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.
If there were a kingdom ruled by a bowler, Palace Lanes would be the castle. This massive 44-lane bowling alley just inside the Loop treats league players like royalty from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. daily, when they're allowed to occupy every lane. Casual bowlers, who are more familiar with gutter balls than strikes and spares, are advised not to come during this time, but don't fret, they open at 8 a.m. and close at midnight. On weekends, Palace hosts Midnight Madness, a black-lit bowling bonanza where for $40, six bowlers can play for two hours, and maybe even master their Ernie McCracken impersonations. It's best to arrive a little early and take a seat in Palace's cocktail lounge, where you'll learn why Gatorade doesn't endorse the PBA.
Readers' choice: Palace Lanes
Picnic Drive, in Memorial Park, is where the Man wants you to picnic. The Man will tempt you with postwar picnic benches and plenty of sweltering pavement, where you can fry eggs. But if your idea of a picnic leans more toward the version involving trees, grass, peace and quiet, try the small park surrounding the Menil Collection in Montrose. There's plenty of room to throw a Frisbee and lay out a spread of fried chicken, and instead of port-o-potties, the place is dotted with sculptures by famous modern artists. Smack in the middle is the museum, the best free art space in the city. Now that's a picnic for the people.
After just two seasons, Andre Johnson has established himself as the Texans' best receiver, a deep threat with Velcro hands who should get ready to make annual reservations for the Pro Bowl in Hawaii. He and quarterback David Carr may turn out to be Houston's version of Montana-to-Rice or Aikman-to-Irvin. Like Michael Irvin, Johnson is a former University of Miami standout; unlike the former Cowboy -- or 95 percent of the players from the trash-talking Hurricanes -- Johnson is a quiet guy who leaves the chest-thumping to others. He's also quickly established a reputation for being a big community guy. His Andre Johnson Charitable Foundation focuses on helping kids from single-parent homes, and earlier this year he hosted a celebrity weekend to benefit the "I Have a Dream" Foundation. Both on and off the field, this receiver has been a great catch for the Texans.
Readers' choice: David Carr
Houston Rockets fans were understandably a bit doubtful in 2003. Out was fan fave Rudy T, in was the droopy-eyed, balding Jeff Van Gundy, a coach who was more famous for hanging off Miami Heat center Alonzo Mourning's leg during a playoff-game melee than leading the New York Knicks to the NBA Finals in 1999. And there were questions. Like how would the defensive-minded tactician handle All-Star guard Steve Francis's shoot-first, shoot-second mentality? Well, he didn't. Soon Francis was shipped off to Orlando in exchange for chronically selfish forward Tracy McGrady. Amazingly, Van Gundy taught McGrady the value of team defense and led the team to the playoffs that very year. Since then, the high school math teacher look-alike has been feisty (he faced suspension when he claimed an NBA conspiracy to unfairly officiate Yao Ming) and stable, the perfect combo to take the Rockets back to the promised land.
Readers' choice: Houston Rockets' Jeff Van Gundy

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