Saturday, May 31, 2008
We still don't have a definitive cause of death and we still don't have a death certificate. It will probably be a couple of weeks before we have either of those, which is annoying because we really would like to know exactly why my mother-in-law isn't with us anymore.
Lori has been holding up well, all things considered. She's trying to be strong for the rest of her family, but it's obvious that she is still struggling to come to terms with what has happened and she is understandably depressed. She tells me that sometimes she feels like she doesn't want to "keep going;" that she just wants to crawl into bed and stay there. But she knows she has no choice but to move forward, even if it's just one day at a time.
We're keeping a close eye on her dad as well; he's been staying busy, trying to keep himself occupied, but I suppose he's still in a state of shock. We don't let him be alone for any length of time.
Last Thursday was Lori's youngest brother Jacob's high school graduation ceremony: a bittersweet occasion, to say the least. Many family members attended, and we cheered as loudly as we could when he walked across the stage. Even though nothing could compensate for the fact that his mother wasn't there to see him walk, the smile on his face as he received his diploma indicated that he appreciated our presence.
It won't be easy and it won't be fun - losing a parent is devastating, period - but the time has come for Lori and her family to reorganize and to move on. The process of reorganization, as it is known in grief theory, is the assimilation of loss and the redefinition of life and meaning without the person that has been lost. We know that life will never be quite the same, and the lost loved one will never be replaced, but a new life - a new concept of what is "normal" - will eventually emerge. Death is a basic component of the human experience, but so are adaptiveness and resiliency. We move on.
My project manager in Dubai wants me to return as soon as possible, but it's going to be another couple of weeks before I can get back there. There's just too much - reorganization or otherwise - going on here in Houston right now.
Thursday, May 22, 2008
My mother-in-law's obituary ran in the print edition of the Wednesday May 21, 2008 Houston Chronicle. Because I do not know how long Cindy's obit will be accessible online (and because I think there were a couple of aspects of her life which were not mentioned in the printed obit), I am posting a "permanent" version of my mother-in-law's obituary here:
SYNTHIA MARIE HARDING STEVENS departed this life on Sunday, the 18th day of May 2008 at the age of 56. Cindy was born in Houston, Texas on the 6th of August 1951. She was the daughter of Kirby and Charldeen Harding, who currently reside in Santa Fe, Texas. Synthia graduated from San Jacinto High School and attended Sam Houston State University. At the time of her death, Cindy was an an employee of the Michael E. DeBakey Veterans Administration Medical Center in Houston. She was a devoted wife, mother, grandmother, daughter, and a loyal friend and co-worker.
Cindy is survived by her parents; her husband, Larry Dee Stevens; daughter Lori Deanne Gray; son William Daniel; daughter Lorena Jeanette; son Jacob Wade; and her two beautiful grandchildren Cheyenne Danielle Stevens and Kirby Benton Gray. She also leaves behind sisters Sandra Wicker, Sherri Cass and Sharlene Bailey, sisters-in-law Lorena Lightfoot and Linda McNeel, and brothers-in-law Gary Stevens and Paul Stevens.
Funeral services will be held at 1:30PM on Wednesday the 21st of May, 2008 at Houston National Cemetery Chapel, 10410 Veterans Memorial Dr., Houston, Texas 77038. Friends and family will be received at the home of Lori and Thomas Gray, 4380 Varsity Lane, Houston Texas 77004 following the ceremony at 3PM.
Monday, May 19, 2008
They are still not really sure what caused Cindy to collapse - they believe it was a stroke - but she never regained conciousness, never showed any response to any stimulus tests, and lost the ability to breathe on her own.
Today, Lori informed me that they had decided that there was nothing else they could do for her mom, and that she was being taken off of life support.
I really don't have anything else to say right now. I'm numb. My only thought is that I need to get home. Bigtime props to the assistant here in the Dubai office that handles travel arrangements; she managed to get me on tomorrow morning's Emirates nonstop to Houston.
Right before I returned to Dubai a couple of weeks ago, I picked Lori's mom up from her work and drove her out to my in-laws' house. Lori's dad then took me to Intercontinental so I could catch my flight. Her mom and I had a nice conversation in the car. Who knew that would be the last time I would ever talk to her?
I'll provide further details on this blog as I am able. In the meantime, please keep Lori and her family in your thoughts.
Sunday, May 18, 2008
Removing or relocating old and unsightly urban freeways is not a new phenomenon. The Westside Highway in New York City and Harbor Drive in Portland were both demolished way back in 1974. But in recent years the idea of removing or replacing urban freeways has gained considerable traction, and more cities are looking into the possibility. This is because many urban freeways built in the 1950s and 1960s have come to the end of their design lives. As the topic of urban freeway replacement arises, so too does the discussion as to how to best go about doing so.
Oklahoma City is doing what many cities dream about: saying goodbye to a highway.
More than a dozen cities have proposals to remove highways from downtowns. Cleveland wants to remove a freeway that blocks its waterfront. Syracuse, N.Y., wants to rid itself of an interstate that cuts the city in half.
Should the new freeway be built in the same place or in the same manner? For example, can an existing above-grade freeway be rebuilt as a trench that can be "capped" by a park or other amenity? The usatoday.com article focuses on the relocation and reconstruction of Interstate 40 through Oklahoma City - currently an elevated structure - into a new trench a few blocks to the south of the existing structure. The corridor which the existing freeway occupies will be turned into a linear park, and the hope is that the surrounding neighborhoods will redevelop.
Other cities are taking the question a step further, asking if the freeway should even be rebuilt at all. In some cases, the answer is"no." That especially seems to be true for freeways that run along waterfronts:
Not a lot of people know that early highway plans for New Orleans included a freeway that would run along the east bank of the Mississippi River. Fortunately, that never happened; could you imagine what that city would be like if there was a huge freeway between Jackson Square and the Mississippi?
Many unpopular highways run along rivers or lakes. The path made sense when they were built because the route was flat, in existing rights-of-way and connected highways and busy ports. Now, especially in old, industrial cities, waterfronts are often vacant, leaving the prettiest scenery blighted by highways carrying traffic passing through.
Cleveland wants to convert its West Shoreway, next to Lake Erie, from a 50-mph freeway into a tree-lined boulevard. "There was less appreciation for the scenic value of waterfront when the shoreway was built," says Cleveland Planning Commission director Robert Brown. "We need to connect the city to its parks and
Perhaps the best example of the benefits that can be realized by removing a waterfront freeway occurred in San Francisco, when the Embarcadero freeway was pulled down following the Loma Preita earthquake in October 1989. But physically removing a waterfront freeway is not the only option available; hiding the freeway underneath a park, as was done to I-35 in Duluth, Minnesota, is another possibility. It will be interesting to see what cities like Cleveland and Seattle, which is currently debating the future of the aging Alaskan Way Viaduct, actually end up doing to their waterfront freeways.
Some people are of the opinion that virtually all urban freeways should be torn down:
"Highways don't belong in cities. Period," says John Norquist, who was mayor of Milwaukee when it closed a highway. "Europe didn't do it. America did. And our cities have paid the price."I'm not sure I completely agree here. While it is true that the construction of freeways through our nation's urban areas has destroyed and divided historic inner-city neighborhoods (especially low-income and minority communities, since that's where right-of-way acquisition was cheapest), the fact is that, in the fifty or sixty years since they first started to be constructed, these structures have become a key part of the city's transportation network. Aside from the fact that it's not politically feasible to tear down every urban freeway in any case, ridding our nation's cities of all of their freeways would make them less accessible, more congested (simply due to the loss of vehicle capacity that highways provide) and more difficult to navigate. Removing a spur is one thing; removing a major trunk freeway (I-10 through Houston, for example) is something entirely different.
There's nothing, however, that prevents cities from diminishing the negative impacts of urban freeways through other means, as places like Phoenix (Margaret Hance park over I-10), Seattle (Freeway Park over I-5) and Duluth have done and as Oklahoma City is planning to do. As folks in the highway business point out, the dilemma of the urban freeway has to be addressed on a case-by-case basis:
Doug Currey, regional director of the New York State Department of Transportation, says taking down urban highways is sometimes the right thing to
do — and sometimes not.
"No two situations are exactly alike," says Currey, who oversees highways in the New York City area.
As urban freeways reach the end of their useful lifespans and require rehabilitiation, opportunities to make urban highways that are less disruptive to the urban fabric arise. Oklahoma City is just one of many urban areas that is currently seizing this opportunity and, in the process, attempting to right a wrong imposed on our nation's cities half a century ago when these highways were first built. As somebody who has researched this topic extensively, it is gratifying for me to see.
This highway-removal-advocacy website is interesting to read, even though I'm not sure I agree with everything in it. Kuff's take on the article is here.
Wednesday, May 14, 2008
Ron Stone, who anchored the news on KPRC TV for 20 years and was a Houston broadcasting legend, passed away from prostate cancer on Tuesday with his family by his side, KPRC Local 2 reported.
Stone, who turned 72 on April 6, spent more than 30 years on the air in Houston.
He was a daily fixture for KPRC viewers from 1972 until he retired in 1992 and formed a production company. Prior to that, Stone worked at KHOU TV for 10 years.
This comes as a shock to me - I did not know that Stone had been battling cancer.
I'm also pretty pretty bummed.
At the risk of sounding cheesy and cliché, a part of my childhood has literally died. This is because I grew up watching Ron Stone. His face and his voice were nightly fixtures in our household.
Younger people and recent transplants to Houston who have been exposed to the sensationalist claptrap that is KPRC's news programming today might not believe this, but back in the 70s and most of the 80s, Channel 2 actually had a decent local newscast. A big reason for that was Ron Stone. He anchored KPRC's five o'clock newscast along with weathercaster Doug Johnson and sportscaster Ron Franklin (who now works for ESPN) and also hosted KPRC's The Eyes of Texas program on Sundays. The Oklahoma native had a folksy, personable demeanor and a wry sense of humor but he nevertheless managed to report with a sense of earnest professionalism that seems to have all but disappeared from local TV news today. Stone was familiar and reassuring, even during times of crisis (Hurricane Alicia, 1983) or tragedy (Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, 1986). In addition to serving as a TV anchor, Stone was also an author, a documentary producer and, occassionally, a field reporter, filing stories from places like Lebanon and Berlin.
Growing up, I regarded Stone as something of a friendly authority figure; a familiar and trusted personality that appeared in our TV room every evening. His on-air persona was such that, even though I never met him, I felt like I knew him well.
And that's why, today, it honestly feels like somebody close to me has died.
Like Marvin Zindler, Ron Stone was a Houston TV icon that will never be replaced. The City of Houston is poorer for his loss.
Sunday, May 11, 2008
Every morning, breakfast is served in the hotel restaurant. It's the same food every day, and I could do without the bland, pre-made mini-omelets or the putrid instant coffee (seriously, the Middle East is supposed to be the birthplace of coffee, and they're serving Nescafe!). But some of the dishes, like the ginger stir-fried vegetables and the freshly-made hummous, are actually quite good, and since the breakfast is included in the price of the room, which is paid for by the company, I might as well take advantage of what for me is a free breakfast.
Except that the staff of said restaurant seems determined to make me not want to eat there. That's because they have a very annoying habit of playing these same six songs on a continuous loop almost every morning:
Phil Collins and Marilyn Martin, "Separate Lives"Quite frankly, I'm amazed that I'm able to keep my breakfast down while being exposed to that crap. Needless to say, on the days these songs are playing I have to eat as quickly as I can so as to limit the amount of time subjected to this hideous form of sound torture.
Kenny Rogers, "She Believes in Me"
Phil Collins, "Against All Odds"
Klymaxx, "I Miss You"
Kelly Clarkson, "Because of You"
Lionel Richie, "Truly"
The amazing thing is that the waitstaff clearly adore these tunes. Especially the one Filipina waitress who stands at the servers' station, folding napkins and singing along to every one of these tunes, every time they play. I simply cannot comprehend how somebody could enjoy listening to THE SAME SIX CRAPPY SONGS over and over and over again, but, obviously, they do.
Which means that my breakfasts at the hotel restaurant will continue to be an unpleasant sonic experience for the duration of my time here in Dubai.
Denton Mayor Perry McNeill and rival Mark Burroughs are headed for a runoff after neither secured a majority of the vote in Saturday’s mayoral race.Mark Burroughs, a former councilmember, received 1,620 votes, or 48.6 percent of the total, in yesterday's ballot. Perry McNeill received 1,305 votes, or 39.2. The fact that Burroughs came just 46 votes short of winning the election outright clearly gave McNeill cause for concern:
Two other candidates, businessman Justin Bell and college student Darac Favre, combined to receive about 12 percent of the 3,330 votes cast — preventing either McNeill or Burroughs from reaching 50 percent and extending a bruising campaign for another month.
McNeill, 72, a retired professor and engineer who is seeking a second term, said Saturday’s results surprised him. He is trying not to become the first mayor since 1990 to lose a re-election bid.
“I thought we might win outright, but that’s fine,” McNeill said. “We’ll just go forward.”
I've always thought of both Perry and Mark as amicable people, so it comes as some surprise to me that this mayoral election has apparently been one of the uglier ones in Denton's recent political history. McNeill and Burroughs, as well as concilmember Pete Kamp, faced lawsuits related to the city's interpretation of its term limits. Burroughs came under conflict-of-interest scrutiny related to the work his law firm does for the city, and the amount of money he spent in the campaign ($45,000, compared to McNeill's $16,600) also became an issue. For Burroughs, that worked out to just under $28 per vote in another poorly-participated local election.
McNeill expressed disappointment with the turnout, which represented about 6 percent of Denton’s 55,289 registered voters. He said he would continue to campaign on his record. “I think I have a good record, and I’m surprised we didn’t have more folks recognize that,” McNeill said. “So I’m just going to push that harder.”I'm not sure why Perry should be so surprised; turnout for municipal elections in Denton has historically been abysmal. It's not just due to the large numbers of transient students living in the city, either; when I lived and worked in Denton I noticed that so many longtime residents couldn't be bothered to participate in municipal processes, be they public hearings for zoning changes or local elections. I can't help but wonder if the city's practice of staggered term cycles, wherein the mayor and two at-large seats are up for election in even-numbered years and the four district council seats are up for election in odd-numbered years, is at least partly to blame. Very few other cities stagger terms like this, and I can see how local voters would find it confusing.
In other election news, councilmember Joe Mulroy narrowly won re-election, Pete Kamp successfully made the jump from district councilmember to at-large councilmember, and Rudy Moreno narrowly won the district seat being vacated by Kamp. Like Perry McNeill, Mulroy and Moreno served on the city's Planning and Zoning Commission while I was an employee there. I always thought the Rudy Moreno was an informed and sensible voice on the Commission, so I'm glad to see him on Council.
The runoff election for Mr. McNeill and Mr. Burroughs will be held on June 14th.
Thursday, May 08, 2008
The device, which has since made its way to the United States and Canada, is controversial. Some people consider its use a cruel form of age descrimination, while others have questioned the health effects of its exposure to young peoples' hearing. Teens, for their part, have begun to use the high-frequency sounds that the device emits to their advantage by downloading them to their cellular phones as ringtones that adults and teachers cannot hear.
Out of curiousity, decided to go to a site that offers these sounds as downloadable ringtones to see just what I, as a 34-year-old who has grown up blasting his ears with headphones attached to Walkmans and iPods, could hear.
As it turns out, I can hear every tone from 8 khz up to 14.9 khz well. I can hear the 15.8 khz tone that nobody over 30 is supposed to be able to hear, if only just barely, and I can even perceive the 16.7 khz tone that nobody over 24 is supposed to be able to hear, although it's not so much as a sound as it is a faint piercing feeling in my head. I have a feeling that, if I could hear it well, I would probably find it to be highly annoying.
I can't perceive any tone higher than that; however, the 17.6 khz tone that Lori and I couldn't hear at all made her 21-year-old sister howl in disgust.
And that, of course, is exactly what these tones are supposed to do.
Wednesday, May 07, 2008
This time I finally got to take advantage of the non-stop flight from Houston that Emirates began operating last December. It was about as I had suspected, with attentive service, decent food, good in-flight entertainment and (relatively) comfortable seats. My only disappointment was that, unlike the Airbus A340s in Emirates' fleet, their Boeing 777s don't come with footrests in coach class.
The flight was no more than two-thirds full, which was somewhat surprising but probably due to the fact that Monday just isn't a big travel day. Most of the passengers appeared to be Indians and Pakistanis on their way back to the Subcontinent via Emirates' hub at Dubai. Of those passengers whose final destination was Dubai, I was probably one of the few who did not work in the petroleum industry.
The flight was about fifteen hours long. I didn't sleep. I did listen to a lot of music. The CD-on-demand collection in Emirates' in-flight entertainment system is impressive.
But the best thing was this: I got on a plane in Houston, and off of a plane in Dubai. No connections. No transfers. No long layovers. Oh, and did I mention that I earned Continental OnePass miles on this flight, too? Hopefully, this is how I'll be able to travel between Houston and Dubai from now on.
But for now, it's time to get back to work. This rotation will last until June 3rd. A brief survey of the schedules for my projects here suggests that a third rotation from mid-June to early July is very likely, and a fourth trip in July-August is also a possibility.
Monday, May 05, 2008
The past week has been busy; I had a lot of things that I needed to get done during my short time here, both at work and at home. The week was also made eventful by the fact that, after just over a year of self-imposed exile in Northern Virginia and New Jersey, my brother-in-law Danny decided to move back to Houston. He enjoyed his time away, but the job opportunities he originally sought never materialized and he didn't really like being so far away from the rest of his family. He returned to town a week ago yesterday, and is currently staying at our house. He's not ready to look for a place of his own just yet, and Lori's beginning to make noises about kicking me out of the upstairs storage and computer room and letting Danny live there on a more-or-less permanent basis. That's fine by me if they can find a place to put all the stuff that is up there (I never did manage to clean or completely organize that room, after all).
Anyway, a few quick thoughts before I depart:
• I know this is week-old news, but I just wanted to add my name to the long list of people who are grateful that Continental Airlines decided not to merge with another carrier. After Northwest and Delta announced plans to merge last month, I thought that the hometown airline's merger with United was a done deal. Fortunately, Continental executives wisely realized that airline mergers rarely work out well and decided to go it alone for the time being. As an opponent of a merger involving Continental, I'm relieved.
The fact that Continental realized that bigger doesn't mean better and decided to spurn United's marriage proposal doesn't mean that the airline will stand pat, however, especially considering the tremendous pressure facing the commercial airline industry today. One such option Continental seems to be exploring is ending its membership in the SkyTeam alliance and creating a new alliance with American and British Airways. By remaining a stand-alone carrier, Continental also puts itself in a better position to cherry-pick routes and services that will inevitably be shed by merged carriers as they attempt to streamline their operations. But even then, Continental faces obstacles as oil prices continue to rise and the economy remains weak. As the Chronicle's Loren Steffy observes:
Alliances aside, Continental emerges from the merger fray as the industry's leader, not in size but in operating prowess. It's leveraging its strengths rather than seeking refuge in its deficiencies, and it's done a service to its employees and passengers. As a result, it's positioned to capitalize on the failings of its rivals.
None of which ensures its success. After all, Continental is still an airline, and in Airlineland, winning can be worse than losing.
• Another year, another early exit for the Rockets. For the second year in a row, the Rockets were bounced out of the first round of the NBA playoffs by the Utah Jazz, who defeated the local team in six games.
Never mind the fact that the Rockets were playing without star center Yao Ming and with injuries to other key players like Rafer Alston. Never mind that the Rockets did not match up well with the Jazz and were not generally expected to win this series (the fact that the Rockets had home-court advantage aside). Never mind the fact that the Rockets managed to make the series, which had all the makings of a sweep, into a respectable six-game affair. All that people are going to remember is this: that the Rockets failed to translate their impressive 22-game regular season winning streak into success in the postseason, that the Rockets have not made it past the first round of the NBA playoffs since 1997, and that Tracy McGrady is still a failure as far as his post-season record is concerned.
Yeah, it's unfair to McGrady - he's not the only player on the team, after all, and he didn't get a lot of help in Game 6 even though he scored 40 points - but, as Richard Justice notes, the fact that he is now 0-for-7 in postseason series is how the national sports media will continue to define him.
After starting the season slowly while adjusting to new coach Rick Adelman's schemes, the Rockets caught lightning in a bottle and went on a 22-game winning streak, the second-longest in NBA history. In the process, they created a level of buzz and excitement that hasn't surrounded the team since their back-to-back championship run in the mid-1990s. But the good times didn't last. The things that the Rockets generally did well during that streak - rebounding, ball control, success at the free-throw line and stifling defense - were generally not the things that they did well in their series against Utah. That, along with injuries, spelled disaster for the Rockets, and left long-suffering Houston sports fans with yet another disappointing taste in their mouths.
• Surprise, surprise: the powers that control college football's Bowl Championship Series have decided against implementing a playoff. A "plus-one" proposal advanced by the Southeast Conference and the Atlantic Coast Conference was rejected by BCS officals, thereby ensuring that the existing five-game, ten-team BCS setup design to determine major college football's national champion will remain in place until at least 2014.
Of course, I could have told you that this was going to happen when the idea was unveiled shortly after the BCS National Championship Game at the beginning of the year: in the college football world, there's simply too much power and influence opposed to the implementation of any sort of a playoff. And as such, college football will be stuck with the controversial BCS system for at least the next seven seasons, and probably longer.
That's all I've got for now. Back to the desert I go...
Saturday, May 03, 2008
The average national gas price is currently hovering right above the $3.60 per gallon mark. The federal excise tax is 18.4 cents a gallon. Do the math, and you'll see that the savings realized by eliminating the gas tax are marginal. And that's only if the expected savings materialize at all; removing the gas tax could have the paradoxical effect of encouraging people to drive more, thereby increasing demand and making prices higher.
The only real effect the elimination of the gas tax is going to have, in fact, is to deny the nation's crumbling transportation infrastructure several billion dollars in needed funding for construction and maintenance.
Americans have historically paid less for gasoline than people in many of the world's other developed nations, and that's why the run-up in fuel prices over the last few years has felt so painful to us. But the fact is this: high gas prices are here to stay. Regardless of how one feels about the "peak oil" theory (and I personally think there's at least some truth to it), the simple fact is increasing demand from rapidly-growing economies in places like India and China, continuing instability in oil-producing regions such as Iraq and Nigeria, a continually-weakening dollar and the gradual depletion of older, easily accessible and cheaper-to-produce oil fields (thereby requiring the shift towards more expensive fuel sources such as deep-water fields, tar sands and, unfortunately, the ecologically-destructive and famine-inducing biofuels scam) are all market forces that are forcing the price of petroleum ever higher. Shaving a few cents off the cost of each gallon of gas by eliminating the gas tax is not going to have much of an effect on these myriad market forces: it's not going to increase the supply of gasoline, and it's not going to decrease demand.
Fortunately, there's little Congressional support for the summer gas tax holiday, so this idea is unlikely to go anywhere. But this isn't the last time we'll see politicans float ineffective "solutions" to the problem of high gas prices: it is an election year, after all, and nobody has the guts to tell Americans a fact they don't want to hear: that the only true solution to expensive gasoline is to use less of it.