Friday, July 30, 2010

Meet the Gulf Coast Toad

If you live in Houston (or anywhere along the Texas coast) you've probably seen, as well as heard, this guy:

When I was a kid, a hard summer rain followed by the nearby croaking of these toads meant that dozens of them would be found mating and laying their eggs in the puddles of standing water along the neighborhood streets the following morning. My brother and myself, along with other neighborhood kids, would wake up early to observe and play (or, in the toad's point of view, harass) them until they finally dispersed from the puddles late in the morning. Not long afterwards, the strings of eggs they laid would hatch and the puddles would become full of tadpoles.

But this is actually the first Gulf Coast Toad I've come across in awhile; I picked it up as it has hopping along the driveway in front of the house a few nights ago. Perhaps I don't notice them as much as I used to because as I've become older my interest in these animals has waned. More likely, however, is the fact that these toads are not as common in the neighborhood as they once were; major reconstruction of all neighborhood streets took place a few years back, and the depressions where rainwater would collect and these amphibians would congregate were eliminated, thereby reducing their neighborhood presence.

They're still around, though, as this guy attests, and I still hear them at night after a heavy rain (albeit these days further off in the distance). Given the rains we've been having over the past few weeks, they've had a lot to croak about.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Saying goodbye to Monsterchick

In the sixteen-something years I had known Laura, I had not once met or spoken to her father. That is, until Saturday morning, when he called me on her cell phone. That alone was an indication that something was horribly wrong.

He was calling from a hospital in Arlington, Virginia to inform me that something was indeed shockingly, horribly wrong. His daughter, one of my closest friends, had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. She was unconscious and in critical condition. Her immediate prognosis was very poor.

I was, needless to say, dumbfounded. Laura? I just visited her in February. She was perfectly healthy then. Or so it seemed. What happened?!

I would later learn that she had a rare form of ovarian cancer that had metastasized to her liver and lungs. It had apparently gone undiagnosed until it was too late.

I first met Laura in 1994, when we were both students at the University of Houston College of Architecture, she being one year behind me. My affectionate nickname for her - "Monsterchick" - came about as a result of a conversation I had with an irritable classmate in my third-year studio one afternoon. She did not particularly like Laura (or much of anyone else, for that matter) and referred to her as "the Laura Monster" during this conversation. Another classmate, who had been at his desk working on a project, perked up and asked "huh? Who is this 'monster chick?'" The name stuck with me.

But a "monster" Laura was not. She was playful, friendly, helpful, motivated and especially prone to laughter. We developed a strong friendship while we were architecture students, so much so that up until the end she continued to refer to me as "Keifer" - my own studio nickname that I otherwise abandoned after graduation.

As students, we did a lot together, whether it be attending concerts, going to Astros games, going out for dinner or even taking turns working the Daily Cougar crossword during otherwise-boring lectures. She frequently hung out at my house, since it was so close to campus, and enjoyed being entertained by my brother, whom she called "Foo."

We were also involved in the college's chapter of the American Institute of Architecture Students, although she much more so than me; she eventually became chapter president. I remember when she wanted to represent the University of Houston at the fall 1995 AIAS Forum - the organization's annual convention - in Portland, Oregon. However, neither the chapter nor the college had the funds to cover her trip, and she didn't have the cash on hand to pay her own way. So she asked me, the sucker with the credit card, if I could float the airfare for her. I did so, and then jokingly told her that I "owned her soul" until she paid me back. It became a running joke between us, but she eventually repaid me for the ticket - sometimes with installments of cash, but mostly through numerous lunches, dinners and pints of beer at local bars - until I finally "returned her soul" to her.

While at the helm of AIAS-UH, Laura worked with HISD to organize the "Bridging the Gap" Competition. In March of 1996 approximately 50 children from a nearby middle school came to the college. These children were grouped into teams and, with the assistance of architecture students, held a competition building bridges out of LEGO bricks. College instructors then judged the bridges based on their aesthetic and structural qualities. It was a huge success that enriched everybody involved and even made the local news, and I never saw Laura as proud and as happy as she was that day.

Even though our career paths took slightly different directions after graduation - I went to graduate school and got a degree in city planning, while she jumped right into the architecture profession - we stayed in close contact. We both ended up in the Dallas /Fort Worth Metroplex in the late 1990s - she at a firm near downtown Dallas and me at the City of Denton's Planning and Development Department - and along with our significant others continued our tradition of dinners, concerts and frequent conversation. A few years later I would move back to Houston and she would later move to the Baltimore/DC area, but we remained in frequent touch and continued to compare notes about our growing professional and personal lives.

The last time I saw her was this past February; I stayed with her when I made a short trip to DC and I had a great time sightseeing, visiting museums, eating, drinking and riding the Metro (I am a transit geek, after all) with her and her boyfriend. Little did any of us know that, even as we dined and laughed and walked through the streets of the nation's capital, she was being eaten away from the inside by a horrible, silent disease. In retrospect, her last Facebook post in early June, wherein she complained about having back pain, was an indication that something might have been wrong, as back pain is a symptom of both ovarian and liver cancer. But she thought that she had simply pulled a muscle or something. You just don't associate cancer with a lively and visibly-healthy young-woman. Which is why this is so mind-blowing: as perverse as it sounds, it would have made more sense to me if she had been involved in a serious car crash.

Mercifully, Laura's battle with cancer was short. In the early evening of Sunday, July 25th, just a day after I was informed of Laura's condition, I learned that she had passed away.

I've had people close to me die - aunts, uncles, cousins, even mother-in-law - but this is just different. This was one of my peers, one of my best friends - my Monsterchick. She was doing so well and had so much ahead of her. And just like that, she is gone.

Laura Edwards was 36.

I am still awaiting word on arrangements for her here in Texas and, as is my custom when people close to me die, I will post her obituary on this blog once it becomes available. Right now my thoughts are with her parents, her brother and her boyfriend as well as all the other people out there who, like myself, have lost such a wonderful friend.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

My encounters with a giant, stinky flower

Unless you've been living somewhere underneath a Houston-area rock this month, you've no doubt heard about "Lois," the rare "corpse flower" that has been on display over the last couple of weeks at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

If for no other reason than I was curious and wanted to see what all the fuss was about, I decided to go check out Lois for myself. Because I am an insomniac and also because I hate crowds, I decided to go in the wee hours of the morning - in this case, Thursday at about 2:45 am - to see the flower (the museum stayed open around the clock while Lois was in bloom). That worked out well; there were only a few other people there so I could spend as much time looking at the large flower (or, more technically, inflorescence, because it's actually a grouping of flowers on a single stem) at its location upstairs in the foyer before the entrance to the butterfly pavilion.
It hadn't fully opened and it hadn't given off its characteristic smell of rotting flesh yet, but it was nevertheless impressive in its size. The museum curator on hand that morning told me that it took seven years for Lois to grow from seed to flower.
Interesting enough. But I wanted the Complete Corpse Flower Experience, putrid stench and all.
So I decided to return a couple of nights later, after the flower had fully bloomed, to get a whiff of it for myself. I went back to the museum Saturday at about 3:30 am, thinking that, once again, the crowds would be sparse.

No such luck. Since the plant had fully bloomed and since it was the weekend, the museum was packed. The crowd was an eclectic mix of couples on late-night dates, groups of people who had just left the bars, and even families that had woken up early to see the flower.
The line was long and it was well after 4 am before I finally made it into the foyer to see the flower for myself. It didn't look quite as impressive as it had looked a couple of nights before - the bloom was beginning to wilt at this point - and the stench wasn't the overpowering experience I had expected. Lois did smell like decomposing flesh - if you've ever been around a dead animal, you know the smell - but the odor did not permeate the entire museum and you actually had to get pretty close to it to really smell it.
The flower gives off the scent of rotting flesh in order to attract carrion beetles in its native habitat of the Indonesian rainforest. The beetles, in turn, pollinate the plant so it can reproduce. Although commonly known as a "corpse flower," the actual name of the plant is titan arum. Its binomial name, Amorphophallus titanium, is rarely used because it literally means "giant misshapen penis."

In the interests of posterity, I had my picture taken next to this giant misshapen penis that smells like decaying flesh.
After leaving the foyer where the plant is located, visitors leave the museum by walking through the butterfly pavilion itself. I found this to be in many ways more interesting than looking at the corpse flower, because the rainforest-themed butterfly pavilion is a pleasantly evocative and mysterious space at night.
Charro, the museum's resident iguana, was in his cage for the night, tongue hanging out of his mouth as he slept. He was clearly not impressed by all the ruckus surrounding Lois.
The butterflies were obviously all dormant for the night, but if you looked carefully you could find them resting on the leaves. With the help of my camera flash I caught this blue morpho in repose. In retrospect, I wish I would have come to see the flower a couple of hours later, so that I could have been in the pavilion when the sun rose and the butterflies began to stir. That would have been a neat experience. As it was, however, I left the museum shortly after 5 am and well before sunrise.
"Lois" has since completely wilted and the round-the-clock festivities at the museum are now over.

Was Lois the Corpse Flower a revenue-generating publicity gimmick for the Houston Museum of Natural Science? Of course. Is that a bad thing? Of course not. The city's educational institutions deserve some occasional publicity, and the fact that the museum got tens of thousands of people - many of whom would likely not have otherwise set foot there - to come see such a rare and unique wonder of nature (seriously, a giant flower that smells like rotting flesh!), even at odd hours of the night, is actually a pretty admirable accomplishment.

Museum curators say that they don't know if Lois will ever put out another bloom, so it could be a long time before Houstonians have another opportunity to encounter a giant, stinky flower.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Meet Houston's new baseball coach

Although I'm a few days late to the party, I'd like to add my voice to those welcoming Todd Whitting to the University of Houston - or, more accurately, back to UH - as the school's new baseball coach.

Whitting replaces Rayner Noble, who had been at the helm of the University of Houston baseball program for sixteen seasons. Under Noble's leadership, the team reached the NCAA Super Regionals three times. He leaves UH with an overall record of 551-440, making him the winningest coach in the program's history. In recent years, however, Noble and the baseball program had fallen on hard times, including back-to-back losing seasons (27-31 in 2009 and 25-32 in 2010) for the first time since the mid-70s. That led UH Athletics Director Mack Rhoades to decide that it was time for a change. I thank Ranyer Noble for his service and wish him well, and I also hope that Noble's departure means that we will no longer have to endure any more bitter, infantile screeds from the parents of former UH players.

Whitting played for the Cougars in the early 1990s and then served as an assistant from 1995 to 2003. During that time he helped the UH program achieve a 305-195 record and six NCAA postseason appearances including those three Super Regional appearances in 2000, 2002 and 2003. Whitting had spent the last seven season as associate head coach at TCU, where he had similar success; while he was there the Horned Frogs notched an overall record of 305-134, seven NCAA postseason appearances, and, this past season, th program's first appearance at the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska.

Whitting makes it clear that his goal is getting his alma mater to Omaha as well. As he told the Chronicle's Steve Campbell:
"Our program was on a national level," Whitting said. "But I really felt like there was unfinished business here. When we clinched to go to Omaha at TCU, a lot of the thoughts on my mind were the former players on the 2000, 2002 and 2003 teams. A big motivation for me to take this job is to finish up business we didn't take care of then.

"I want the University of Houston people to have the Omaha experience. It's something that will change your life forever. As an alumni here, as a former coach here, now the head coach here, I want these people to experience what it's like to drive to Omaha. When you land in Omaha and those people are waiting for you, and you get in the bus and you have that police escort to the field every day, and the kids with the autographs, the cameras in your face, and your kids feel like they're rock stars. It's the pinnacle."

"I've been preparing for this for seven years," Whitting said. "I've been waiting for this day for seven years. I have a plan that's ready to go into place. Hopefully I'll have a staff that's as good as anywhere in the country. Because of the commitment of this university, I have the ability to put together a tremendous staff."

For whatever doubts I might have had about the way Mack Rhoades handled the basketball hire, I think he clearly knocked this one out of the park. Feedback about the hire from UH fans on message boards and blogs who follow Cougar Baseball more closely than I do has been uniformly positive. Todd Whitting clearly has the credentials and the motivation to turn UH baseball around and make it the top-tier program it was just a few years ago. So I happily welcome coach Whitting back to Houston and am hoping to see great things for Cougar Baseball.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Jack in the Box's Really Big Chicken Sandwich: where's the outrage?

A few months ago, a lot of controversy was generated by KFC's Double Down sandwich: a chicken, bacon and cheese sandwich notable for its lack of a bun. It was decried as being the epitome of gluttony and poor health, a new low for an America struggling with an obesity epidemic. Health experts fumed; bemused pundits blogged. Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert called it "the warped creation of a syphilitic brain."

Amidst all the furor about the Double Down,'s Francis Lam made an interesting observation: if the Double Down had been a traditional sandwich, i.e. with a bun, would anybody have even noticed?
In retrospect, though, the really funny thing about the Double Down is not that it exists, not that it's a dare pretending to be a lunch, but that it would be nothing special if they added a bun to it. Think about it. It'd be like, "What's that? A double chicken sandwich? Pffft. Snooze. Any jackass can make a double chicken sandwich." Somehow, by taking off the processed-food bread, KFC made this thing look deadly.
As if to prove Lam's point, Jack in the Box has just unveiled its Really Big Chicken Sandwich. Like the Double Down, it features two breaded chicken breast fillets, cheese and bacon along with a mayonnaise-based sauce. The only difference between it and a Double Down is that it includes a bun (with some lettuce and tomato as well, perhaps to give it the appearance of being healthy). One reviewer identifies it as a cross between a Double Down and a McDonald's Big Mac.

But healthy the Really Big Chicken Sandwich is not. It clocks in at 748 calories (compared to the breaded Double Down's 540 calories), 44 grams of fat (the Double Down has 32) and 1834 milligrams of sodium (the Double Down delivers 1380). The Really Big Chicken Sandwich also provides a boost of simple carbohydrates (i.e. sugar) that the Double down does not by virtue of its white bread bun. Just about the only metric where the Double Down does worse is cholesterol: it provides 145 milligrams while the Really Big Chicken Sandwich "only" provides 85. On the whole, however, the Really Big Chicken Sandwhich is clearly less healthy than the KFC's Double Down.

Yet, unlike when the Double Down was introduced, there has been no controversy. There have been no reports of outrage from nutritionists. Public health experts are not lining up to admonish Jack in the Box, as they did KFC when the Double Down made its debut. The Really Big Chicken Sandwich has not triggered a new wave of bemoaning for America's unhealthy fast food culture.

In short, Jack in the Box has unveiled a menu item that is worse than the supposedly unhealthy and hyper-gluttonous KFC Double Down, and nobody seems to care. The Really Big Chicken Sandwich is, well, just another sandwich.

Amazing what a difference one little bun can make.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Maggots are falling (from the overhead bin) like rain!

Yes, I'm riffing off a GWAR song. But with stories like this, it's just too easy:
Maggots falling from an overhead bin from a spoiled container of meat forced a US Airways flight to return to the gate so the bin could be cleaned.

Passenger Donna Adamo said she noticed a couple of flies on the Monday flight when she got to her seat but didn't think much of it. Then, as the plane was taxiing, she heard a passenger behind her causing a commotion and refusing to take her seat.

"Then I heard the word 'maggot' and that kind of got everybody creeped out," she said. "All of a sudden, I felt somebody flick the back of my hair and on the front of me came a maggot, which I flicked off me."

A passenger had the container in a carry-on bag and brought it on Monday's flight heading from Atlanta to Charlotte, N.C., said US Airways spokesman Todd Lehmacher. The pilot announced that they were returning to the gate because of a "minor emergency on board" and the flight attendants told everyone to sit down and be calm, Adamo said.

"I felt like they were crawling all over me because it only takes one maggot to upset your world," she said. "And as they're telling us to stay calm and seated, I see a maggot looking back at me and I'm thinking, 'These are anaerobic, flesh-eating larvae that the flight attendants don't have to sit with.' "

Ick. Just ick.

Of course, the big question I have is why somebody was carrying a container of spoiled, maggot-infested meat in their carry-on luggage to begin with. Or why, given the foul odor that such an item would inevitably give off, nobody detected this person's tainted carry-on baggage at the TSA security checkpoint, at the gate prior to boarding or on the plane itself.

Really, it is a story that is as bizarre as it is disgusting, and I'm wondering if there isn't more to this than what is being reported.

But, as one commenter on the story notes, it does give us a new term: "carrion luggage."