Before i Forget : Simon Jones's blog

July 2007

General and TravelSaturday, July 7th, 2007, (2:46 am)

The third annual Xanga party, now known as a ‘Xangbang’, happened in Houston on the 6th of July and as ever it was a blast! The opportunity to meet in person people whom I have come to know through the weblog service has become a highlight of my summertime trips to the States.

When I awoke on Friday morning the rain was already falling as it had every day since I arrived in Houston. I wasn’t concerned as I assumed that it would clear up later in the day as it had on previous days. But after lunch, as I sat in a small coffee house on West 19th street, the rain still hadn’t stopped, and was in fact coming down harder.

As I watched the intersection become a lake and drivers turn do complex turns to avoid getting stranded in the water, I began to think that the Xangbang that I had been looking forward to was going to be completely rained off. At one point the rain was so hard I could barely see across the street. My final night in Houston looked set to be a washout. Thankfully though, the rain eventually slowed enough for the flooded streets to clear and the driving conditions to become safe, or at least safer.

Once again Karen and Albert were kindly hosting of the event at their home in The Heights area of Houston, and as I arrived Karen was making some (delicious) sandwiches. The Xangbang has become somewhat of an annual event now. The first back in 2005 was small in comparison to the last two, and despite the rain and the obvious perils that presented for people driving into Houston, this year there seemed to be as many, if not more, people than there was last year.

For laughs I tried to make some Xangbang07 t-shirts with an iron-on kit I purchased some months earlier. The kit came with 5 white t-shirts and seemed easy enough according the the instructions. Having the t-shirts would be fun I thought as I began making the first one back in the UK before my trip. In the end though, I destroyed 4 of the 5 t-shirts and was only just about successful making the t-shirt I eventually gave to Karen. (If you looked closely at it you will have noticed it was a really shoddy job!) I ended up creating my Xangbang07 t-shirt using an online service. It was a pretty good deal costing only $8, including delivery thanks to a special $2 t-shirt offer.

As in previous years the hangers on all ended up sitting outside in the garden drinking the last few remaining beers. Bethany spent a while explaining to us how much she enjoyed a party at Karen and Albert’s house (see the video), which to some extent at least, we could all relate to, we were after all the ‘hangers on.’

In the end it was a great way to spend my final evening in Houston. Kicking back with friends in the warmth of a summers night is just about perfect at anytime I think. Below are just a few pictures that I took of the evening. I didn’t really take that many, I guess I was just having too much fun.

Perhaps the next Xangbang can be in England? I mean come on, it’s costing me a fortune to keep flying over there too have a few beers with you Xangbangers. Don’t some of you want to come to England and drink a warm beer with me sometime?

Regarding the Houston part of this trip I wanted to say a few public ‘thank you’s’ to the following people. Firstly Rachel was fantastic at not only rescuing me after Shae forgot I was coming into town (Yes Shae, I am going to dine out on that for a long time to come!), but also at going out of her way to be a great host. Thanks also to David, Francis the French painter, and Rachel’s uncle Richard, for putting me up (and putting up with me). And, of course, Karen and Albert for allowing us all to decend once more on their lovely home for the Xangbang, and also for letting me crash there on my last night in town.

[Video] Bethany talks about “the salad bars”
Over-priced Xangbang07 t-shirts and stuff!
The original Xanga party in 2005
Xangbang 06

General and TravelFriday, July 6th, 2007, (12:58 pm)

It’s extremely rare to see a lizard in the UK, in fact I’m not even sure lizards are native to the British Isles. It’s perhaps due to this lack of lizardry that I am fascinated by alligators in the wild, and unable to resist the chance to visit Brazos Bend State Park just 28 southwest of Houston where the alligators run wild.

As a young boy I used to spend hours fishing newts out of a swampy pond at the back of my grandparents property. In fact I didn’t just restrict myself to newts, all manner of bugs, beetles, and larvae were fished out of that pond by me at one point or another. But the newts, especially the rare Great Crested newts, were always my prize catch. I’d proudly show them to my grandparents, their neighbors, or in fact anyone who showed even the slightest interested in what I was doing.

With that in mind I wonder how different that pond dipping might have been had I lived in a place where alligators or other such dangers lurked. I rather think that maybe I would have developed a keen interest in them, foolishly braving the dangers they pose as only a young boy would. Perhaps I should be thankful that the most dangerous thing in a British swamp is the scarily named water scorpion, which is actually completely harmless.

Rachel was kind enough to take time out to visit the alligators and other wildlife at Brazos Bend with me. Within no time we saw our first alligator up close and personal as one swan right under us as we stood on a small pier at the first pond. Despite the fact that alligators are obviously dangerous and signs made it clear that we were to stay at a distance, Rachel wanted to pet the animal! Not excited by the possibility of having to explain an unfortunate limb loss to anyone I insisted that she refrained from any such activity while in my company. Thankfully she accepted those terms, albeit reluctantly.

The lakes were unusually high with some were closed due to recent flooding, and perhaps because of this we saw no less than 28 alligators between us. On a few occasions Rachel practically jumped out of her skin when she startled nearby alligators that spectacularly splashed back into the swamp.

However, despite being hissed at by one and seeing first hand how fast they can move, Rachel insisted that I took a picture of her as she touched an alligator that was basking in the sun on the pathway. In the end though the picture rather comically reveals that, despite her apparent bravery, she does actually posses a modicum of good sense when it comes to dealing with sharply toothed reptiles.

According to the parks website there are some 270 species of birds, 21 species of reptiles and amphibians, and 23 species of mammals living in the Brazos Bend State Park. We weren’t really being nature geeks though. We did, however, see loads of different birds, a few frogs, a toad or two, loads of spiders, and even a sleeping snake.

It’s not a place to visit if you are in anyway scared of spiders. All along the banks of the swamps are huge spiders webs populated by large numbers of brightly colored golden silk banana spiders. They might look scary, but despite being the largest non tarantula spiders in North America they’re completely harmless.

For me the experience of walking around in the thick hot air of the swampy State park is just great. Maybe next time I’m in the area I should take one of the less well trodden paths and get into the real Texan outback? Seems to me like that might be a lot of fun. Anyone up for joining me on a trek like that?

Brazos Bend State Park
Rachel and the gator
[Video] About Brazos Bend State Park

Faith & Religion and TravelThursday, July 5th, 2007, (1:04 am)

On the night of the 4th of July I’m in Houston, Texas, and after watching the city’s firework display with friends I witnessed an ironic moment for freedom and faith.

As the finale of the firework display came to an end and the echo of the last ear shattering bang was still in the air, a street preacher began to give his message to the departing crowds that would surely be numbered in the thousands.

Using a microphone and amplifier to project his voice, he began talking about how beautiful the firework display was but how “God’s creation is even more beautiful.” Though amplified his voice was quickly lost in the departing throng as they began the exodus from the city streets.

A number of us commented that such a method of preaching was perhaps a waste of time, but before the preacher could get into his full swing he was stopped.

Houston police officer, Charles D. Russell, approached the preacher after just three minutes. Clearly officer Russell felt that something that the preacher was doing was illegal, a ‘sin’ if you will.

His sin was that he didn’t have a permit to preach with an amplifier which apparently is required by the city of Houston. The preaching off duty fireman then asked to be “given a break” as he was unlikely to be any nosier than the thousands of jovial people leaving the area on this holiday.

He then made the mistake of describing himself as “Peace officer” in the context of simply being a person who wanted to preach a peaceful message, albeit a little loudly. However, officer Russell chose to take great offense at the preacher describing himself in this way and demanded to see his identification, thereby escalating what could have so very easily been a simple “move along please” into something more serious.

The group I was with decided to stand by and watch this unfold because regardless of what we felt about the preacher, the fact he was being bullied by three Houston police officers seemed somewhat unfair and uncalled for. Very quickly more police officers were on scene and officer Russell also requested a Houston Fire Department lieutenant.

I spoke to one officer who appeared to out rank officer Russell, and I asked him why the preaching couldn’t merely be overlooked given the fact that he didn’t seem to be hurting or offending anyone and that he wasn’t likely going to be louder than the crowds walking past us. The officer explained that the law needed to be upheld at all times with no exceptions, but as fair as that seems, here was a very simple “move along” situation being turned into something quite ugly and unsettling at the hands of the police, not the preacher.

In the end about 15 to 20 police officers, (3 police cars and two ‘paddy wagons’) along with several fire department personnel, were at the scene. At this point our group was told to “move along or go to jail”, face being arrested for “obstructing a police investigation”, and even “trespassing.” One officer told us to keep moving because they “didn’t need any witnesses” and another, officer Peña, unhooked his night stick aggressively indicating that he had no compunction in using it on Rachel, one of the girls in our group.

In the end despite some rather empty threats, no arrests were made. Officer Russell did take the time to present his side of the incident to us, but by then the damage was done. The bully-boy tactics of a few bored cops left an ugly stain on the end of what had until that point been a great evening. Houston Police had allowed a very minor situation to become unnecessarily ugly which did nothing but make them look bad, and further re-enforce the already low opinion of Houston cops that seems to be generally held by the cities residents.

I plan to contact the Police department and voice my concern over the handling of this most innocuous situation. Officer Russell knew he was being filmed and given that fact one wonders what might have happened had the officers not been under the scrutiny they were. Despite their insistence that they didn’t need witnesses, it’s my belief that the Police need to be watched closely by members of the public in order to ensure that they themselves act within the boundaries of the law and maintain a sensible perspective on the situations they are called to deal with.

I briefly spoke with the preacher who took the opportunity to give me some Christian literature and tell me that the challenges were “under God’s control.” When he first started to speak to the leaving crowds I dismissed him and his rather ‘shoot in the dark’ methods. But he showed some class in the way he dealt with the unpleasant situation. Hugely out numbered by bored cops itching to make an arrest the preacher had the courage to believe God was in control. It was, he said, “part of God’s greater plan”, and I could see he really believed that too.

I didn’t get his name and he couldn’t have said more than three sentences to me. The website address on the literature he gave me doesn’t work, but while he might not have saved any souls that night, it’s true to say that had it not been for the drama created by Houston Police, I would have paid no attention to that street preaching fireman. Instead though his brief words and absolute faith were communicated to me in ways far more powerfully than any long winded sermon he might have preached.

Photography and TravelTuesday, July 3rd, 2007, (11:21 pm)

In the 1960’s American mathematician and meteorologist, Edward Lorenz, came up with a notion now known as the ‘butterfly effect.’ Lorenz, who was an early pioneer of the chaos theory, suggested that a butterfly flapping its wings in Tokyo could theoretically cause a hurricane in Florida. While that might sound absurd the popularized thinking behind the theory is that seemingly inconsequential actions could have radical effects further down the line, and that somehow everything is chaotically linked. Think about that next time a butterfly flies past you.

I mention the ‘butterfly effect’ not because this post is about the plot of the trajectory Lorenz system for values r = 28, ˆ = 10, b = 8/3, but merely as an interesting introduction to the photographs I recently shot while at the Cockrell Butterfly Center at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Before my visit to the butterfly center I’d spent the afternoon wandering around the downtown area of Houston. Along the way I had stopped in at a the Live Sports Café on Main Street to grab a drink and make use of the free wireless internet. The place was quiet as the proprietor, Amir Alani, made my cinnamon mocha while I made idle conversation with him. “It’s on the house.” He declared as he passed it across the bar to me. Turns out my English accent was deserving of a free drink, and who was I to question that.

As I sat outside in the thick humid afternoon air I tapped away at my laptop keyboard, quickly responding to emails and checking Google maps for some local direction. A crazy lady walked past muttering under her breath as crazy people so often do. I paid her no attention until out of the corner of my eye I saw that she was about to violently throw an object at me. I ducked expecting the projectile to fly past my head, but whatever it was she had thrown was actually attached to her wrist and it flicked right back into her hand.

“You’ve got LSD in your veins!” She howled while angrily pointing in my direction. “I know you! You’ve got fucking LSD in your veins you bastard!” A man in a suit walking behind her made a face at me as if to acknowledge the fact that crazy people are indeed everywhere. She shouted at me a couple more times before shuffling on her way shouting about the LSD I had in my veins and pointing at a sculpture across the road.

With my email done I shut my laptop and walked to the MetroRail, a relatively new addition to Americas fourth largest city. The MetroRail is a breath of fresh air in this city famed for its reliance on overweight highways jammed with an endless supply of motor vehicles. But with just 16 stops along its desperately short 7.5 mile length it’s only a very small breath.

I took the train to the Museum District eavesdropping conversations of other riders. I learned that “Patti was going to have the operation after all” from a man who appeared to be a nurse of some sort. The tall woman he was talking to seemed preoccupied with other thoughts as they boarded the train together. A dark haired girl that some people might describe as being ‘big boned’ talked on her cell phone. “If Michael doesn’t stop talking when we do it I swear I’ll kill him myself” She said as she stood and got off the train laughing, still engrossed in cellular interaction. In a time when the iPod acts as the escape capsule at moments like these, the fun of conversation dipping is lost on many.

The Museum District is clean and unlike so many other areas of Houston that I’ve seen, there are many people walking the sidewalks. I meander somewhat aimlessly and in no hurry, eventually finding my way to the butterfly center at the Museum of Natural Science.

Inside the huge glass addition to the museum building, tropical plants grow around an impressive waterfall and the hot muggy air is alive with butterflies content to see you as no threat at all. They land so close by that it’s almost as if they’re happy to pose for pictures.

I could have stayed in there for ages. I’m not especially excited about butterflies, but there was just something really great about being in this environment and able to interact with it so easily.

It’s seems somewhat of a stretch to believe that a butterfly flapping its wings in Japan could cause a hurricane in Florida, but somehow I like that connection. For a guy who enjoys meandering in the sun and eavesdropping conversations on trains, a beautiful chaos makes perfect sense to me.

The Cockrell Butterfly Center
Edward Lorenz
The Butterfly Effect
Chaos theory

TravelTuesday, July 3rd, 2007, (12:01 am)

After spending a pleasant final day here in Boston I arrived at the airport in plenty of time for my 4:45 flight to Houston, Texas. The weather has been perfect and there appear to be no obvious delays or problems today, that’s a welcome change given my recent run of delayed flights and even more delayed luggage.

I had already checked in my luggage earlier this morning and blew off the opportunity to jump an earlier flight in preference to spend a relaxed final day in Boston enjoying the city. Upon returning to the airport I had plenty of time to make my way through security avoiding interactions with the oh-so-charming folk of the TSA. Gate 25 is the first one past security, it couldn’t be more convenient. I take a seat near the window where I can plug my laptop into the wall and check my email before the flight. I’ll be in Houston in time for dinner.

“Ladies and gentlemen, flight 383 to Houston will be somewhat delayed due to an equipment problem.” The crackled voice of the gate agent breaks bad news to the gathered crowd who release a collective groan. “We expect the plane to arrive here at around 6:30 to 6:45 whereupon we will do our best to turn it around and have you out of here as fast as we can.”


Now I am having a sense of humor failure. I’m sat here in a ferociously air-conditioned airport wondering if I am somehow cursed when it comes to air travel. A quick scan of the airport departures screen shows all flights as on-time, all that is, except mine.

My new arrival time is yet to be confirmed, but the gate attendant who has all the personality of a potato informs me that it will be “Some time after 10 o’clock.”

“After 10 o’clock but before…” I leave the sentence open to he can complete it, but he just stares at me revealing the thought complexity of a goldfish. Eventually he breaks the silence. “Yes sir, sometime after 10 o’clock.”

“But hopefully before Jesus returns?” I respond, but my sarcasm is lost on the gate agent who continues to look vacant.

My thoughts now turn to my luggage. My one nondescript plain black item of luggage that would be small enough to carry on if not for the liquids contained in my toiletry bag, is probably well on it’s way to Mumbai or Mexico by now. I won’t be in the slightest bit surprised if I am left as the lone person standing next to an empty baggage carousel in Houston later tonight.

Yes I know, it could be worse. There are people who will find themselves stuck in Houston tonight after missing connecting flights, but thier misery doesn’t make me feel any better. I’m delayed, I’m always delayed, and no matter how convenient my direct flight is, it’s still inconvenient to be sitting here shivering in an uncomfortable airport lounge chair.

GeneralSunday, July 1st, 2007, (7:52 pm)

My great friend Anne got married on Saturday in a traditional Episcopal church service on a beautiful day here in Massachusetts, in a small town just north of Boston.

It was the first American wedding I’ve ever been to and in many ways it was quite different from those which I am more accustom to back home in the UK. The very formal service was followed by a very informal reception which had the distinction of being the first ever wedding I have ever been to that was alcohol free.

Most English wedding’s I’ve attended have comprised of a church service in which hymns are feebly sang by people who have no real interest in singing hymns but may well be later found singing at the top of their voice later that night toward the end of the party after much alcohol has lubricated their lungs.

After the service Anne and Michael posed for a few pictures, but this lacked the usual commotion of an English wedding where the photographer seems to spend ages herding up various groups of family and friends for a seemingly endless amount of staged pictures.

The reception was very informal and relaxed and as things wound down later in the afternoon there was another first, a post wedding softball game!

All in all it was a great day if for no other reason to see the broad smiles that seemed preeminently splashed across both Anne and Michael’s faces. They make a great couple!

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