The Joys of Japan

December 1, 2005 by  
Filed under Travel Blog

A jaunt to Japan proves wonderfully eye-opening for Andrea Stroh

For my family, this past Thanksgiving was less about the pilgrims than it was about a pilgrimage. We traveled to Tokyo, Japan, in search of the house where my mother’s family lived in 1948 when she was only 2 years old.

My maternal grandfather was in the Counter-Intelligence Division and was stationed with MacArthur as part of the occupation forces. They lived in the part of town that had been rebuilt by the U.S. military; when my grandmother passed away this past year, we found the map of Tokyo that she used to navigate her stay. She had marked places of interest such as their house, the bowling alley, the grocery store and even “where Tojo hanged.” Unfortunately, my grandfather became terminally ill while in Japan and passed away in 1949; so, in attempt to get in touch with our heritage and their parents, my mother, her sister, my father and I took off for Tokyo armed with a 55-year-old map and a GPS system.

Having heard for years how expensive and unfriendly Japan was, not mentioning unpalatable in terms of the cuisine (other than what I anticipated was going to be exceptional sushi), I must admit our experience ranked among the top I have had in my extensive travels. Not only were the Japanese some of the friendliest people we had encountered, the food was fantastic and most things were less expensive than I’ve found in Houston. Once you broke through the stiff veneer of politeness and manners that ferociously grips these extraordinarily gracious people, they are effusive and bubbly with a wonderful sense of humor.

I must admit, however, that I had brought along a secret weapon that most tourists to Japan are lacking – I had Santa Claus. My father was working as the Santa Claus at the mall; and he brought along his Santa hat, white fluffy beard, and a belly that shakes like a bowl full of jelly. When we landed at Narita airport, he was literally chased down by a couple of teenage girls, yelling “Santa-san” and trying to catch a picture of him with their camera phones.

Narita is almost 45 minutes outside of Tokyo, and the airport shuttle bus is the cheapest and easiest way into town and to almost all local hotels and major train stations. The bus also offers a first glimpse at the rules governing public behavior that make living with 127 million other people on a tiny little island bearable. As the bus departed the airport, there was a recording giving the requisite warnings about standing up while the bus was moving, but it ended with an admonishment not to use your cell phone “because it annoys your neighbor.”

Oh, what I wouldn’t give to have a rule like that abided by while dining in some of Houston’s tonier restaurants. The astonishing thing was that everyone not only followed the cell phone rule on the bus, but almost everywhere else in Japan, including the subways and the trains. In fact, the quietness was almost eerie at times when you were standing on a crowded train platform or inside a packed subway. No one ever made eye contact or small talk on any of the public transportation, and our casual conversations on the train made us stick out more than towering 6 to 8 inches over the average citizen.

We took an organized half-day city tour our first morning in town, which hit all of the Tokyo high points. (Grayline, $45) Our first stop was the Tokyo Tower, which was designed as a replica of the Eiffel Tower with an unfortunate orange and white paint job. It does, however, offer exceptional views of Tokyo from its observation deck 250 meters in the air. You can even see Mt. Fuji from the top, if you are lucky enough to have it break through the cloud cover. We had no such luck, and in fact, spent our trip trying to catch a glimpse of the elusive mountain.

The next stop on the tour was the Meiji shrine, dedicated to the Emperor Meiji, who wrested power back from the shoguns, moved the capital from Kyoto to Tokyo and began moving the country toward industrialization in the early 1900s. It is a beautiful shrine set in the midst of a small forested area right in the middle of Tokyo. The guide walked us through purifying ourselves at the ablutions station before heading in to make an offering to the gods. This involved clapping to get their attention and then tossing your money at a collection box in front of the shrine. In fact, the exterior of the shrine was covered in thousands and thousands of pockmarks where the faithful have gotten impatient on New Year’s Day and hurled their offerings at the shrine before the monks quite had the door open. Our group was held up at the parking lot while an impressive motorcade made its way past. After its departure, our guide was told by one of the security guards that we had just seen the Emperor and Empress leaving the shrine after paying homage to his ancestors. Our final stop on the tour was at the Imperial Palaces East Garden. The garden is inside the 15-foot-thick inner moat surrounding the 250-acre fortress that is currently the home of the Emperor and Empress. The gardens were breathtaking, and we learned they contained the five requisite elements for a traditional Japanese garden: a pond, a waterfall, a lantern, a rock and a bridge. This garden has always been open to the public, and both my mother and her sister thought they remembered coming there for walks as children.

On our quest to see the elusive Mt. Fuji, we decided to head to its base via the world-famous Shinkansen, or bullet train. Using his trusty and ever present GPS, my dad was able to determine that our fastest speed was 150 miles per hour, and yet it was the smoothest ride you could imagine. It didn?t even ripple the liquid in the drinks we had purchased at the station. We arrived in Hakone, which is the jumping off point for a masterfully engineered tourist jaunt around the base of Mt. Fuji. You can purchase an ironically named Hakone Free Pass for $50, which gives unlimited access to the route around the area. The first leg is aboard a miniature gauge railroad that winds its way up the side of a mountain. It makes multiple stops, and you can hop off and on for attractions like the Open Air Sculpture Museum.

At the end of the rail, we stopped in a tiny village called Gora and hopped a cable car that went straight up the side of the next mountain. This afforded excellent views of the fall foliage that could easily be mistaken for the East coast of the United States. The cable car landed at Souzan station, where you transfer to large ropeways that follow a suspended pass over the valleys – and closer to Mt. Fuji.

At the peak of this ropeway, we transferred to a much smaller car that took us down the face of the mountain facing Mt. Fuji and toward Lake Ashi. It is at this point in the trip you are supposed to have fabulous views of Fuji-san. We had fabulous views of cloud cover and the rancid sulphur mine the cable car crosses. We continued to be optimistic that eventually Mt. Fuji would poke its head out of the top of clouds because we still had a boat trip across the lake on a replica pirate ship, during which we could still have a sighting. Alas, the gods were against us, and we made this entire day-long circuit without so much as a peek at the famous mountain.

We hoped for more success the next day as we took the bullet train in the opposite direction in search of the town of Nikko and the Toshogu Shrine, completed in 1636 for the Shogun TokugawaIeyasu, who is said to be the greatest shogun and warlord who dedicated his life to conquering Japan. It is, in fact, his legacy on which the book and movie “Shogun” was based.

The temple complex covers several acres and is covered in thousands of cryptomeria trees, which are the giant redwoods of Japan. There are numerous shrines and temples within the complex, but my favorite was the stable that was covered in carvings of monkeys, most famously with a carving of the three famous ‘wise’ monkeys: “See No Evil, Hear No Evil, and Speak No Evil.” There is a common saying in Japan, “Do not say kekko (‘splendid’) until you have seen Nikko;” and for once, I would have to say the adage lives up to the hype.

Our final day in Japan was spent examining more of Tokyo. We woke at 5:00 a.m. to make our way to the world-famous Tsukiji Fish Market. Fish from around the world are flash frozen and flown to Tokyo for the largest fish auction in the world each day. It is highly likely that the tuna you have at your favorite sushi restaurant is flown in from this market. If you arrive before 6:00 a.m., you can watch the auction and then stick around while they tag, clean and deliver the enormous tuna which can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Porters deliver the giant fish to the buyer, and the buyer then spends the rest of the morning carving the fish with an assortment of knives that are nothing less than swords that must be large enough to maneuver around fish the size of a high school cheerleader.

After a breakfast of the freshest sushi on earth, we headed for a cruise up the Sumida River to the Asakusa Kannon Temple, and – shopping. Leading up to the Asakusa Temple is a street called the Nakamise shopping street. It is lined on both sides with more than 90 stores dating back hundreds of years. Today, they are small stalls that sell every possible Japanese tourist item one could hope for, from sake sets and tea sets to Japanese porcelain dolls and paper umbrellas and fans, all at surprisingly reasonable prices. The street runs right into the Asakusa Shrine and the Sensoji Temple, the oldest temple in Tokyo, built in 628. The entrance to both is through an enormous gate with a red Japanese lantern more than 30 feet tall.

Although we only had a few days to spend in this glorious country, with the ease of the bullet train and subway system, we were able to cover a lot of ground in a short period of time. We enjoyed a lot of the Japanese past, as well as just a bit of my family’s recent history, and managed to spread a little Christmas cheer along the way.

Speaking from the Heart

December 1, 2005 by  
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Thousands of Houstonians tune in to 104 KRBE every morning to catch a bit of Maria Todd’s sunshine. She’s got a contagious giggle, upbeat personality and quick wit that keep listeners smiling all through the a.m.

Maria began her radio career in Buffalo, N.Y., after taking a college internship at the local radio station. “My talents always lied with speaking and writing in school,” she reveals. Originally planning on being a journalist, she admits of her first experience on the air, “I fell in love with it.”

After working in New York for a couple of years with Sam Malone, KRBE brought the duo to the Houston airwaves 12 years ago. Following 14 years of on-air partnership, the Sam and Maria morning show split up earlier this year. Maria stayed on at KRBE, and the afternoon DJ, Atom Smasher, joined her for morning antics there. Listeners had to wait a couple of months to find Sam, but he’s recently taken over the reins at the 96.5 KHMX morning show.

After so many years of catching them as a team, many Houstonians were surprised by the sudden change. She insists that they remain friends (who laugh often about the rumors that circulate about the change), but that the split was simply a career decision. “He got a really great offer and left,” she divulges. “I got a really great offer, so I stayed.”

She enjoys the challenge that being a morning host provides. With a new co-host, she says there are new aspects to get used to. “Atom has a totally different personality – a little more laid back – and his sense of humor is different,” Maria says. “Both (Atom and Sam) are really funny – but in different ways. Now, it’s getting used to working with a different person, but my job still remains the same – be funny, deliver punch lines and play off the other person.” She likens her job to her favorite sport: baseball. “It’s like comedy batter,” she says. “The balls you get pitched are different, but you still have to hit them.” Known for her superior knowledge and everyday updates of celebrity gossip, Maria also devotes much of her time to area charities. Whether she’s donating her voice, money or abilities, this boisterous babe believes in giving back to her community.

Every year, she builds a team for the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life to raise money for ACS’s education and outreach while celebrating cancer survivors. She and her team join others across the nation at school tracks and parks for a 24-hour walking and running relay. She has also started her own charity, the Pink Ribbon Pals, which raises money for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. This year, Maria is teaming up with La Strada and Winsor Jewelers for a fundraising brunch and silent auction – and, of course, the proceeds go to helping find a cure for breast cancer.

She is also very involved with The River. A not-for-profit organization that teaches visual and performing arts to disabled children and their siblings, this charity hits close to home with Maria. With a brother who is mildly handicapped, Maria remembers only one time that she was able to participate in a organized activity with her sibling. Very rarely are disabled students combined with able-bodied ones for extracurricular classes. The River offers this unique opportunity, and Maria has jumped on board. An avid Houston professional sports fan and constant face around town at events and fundraisers, Maria truly supports her community. She says that her favorite part about Houston is the people, adding, “It’s easy to get to know people here – I find most Houstonians friendly and polite.” Of course, Houstonians adore her. And why wouldn’t they? H

Houston’s Heritage

December 1, 2005 by  
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Located in the heart of downtown Houston, you will find Houston’s only outdoor, interactive historic museum and park: The Heritage Society. With nine authentically restored structures, a museum and a general store replica, there is something for everyone at this unique museum that offers a look into Houston’s past.

Forming the society
When the 1847 Kellum-Noble House, the oldest surviving brick house in Houston, was scheduled to be demolished in 1954, Houstonians Faith Bybee, Harvin Moore and Marie Phelps jumped into action and founded The Heritage Society. The newly formed group had one mission: to preserve the quickly disappearing Houston history for the education of future generations. Since saving that first house, The Heritage Society has added eight more historic structures to form the Historic House Tour you will find today in Sam Houston Park.

Walk through history
For a unique look into Houston’s history, you’ll want to tour the nine historic structures, which have been authentically restored to depict what life was like for early Houston settlers in frontier times. There are a total of eight houses, now including The Old Place, which is thought to be the oldest structure remaining in Harris County. The Yates House, built by a freed slave, reflected the newly found opportunities for black Houstonians. In addition to the homes is St. John Church, built in 1891 by German farmers, which still has the original altar, pulpit and cypress plank pews.

Look into Houston’s past
If you’re looking for a more traditional museum experience, visit the Museum of Houston Heritage at the corner of Bagby and Lamar on The Heritage Society campus. Exhibits include 19th century paintings by Houstonians, rare Texas furniture, cut glass on loan from June Adair of Brilliant American Cut Glass and various rotating exhibits. The Museum of Houston Heritage also boasts a replica of the Duncan General Store built in 1878 in Egypt, Texas. Children can play with toys popular in the 19th century or try churning butter during a tour of the store.

For rent
Need a place to hold your next party? The Heritage Society’s Tea Room (located in the Long Row Building) offers a unique space for weddings, receptions, dinner parties, cocktail parties, meetings and other special events. If you are looking for something a little closer to nature, the John B. Connally Plaza is also available and can be easily tented or left open. With a perfect view of Houston’s skyline and the open space of Sam Houston Park, your event is sure to be remembered.

Tour time
Visitors to Sam Houston Park may leisurely walk around the grounds, view the gardens and admire the exterior of the historic structures of The Heritage Museum. To step inside these magnificent structures, visitors must go on guided tours. The Heritage Society, 1100 Bagby, (713) 655-1912, www.heritagesociety.org H

Judi Holmes

December 1, 2005 by  
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An avid horse-enthusiast, Judi Holmes is pictured beside her beloved horse, Geste. She is not horsing around this December as she works hard on a number of charitable events, including the Winter Ball which has become one of Houston’s premier events over the past 19 years.

The Winter Ball is consistently a grand sell-out event year after year. It raises money for diseases most people consider almost unmentionable: Crohn’s and Colitis. These diseases are being treated much the same as cancer was in decades past, when it was referred to in whispers as, “the ‘C’ word.” Today, we have “the “CC” word,” or Crohn’s and Colitis: Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD). The Winter Ball raises money for the Crohn’s &Colitis Foundation of America (CCFA) to find a cure and develop better treatments for these often unspoken of diseases.

There are many elegant surprises in store for guests attending the Winter Ball, dubbed Windows of Winter, on Jan. 21 at the Hilton Americas Ballroom. Guests will feel as though they’ve stepped inside a castle and are looking out its windows at winter scenes from throughout the world.

Houston is probably one of the best educated cities about IBDs, thanks to the Winter Ball and its honorees. The Winter Ball chooses 10 Women of Distinction, one Woman of Distinction Ambassador and two youth ambassadors for their work in philanthropy throughout the greater Houston area.

An Oklahoma girl, Judi Holmes says, “I never thought I’d cross the Red River, much less live on the other side. But now that I’m here, I can’t imagine living anywhere but Texas!” The middle child of three girls, Judi earned her M.B.A.; and for the next 14 years, she lived in Dallas managing her oil and gas investment banking firm. She then relocated to Houston after her marriage to Jack Holmes in 1993.

She now manages Gray Wolf Farms in Magnolia and Argyle, where she raises hunter jumper horses for competition throughout the country. Judi serves on the Board of Directors for the National Horse Show Association of America, the Washington International Horse Show and the Pin Oak Charity Horse Show. She also serves on the governing bodies for the equestrian teams of the United States Olympics.

Judi wears many philanthropic hats. She is currently President of the Salvation Army Women’s Auxiliary. During Katrina, it was the Women’s Auxiliary, specifically Mary Maxey at Judi’s request, that found the 60,000-square-foot warehouse in Pasadena to help evacuees. And Judi was down there in the sweltering heat with other Auxiliary volunteers, Sidney Faust, Carolyn Mann, Lilly Andress, Suzie Coneway and Joyce Standish to name a few, doing the grunt work of sorting the donations and helping families find what they needed.

She reveals that what she “loves about the Salvation Army is all the good things they do locally, nationally and even internationally. And, it’s faith based, which we’re proud of. The organization never discriminates. It takes care of those in need and asks questions later. They are there in the early stages of a disaster, and they are there when the dust settles.” On Dec. 13, Judi and her Army will become Secret Santas at a warehouse, “making the list, checking it twice, no discrimination between the naughty and nice,” as they wrap presents and stuff gift bags for needy children. Judi isn?t a princess; she is a hard worker with an excellent brain. Houston is lucky to have her. H

Take a Stand

December 1, 2005 by  
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At the National Council of Jewish Women, “Advocacy is all about action.” This organization works hard to shape public policies and legislation that affect women, children and families. Their national initiatives include the Strategies to Prevent Domestic Violence (StoP) and BenchMark, the NCJW campaign to save Roe and, thus, women’s right to reproductive choice.

Locally, the Houston chapter of the NCJW has many community service projects that aid various groups around town. They established the Aid to Victims of Domestic Abuse, which provides advocacy, legal representation, abusers intervention counseling and community education about domestic violence. The Home Instruction Program for Preschool Youngsters, or HIPPY, is a family-based literacy program that gives parents the essential tools to be the primary educators of 3- to 5-year-old children. These tools include activity packets, home visits and group meetings.

The Houston chapter also participates in the Meals-On-Wheels program, in which members deliver hot meals to the elderly and disabled throughout Houston. The Preparation for Adult Living/Lifelong Independence for Teens program provides birthday celebrations, graduation presents and wish list requests to formerly abused teens at Child Protective Services.

Through the Donny Workman Memorial Lunch Program, HIV-positive Houstonians who participate in an art outreach program are provided with lunch and art scholarships. Another scholarship program is the Lee K. Feine Scholarship Fund, which offers scholarships to third-year college students or graduate school students going into the fields of education, health and social welfare, or Judaic studies. With the Childcare Scholarship Fund, daycare assistance is provided for qualifying parents that work, go to school or are in job training.

This month, NCJW will host the 21st annual gala on Dec. 3 at the Marriott Westchase Houston. Raising funds for the important projects that NCJW undertakes, the Starlight Ball will offer dinner, dancing and a silent auction. It’s a great way to get involved, have fun and support a very worthy organization. H

Tree Time Traditions

December 1, 2005 by  
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Back before pre-lit artificial Christmas trees, families decorated their homes with real Christmas trees, ranging from cypress to fir to spruce. These natural beauties fill homes with the scents of the season that no artificial tree can duplicate. Your family can start a tradition of selecting a tree and cutting it down yourself at the Old Time Christmas Tree Farm in Spring.

At the farm, they provide saws, as well as measuring sticks, so all you need to bring is your family. You will hop on a hayride to the fields to choose your special tree, which shouldn’t be hard since the folks at the farm care for their trees all year to ensure you have the best from which to choose. After finding your perfect tree, you cut it down yourself and take it to the end of the row, where you both will hitch a ride back. The great folks at the farm will shake and bail your tree for you, so it is ready to go when you are.

If you’re not up to cutting down your own tree, the Old Time Christmas Tree Farm has you covered with live potted Leyland Cypress trees and pre-cut Fir and Spruce trees. You won’t want to forget the fresh wreaths and garland; they’ll make a wonderful addition to your holiday decor. (Tree stands are also available.)

Finding the perfect tree isn’t the only thing to do at the Old Time Christmas Tree Farm! You and your family are sure to enjoy the train ride and visiting the farm animals! The farm is complete with a covered pavilion, a playground and a giant slide, which is always a favorite with the kids! On the weekend, the slide calls to children of all ages to enjoy a thrill. With fun play areas for the kids, they are sure to have a blast.

You won’t want to leave without visiting Santa. At the Old Time Christmas Tree Farm, your kids can tell Santa all their dreams for Christmas morning. On Saturdays and Sundays, Santa will be available from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (He takes a lunch break from 12-1.) for visits. You can take a great holiday picture of your children with him, too. Picture prices are $5 each, if your camera is used, and $7.50 each, if the farm’s digital camera is used.

Don’t leave hungry, the Old Time Christmas Tree Farm also has delicious barbecue on the weekends and apple cider and hot cocoa for sale to seal the deal!

Old Time Christmas Tree Farm, 7632 Spring Cypress Road, (281) 370-9141, www.oldtimechristmastree.com H

Old School

December 1, 2005 by  
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She carries a wedding album, but her boyfriend doesn’t mind. Her yearbook lacks a single signature from former Bellaire High School classmates. She gladly shows friends the contents of her diary.

Peek into the satin books that Robin Goetz totes around town, and instead of paper pages, you’ll find her signature lipstick and other daily necessities. Embroidered with titles like “Our Wedding,” “Yearbook” and “Diary,” these rectangular clutches are a few of the Ex Libris items from femmesud, the new line from Goetz and co-founder Joanna Lipman. Made of Italian lambskin, styles like “The Birds and the Bees” are so unique that strangers stop carriers on the street to ask about their origins.

Goetz, a Houston native, discovered the practicality and prestige of a special bag when she moved to New York in 1995. “There, your bag is like your car – you take everything you need for the day,” she says. Goetz was working as a publicist in Manhattan, but she and Lipman ran a side business searching flea markets and estate sales for vintage accessories and selling their finds at boutiques across the country. Last year, they decided to fashion their own high-end styles.

“The idea for the bags came from a combination of wanting to make a well crafted bag and wanting to create something totally different, not another boring hobo,” Goetz says. “We wanted to create bags that are special and nostalgic while including modern aspects, like room for cell phones.” You can judge these limited-edition books by their covers, but open the “Fame &Fortune” book to find an oval mirror, a glossary of superstar terms and a coin purse embroidered “mad money.” Or flip through the “Datebook” to view a colorful calendar, to-do list and a stitched-in reminder of “don’t be late.”

“We have taken orders from people ages 14 to 65,” Goetz says. “You won’t see anything like them out there.”

The Joys of Japan

December 1, 2005 by  
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For my family, this past Thanksgiving was less about the pilgrims than it was about a pilgrimage. We traveled to Tokyo, Japan, in search of the house where my mother’s family lived in 1948 when she was only 2 years old.

My maternal grandfather was in the Counter-Intelligence Division and was stationed with MacArthur as part of the occupation forces. They lived in the part of town that had been rebuilt by the U.S. military; when my grandmother passed away this past year, we found the map of Tokyo that she used to navigate her stay. She had marked places of interest such as their house, the bowling alley, the grocery store and even “where Tojo hanged.” Unfortunately, my grandfather became terminally ill while in Japan and passed away in 1949; so, in attempt to get in touch with our heritage and their parents, my mother, her sister, my father and I took off for Tokyo armed with a 55-year-old map and a GPS system.

Having heard for years how expensive and unfriendly Japan was, not mentioning unpalatable in terms of the cuisine (other than what I anticipated was going to be exceptional sushi), I must admit our experience ranked among the top I have had in my extensive travels. Not only were the Japanese some of the friendliest people we had encountered, the food was fantastic and most things were less expensive than I’ve found in Houston. Once you broke through the stiff veneer of politeness and manners that ferociously grips these extraordinarily gracious people, they are effusive and bubbly with a wonderful sense of humor.

I must admit, however, that I had brought along a secret weapon that most tourists to Japan are lacking – I had Santa Claus. My father was working as the Santa Claus at the mall; and he brought along his Santa hat, white fluffy beard, and a belly that shakes like a bowl full of jelly. When we landed at Narita airport, he was literally chased down by a couple of teenage girls, yelling “Santa-san” and trying to catch a picture of him with their camera phones.

Narita is almost 45 minutes outside of Tokyo, and the airport shuttle bus is the cheapest and easiest way into town and to almost all local hotels and major train stations. The bus also offers a first glimpse at the rules governing public behavior that make living with 127 million other people on a tiny little island bearable. As the bus departed the airport, there was a recording giving the requisite warnings about standing up while the bus was moving, but it ended with an admonishment not to use your cell phone “because it annoys your neighbor.”

Oh, what I wouldn’t give to have a rule like that abided by while dining in some of Houston’s tonier restaurants. The astonishing thing was that everyone not only followed the cell phone rule on the bus, but almost everywhere else in Japan, including the subways and the trains. In fact, the quietness was almost eerie at times when you were standing on a crowded train platform or inside a packed subway. No one ever made eye contact or small talk on any of the public transportation, and our casual conversations on the train made us stick out more than towering 6 to 8 inches over the average citizen.

We took an organized half-day city tour our first morning in town, which hit all of the Tokyo high points. (Grayline, $45) Our first stop was the Tokyo Tower, which was designed as a replica of the Eiffel Tower with an unfortunate orange and white paint job. It does, however, offer exceptional views of Tokyo from its observation deck 250 meters in the air. You can even see Mt. Fuji from the top, if you are lucky enough to have it break through the cloud cover. We had no such luck, and in fact, spent our trip trying to catch a glimpse of the elusive mountain.

The next stop on the tour was the Meiji shrine, dedicated to the Emperor Meiji, who wrested power back from the shoguns, moved the capital from Kyoto to Tokyo and began moving the country toward industrialization in the early 1900s. It is a beautiful shrine set in the midst of a small forested area right in the middle of Tokyo. The guide walked us through purifying ourselves at the ablutions station before heading in to make an offering to the gods. This involved clapping to get their attention and then tossing your money at a collection box in front of the shrine. In fact, the exterior of the shrine was covered in thousands and thousands of pockmarks where the faithful have gotten impatient on New Year’s Day and hurled their offerings at the shrine before the monks quite had the door open. Our group was held up at the parking lot while an impressive motorcade made its way past. After its departure, our guide was told by one of the security guards that we had just seen the Emperor and Empress leaving the shrine after paying homage to his ancestors. Our final stop on the tour was at the Imperial Palaces East Garden. The garden is inside the 15-foot-thick inner moat surrounding the 250-acre fortress that is currently the home of the Emperor and Empress. The gardens were breathtaking, and we learned they contained the five requisite elements for a traditional Japanese garden: a pond, a waterfall, a lantern, a rock and a bridge. This garden has always been open to the public, and both my mother and her sister thought they remembered coming there for walks as children.

On our quest to see the elusive Mt. Fuji, we decided to head to its base via the world-famous Shinkansen, or bullet train. Using his trusty and ever present GPS, my dad was able to determine that our fastest speed was 150 miles per hour, and yet it was the smoothest ride you could imagine. It didn?t even ripple the liquid in the drinks we had purchased at the station. We arrived in Hakone, which is the jumping off point for a masterfully engineered tourist jaunt around the base of Mt. Fuji. You can purchase an ironically named Hakone Free Pass for $50, which gives unlimited access to the route around the area. The first leg is aboard a miniature gauge railroad that winds its way up the side of a mountain. It makes multiple stops, and you can hop off and on for attractions like the Open Air Sculpture Museum.

At the end of the rail, we stopped in a tiny village called Gora and hopped a cable car that went straight up the side of the next mountain. This afforded excellent views of the fall foliage that could easily be mistaken for the East coast of the United States. The cable car landed at Souzan station, where you transfer to large ropeways that follow a suspended pass over the valleys – and closer to Mt. Fuji.

At the peak of this ropeway, we transferred to a much smaller car that took us down the face of the mountain facing Mt. Fuji and toward Lake Ashi. It is at this point in the trip you are supposed to have fabulous views of Fuji-san. We had fabulous views of cloud cover and the rancid sulphur mine the cable car crosses. We continued to be optimistic that eventually Mt. Fuji would poke its head out of the top of clouds because we still had a boat trip across the lake on a replica pirate ship, during which we could still have a sighting. Alas, the gods were against us, and we made this entire day-long circuit without so much as a peek at the famous mountain.

We hoped for more success the next day as we took the bullet train in the opposite direction in search of the town of Nikko and the Toshogu Shrine, completed in 1636 for the Shogun TokugawaIeyasu, who is said to be the greatest shogun and warlord who dedicated his life to conquering Japan. It is, in fact, his legacy on which the book and movie “Shogun” was based.

The temple complex covers several acres and is covered in thousands of cryptomeria trees, which are the giant redwoods of Japan. There are numerous shrines and temples within the complex, but my favorite was the stable that was covered in carvings of monkeys, most famously with a carving of the three famous ‘wise’ monkeys: “See No Evil, Hear No Evil, and Speak No Evil.” There is a common saying in Japan, “Do not say kekko (‘splendid’) until you have seen Nikko;” and for once, I would have to say the adage lives up to the hype.

Our final day in Japan was spent examining more of Tokyo. We woke at 5:00 a.m. to make our way to the world-famous Tsukiji Fish Market. Fish from around the world are flash frozen and flown to Tokyo for the largest fish auction in the world each day. It is highly likely that the tuna you have at your favorite sushi restaurant is flown in from this market. If you arrive before 6:00 a.m., you can watch the auction and then stick around while they tag, clean and deliver the enormous tuna which can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Porters deliver the giant fish to the buyer, and the buyer then spends the rest of the morning carving the fish with an assortment of knives that are nothing less than swords that must be large enough to maneuver around fish the size of a high school cheerleader.

After a breakfast of the freshest sushi on earth, we headed for a cruise up the Sumida River to the Asakusa Kannon Temple, and – shopping. Leading up to the Asakusa Temple is a street called the Nakamise shopping street. It is lined on both sides with more than 90 stores dating back hundreds of years. Today, they are small stalls that sell every possible Japanese tourist item one could hope for, from sake sets and tea sets to Japanese porcelain dolls and paper umbrellas and fans, all at surprisingly reasonable prices. The street runs right into the Asakusa Shrine and the Sensoji Temple, the oldest temple in Tokyo, built in 628. The entrance to both is through an enormous gate with a red Japanese lantern more than 30 feet tall.

Although we only had a few days to spend in this glorious country, with the ease of the bullet train and subway system, we were able to cover a lot of ground in a short period of time. We enjoyed a lot of the Japanese past, as well as just a bit of my family’s recent history, and managed to spread a little Christmas cheer along the way.

Holiday Fun Houston Style

December 1, 2005 by  
Filed under Edit

Houstonians have many holiday traditions, especially with the various art venues and holiday activities occurring all over town. While some traditions were established decades ago, others emerged in recent years. Whatever each family’s traditions may be, they serve to remind us the holiday season has arrived.

Don’t be a Scrooge
Each year, families all over Houston gather at the Alley Theatre to enjoy “A Christmas Carol,” the Charles Dickens favorite that reminds everyone of the true spirit of Christmas. Both young and old love this timeless story of miserly Ebenezer Scrooge’s night filled with the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. Its universal message of compassion and love is a wonderful addition to any family’s holiday traditions. This year’s production, adapted by Michael Wilson, promises to be an amusing musical retelling of the enduring classic. This must-see production will run through Dec. 28 on the Hubbard Stage at the Alley Theatre. www.alleytheatre.org

Magical dreaming
For an evening of sweet delight during the holiday season, Houston families flock to the Houston Ballet for a breathtaking rendition of “The Nutcracker,” the beloved holiday favorite. Children and adults will cherish this classic tale of Clara and her nutcracker prince in the Land of Snow and the Kingdom of Sweets. The whole family is sure to be thrilled by the expansive special effects, including a “growing” Christmas tree, 200 pounds of falling “snow” and a cannon being fired on stage. Families can enjoy this holiday tradition through Dec. 26 at the Houston Ballet. www.houstonballet.org

Light up the season
A more recent family tradition for Houstonians is the Holiday Lights celebration in Hermann Park, where a mile of the park around the Mark Gibbs and Jesse H. Jones Reflection Pool and McGovern Lake is illuminated with holiday lights. This spectacular display has quickly become a family favorite with specially lit pedal boats, horse-drawn carriage rides and an array of nightly entertainment. This year’s event will also feature the first-ever Holiday Market in conjunction with the Holiday Lights, as well as a tent with wine, beer and cakes from Dessert Gallery. There will surely be something for the entire family at this holiday event, open through Dec. 26 for free at Hermann Park. www.hermannpark.org

On the boardwalk
Many local families make the short drive to Kemah for the perfect family outing, the Christmas Boat Lane Parade. This will be the 44th year of the spectacular parade that has lit up the night along the Kemah Boardwalk, much to the delight of spectators. With many unique holiday displays aboard more than 100 local boats, this one-of-a-kind parade is a holiday favorite that the whole family can enjoy. Locals covet the awards given out for Most Beautiful, Most Creative and Best Overall floats. Many families make a day of it along the coast and visit the many restaurants and shops along the Kemah boardwalk. This year’s event will take place Dec. 10 at 7 p.m. (the best view is from the boardwalk!) www.kemah.net

Sounds of the season
To experience the many sounds of the holidays, countless Houston families turn to the Houston Symphony. Each year, the symphony provides holiday music to set the mood for the season. This year is no different, with the Houston Symphony’s Holidays Around the World, featuring holiday musical traditions from the Ukraine to Israel, Germany to Mexico, and let’s not forget our own holiday music from the United States. “Only Santa covers this much ground in a single hour!” The Houston Symphony always delivers wonderful holiday music that gets us in the spirit of the season! www.houstonsymphony.org

Old time shopping
For an old-fashioned holiday shopping experience, locals flock to Old Town Spring during Down Home Christmas. With the many shops fully decorated with holiday cheer and specials galore, this is a shopping experience Houston families treat themselves to year after year. Houstonians of all ages love to wander around this quaint market town to find the perfect gift for that someone special (and the rest of the family, too!). Whether you’re shopping for a wine enthusiast or a cowboy, the kids or your pets; Old Town Spring has got a shop for you. www.oldtownspring.com

Illuminate the streets
Each year, Houstonians fill the streets for the Woodland Heights premiere annual event, Lights in the Heights. Hundreds of luminaria line the route, which travels down Bayland Avenue and Highland Street. Visitors are welcomed with cookies, punch and wassail as the entire neighborhood comes out to greet them. The kids love the visit from Santa; he usually arrives around 7 p.m. on the Norhill Street Esplanade. Another crowd favorite is the carriage rides, available along the route (there is a fee involved). Carolers and live musicians can be found on the streets to provide the songs of the season. This holiday tradition is complete with festive T-shirts for sale to help fund the event. This year’s celebration takes place on Saturday, Dec. 10 from 6-9 p.m. www.woodland-heights.org

On the big screen
The holiday films “A Christmas Story” and “White Christmas” are popular holiday traditions with Houstonians. This year, Houston families can experience these holiday favorites on the big screen at Miller Outdoor Theatre (for free!). The comedic “A Christmas Story” will be presented on Dec. 9-10, at 7 p.m. with the young boy’s dreams of getting a Red Ryder BB gun on Christmas morning. The musical heart-warmer “White Christmas,” featuring Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye and Rosemary Cloony, can be seen Dec. 16-17 at 7 p.m. www.milleroutdoortheatre.com

Sing, dance and be merry
For local families seeking fun holiday entertainment, turn to Revels! This year?s event, entitled “The Christmas Revels 2005 – A French Canadian Celebration,” follows voyagers traveling through French Canada trying to get home for the winter solstice celebration. The performance blends song, dance and drama to create an exceptional event in which the audience can participate by singing along and dancing (sometimes audience members become on-stage participants). The performance will also feature the traditional Morris dances, Mummers play and a dedication performance of “The Lord of the Dance.” This year’s event will take place on Dec. 10, 11, 17 and 18 at Moore’s Opera House. www.revelshou.com

Heritage during the holidays
From Dec. 26-Jan. 1, Houstonians celebrate African American cultural festival, Kwanza, throughout the town. This seven-day festival begins with a gathering to celebrate unity within the community on Dec. 26 and continues with area celebrations throughout Houston. Each day is dedicated to a specific principle: unity, self-determination, collective work, responsibility, cooperative economics, creativity and faith. One candle on a seven-branched candelabrum is lit every day; gifts are given; and there is a karamu, or African feast. Each celebration will feature an African market and children’s Kwanzaa activities. (713) 521-0629, www.shape.org

Lighten up
Though it’s a more recent tradition, the Moody Gardens Festival of Lights is quickly becoming a beloved holiday event. This is the fourth year Moody Gardens will come alive with more than a million lights throughout the grounds. The outdoor ice rink gives kids and adults alike the chance to put on a pair of skates and slide across the ice. (A rarity in Texas!) Local choirs and bands delight visitors with holiday music while they enjoy the beautiful scenery. www.moodygardens.com

Get Rich Quick A quick guide to fast, easy money – maybe

November 1, 2005 by  
Filed under Blogs, Hot Button / Lynn Ashby

My last attempt at getting rich quick did not work out. I thought the Jeff Make-a-Skilling Investment Fund would prosper. The SEC saw it differently. My tickets to the Houston Texans Super Bowl Victory Banquet were not moving. I tried to sell club memberships on KSEV for my Friends of Smog, only to find that its listener had been arrested as a Nazi war criminal. My idea of creating a Ukrainian accordion quartet to serenade romantic interludes bombed, as well.

So I visited my financial adviser. “Did you follow my recommendation and buy New Orleans Levee bonds?” he asked, as he pushed his grocery cart along the freeway median, stopping every so often to pick up an empty beer can.

“Yes,” I said, “and I lost it all.”

“Timing is everything,” he said. “You’ve got to know when to fold. Which reminds me, you did buy into the Texas Hold ‘Em craze, didn’t you?”

“No. You said to sell, because Texas Hold ‘Em was a brief fad, but you said to buy into the low carb diet craze. I did that, just before it went belly up.”

“At least the belly was flat,” he said while eyeing a bent Coors can. “Buy into restaurants. Everybody who is anybody is investing in restaurants.”

So I opened a Parisian bakery only to have it invaded by the German beer garden next door. I ran up a white flag. Still in a Gaulish mood, I launched a French Quarter café called the K-Jun and served beans and red rice. No one came. Only then did I learn the proper meal is red beans and rice. Making one last attempt, I filled the café ceiling-high with toxic water and empty promises. Zero. Sticking with a New Orleans theme, I changed the name to the Big Greasy. No luck.

“You’re on the right track,” my financial adviser said, while rolling a joint with his old Enron stock certificate. “You’ve got 200,000 new Houstonians from Louisiana, give or take a pirogue-load. Make them feel at home.”

I rented the Astrodome, surrounded it with heavily armed looters and served cold MREs. The operation went broke. My final thrust at corralling the Louisiana crowd was to open a FEMA restaurant. Place your order on Monday, and it will arrive at least by Saturday. One customer said my sub sandwich tasted like a soggy sandbag. I didn’t have the heart to tell him it was.

My Tex-Mex restaurant, Borderline Food, was closed after the immigration agents raided my kitchen. They let my staff stay but deported the food.

Next, I tried a Good Cop, Bad Cop Doughnut shop with the slogan, “Take a truncheon to luncheon.” I was arrested for impersonating a cook.

“Think topical,” my financial adviser said between valet parking cars at Luby’s. That’s when I opened the Gas Station Café, complete with fake pumps, long lines and no service. But I went broke because I had to buy new menus every hour to list the higher prices. Still, that bankruptcy gave me an idea, and I started up the Señor Rita, a Tex-Mex restaurant catering to Houston’s returning hurricane evacuees. The place had no restrooms, all the lines were jammed except for those going the other way that were totally empty, and customers had to wait 10 hours for their food. It folded in 11 hours.

Then I got this great idea for the Hurricane Evacuation Plan Speedway, but the idea had already been copyrighted by Mayor Bill White. Staying topical, I opened the Bush Blame Game Pool Hall. The rules were that nobody lost and the more they screwed up, the more they were promoted. It was timely, but the Health Department accused me of creating a topical depression.

Next I held the grand opening for a home-cooking diner called Desperate Houseboys. The customers were desperate to leave. Then I tried the bar business. My saloon with a Roman theme, the Gin & Tunic, lasted XVII days. My English pub, the Fat Fergie, didn’t do much better. I tried to open an Irish-Taliban bar, the O’Sama bin Laden, but was strafed by the Air Force. My topless bar for Palestinians, the Gaza Strip, was leveled during a fight between Jewish settlers and the Israeli Army.

“I’m not getting rich quick,” I whined to my financial adviser, as he was peddling his Y2K Computer Protectors on the street corner.

“Politics is the key,? he said. “Politics is always hot.”

“Isn’t “politics” plural?” I asked.

“This is a one-party state,” he explained.

That’s when I opened my One Grandma’s Tough Steak House. I guess it was the wrong choice of words. The Rick Perry Beauty Parlor didn’t do much better. My Tom DeLay Charm School bombed, too.

As a last desperate effort, I checked with my financial adviser, who was re-filling the “For your protection” paper holders in the last stall. “I’ve tried everything,” I said, “but even if I do hit it big, how will I know when I’m rich?”

“Easy. When you stop paying taxes.”
“Thanks, Mr. Lay.” H

Italian Escape

November 1, 2005 by  
Filed under Travel Blog

by Joel Mathiason

Are you tired of those typically over-traveled seaside vacation destinations? Hawaii? Bahamas? Cancun? Consider one of Italy’s best-kept secrets, the Cinque Terre, for your next coastal collision.

Located along Italy’s western coast between Pisa and Genoa, the Cinque Terre offers 18 miles of clear blue water, cool sea breezes, water and land sports, which, I think, now includes shopping. But most of all, you’ll find peace and quiet amid the cadence of waves crashing on the rocky shoreline.

The Cinque Terre region (Italian for “five lands”) is primarily made up of five main villages. From north to south, they are Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. These ancient farming and fishing villages are built along the coastal hillsides in what is now the Cinque Terre National Park. The villages’ residents have spared no cliff space over the past few thousand years by building their homes upward, creating these picturesque ascending cliff-scrapers.

Getting here, you can drive to Monterosso al Mare or take the train to any one of the villages. On this trip, our destination is Riomaggiore, the southernmost village. Once in the Cinque Terre region, you’ll want to pick up a Cinque Terre Card. This park permit serves as a local train pass and allows you unlimited rail service between the villages. These invaluable passes are sold in single-day or various multi-day forms and allow you access to the park’s miles of hiking trails and its water ferry. So, don’t lose it.

There are a few quaint hotels and hostels in some of the villages; however, the majority of the accommodations here are small homes and condos. We stayed in a cozy seaside condo, complete with full bath and kitchen – and the word “cozy” takes on a whole new meaning here. Not only are most homes built on top of each other, they are literally built into the cliffs. Our bedroom came complete with a queen size and single bed, a wardrobe and a granite cliff façade! Our cave-like condo featured its own private veranda, overlooking the sapphire waters of the Mediterranean Sea. This brings us to an old Italian tradition, grab a glass of the region’s red vino, sit back and allow your stresses to slip into the sea.

Believe it or not, travel between these stair-stepping villages can be effortless. Simply validate your train pass (important tip for all Italian train travel), and hop on board a train that connects all five villages. You can zip from village to village in a matter of minutes by riding the rails. In the warmer, high-tourist season (roughly May through September), you may also ride the water ferry from village to village. The ferry will offer amazingly unique views of the ancient vineyards and olive groves.

On the other hand, if you have some comfortable shoes and a little more time, consider traveling by foot. From Riomagiorre, you and your lover can easily stroll north to Manarola along the Via dell’ Amore or “walk of love,” as if you actually needed the translation. However, hiking between the other villages requires a little more effort. Miles of hiking paths wind along these hillside farming terraces. Each turn delivers a well deserved payoff, in the form of one picture postcard moment after another. You’ll walk along the same centuries-old paths used by the olive and wine growers. However, these days, tourists are the trails’ top traveler.

The Cinque Terre has recently been designated a “World Heritage” site. Park officials have done a fantastic job keeping the Cinque Terre in pristine condition. “No littering” signs, caring residents and ecologically conscience visitors have also played a large part. So, please allow me to borrow a phrase from our Lone Star State, “Don’t mess with the Cinque Terre.”

Locals we met along the way, like Monterroso al Mare café shop owner, Giovanni, were very friendly. Don’t be surprised if you hear George Strait blaring away while he’s on duty. This Texan wannabe claims to own every album the artist has released. But he’s never seen him in concert. Why? Giovanni says he’s always had to work in this “oceanfront property” during Strait’s summer Italian tours.

He offers this translation tip for Americans. Instead of ordering a “cup of coffee,” ask for a “café latte.” This substitute offers very strong coffee with milk, to help take a bit of the edge off.

Just outside Giovanni’s shop, on the beach, we decided to sit down with our usual snack of bruschetta and cheese. Entertaining us were some kids playing a pick-up game of football. This school group was here on a field trip from a neighboring inland town. You don’t need to speak their language to realize Italian kids are no different than the kids in America. Here, the Italian boys also try very hard to impress the girls by showing off and goofing around. And the Italian girls, well, they just sit back, look good, and laugh at the boys. Some things are just universal.

As the sun sets and your appetite is whet, venture into any of the villages to catch some more local flavor. Riomaggiore has several restaurants, but like the revisiting waves along the shore, we found ourselves consistently crashing the dining room of the same bruschetteria. We enjoyed the tomato and mushroom pie and the famed Italian panini.

Be sure to strike up a conversation with the folks at the next table. It’s here that all the best travel secrets are shared. You might even learn a few valuable Italian phrases to help get you through your vacation. And here’s another hint, even though the tips are usually included in the price of your meal, over-tip your waiters and waitresses. They seem to remember you better on the next visit (and their English improves as well). Also, be sure to check the restaurants’ closing times while planning out your daily itinerary. Some are closed on random days and random hours.

Remember that beach-going Italians call the unspoiled Cinque Terre “home” in those popular, higher priced, warm summer months. Just to be safe, book a room several months in advance and double-check that reservation a week or two out from your vacation. We visited in March and felt like we had the Cinque Terre to ourselves. Those cooler temperatures (Highs: 65-70 degrees) were perfect for all the walking, hiking and stair climbing we did. Finally, make sure you stay at least two nights. You’ll need one full day to appreciate this truly treasured Italian time capsule.

For more information on the Cinque Terre region, visit www.cinqueterreonline.com.

Farrah

November 1, 2005 by  
Filed under Edit

Recently, when we talked, she had just finished a conversation with Joe Jamail, the Houston superstar attorney, who was in Colorado. Her next call was to Washington, concerning copyrights; on her list of calls to make was to an FBI agent in New York and to another Houston attorney, Kent Shaffer. She’s like a corporation, and it takes a lot of work to keep it going. She was anxious to fit in a workout sometime during the day that keeps her body in the “16-year-old” range. She’s been the blonde for the past 30 years, the blonde with the perennial good hair day, the blonde that all would-be blondes emulate and the blonde that everybody in the world recognizes. She’s Farrah Fawcett.

And, why do I liken her to a corporation? We think of her as lolling around in the beautiful club room after a tennis match or shopping on Rodeo Drive, lunching in the Polo Lounge, reading scripts, sipping green tea or champagne, or over at Jose’s having the hair done. Forget it! We’ve all heard the “blonde joke” stories, but this particular blonde has an astronomical IQ and the business savvy of the CEO of a Fortune 500 company.

Her phones never stop. I told her I thought that was good news. But, when you consider that she has to sit through dozens of calls to find the ones of any substance, it gets to be a full-time job. She’s without an assistant right now and pretty overwhelmed.

She has been through an amazingly challenging time the last few years, starting with an earthquake that devastated the house she lived in for 26 years. Wilt Chamberlain’s home, next door, was not damaged, but she had to move out. Even though it’s been a while now, she still has to dig through boxes. She’s also trying to buy a house, but admits she doesn’t quite know how to do it.

I visited the home Farrah refers to with my sons and a contingent of Houston friends for a “Texans in Hollywood” party some years back. What a magnificent home it was – on the top of Mulholland Drive, with racquetball and tennis courts, a gym and swimming pool. I especially loved all her framed magazine covers that lined a breakfast nook and stretched the length of an adjoining hall. All of those photos are still in boxes.

When Farrah’s sister, Diane, developed lung cancer, doctors gave her three months to live. Diane lived for three years, and Farrah felt blessed to be able to sit with her at M.D. Anderson on many visits. Normally, Farrah always has a book, charcoal or pastel pencils with her; but on one particular day, sitting in the waiting room while Diane received her treatment, she had nothing. It was here that she drew her favorite piece of art, what she refers to as a “magical accident” – an orchid, on the back of a Starbucks napkin – and gave it to her sister. When Diane died, it was given back to Farrah, and she treasures it to this day.

As difficult and devastating as it was for Farrah to lose her sister, nothing prepared her for the loss of her mother, Pauline Fawcett, in March. She was Farrah’s best friend, her confidant, her mentor. Farrah describes her mom as delicate, sweet, a real lady and very strong – she always spoke her opinion and often shocked Farrah’s friends. Farrah credits her mother with teaching her to look for and find the good in people. She adds that her mom was somewhat naïve.

It was David Mirisch, a publicist in Los Angeles, who persisted in calling Farrah at the University of Texas for three years before she, purely as an adventure, agreed to go out – “probably for the summer.” Farrah was in her junior year and had majored in microbiology, until she switched to become an art major. Put under contract just weeks after arriving, Farrah was a working actress almost immediately.

Farrah was always very happy and proud to take her parents with her on many amazing trips, such as to England to meet Prince Charles and to meet dignitaries from around the world. Farrah delights in the fact that her parents were always themselves, down-to-earth and real. She recalled that when they met Prince Charles, her dad called him “Chuck.”

While Farrah was born in Corpus Christi, the family moved to Houston when she was a junior at UT. Reflecting that she grew up in a very structured and disciplined environment, she is grateful to her parents for providing her the fundamental values that have served her so well throughout her lifetime. Farrah says her parents taught her to be strong, honest and courageous.

She says that her son, Redmond, would have been more comfortable if they lived in a small apartment. Describing him as a wonderful and talented young man, a great musician and song writer, he reminds her of herself and her dad. “My No.1 goal in life is to love, support and be there for my son. I’m very proud of him. He understands all this attention, when it is work related, but is uncomfortable and very protective when we are just doing life things, like normal people. But, of course, he’s finally realized, it’s not and may never be ‘normal.'” Farrah is well aware that it has not been easy for Redmond to have his mother out there in the public eye.

It was in the late 1960s when that “eye” trained on Farrah, as she began to appear in guest-starring roles in shows such as “I Dream of Jeannie,” “The Flying Nun” and “The Partridge Family.” Her first movie role was in 1969’s “Myra Breckenridge.” She married in 1974. Soon, she posed in a red bathing suit for a poster that sold an astonishing 12 million-plus copies.

In 1976, producers Aaron Spelling and Leonard Goldberg tapped Farrah to star in “Charlie’s Angels,” which quickly became a mega hit show; but Farrah became a phenomenon – a household name in the world. She earned accolades as one of the nation’s favorite female performers – and a People’s Choice Award – for the “Charlie’s Angels” debut. There were “all things Farrah” in marketing items: T-shirts, cups, puzzles, dolls, etcetera. After the first season wrapped, Farrah shocked everyone by leaving the series because of a disagreement with producers over merchandising revenues. They offered Farrah 2.5 percent on merchandising materials when she was already receiving 10 percent from her poster. She stood firm, wanting the 10 percent she perceived to be fair. Producers filed a lawsuit, and after much negotiation, she agreed to return to the series in guest spots for the next two years. During that time, she appeared in three feature films: “Somebody Killed Her Husband,” “Sunburn? and “Saturn 3.”

Divorced in 1980, she began to date actor Ryan O’Neal. It was in 1985 that their son Redmond was born. When they separated in 1997, the couple shared custody of their son, as well as a loving and supportive friendship that has endured to this day.

After consciously turning down “beauty” roles for a year, she finally accepted and won critical acclaim for “Murder in Texas,” based on Tommy Thompson’s book, “Blood and Money.”

One of her boldest moves, and one that required her tough, can-do Texas spirit operating at peak performance, came when Farrah decided to take on the challenging and controversial role of a vengeful rape victim in the Broadway production of “Extremities.” Before making the decision, she called home to talk to her parents. Her agent, Sue Mengers, told her that if she failed in New York, “It’s over.”

Her dad reiterated something he had taught her years before, saying, “It’s not how far you fall, but how quickly you bounce.” Believing that she must never be led by fear and that she must always look for a challenge to change, Farrah jumped headlong into “Extremities.” It became the defining moment in her career, with Broadway critics raving about her performance.

Farrah followed this triumph with a starring role in the miniseries, “Small Sacrifices,” playing Diane Downs, for which she received both Emmy and Golden Globe Award nominations.

Farrah had worked for almost three years to get “The Burning Bed” produced, but it was only after her success in “Extremities” that her persistence paid off. When the made-for-television movie aired starring Farrah as Francine Hughes, a battered wife who murders her husband out of self-defense, it garnered rave reviews and an unprecedented 42 share – a record held for over a decade. “The Burning Bed” was the first television movie to offer victims of domestic abuse help through a nationwide 1 (800) number.

Farrah’s next project was the film version of “Extremities.” Thereafter, Farrah’s acting ability was never questioned. Her pure acting talent had left the skeptics and cynics buried in the dust of the vast critical graveyard.

She starred as Barbara Hutton in the miniseries “Poor Little Rich Girl” and was honored with a Golden Globe nomination. She won the Cable Ace Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of Margaret Bourke-White in the telefilm “The Margaret Bourke-White Story,” based on the life of the legendary LIFE photographer.

In 1978, Playboy magazine ran an issue with Farrah on the cover and inside totally clothed – no nudity. In 1997, she succumbed to the many requests for her to pose in a nude Playboy pictorial, which sold more than four million copies, making it the biggest issue for the ’90s.

Her starring role with Robert Duvall in “The Apostle” earned her a nomination as best actress at the Independent Spirit Awards. It also earned her the deep respect of Robert Duvall, one of the world’s finest actors. He has said of Farrah: “Watching Farrah Fawcett act is like eating caviar.” During the time she worked on the feature film, “Dr. T and The Women,” famed director Robert Altman had this to say to her: “I hired you. Now, do what you do!” Altman paid Farrah the ultimate compliment by allowing her the freedom to try anything.

When David Kelly asked her to do a role on “Ally McBeal,” she immediately agreed because she knew his fine reputation as a writer and the quality of his shows. She felt the same when David Hollander asked her to guest star in the acclaimed CBS drama “The Guardian;” and she was anxious to work with fellow Texan, Dabney Coleman. Farrah received a 2003 Emmy nomination for Best Supporting Actress in a Guest Role.

Artist Keith Edmier grew up in the ’70s, just as Farrah was becoming the symbol of the ideal American woman. Knowing of Farrah’s talent as an artist, his dream was to produce an exhibit featuring Farrah. She agreed on the condition that it would be a collaborative project with a portrait of Keith, as well. Ultimately, they produced what would be the centerpiece of an exhibit: nude sculptures the artists made of each other. Both life-size, a reclining Farrah is done in white marble, a standing Keith Edmier in bronze. The first exhibit was presented at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and because of the great success of the showing, moved to the Warhol Museum. Entitled “Keith Edmier and Farrah Fawcett 2000,” the exhibit includes six sculptures, many photographs, drawings and a book by Rizzoli. Farrah has the distinction of being the only actor to have an exhibition at LACMA, and the exhibit holds the record for most attendance.

Farrah mentioned that in recent months there was a very unflattering story written about her in The National Enquirer. Her agent, who is also her friend, called and advised her not to read it to avoid being upset and stressed. Farrah called her dad and told him that she had just gone through the hardest time of her life, losing her mom; and, that if something like a magazine article could get her down, shame on her.

Farrah always falls back on that good common sense philosophy she learned at home. She realizes that in life, the pendulum swings and remembers her dad saying, “They sanctify you to vilify you.” Actually, Farrah has learned that she can’t control any of it and that she must never get hung up on it. You can hear the sadness in her voice when she speaks of people in her profession who don’t have family and balance in their lives, who so easily find themselves turning to drugs and sinking into deep depression.

In 2003, Farrah was inducted into the Texas Film Hall of Fame for her legendary status on screen and off.

Her latest project, the seven-week reality series from TV Land, “Chasing Farrah,” aired in March and April. She agreed to do the project after asking for and getting assurances that the shows would be real – no editing, no cutting, slicing, clipping, no manipulating.

Two reasons prompted her decision to star in a reality series. As strange as it may seem, she doesn’t have a lot of photos and video of her family and thought this would produce a great treasury of film to leave for her son and his children. She wanted to give a sense of who she is, who her parents are, where they came from, their integrity and strength, their unconditional love for her and their “say what you mean, mean what you say” honesty.

Secondly, she thought it might dispel some myths about her. Often she’s had people in her employ represent her to be difficult or a prima donna, when in fact she’s quite easy going and balanced, with a good sense of humor she attributes to her parents. “Chasing Farrah” was her opportunity to show herself exactly like she is, undiluted and never “unprofessional or bitchy,” like some might like to infer. Obviously, representatives are supposed to encourage and support their clients. In her case, it doesn’t always happen.

And what did I learn from the series? Farrah Fawcett is an icon. There is no place in the world where she can go that she is not followed and big crowds appear. Whether the paparazzi or adoring or curious fans, they clamor for anything “Farrah.” Many have tattoos of her on their person; many have whole rooms or stores of her memorabilia.

“Chasing Farrah” gave the TV Land network a 60 percent increase in ratings and put them on the map. The male demographic, 18-48, went up 100 percent; and women increased 30-40 percent. Reviews were outstanding, with the New York Daily News giving it 3 1/2 stars and the comment “It’s really good.” The Newark Star Ledger wrote “An unexpected sweet, involving series.” US Magazine: “Showing a sweet and vulnerable side of Farrah.” And, STAR: “Somehow you can’t look away.” With “Chasing Farrah” concluded, I asked about her next project. After each project is completed, she likes to pull back, take a look at her choices and see what she wants to do next. That’s where she is now. TV Land will re-run “Chasing Farrah” Nov. 28 through Dec. 5.

Jay Bernstein, often called “Starmaker,” is the manager/producer/public relations executive who has worked with some of the biggest names in Hollywood, starting with the Rat Pack. It was he who was Farrah’s manager at the start of her career, and they have remained good friends throughout the years. Now, back in her professional life, I asked if he has a title. “Not really. I’m working with Farrah in every area. No need for a title.”

He continues, “Farrah is a living legend. When she came upon the scene, she changed the culture of the country. She gave people someone to believe in, someone to root for. She became the symbol of the all-American woman – Women wanted to be her; they wanted their daughters to emulate her; and men wanted to marry her. She became a role model without really realizing it. For 30 years, Farrah Fawcett has been perfect. Being thought of as a “living legend” is not an easy position to be in. But, she has a strength that is rare. And, of course, it comes from her mother and father, who had been married 67 years when Pauline passed away. Farrah is my best friend, and I have more admiration for her than for anyone in the world.”

Actively involved in charity work with the Cancer Society, Farrah also has served as a board member of the National Advisory Council for The National Domestic Violence Hot Line, benefiting the victims of domestic violence.

During one of our conversations, she was rushing to make a plane for New York. What was she taking with her? A poem she wrote a long time ago titled “In Search of an Hour.” It starts: “When fame condescendingly claims you with its seductive tentacled touch, it demands nothing in return … Just everything.”

Two of her favorite thoughts are: “Every day is a good day. Just some days are better.” And, one that she signed in the Rizzoli art book I just received from her: “Life is sweetened by risk.” Farrah Fawcett, living legend, live on, live long, live well. We love you.

Italian Escape

November 1, 2005 by  
Filed under Edit

Are you tired of those typically over-traveled seaside vacation destinations? Hawaii? Bahamas? Cancun? Consider one of Italy’s best-kept secrets, the Cinque Terre, for your next coastal collision.

Located along Italy’s western coast between Pisa and Genoa, the Cinque Terre offers 18 miles of clear blue water, cool sea breezes, water and land sports, which, I think, now includes shopping. But most of all, you’ll find peace and quiet amid the cadence of waves crashing on the rocky shoreline.

The Cinque Terre region (Italian for “five lands”) is primarily made up of five main villages. From north to south, they are Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. These ancient farming and fishing villages are built along the coastal hillsides in what is now the Cinque Terre National Park. The villages’ residents have spared no cliff space over the past few thousand years by building their homes upward, creating these picturesque ascending cliff-scrapers.

Getting here, you can drive to Monterosso al Mare or take the train to any one of the villages, as we did. On this trip, our destination is Riomaggiore, the southernmost village. Once in the Cinque Terre region, you’ll want to pick up a Cinque Terre Card. This park permit serves as a local train pass and allows you unlimited rail service between the villages. These invaluable passes are sold in single-day or various multi-day forms and allow you access to the park’s miles of hiking trails and its water ferry. So, don’t lose it.

There are a few quaint hotels and hostels in some of the villages; however, the majority of the accommodations here are small homes and condos. We stayed in a cozy seaside condo, complete with full bath and kitchen – and the word “cozy” takes on a whole new meaning here. Not only are most homes built on top of each other, they are literally built into the cliffs. Our bedroom came complete with a queen size and single bed, a wardrobe and a granite cliff façade! Our cave-like condo featured its own private veranda, overlooking the sapphire waters of the Mediterranean Sea. This brings us to an old Italian tradition, grab a glass of the region’s red vino, sit back and allow your stresses to slip into the sea.

Believe it or not, travel between these stair-stepping villages can be effortless. Simply validate your train pass (important tip for all Italian train travel), and hop on board a train that connects all five villages. You can zip from village to village in a matter of minutes by riding the rails. In the warmer, high-tourist season (roughly May through September), you may also ride the water ferry from village to village. The ferry will offer amazingly unique views of the ancient vineyards and olive groves.

On the other hand, if you have some comfortable shoes and a little more time, consider traveling by foot. From Riomagiorre, you and your lover can easily stroll north to Manarola along the Via dell’ Amore or “walk of love,” as if you actually needed the translation. However, hiking between the other villages requires a little more effort. Miles of hiking paths wind along these hillside farming terraces. Each turn delivers a well deserved payoff, in the form of one picture postcard moment after another. You’ll walk along the same centuries-old paths used by the olive and wine growers. However, these days, tourists are the trails’ top traveler.

The Cinque Terre has recently been designated a “World Heritage” site. Park officials have done a fantastic job keeping the Cinque Terre in pristine condition. “No littering” signs, caring residents and ecologically conscience visitors have also played a large part. So, please allow me to borrow a phrase from our Lone Star State, “Don’t mess with the Cinque Terre.”

Locals we met along the way, like Monterroso al Mare café shop owner, Giovanni, were very friendly. Don’t be surprised if you hear George Strait blaring away while he’s on duty. This Texan wannabe claims to own every album the artist has released. But he’s never seen him in concert. Why? Giovanni says he’s always had to work in this “oceanfront property” during Strait’s summer Italian tours.

He offers this translation tip for Americans. Instead of ordering a “cup of coffee,” ask for a “café latte.” This substitute offers very strong coffee with milk, to help take a bit of the edge off.

Just outside Giovanni’s shop, on the beach, we decided to sit down with our usual snack of bruschetta and cheese. Entertaining us were some kids playing a pick-up game of football. This school group was here on a field trip from a neighboring inland town. You don’t need to speak their language to realize Italian kids are no different than the kids in America. Here, the Italian boys also try very hard to impress the girls by showing off and goofing around. And the Italian girls, well, they just sit back, look good, and laugh at the boys. Some things are just universal.

As the sun sets and your appetite is whet, venture into any of the villages to catch some more local flavor. Riomaggiore has several restaurants, but like the revisiting waves along the shore, we found ourselves consistently crashing the dining room of the same bruschetteria. I enjoyed the tomato and mushroom pie while my wife, Leah, indulged in the famed Italian panini.

Be sure to strike up a conversation with the folks at the next table. It’s here that all the best travel secrets are shared. You might even learn a few valuable Italian phrases to help get you through your vacation. And here’s another hint, even though the tips are usually included in the price of your meal, over-tip your waiters and waitresses. They seem to remember you better on the next visit (and their English improves as well). Also, be sure to check the restaurants’ closing times while planning out your daily itinerary. Some are closed on random days and random hours.

Remember that beach-going Italians call the unspoiled Cinque Terre “home” in those popular, higher priced, warm summer months. Just to be safe, book a room several months in advance and double-check that reservation a week or two out from your vacation. My wife found ours on the internet. We visited in March and felt like we had the Cinque Terre to ourselves. Those cooler temperatures (Highs: 65-70 degrees) were perfect for all the walking, hiking and stair climbing we did. Finally, make sure you stay at least two nights. You’ll need one full day to appreciate this truly treasured Italian time capsule.

For more information on the Cinque Terre region, visit www.cinqueterreonline.com.

Wish Granted

November 1, 2005 by  
Filed under Edit

Although 7-year-old Armani Artis is battling stage four neuroblastoma (a rare cancer of the nervous system), she is charming, upbeat and lives every day to the fullest. “She is who gets me through this,” says Armani’s mother, Tomika. “Her days are good days, and we’re blessed. Armani treats it like a common cold.” Tomika’s goal is to help Armani maintain the normal life of a young girl, complete with fantasies and dreams, with as little worry about her cancer as possible.

When the Make-A-Wish Foundation of the Texas Gulf Coast asked Armani what her ultimate wish was, she knew exactly what she wanted: to dance with John Travolta. What could be greater than moving around the dance floor with a movie legend? Travolta is a prolific actor and entertainer, starring in such blockbusters as “Grease,” “Look Who’s Talking,” “Get Shorty” and Armani’s favorite, “Saturday Night Fever.” Not to mention, he is an excellent dancer. Tomika was surprised by her daughter’s request, thinking she would wish for a Disney cruise. Armani simply explains, “Because I like him, and he used to make me feel better when I was sick.”

It didn’t take long for the Make-A-Wish Foundation to arrange a day, and a dance, with the superstar. Armani, her mother and her grandmother were whisked away to Clear Water Beach, Fla. for the electrifying day. From the moment they arrived, they got the movie star treatment, complete with a stay in a beautiful luxury hotel. Armani and her grandmother were even picked up by a limousine to drive them to her date with the Urban Cowboy.

Their hour with Travolta was nothing short of pure bliss. As soon as Travolta caught Armani’s eye, she ran up and gave him the biggest hug she could. Her eyes were sparkling with joy, and her giddiness filled the room. “When she gets excited, she gets the giggles,” says Armani’s grandmother, “She had the giggles to no end. She was so happy.”

Armani and John talked up a storm and danced the hour away. They got down to the Black Eyed Peas; at one point he picked her up to tango just like he did with Uma Thurman in “Pulp Fiction.” Travolta shared that he enjoys walking barefoot on the beach, especially when the sun rises and sets. He asked Armani about her family and her favorite things – including the movies that she likes. They talked about his family’s special tradition – he and his children create handmade presents for each other. Every day that he is home, they exchange their gifts in a “mini-Christmas” celebration.

“He told me about his daughters and Oprah,” says the little girl. “I love Oprah.” Travolta talked to Armani about his close relationship with Oprah Winfrey, the famed talk show host, and about the tea set he gave to her for her 50th birthday. He wanted to get her something special, and remembered how much his mother had treasured partaking in afternoon tea – so, he shared the sentiment with Oprah.

Armani’s grandmother was thrilled to see the fun Armani and Travolta were having together. “He is a wonderful person – nice, polite, soft spoken.” Armani later returned to her mother exclaiming, “Mom! That was the best hour of my life!”

That night, Armani and her family went to dinner to celebrate the end of a very special day. After dinner, the restaurant staff presented Armani with a special gift – a beautiful tea set of her own. Now, Armani feels just as special as Oprah and Mrs. Travolta.

Since returning to Houston, Armani continues to brighten everyone’s day with her gleaming smile and contagious giggle. She has taken up Travolta’s custom of making gifts for those she loves and gives her presents to other children in the hospital. For Armani, every day is holiday worthy of a celebration.

The Make-A-Wish Foundation is a non-profit organization that grants the wishes of children who, like Armani, are diagnosed with a life-threatening disease. Their mission is to encourage joy and bring hope to the lives of these brave children and their families. For more information about this charity, visit www.wish.org.

Celebrate the Holidays

November 1, 2005 by  
Filed under Edit

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston has a unique American decorative arts “wing,” in that it is actually a house. Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens houses the art collection donated by Ima Hogg. You won’t want to miss the beautiful gardens on this 14-acre estate. Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens is a must-see for all Houstonians.

History
Bayou Bend was originally Houston philanthropist Ima Hogg’s estate. Hogg is best known for her American decorative arts collection, but was also very involved in Bayou Bend’s architecture and gardens. Prominent architect John F. Staub designed the home, which was built between 1927 and 1928, for Hogg and her brothers. She intended the gardens to be used as outdoor rooms for entertaining, rather than just gardens to be viewed from the house.

She donated Bayou Bend and her art collection to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston in 1957 with the intention of it becoming a museum. Ima Hogg continued to add to the collection until her death in 1975. She hoped that “Bayou Bend may serve as a bridge to bring us closer to the heart of an American heritage which unites us.” The American decorative arts are displayed in 28 period room settings at Bayou Bend.

Ultimate entertainment
From Nov. 17-Jan. 1, Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens will hold their annual Yuletide celebration in which the home and gardens are lavishly decorated for the holidays. This year’s celebration, appropriately dubbed That’s Entertaining!, will feature eight historical scenes of early American celebrations from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, ranging from formal dinners to intimate family gatherings.

Tours
There are many touring options at Bayou Bend. The holiday favorite is the Candlelight Open House nights, Nov. 25, Dec. 2 and 9, which allow visitors to experience Bayou Bend by soft candlelight. Amid period music, guests listen to the docents explain the holiday settings and customs of the times seen throughout the first floor of the house. Another option is the Audio Tour, in which visitors may go on self-guided tours of the entire house with the audio and written descriptions of the rooms on the first floor.

On Yuletide Family Day, guests can enjoy the tour of the Yuletide rooms of the first floor and the holiday performances outside. Visitors are also invited to create one-of-a-kind holiday decorations. (Family Day is free!)

Complete tours of the downstairs and upstairs rooms are also available. They are led by docents and include both the Yuletide rooms and the decorative arts that are on view throughout the year. Reservations are required for this tour.

When to go
Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens is beautiful year-round! The holiday season offers a unique look at Bayou Bend, as well as American History. Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens, 1 Wilcott St., (713) 639-7750, www.mfah.org/bayoubend H

Christian Community Service Center

November 1, 2005 by  
Filed under Edit

Many Houstonians don’t know where to turn when they find themselves in dire straits – lacking food, clothing and money. In their time of desperation, many of them turn to the Christian Community Service Center.

The center is a coalition of 38 Houston-area churches joined together to form a community-based non-profit organization with more than 1,900 volunteers serving more than 25,000 Houstonians. As a member of the Better Business Bureau, the center received an Honorable Mention in a new non-profit organization category in 2001, was the outstanding small Houston-area non-profit organization in 2003 and was awarded the Pinnacle Award for “superior commitment to ethics, overall excellence and quality in the workplace” in 2005.

Fast response
Helping neighbors get on their feet, Emergency Services provides a three-day supply of food, clothing and limited financial assistance to disadvantaged Houstonians. A resource book is maintained to ensure clients are referred to agencies that provide long-term assistance. Emergency Services aided 19,051 people last year; 51 percent of them were children. For those assisted by Emergency Services, the aid provided is a godsend.

Office politics
For the unemployed and underemployed, finding a job can be a frustrating process. The CCSC’s JobNet program alleviates some of this frustration by providing a computer learning center, business periodicals and use of office equipment and supplies. Jobseekers also find computer training, career/resume consulting, mock interviews and job search coaches at JobNet. Last year, 663 unemployed and underemployed clients were assisted by JobNet, and 54 percent of their clients found employment.

Emerging entrepreneurs
For needy Houstonians with an entrepreneurial spirit, the Martha’s Way program provides training to prepare participants to run an independent housekeeping business. This program provides the education, hands-on training and support needed to get started. With technical and business skills training available, graduates are prepared to effectively operate their own business. With help from the Martha’s Way program, 60 clients became small business owners in the field of domestic housekeeping last year.

Back to class
Houston children faced with starting school without basic school supplies and clothing turn to the CCSC Back to School program. Each participating child receives a voucher for a new school uniform, shoes, gently worn clothing and school supplies. The registration and distribution process takes two days so that qualifying children get the supplies they need quickly. The Back to School program assisted more than 4,000 children this past August to ensure their school year started off on the right foot.

Happy holidays
Many disadvantaged children’s Christmas dreams are turned into reality through the Jingle Bell Express Program. This program enables parents to “shop” the Jingle Bell Express “store” and choose one or two toys for each child, and they also receive books, including a Bible. The family is then given food for a real holiday meal. This program currently provides Christmas cheer to more than 3,000 children from more than 900 families.

Crystal clear
Due to financial constraints, many underprivileged children are unable to get vision screening, but the Louise J. Moran Vision Care Program is trying to change that by offering eye screenings at many HISD elementary school campuses for qualifying children. Follow-up exams are provided by the University of Houston’s University Eye Institute. Last year, 105 children received professional eye exams, and 94 students received new prescription eyeglasses. Several students had scratched corneas and other severe conditions that could have led to partial or complete blindness if not discovered.

Shop with a cause
At the Sunshine Resale Shop, the CCSC is able to raise funds to help those in need and also provide quality clothing and household items for families on a limited income. Volunteers sort, price and sell donated items, which accounted for 27 percent of the 2004 revenue. The Sunshine Resale Shop is a wonderful way for the CCSC to raise funds and help the community at the same time.

Raising funds
The Christian Community Service Center appreciates all donations and offers various ways of giving. Monetary and clothing donations are always appreciated (especially larger sizes!). You may also help the CCSC by shopping at Kroger or Randalls with a Share Card available at the CCSC. Additionally, there are many volunteer opportunities available for individuals and groups. H

Ultimate Eyes

November 1, 2005 by  
Filed under Edit

The H Texas Ultimate Makeover continues with the doctors at the Diagnostic Eye Center, who have two offices, one in the Greenway Plaza area and one in the museum district. Our contestant Kathy was thrilled that an eye component had been added to the Ultimate Makeover, because, just recently, she’d noticed more difficulty seeing at night.

Although Lasik surgery is a big part of Diagnostic Eye Center’s founder Marc Sanders’ practice, he doesn’t think Kathy is a good candidate. Her eye sight is 20/30, which is good enough to see most things. Instead, he suggests a full eye exam and a set of contacts. Kathy is relieved to hear that Dr. Sanders says her eyesight isn’t too bad and admits she hasn’t had her eyes checked since she was 12. “Most people are like Kathy,” says Dr. Sanders. “They haven’t had their eyes checked since they were in school. Once you are out of school, you should have your eyes checked every five years; and if you have glasses, every year.”

A complete eye exam involves looking at the retina. “There can be eye problems that you’re not even aware of,” explains Dr. Sanders. A look at the retina can give insight into a patient’s general health – sometimes diabetes or high blood pressure can be detected. Also, due to the amount of computer work we do today, Dr. Sanders looks for signs of computer vision syndrome.

Dr. Sanders explains that the shape of the eye isn’t perfectly round; it curves more in one direction. Everyone’s eyes do this, but when it reaches a certain level, it needs to be corrected. Kathy has a slight astigmatism that causes her eyes to dilate and let in more light. Contacts can correct this. Overall, Dr. Sanders thinks Kathy’s eyes look great.

Now, it’s time for Dr. Aric Welton to fit Kathy for contact lenses. He briefly explains that soft lenses are more comfortable, and hard lenses offer enhanced clarity. He recommends soft lenses for Kathy. Once fitted with the lenses, he checks her vision once more to make sure the prescription is exactly correct. Since contact lenses are closer to the eye than glasses, this can affect the prescription slightly. You can actually leave the office with contact lenses the day you are fitted for them – unless you’re like Kathy, and you request a special color. She tries several shades until she finds a shade of green that really enhances her eye color. “Why not make a dramatic change?” asks Kathy.

Dr. Welton very patiently teaches Kathy how to put her contacts on. “When they first go in, it feels like you have an eyelash in your eye,” he says. Adding that the eyes will water, and things will be blurry, but it clears up quickly.

With her new lenses, Kathy sees better at night, and there is less glare while driving. And it’s fun to have a new eye color! H

Pistol Packing Drivers Houstonians use caution when honking their horns

October 1, 2005 by  
Filed under Blogs, Hot Button / Lynn Ashby

THE INTERSECTION – Look at that idiot. He (or she, with those heavily tinted car windows, it’s hard to tell the driver’s gender or even the species) is running a red light. Where is a cop? Or even a camera, so the lawbreaker could get an admonishing note from the HPD? So I honk and think of Carol Harris.

My noise-making is unusual because we don’t actually hear much honking around Houston, certainly not like in New York City where every intersection is an official Taxi Cab Honking Zone, often accompanied by gestures and shouts in Bangladeshi and/or Swahili. No, in Houston we rarely hear Gabriel or anyone else blowing his horn. There is a simple reason for this: fear. A honk in Houston is a call to arms, a request to play target, a road to rage. How many times have we read in the newspapers about gunfire being exchanged by two motorists after one driver, quite within his or her God-given powers, gets cut off and answers the challenge with a blast from an AK-47? It’s the Texas way. I often think our state motto should be: “Shoot Friendly” or “One Car, One Gun.”

To be fair, former DA Johnny Holmes once estimated that only one out of every three motorists in Houston was armed, but that was before the State Legislature, in its wisdom, passed the Concealed Weapons Act. It is based on our Second Amendment right to keep and bear bazookas. So today, the ratio for handguns-to-glove-compartments is, indeed, probably one to one.

There are many reasons Houston drivers defend themselves from marauding motorists. For example, if you leave a little space between your vehicle and the car in front so you won’t rear-end it in case of a quick stop, you can be guaranteed that another car will jam in between you two, thus making you drop back even farther. Also, there are cases of blatant use of turn signals. In Houston, using your turn indicator is frowned upon.

More grounds for anger mismanagement are those phone users who cannot walk and chew gum at the same time, thus they can’t drive and talk simultaneously. These drivers are easy to spot: They have a long black phone cord running out their trunk. But the worst motorists on our roads, the ones we see speeding, weaving, driving and endangering everyone else, are called “wrecker drivers.”

There are certain vehicles to avoid challenging. First are those whose hood ornaments are a sniper-scope with cross hairs. The same goes for pickup trucks with tail-gunners. We’ve all seen those bumper stickers reading: “Keep honking, I’m re-loading.” Others to watch for are: “I’d Rather Be Knee-Capping” and “Ask Me About My Parole.”

On the other hand, there is one occasion which I now think qualifies as justifiable honking: the red-light runners. They are dangerous, discourteous and their numbers multiply by the day while knocking off the rest of us at the same rate. So I have taken to blasting my horn at these jerks with all my might, but one must be very, very careful because conditions have to be explicit. I must be in the lead car stopped at a red light. If I am behind the lead car then my musical rebuke might be taken by the driver in front as saying, “The light turned green, dummy, so start through the intersection. Never mind the danger.” Such a mistaken belief of my impatience can lead to unpleasant repercussions, not to mention concussions. This reaction is understandable. If I am the lead car, and the motorist behind me starts blasting his horn the moment the light turns green, that could be a legal basis for my quick use of a tire iron.

Perhaps if red-light runners were greeted by resounding honking from other motorists, the miscreants would feel guilty and mend their ways. Dream on, for we are dealing with a cretin who has the manners of a sewer rat. Still, it would make everyone else feel better by releasing a little pent-up fury. If my honk-at-the-heathens program fails to solve the problem, we could turn to City Hall for a solution. Mayor Bill White’s plans to put cameras at major intersections to snap photos of red-light runners is moving along, so maybe we could take his idea one step further and shoot those who endanger the rest of us with something stronger than cameras. I suggest a Taser.

All of which brings us to Carol Harris of Oakland, Calif. Harris was driving down a street when she spotted a labor union’s picketing outside the Claremont Resort and Spa in protest against rising health care costs and other issues. So she, as do all of us at one time or another, honked in support, as if to say, “Right on!” She then joined almost 40 motorists who were ticketed by the police for “unreasonable use of horn,” specifically violating a California Vehicle Code section prohibiting the use of horns except “when reasonably necessary to insure safe operation” of vehicles or as part of a theft-prevention system. She was fined $143, but appealed, saying the police violated her First Amendment rights.

I don’t think of honking as a First Amendment issue, but when it comes to red- light runners, I should be covered by the Second Amendment. H

Santa Fe

October 1, 2005 by  
Filed under Travel Blog

A short journey west yields otherworldly relaxation

The history
The history of Santa Fe is quite unique with its mixture of Indian, Latino and Anglo cultures. Although they do intermingle, each culture remains distinct. With eight sovereign Pueblo Indian communities, this is a land rich in tribal tradition and ceremony. Upon witnessing the dances and feast days of the Pueblos, visitors come to appreciate their centuries-old way of life. The Latino history here can be easily spotted with its adobe mission churches scattered throughout this land. Many of the artists also continue the traditions of the past by using traditional natural mediums, such as wood and natural pigments, to create artworks to adorn homes and churches.

The vibe
Santa Fe speaks to you. Whether in the center of town or in the mountainous exterior, the holistic energy surrounding this land has summoned people here for many years. The feeling lingering from the pueblo culture is one of healing, calmness and tranquility. Homes and businesses sport the adobe style that blends perfectly with the beautiful desert landscape. The many restaurants offer a variety of flavorful foods to tantalize your taste buds.

The feel
The healing atmosphere leads to some of the most revered spas around. Ten Thousand Waves is known worldwide for massage. It’s no wonder that the local school of massage provides a training ground for people who are devoted to healing and helping. After training, it’s hard for them to leave

Santa Fe – thank goodness.
A short 10 minutes from the city’s main square, the Bishop’s Lodge has played host to generations of families as they relaxed together, enjoying horseback riding, skeet shooting and dining.

A new addition to the Bishop’s Lodge is the ShaNah Spa, an intimate and cozy healing center, located just next to the pool. The Ayurvedic menu of offerings center on the balance of the mind and body; channeling this 5,000-year-old “Science of Life” established in India.

Before you select a treatment, start by discovering your dosha type. If you’ve never heard of a dosha, as I hadn’t, it’s the Ayurvedic measurement of your mental and physical characteristics – the right treatment is said to “align your dosha.” To determine your dosha type, a simple quiz is given with questions about your hair, weight, activity level and many other aspects of your life.

At the ShaNah Spa, it is the therapists who take this spa to the next level and make the treatments especially memorable. The Paprika facial came with a personal testimonial. Upon receiving this treatment for the first time, my facialist changed her major from education to beauty – just so she could administer this facial. She made the right choice.

The stimulating paprika and natural alpha hydroxy acids were tingly, yet not painful. Throughout this facial, you are certain it is working – something is going on – perhaps a little boost of elasticity? Positive effects of this facial can be felt for 10 days.

Don’t head to Santa Fe to have just another deep tissue massage. Opt for a one-of-a-kind treatment like a Cranial Sacral. Even the name made me wonder. Inside your body, between the cranium and the sacrum, your body holds cerebral-spinal fluid. While lying on your back, the therapist gently touches your back and neck. Quietly, she “listens” to your body. Any ailments are made known as she connects to your cerebral-spinal fluid. Slowly, she massages parts of your body “as they speak to her.” All the while you experience deep relaxation and a renewed sense of balance, all the way to the core of your being.

When to go
Is it the altitude or the attitude that makes this one of the best balloon festivals in the world? Oct. 1-9 marks the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. If you’re in Santa Fe, wake up early for the hour drive to Albuquerque. Even if you’re afraid of heights, riding in a hot air balloon is simply divine. The mass ascension begins at 7:15 a.m. – so get there early. First-time riders are met with champagne upon landing. Cheers! H

Essentials
– Ten Thousand Waves, 3451 Hyde Park Road, Santa Fe, (505) 982-9304, www.tenthousand waves.com – Bishops Lodge, 1297 Bishops Lodge Road, Santa Fe, (505) 983-6377, 1 (800) 732-2240, www.bishopslodge.com – ShaNah Spa, 1297 Bishops Lodge Road, Santa Fe, (505) 819-4000, www.shanahspa.com – Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, 4401 Alameda N.E., Albuquerque, (505) 821-1000, 1 (888) 422-7277, www.balloonfiesta.com – Santa Fe Convention &Visitors Bureau, (505) 955-62001, 1 (800) 777-2489, www.santafe.org

Get Rich Quick

October 1, 2005 by  
Filed under Edit

My last attempt at getting rich quick did not work out. I thought the Jeff Make-a-Skilling Investment Fund would prosper. The SEC saw it differently. My tickets to the Houston Texans Super Bowl Victory Banquet were not moving. I tried to sell club memberships on KSEV for my Friends of Smog, only to find that its listener had been arrested as a Nazi war criminal. My idea of creating a Ukrainian accordion quartet to serenade romantic interludes bombed, as well.

So I visited my financial adviser. “Did you follow my recommendation and buy New Orleans Levee bonds?” he asked, as he pushed his grocery cart along the freeway median, stopping every so often to pick up an empty beer can.

“Yes,” I said, “and I lost it all.”

“Timing is everything,” he said. “You’ve got to know when to fold. Which reminds me, you did buy into the Texas Hold ‘Em craze, didn’t you?”

“No. You said to sell, because Texas Hold ‘Em was a brief fad, but you said to buy into the low carb diet craze. I did that, just before it went belly up.”

“At least the belly was flat,” he said while eyeing a bent Coors can. “Buy into restaurants. Everybody who is anybody is investing in restaurants.”

So I opened a Parisian bakery only to have it invaded by the German beer garden next door. I ran up a white flag. Still in a Gaulish mood, I launched a French Quarter café called the K-Jun and served beans and red rice. No one came. Only then did I learn the proper meal is red beans and rice. Making one last attempt, I filled the café ceiling-high with toxic water and empty promises. Zero. Sticking with a New Orleans theme, I changed the name to the Big Greasy. No luck.

“You’re on the right track,” my financial adviser said, while rolling a joint with his old Enron stock certificate. “You’ve got 200,000 new Houstonians from Louisiana, give or take a pirogue-load. Make them feel at home.”

I rented the Astrodome, surrounded it with heavily armed looters and served cold MREs. The operation went broke. My final thrust at corralling the Louisiana crowd was to open a FEMA restaurant. Place your order on Monday, and it will arrive at least by Saturday. One customer said my sub sandwich tasted like a soggy sandbag. I didn’t have the heart to tell him it was.

My Tex-Mex restaurant, Borderline Food, was closed after the immigration agents raided my kitchen. They let my staff stay but deported the food.

Next, I tried a Good Cop, Bad Cop Doughnut shop with the slogan, “Take a truncheon to luncheon.” I was arrested for impersonating a cook.

“Think topical,” my financial adviser said between valet parking cars at Luby’s. That’s when I opened the Gas Station Café, complete with fake pumps, long lines and no service. But I went broke because I had to buy new menus every hour to list the higher prices. Still, that bankruptcy gave me an idea, and I started up the Señor Rita, a Tex-Mex restaurant catering to Houston’s returning hurricane evacuees. The place had no restrooms, all the lines were jammed except for those going the other way that were totally empty, and customers had to wait 10 hours for their food. It folded in 11 hours.

Then I got this great idea for the Hurricane Evacuation Plan Speedway, but the idea had already been copyrighted by Mayor Bill White. Staying topical, I opened the Bush Blame Game Pool Hall. The rules were that nobody lost and the more they screwed up, the more they were promoted. It was timely, but the Health Department accused me of creating a topical depression.

Next I held the grand opening for a home-cooking diner called Desperate Houseboys. The customers were desperate to leave. Then I tried the bar business. My saloon with a Roman theme, the Gin & Tunic, lasted XVII days. My English pub, the Fat Fergie, didn’t do much better. I tried to open an Irish-Taliban bar, the O’Sama bin Laden, but was strafed by the Air Force. My topless bar for Palestinians, the Gaza Strip, was leveled during a fight between Jewish settlers and the Israeli Army.

“I’m not getting rich quick,” I whined to my financial adviser, as he was peddling his Y2K Computer Protectors on the street corner.

“Politics is the key,? he said. “Politics is always hot.”

“Isn’t “politics” plural?” I asked.

“This is a one-party state,” he explained.

That’s when I opened my One Grandma’s Tough Steak House. I guess it was the wrong choice of words. The Rick Perry Beauty Parlor didn’t do much better. My Tom DeLay Charm School bombed, too.

As a last desperate effort, I checked with my financial adviser, who was re-filling the “For your protection” paper holders in the last stall. “I’ve tried everything,” I said, “but even if I do hit it big, how will I know when I’m rich?”

“Easy. When you stop paying taxes.”
“Thanks, Mr. Lay.” H

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