Friday, December 25, 2015

Christmas Day in Houston: Featuring a Trip to a Beach

Rental surrey pedaling along the beach in Galveston

For only the second time in my young life, I got to spend Christmas Day at a beach.  The firsts time was Christmas 1997, in Salvador, Brazil, which fulfilled a dream of spending Christmas on a beach in Brazil.  The second time was the unseasonably warm Christmas 2015 in Texas.

I had some time to kill before my late afternoon flight.  And seeing as it was Christmas, there was nothing really open.  So I drove down to Galveston.  And I hit the beach.

It was foggy, despite the temperatures being so warm.  And the sea was very choppy, probably the roughest I've personally seen the Gulf of Mexico (admittedly not many times).

Not many people were on the beach.  There were a few surfers, probably loving the ocean-like conditions.

Galveston is a fascinating place.  It is the site of the most devastating, the most deadly, "act of God" in American history.  In response to the killer 1900 hurricane, the City of Galveston built a seawall, and raised the ground on Galveston to the level of the seawall, to better protect it from the elements so that it could maintain its status as the Gulf Coast's pre-eminent cotton port.

Seventeen feet, I believe, is the height of the Galveston sea wall, pictured above.  The city was raised, I believe, by an average of six feet in the futile attempt to protect its status as a major Gulf port.  The Houston city fathers intelligently dredged out the Houston Ship Channel so the major Texas Gulf port was no longer in the sweet spot for major hurricane destruction.

I do need to spend more time exploring this fascinating historic city, even though the old Historic District, the business core of pre-1900 Hurricane Galveston, is a collection of precious antique and curio shops.  But I did not budget enough Galveston time this trip.

As an aside, one unhappy observation I made driving down to Galveston on I-45, listening to the Christmas "Traditions" channel on the Sirius XM rather than "Holly," which is their "contemporary Christmas" channel.  Glen Campbell singing a very good "I'll Be Home for Christmas."  A Carpenters instrumental version of "O Holy Night."  Both these would have been from the 1970s, from my "contemporary era."  I am so frickin' old that "my" contemporary Christmas is now deemed traditional and gets played with the Jerry Vale and Glenn Miller.

Well, at least I didn't have to listen to Mariah Carey belching up a horrific "All I Want for Christmas Is You."  At least for another couple of years.  Then she'll get relegated to the Old People's Christmas Music channel so those youngsters listening to Taylor Swift and various offshoots of One Direction don't have to put up with OLD people like Mariah Carey or Usher.

Part of the problem is that I did not plan my Christmas very efficiently.  I went to a Midnight Mass, which, let me tell you, was NOT the Express Mass.  Every last detail was dragged out just because.  I then went to an all-night diner (the awesome 59) for a post-mass snack.  Which meant I did not get to bed until a very late hour.  And I first took a trip to downtown Houston, to check out Tranquility Park.  But first I checked out the giant Christmas Tree in front of City Hall.

I had heard the park was designed to mimic the lunar surface.  Hence the name Tranquility Park, which is a direct homage to the "Sea of Tranquility" on the moon, where the Apollo 11 landed and Neil Armstrong took his one small step for a man and his simultaneous giant leap for mankind.

Imagine my disappointment when it turned out to be an ordinary green park, except one that's not all on the same level.

Half-dried out turned-off water features aren't my idea of "lunar."  But the skyline of Houston is always interesting to see.

Even without the pretense of a faux-lunar-scape of a park.

Houston is an awesome three-night getaway.  It would have been awesomer if I had budgeted more Galveston time.  And been here when The Orange Show was opened.  But those are for another trip to H-Town.

Christmas Eve in Houston: a Giant Armadillo, the Beer Can House, and the Menil

5015 Kirby Drive, just two Texas-sized blocks south of my hotel
It was a pleasant but un-busy Christmas Eve in Houston.  No stockings to hang by the chimney with care.  No hope of Saint Nicholas finding me in the Crowne Plaza River Oaks southwest of downtown Houston.  But I did find the Giant Armadillo.

There he was.  At 5015 South Kirby Drive, not too far from my hotel.  He's guarding the entrance of a Texas-themed bar restaurant called, appropriately, the Armadillo Palace.  Which was closed for Christmas already even though it was only Christmas Eve.  But the Armadillo was out there for all to see.

Next stop was lunch with the Danish student at the Galleria.  I take my camera to snap pictures of a giant armadillo, but I don't take my camera to take pictures of my Christmas lunch with the Danish student.  Weird priorities.

After a long Christmas lunch, it was time for some more sightseeing.

The famous Beer Can House, which, as you can see below, is just in ordinary blocks in an ordinary residential neighborhood.

It, of course, was closed.

Open only Saturdays and Sundays.  And I will be here neither,  The house is a basic brick and siding house, with a bunch of beer cans -- tops, bottoms and unrolled sides -- plastered or hung everywhere.

It made for a very pleasant wind chime sound when a breeze was blowing.

Beer cans everywhere.

Including fencing.

It was decorated somewhat in a grudging concession to Christmas.

A big shiny aluminum Christmas made of beer cans would have been better, but an Amen Ladder will do.

Next, was a trip to the Menil.

The Menil is a modern art gallery.  They had a Picasso, a Dali, two Warhols.  Lots of Max Ernst.  More Magritte than I've ever seen in one place anywhere (not that I've been looking).  Lots of crafts from Africa and the Americas that the sophisticates call art, even though it's the moral equivalent of Ikea or Wal-Mart wall-hangings that just happen to survive a millennium or so.  No pictures allowed inside.

I then strolled over to the nearby Rothko Chapel.

It's a small windowless octagonal building that has giant Rothko paintings hanging on each of the eight interior walls.  The Rothkos are all giant canvasses painted the same shade of navy blue.  Or it might have been black.  It was very dark.  It is supposed to be a meditative chapel.  The Rothkos were not worth building a chapel over.  There was no sign that said "no photography," but the place had that vibe, so I saved my light-pictures for the exterior.

But the reflecting pool across from the chapel entrance was nice.

On the whole of the grounds of the Menil and the Rothko, you know what I liked best?

This one awesome, giant, sprawling tree that was on the Menil grounds.

I don't know my tree varieties very well.  Is this a live oak?

Whatever.  It was more beautiful than a roomful of Magrittes and Man Rays.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Christmas in Houston: The Art Car Museum: Closed for the Holidays

140 Heights Boulevard, Houston, Texas USA
Not all Houston holiday dreams come true.  The Art Car Museum was closed for the Christmas holiday.  Even though it was only December 23 and there was one more full work day before Christmas would come.

Houston is the "art car" capital of the known universe.  It's a big thing, transforming automobiles into other shapes that can still be driven.  They even have a big parade here once a year, sometime in April or May.  And, of course, they have a museum dedicated to the "art car."  But, unfortunately, the art car thing may be big in Houston, but it's not bigger than Christmas.  The museum was closed.

Let's have a look through the chain link fence,

Reminds me of Gaudi.  I am not being facetious.  The spikey things on the roof remind me of the roof on Gaudi's La Pedrera in Barcelona.  Remember?

Roof of La Pedrera in Barcelona.  September 2015.

OK.  Maybe it's just me.

So with the museum closed, I headed off to grab some lunch.

I chose the 59 diner, not far from my hotel.  A real retro diner.  As opposed to a faux retro diner.  Lots of chrome and red vinyl inside.

I ordered the fish and chips (opted for curly fries instead of the more traditional cut fries -- because I could).  Side order of fried okra (because there wasn't already enough "fried" on the plate).  Washed down with the peachiest tasting peach iced tea I've ever drank.  It was probably Nestea.

Christmas in Houston: National Museum of Funeral History

This is a casket. Shaped like a fish.
Where else are you going to see a casket shaped like a fish?

Or a bull?

Or a green onion?

Yes, they even had a coffin shaped like a scallion.  All of this and more -- MUCH MUCH MORE -- at the National Museum of Funeral History.

That's my Kia Soul rental car parked outside
415 Barren Springs Road, a half-hour north of Houston, in a downscale outer suburb, sits the National Museum of Funeral History.  Not the Houston Museum of Funeral History.  Not even the Texas Museum of Funeral History.  The NATIONAL Museum of Funeral History.  The only museum of funeral history that belongs to ALL of us,

But for the boys at Roadside America, I never would have discovered this gem.  It got a five "smiley-faced water towers" rating on the, so you knew it had to be something special.  Not many places get the coveted five "smiley-faced water towers."  Heck, even the lot of giant president heads only got four "smiley-faced water towers" and I happen to know for a fact that the founder of Roadside America is just as big a nerd for presidential history sites as I am.  So I was expecting to be knocked sock-less.  Once again, believe the hype.

I was not the only one there. There must have been like three other cars parked outside when I was there.
What was my favorite part of the museum?  You would have thought it was the section on presidential funerals.  Or the collection of whimsical children's coffins from Ghana.  See first three pictures, supra.  But you would be bring.  It was the huge collection of hearses and other funeral vehicles.

An official presidential hearse.

A Packard.

Another even bigger Packard.  Let's look inside, shall we?  Let's!

Roomy.  Big enough even for President Taft,  (Oops.  That was a different Houston landmark from a little bit earlier.)

And how about this Cadillac?  A very stylish way to be chaffeured into the next life.

Princess Grace, f/k/a the actress Grace Kelly, made her journey in this very same Mercedes-Benz:

Here's a Woodie:

I believe this is a Studebaker:

This one was vintage:

And this came all the way from Japan!

They even had a funeral sleigh:

The two most interesting vehicles in the hearse exhibit were these.

My favorite.  Probably because it's the only hearse I've seen in green.  Two-tone green, which is twice the coolness of monotone green.

Yes, it even had suicide doors!

But this one was the best:

The funeral bus.

Make your funeral party a real party!  The funeral bus could hold the decedent and about 20 mourners.  All together on the journey from church to gravesite.  Unfortunately, it was found to be so top heavy -- 20 mourners on top and only one decedent on the lower level -- it toppled over when it was used in San Francisco.

Of course, just as there is more to a funeral than the hearse, there was more to this museum.  Coffins!

For example, the money casket.  They say you can't take it with you.  But have "they" seen a coffin with $600+ in uncirculated currency and coin embedded into the box?

I think this may have been the glass coffin.

But my memory is fading, so I'm not sure if I got a picture of that.

Plus, there was a whole section on these amazing awesome wonderful whimsical coffins (yes, whimsical coffins) from Ghana:

Yes, the eagle coffin is amazing:

But, if you've got to buried, wouldn't you want to be buried in one of these babies:

The crab coffin (top), and the lobster coffin (bottom).  The lobster coffin is billed here as the most intricate coffin design ever.

From Ghana.  Under the green/yellow/red-striped black star flag of Ghana.

There were other interesting exhibits:

Such as the exhibit on the history of embalming.

SPOILER ALERT:  It all goes back to Ancient Egypt.  And the mummies.  And the God of Embalming, Anubis.  Who looks disturbingly like Zack The Dog.  If Zack had had gold ears.

Other exhibits included the History of Papal Funerals.

The exhibit on the history of presidential funerals had newspapers contemporaneous with presidential deaths, but was short on actual exhibit things for presidential funerals other than that of Ronald Reagan.  And the "Day of the Dead" exhibit was lacking.

The gift shop was nice.  Lots of Hummel type "Day of the Dead" figurines available.  T-shirts aplenty.  But my favorite thing was the shopping baskets.

Wouldn't it be cool to pick a few things at Smith's or Albertson's carrying one of those?

For more information on the National Museum of Funeral History, go to their website: