In Houston, there's local TV news, and then there's KHOU-TV. Other stations fall into the stygian depths of endless, mindless crime stories (Channel 2) or have good intentions but lack the financial resources (Channel 39). KHOU has varied its formula very little over the years -- solid beat reporting, comprehensive breaking-news coverage and important scoops that other media are forced to follow. They've lost their best investigative reporter, Anna Werner, to a San Francisco station (who'd want to live there instead of here?), but there's no reason to think they won't continue to pump out stories like the ones they broke on the HPD crime lab.

The Fountains in Stafford Malls all over Houston try to distinguish themselves in some way, but not many succeed. The Fountains, just past Beltway 8 on the Southwest Freeway, does better than most. There are the eponymous waterspouts, of course, but there's also a semi-boardwalk along a small lake that links restaurants such as Sam's Boat, Kim Son, Texas Land & Cattle Steak House and Razzoo's. The mall also includes suburban outposts of two longtime Inner Loop favorites: the Avalon Diner and Otto's Barbecue. Beyond the food, there's a Loews movie house, an Old Navy discount outlet and a Borders Books. Let's be honest -- even with the fountains and boardwalk, the aesthetics aren't going to make anyone forget Venice. Or Kemah, for that matter. But there's a lot of stuff within strolling distance of wherever you park, and you don't have to go into the big mean city to experience it.

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