Ray Giroux has spent only one season with the Aeros, but the lithe defenseman has already made his mark. The former Ivy Leaguer is a consistent scorer on the ice, and away from the rink he's proved to be just as valuable. Each game, he and fellow alternate captain Todd Reirden team up to purchase a block of tickets for children's charities such as the Muscular Dystrophy Association or Child Advocates; the kids also get a locker-room visit and autographed stuff. Plus, Giroux spreads the good hockey word at school appearances, hospitals and homeless shelters. Houston may not yet be a hockey hotbed, but it is a town with a whole heck of a lot of Ray Giroux fans.
Readers' choice: Curtis Murphy
Okay, so it looks like semi-hometown boy Berkman (hey, he went to Rice) may not quite develop into the fearsome power hitter that his first few years with the club seemed to promise. Being an Astros fan means learning to deal with disappointment. Even without 35 homers a year, Berkman is poised to become the face of the Astros as veterans Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio retire. And the good news is he just might break the stoic "one game at a time" mold of those two. Maybe it's the long-term contract he signed this year, but Berkman has loosened up and showed a heretofore hidden hilarious side, ripping, for instance, on the University of Texas and "loser middle-aged men" who breathlessly follow college-football recruiting news. If he keeps that up, we can live without all the dingers. Maybe.
Readers' choice: Roger Clemens
At first glance, a hockey cheerleading squad makes about as much sense as a Zamboni in the outfield, but there's no doubt about it: The beautiful, talented women of Sonic Boom will make a hollerin' hockey fanatic out of the biggest sushi-munching sports snob. Not that the Aeros need any help whipping the crowd into a frenzy -- hockey in Houston is just downright fun -- but when these cheerleaders make their way through the stands, it's the icing (the good kind) on the cake. Plus, you can even visit the Aeros Web site and read about your favorite Boomer. They all prefer love over money, and they all want to end suffering, war and animal cruelty. So not only are they awesome dancers, they're awesome people as well.
Tree climbers inevitably branch into two distinct species. The kiddies, the romantics and the novices want a docile tree, one that practically lies down for you. The tree nuts -- who wear special clothes and would live in trees if they could -- want a challenge. Both factions will be satisfied at the public park surrounding the Menil Collection, home to a strange tree of uncertain lineage and obvious charm. You will know it by the trunk. The gnarled base juts out of the ground at a 45-degree angle, allowing climbers to literally walk up into the canopy. Once there, the romantics can continue along a horizontal branch, where they can sit near the towering tip of a Mark di Suvero sculpture and snuggle. The intrepid can scramble on upward. At the very top, they might even glimpse downtown.
The roller-coaster ride that the Astros have been on for the last two seasons has given some good insight into the tortured mind of the Astros fan. The best of times: the thrilling sprint to the playoffs in 2003, when the packed Minute Maid Park rocked as never before, intimidating visiting teams and leaving Houstonians hoarse. The worst of times: the other two-thirds of the past two seasons, as the team trudged to a mediocre record in the most frustrating way possible. Still, the fans kept the faith, booing when it was needed and cheering whenever the opportunity presented itself. 'Stros fans have gone a long way toward disproving the cliche that Houston is a front-running town that will support a team only while it's winning.
Readers' choice: Houston Astros
Excellence in baseball play-by-play doesn't take the form of shouting, wisecracking shills eager to run out their latest lame nickname or home-run call. No, excellence is better embodied by the likes of Bill Brown, Houston's answer to Dodger legend Vin Scully. Understated and knowledgeable, Brown doesn't feel the need to throw in endless statistics on how each batter fares with runners in scoring position against lefties on Wednesdays in July. He also knows how to play straight man to both of his broadcast partners, Jim Deshaies and Larry Dierker. Astros fans don't know how lucky they are with their TV announcers. Spend a week or so in some other cities and you'll be crying for home.
Trekking through the great outdoors in Houston usually means crossing a mall parking lot on the edge of Tanglewood. For a taste of the real woods smack in the middle of the city, try the twisty paths of the Houston Arboretum, where water birds, dogwoods and armadillos healthily outnumber Escalades. The arboretum offers five miles of trails on a wild and unpaved 155 acres. You'll find hidden duck ponds nestled among thick native stands of magnolia and palmetto. In the spring, check out the wildflowers and blooming redbuds. Or just go anytime for a long jaunt free of crosswalks. In our urban jungle, this leafy oasis is a treasure.
Julia Roberts started doing her downward-facing dogs back in the '90s after declaring she wanted a "yoga butt" like the tight little packages found in the glossy health magazines. Her superficial attraction to the Indian practice was a sign of yoga's Westernization. American studios evolving in tandem with the self-help craze usually offer a pampering salon-type experience often priced beyond the means of most Houstonians. But those interested in a more traditional experience without all the frills -- no New Age music playing faintly in the background, no ballet floors or skyline views, no crystal or massage therapy -- should head to the nonprofit Vyasa Studio. With several medical doctors on staff, Vyasa traces its roots to a large yoga university in Bangalore, India. The studio is performing research in conjunction with M.D. Anderson Cancer Center to study how yoga may improve the lives of cancer patients. And it will get your pranayama and asanas twined in no time. Affordable memberships don't guarantee yoga butts, per se, but rest assured every anatomical inch will be put to work. Namaste.
Readers' choice: The Yoga Institute
Row upon row of golden and brown cocoons shiver at the Cockrell Butterfly Center. Soon an iridescent wing will slip from the husk, and another creature will join the spectacle under way in the towering glassed-in exhibit filled with colorful drifting wings and flowering plants. Within and without this sanctuary of wonder, the same process is occurring in the teams of children and adults that flock each year to Hermann Park: 445 acres of bejeweled nature, complete with nature trails, playgrounds, reflection pools and gardens. When the sun finally sets on the park, whose design was recognized earlier this year by the American Society of Landscape Architects, thousands more will faithfully climb the hill at Miller Outdoor Theatre to enjoy a free night of music, opera or theater -- and maybe even a star or two. Hermann Park also boasts a golf course, lake, fishing piers and the Houston Zoo. How can any of us go wrong?
Readers' choice: Memorial Park
Feel like getting away from traffic, construction and that freezing a/c in your office? Escape to Hermann Park and get yourself a pedal boat. These four-person beauties cost only $8 for a nice 30-minute cruise around the gorgeous park's eight-acre McGovern Lake. All ages are allowed, but at least one crew member must be 18 or older. During the holidays, the hours are extended and the boats are lit up like Christmas trees. Whether you're looking for a romantic time or fun for the whole family, it's hard to beat the boats.

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