Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The 2011 Art Car Parade

Two Sundays ago, Kirby and I went downtown to view the 2011 Houston Art Car Parade. I took dozens of pictures, and am posting some of the more memorable ones here. I'm providing numbers and names for the entrants as I've found them; 2011 Art Car Parade winners are listed on The Orange Show's website here.
#3 Percy Peacock, accompanied by what I can only assume is a roller-skating ballerina.
#21 is the iconic Fruitmobile, one of the oldest and most well-known art cars.
#33 Rex Rabbit. Yeah, this one's kinda scary.
#36 Little Bit of Nonsense, which tied for winner in the "Participant's Choice" category.
#42 is a steel armadillo of some sort.
Here is one of the parade's younger participants.
#77 Azteca Gold, which won first place in the Lowrider category. There were only a handful of lowriders in this year's parade; I seem to remember there being many more in past parades.
An Edsel turned into a bulldozer. Seriously: how cool is that?!
Kirby watches the cars pass by. He enjoyed the parade but decided that most of the entrants were "silly." Who knew a six-year-old could be such a brutal art car critic?
#104 Poe Elementary Art Car, which won second place.
#127 Losing the Mammoth was created by students at Sharpstown High School. It won the Mayor's Cup, which is the parade's top prize. Pretty impressive!
#128 Atomic Dog. This is Waltrip High School's famous tribute to George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic (and yes, George Clinton has ridden on this car). A few years ago, this car was stuck in Germany after being shipped over there for an exhibition. But now it's back home, and back in the parade where it belongs.
#165 AirPlane 1 and EarthMan 2, a model of a 1950's era Cessna that won first place.
I didn't get the name or number for this gigantic metal chicken, but this was Kirby's favorite entries.
This is #184, which is apparently some sort of sinister deejaymobile.
#187 The Hillbilly Hilton.

Here's #196. For some reason, I don't think Smart Cars are ever going to make good taxis.
#227 Jackson Pollockar, a tribute to the abstract expressionist artist of the same name.

The Houston Art Car Parade is billed as the oldest and largest art car parade in the world. I don't know if that's true, but I do know that it's a lot of fun!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Welcome to summer

At the beginning of the month I declared that Houston had just gotten its last taste of spring weather. Of course, a little over a week after I made that prediction Mother Nature made a liar out of me by sending a cold front, along with some much-needed, if not enough, rain, through town, giving us several days of low humidity and pleasant temperatures that lasted through last weekend and into the early part of last week. Last Tuesday, in fact, I was visiting with a group of high school friends outside a bar in Midtown and several people had to put on sweaters because the temperature and breeze made them feel cold!

However, the comfortable spring weather was replaced later in the week by higher temperatures and higher humidity, and earlier today, as I sweated in the heat while I watched the Art Car Parade (pictures coming soon!), I had no choice but to accept the fact that the Houston summer had indeed begun. The long-range forecast bears this out, with temperatures in the low 80s and upper 90s, high humidity and, unfortunately, no rain for the foreseeable future.

Which is about right. By this time in May, the oppressive Houston summer has usually set in. From here, it only gets worse.

Of course, the beginning of summer also means the end of school. Kirby has two weeks left, and he, like any good six-year-old, is going completely crazy right now. Figuring out what to do with him for the next three months is going to be a challenge.

It's also time to start thinking about summer vacations. I plan to take Kirby with me on our yearly trip to Colorado sometime in July, but the big trip is going to be in August, when I make my first trip to Hawaii.

Anyway, make the most of it that you can. We won't see pleasant weather again until October. Ugh.

The Rapture that wasn't

As you have probably heard by now, the end of the world was supposed to have occurred yesterday at 6 pm Eastern Daylight Time, at least according to a radio minister from California. Of course, Saturday came and went, and we're still here.

Believers had spent months warning the world of the pending cataclysm. Some had given away earthly belongings. Others took long journeys to be with loved ones. And there were those who drained their savings accounts.

All were responding to the May 21 doomsday message by Harold Camping, an 89-year-old retired civil engineer who has built a multi-million-dollar Christian media empire that publicizes his apocalyptic prediction.

Camping, who is not an ordained minister but who nevertheless claims to have made the Bible "his university" for the past fifty years, seemed to have skipped past Jesus's own words regarding the Rapture in Matthew 24:36: "No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father." But that didn't stop him or his ardent followers from spreading word of the impending doomsday. Now, some of his followers are understandably confused:
In New York's Times Square, Robert Fitzpatrick, of Staten Island, said he was surprised when the six o'clock hour simply came and went. He had spent his own money to put up advertising about the end of the world.

"I can't tell you what I feel right now," he said, surrounded by tourists. "Obviously, I haven't understood it correctly because we're still here."

Of course, news of the impending end of the world created a lot of buzz yesterday, since so many people had heard about Camping's prediction; if it wasn't due the fact that Camping's Family Radio spent millions of dollars on more than 5,000 billboards and 20 RVs plastered with signage driving around the country, it was due to the fact that, in the age of the internet, Facebook, Twitter and text messaging, the story went viral:

The Internet was alive with discussion, humorous or not, about the end of the world and its apparent failure to occur on cue. Many tweets declared Camping's prediction a dud or shared, tongue-in-cheek, their relief at not having to do weekend chores or take a shower.

The top trends on Twitter at midday included, at No. 1, "endofworldconfessions," followed by "myraptureplaylist."

I was, admittedly, among those having fun with yesterday's apocalypse-that-wasn't with my friends. "It's too bad the world is supposed to end on Saturday. I wanted to take Kirby to the Art Car Parade on Sunday," I texted Allysa. "I just felt a rumble... Oh, wait, that was just a truck passing in front of the house," I texted Danny. "Maybe the rapture did occur today. When I drove to the store there was a guy waiting at the bus stop, but when I drove back home I noticed he was gone!" I texted Rachel.

But while it might be one thing to make jokes about a crazy old minister's outlandish prophecy, it's something else to ridicule or otherwise feel a sense of schadenfreude towards those who actually believed that the world was going to end yesterday. As The New Republic's Tiffany Stanley writes:
Do the end-timers seem ignorant? Yes. Are they insane? Possibly. But should our reaction to them be chuckling glee or something more like sadness? Pay attention to their individual stories—their willingness to sacrifice everything in anticipation that their earthly lives are over—and I dare you not to feel the latter. Ashley Parker of The New York Times writes about a mom who stopped working, and stopped saving for college for her three teenaged children. One of the kids admitted, “I don’t really have motivation to try to figure out what I want to do anymore because my main support line, my parents, don’t care.” At NPR, Barbara Brown Haggerty reports on a young couple, with a toddler and a baby on the way, who are spending the last of the savings. The wife says, “We budgeted everything so that, on May 21, we won’t have anything left.”

Laughing at religious fanatics is nothing new. And, at some level, there’s nothing wrong with it. But this story didn’t just take off in popularity because people wanted a quick laugh or some insight into a quirky subset of our country. There’s a cruelty underlying our desire to laugh at this story—a desire to see people humiliated and to revel in our own superiority and rationality—even though the people in question are pretty tragic characters, who either have serious problems themselves or perhaps are being taken advantage of, or both.

And I agree. I'm not laughing at these people. I am, instead, feeling sorry for them.

It can be said that people are gullible, and I think that's true to a certain extent. But I also think that it's just a part of human nature for people to really want to believe in something extraordinary, regardless of how far-fetched it actually is. Whether it's a person who is convinced by the e-mail from somebody in Nigeria claiming that they'll share a great deal of money with them if they can only get access to an American bank account, or a lonely bachelor that falls for the beautiful Russian woman on match.com who promises to marry him if he'll only send her a few thousand dollars for airfare, or a religiously fervent person who fully trusts a preacher's words that, yes, Jesus is coming back on a certain day, these people all have the same thing in common: an overwhelming desire to believe in something incredible or amazing that gets the better of their senses.

If it's any consolation, at least Mr. Camping's doomsday prophecy did not result in the suicides or murders of his followers, a la Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple, David Koresh and the Branch Davidians or Marshall Applewhite and Heaven's Gate. But there are nevertheless a lot of people who have quit their jobs, sold all of their possessions and emptied their bank accounts in preparation for this doomsday-that-wasn't. Their lives, and the lives of their families, are forever going to be changed. I think back to Mr. Fitzgerald (profiled here), who spent his life's savings warning people in New York City that the world would end on May 21st. What is he going to do now? Given the hardships these people face, it seems rather cruel to revel in their misfortune. I feel nothing but sympathy for these poor folks.

My sympathy, however, does not extend to Mr. Camping himself. While I'm sure he honestly believed that the world would end on May 21st, that does not make his any less of a fraud (especially considering that he's been wrong about the end of the world before; he previously declared that the Rapture would occur in September 1994). It is time for Camping to put down his microphone and retire from his ministry before he hurts any more people with his false prophecies.

More coverage, including a slideshow of previous doomsdays-that-weren't, here. A discussion of how Camping's followers might cope in the aftermath of his false prediction here.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Enjoying one final taste of spring

Thanks to a cold front that passed through Houston early this week, the last couple of days have been absolutely wonderful, with clear skies, mild daytime temperatures and cool nighttime temperatures. I've certainly enjoyed it.

Unfortunately, this is likely going to be it as far as spring is concerned. Temperatures are expected to climb from here. It's May, which means the oppressive Houston summer is about to begin. Unless we get lucky and another cold front makes its way through town within the next couple of weeks, this is very likely the last bit of comfortable weather we're going to see here until October.

And then there's the drought the Houston area has been experiencing over the last couple of months. We need rain, but according to the meteorological prognosticators none is expected in the immediate horizon. Let's hope something happens soon; I really would prefer that Houston's next opportunity for significant rainfall not come courtesy of a hurricane or something...

On the morality of celebrating bin Laden's death

Last Sunday evening, the President announced to the world that the armed forces of the United States of America had raided a compound in Pakistan and had killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of the Al Qaeda terrorist organization that had been responsible for, among many other atrocities, the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Even as the President spoke, jubilant crowds gathered at the White House, in Times Square, at the World Trade Center site and at other locations to celebrate the news: Osama bin Laden was finally dead.

As I watched these celebrations on television, my first thought was for the safety of those in the crowds. What if a sleeper terrorist or "lone-wolf" sympathizer, distraught and angered about bin Laden's death, decided to wade into those exultant gatherings with a backpack bomb or a suicide vest or an automatic weapon?

My second thought was to wonder why people were celebrating, when the war against extremist terrorism is so very clearly not over? We may have killed the head, but the body - a body that still intends to do us harm - remains. Indeed, in the coming days we may very well see attempts at reprisals by extremists devoted to bin Laden and his cause.

My final thought was one regarding the morality of these spontaneous demonstrations. Is it really right to be celebrating the death of another human being? Is it appropriate to triumphantly strut around, wave flags, chant "USA" and pound fists to chests because we ended somebody else's life, even a life as repugnant and as evil as bin Laden's? I perceived something gauche and tactless about these celebrations.

What does it say about us as Americans, after all? Are the people participating in these crowds any better than the people who in the days following 9/11, in places like Palestine and Pakistan, celebrated the attacks and burned American flags? Footage of those celebrations angered me almost as much as the attacks themselves. Yet here we were, doing the same thing. What kind of message does that send to the world? How will that motivate jihadists who continue to believe in bin Laden's murderous campaign even though he himself is now gone?

Stephen Prothero, a scholar of religion at Boston University, says that these celebrations made him cringe. "I just don’t feel comfortable celebrating anyone’s death," he writes. Indeed, in the days that have followed there has been much discussion as to whether these celebrations were morally justified or ethically appropriate.

In the day or two after the celebrations occurred, however, several of my friends on Facebook posted a quote, misattributed to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., that suggested that it was wrong to rejoice in any person's death, implying that these demonstrations manifested nothing more than a base, hateful, eye-for-an-eye mentality.

While I appreciate the sentiment, I also found something self-righteous and condescending about it. No offense to the many folks on my Facebook feed who posted the quote - they are my friends and I care about and respect them deeply - but did since when did they become the arbiters of what is moral or proper in such a raw and emotional time such as this? This mindset, in my mind, became just as cringe-worthy as the celebratory demonstrations itself. As my friend Greg wrote in response to one of these ubiquitous Facebook posts:
My problem with the altered MLK quote that I've had plastered across all my social media these last 24 hours is that the implication seems to be that it's politically incorrect, distasteful, ignorant or unenlightened for people to feel relief or joy in the killing of a very violent man. It's turning into a litmus test of whether or not you're a good liberal or religiously correct.
I feel the same way.
The people who gathered Sunday evening to celebrate bin Laden's death are, like the rest of us, human. And just as anger is a natural human emotion, so is the desire for revenge and the need to experience catharsis. However classless and distasteful that Sunday night's celebrations might have been, they were nevertheless were an expression of catharsis, of relief.

A heroic group of US Navy SEALS had, after all, finally eliminated a person
who was the leader of an organization that had, either by itself or through affiliated sympathizers, murdered not only numerous American servicemen, police officers and firefighters on 9/11, but also countless civilians not only here in the United States but also in London, Madrid, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Indonesia, Turkey, The Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Kenya, Tanzania and many other places. Are people not collectively allowed to feel a sense of justice, a sense of satisfaction, that this guy is no longer around?

We can argue if these celebrations were right or appropriate or tasteful. We can be reflective about what it says about us as a people when we take pleasure in another person's demise, even the demise as somebody as grotesque and as sinister as Osama bin Laden. But regardless of how you feel about the appropriateness of Sunday night's revelry - I myself am ambivalent - and even though the terrorist network that he led will outlive him, I at least would hope that everyone can feel sense of relief - a sense of peace - that this man himself will no longer be able to harm any more innocent people.

Other aspects about this episode I am decidedly less ambivalent about:
  • Although it would have been ideal to capture, rather than kill, bin Laden and bring him to justice, had that occurred the resulting debate - how and where to detain him, how and where to try him - would have created a political circus of the worst kind that would be the last thing this nation needs right now. They killed him and got it over with. I'm fine with that.

  • The decision to bury him at sea was appropriate. Had bin Laden been buried on land, his grave would have quickly become a shrine that would have attracted and inspired jihadists. Furthermore, the fact that his body was afforded an Islamic ceremony prior to his burial showed the world that the United States government and its military has compassion even for its greatest enemies; that we are a greater and more magnanimous people than our enemies.

  • The decision not to release photos of his body at this time is also appropriate. While people will always be wanting proof of his death, releasing these gruesome photos right now would have been inflammatory to much of the world. There is no need to glorify his death by disseminating photos of his body to the world.

  • Finally, I want to say that as an American I am proud of our armed forces, of our intelligence services, and of both the Bush and Obama administrations of never wavering in the desire to get Osama bin Laden. It took almost ten years after 9/11 to do it, but we finally found and eliminated him. Whatever problems the United States might currently face, our resolve and our determination as a nation is not to be questioned. Let that be a lesson to those who intend to do our nation harm in the future. Perhaps it's not appropriate, and perhaps I'm no better than the folks who celebrated bin Laden's death last Sunday night, but sorry, I can't help myself. Courtesy of Trey Parker and Matt Stone: