Monday, April 28, 2008

Thrills, Spills and Leaps of Death

Here's a lurid local TV spot for the 1982 Thrill Show and Destruction Derby at the Astrodome in Houston.

I was in attendance the night Gary Wells did his five-story freefall and 100-foot fire jump on a motorcycle. Wells previously achieved a moderate amount of fame for eating a serious ass taco on That's Incredible! while trying to jump the Caesar's Palace fountain in Las Vegas.

For the 1982 Thrill Show stunt, Wells rode his motorcycle off a ramp at the lip of the Dome's upper-level yellow seats and landed on a ramp below that led onto the field, where the 100-foot fire jump awaited. Unfortunately, someone forgot to light the fire for the fire jump, so Wells wound up jumping over a bunch of nothing.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Hell in a Half-Cart

I was buying a bottle of mineral water at Central Market this afternoon when a lady pushing one of those half-sized shopping carts did something that drives me crazy.

As you may know, Central Market offers downsized shopping carts for singles and DINKs who don't need a Boeing-sized cart with racing stripes to buy their weekly allotment of stinky cheese and pine nuts. Unfortunately, the smaller carts seem to promote a loss of spatial perception among some shoppers. Wheeling through the maze of bulk foods and product demos with relative ease, these half-carts magically morph into invisible extensions of the self with reckless consequences.

Take today, for example. I was waiting patiently in the express lane when the lady behind me edged her short cart within centimeters of my ankles. When I stepped forward a few steps, she rolled her cart right into me. I instinctively kicked my heel backward, not forcefully, but enough to let her know that her cart was literally right on my ass and I was feeling uncomfortably crowded. She apologized, I accepted and that was that.

To be fair, this lady was not being malicious or even all that oblivious. I myself have almost certainly edged my half-cart too close to people in haste from time to time. It is my sincere hope that this true-life actuality - meager though it may be - ushers in a new age of caution and courtesy among every harried half-cart pusher in our fair city's upscale food markets.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Fire and Ice Cream

Remember when ice cream was just 31 cents a scoop? Neither do I, but you can pretend you do next Wednesday at Baskin-Robbins' annual "31 Cent Scoop Night" in honor of America's firefighters.

Baskin-Robbins will be selling 2.5-ounce scoops of ice cream for just 31 cents from 5-10pm on Wednesday, April 30. You can buy up to ten scoops per purchase. As part of this promotion, Baskin-Robbins will donate $100,000 to the National Fallen Firefighters Association.

Select local stores will be collecting donations for local firefighter charities. It probably wouldn't hurt your fire (or ice cream) karma to give a little something.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Weekend in Cow Heaven

Kate and I met my folks in Brenham on Saturday to celebrate my mom's 62nd birthday, which was last Thursday.

I've driven through Brenham dozens of times when traveling between Austin and Houston, but I hadn't seen downtown Brenham in several years. I think the last time I was there was in 1980, when my reading group took Amtrak from Houston to Brenham just so we could experience the "magic" of endangered American passenger rail service. As it was, the return train was about four or five hours late. I haven't ridden Amtrak since.

In the intervening years, Brenham's town square has undergone a renaissance of sorts. B&Bs, antique shops and scented candle peddlers have taken over the city's former commercial center, which has largely decamped for the U.S. 290 bypass on the edge of town. The WPA-era art deco courthouse seems a bit out of place here, but they've done a nice job of restoring it.

We ate at a bistro-style restaurant called Ernie's. Their lunch menu consisted primarily of sandwiches, salad and pastas. I had the crab cake sandwich with Cajun remoulade. It was both filling and tasty. Then we shared two servings of apple cobbler with a certain brand of vanilla ice cream I can't quite put my finger on.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Erase Stress for $300?

Here’s the latest little gizmo for overstimulated Type As who can’t relax without being externally rewarded.

The StressEraser monitors your heart-rate when you stick your finger into it. If you’re breathing properly, it gives you a point in the form of a beep. If not, it doesn’t. Only an American would need to stick their finger into a 300 dollar machine to tell them if they’re relaxing properly.

“It's hard to tune out regular thoughts and focus on simple things like breathing,” notes Dallas Morning News reporter Andrew D. Smith. “It's also boring.”

Well, he’s got a point there. Breathing is boring. Unless you’re being waterboarded, of course.

The makers of the StressEraser say you’re supposed to “earn” 100 beeps a day. That sounds like a god damn job to me. Isn’t this sort of obsessive goal-setting the reason why folks get so stressed out in the first place?

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Historic Bohn House Hits Market

One of my favorite houses in town is now for sale.

Built in 1938 on a bluff above Shoal Creek with views toward UT and downtown, the Streamline Moderne-style Bohn House at 1301 W. 29th was designed by original owners Herbert and Alice Bohn with specifications drawn by Roy L. Thomas, one of Austin’s first practicing architects. According to the Handbook of Texas, the house’s design is said to have been inspired by the 1936 H.G. Wells-penned sci-fi film, Things to Come.

Herbert Bohn died in 1967, but his wife lived in the house until her 2005 death at age 100. Although the 4-bedroom/3-bath house has fallen into disrepair in recent years, it lists at a cool $1.5 million. Judging from the photos, whoever buys it will have to drop another princely sum in upgrades.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Not-So-Good Vibrations

When I was a kid, I hated it when the Emergency Broadcast System’s awful two-tone attention signal disrupted my after-school diet of Flintstones and Brady Bunch reruns.

Even before I was old enough to know that the attention signal I just heard might be the precursor to getting cooked by a Soviet missile or impaled by a tornado-propelled lawn gnome, I inherently sensed it was bad news. The jarring header bursts that trigger the Emergency Alert System aren’t much better.

Therefore, I’m heartened to hear our federal government approved plans last week to develop a nationwide text-messaging alert system. Finding out you’re about to be massacred by terrorists via a pleasant “vibration cadence” in your pocket is real progress.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Reet Poteet (This Ice Cream Can't Be Beat)

While some people time the coming of spring with the urinal equinox or some such cosmic nonsense, I prefer to use the arrival of Poteet Strawberry Creamy Creations Ice Cream at my local H-E-B.

Last night, I spotted, trapped and purchased my first quart of the season at H-E-B's Far West store. Better yet, an in-store coupon for a free quart of Creamy Creations ice cream with the purchase of an H-E-B deli-style frozen pizza saved me $2.79 in real American money. This flavor typically disappears from store shelves by the end of May, so now is the time to stock up.

And if you're really serious about strawberries, check out the massive Poteet Strawberry Festival this weekend. In addition to its delectable namesake, this year's festival features performances by Ray Price, Little Joe y La Familia and an Elvis impersonator contest.

Go Back to Patagonia!

After re-reading Wednesday's entry about Patagonia coming to Austin, I thought maybe I was viewing their arrival on our shores with a bit too much knee-jerk disdain.

Then I read Kate's freshly-posted entry about Patagonia's insidious aspirational marketing and decided my suspicion is dead freaking on.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Ta Ta, TurboTax

I’ve been using Intuit’s TurboTax for the better part of a decade to prepare my federal income tax return. Early experiences with the TurboTax were almost entirely positive. The software saved me hours of work, which left plenty of time for me to gather up dog-eared receipts and maximize my business expense deductions.

Then Intuit got greedy and tried to goad users into TurboTax upgrades they didn’t really need by inhibiting functionality on the basic version. Still, even when other software or online applications purported to be better, I stuck with TurboTax out of habit and because it was easy to import pertinent information from the previous year’s return.

This year's version turned out to be the last straw. Aside from an increase in the number of screens screaming, “There’s a better product for you!” I could not get TurboTax to automatically download updates. I’m not just talking about ephemera, either. This year’s software actually shipped without basic forms like 1040 Schedule D, which is what you use to report capital gains and losses. TurboTax kept saying my firewall was keeping it from accessing the Internet, but the problem persisted even when I turned the firewall off. I finally had to do a cumbersome manual download of all the missing forms.

After fooling with this glitch for the better part of an evening, I literally hit the breaking point with TurboTax. For me, the breaking point is when a computer’s lack of cooperation compels me to slam the mouse down on the desk in a fit of profanity-peppered pique. That happens about once every year or two. For this reason, I cannot allow myself to own a wireless mouse because those get flung straight into the wall when they become non-responsive. I’m not proud of my propensity for breaking mice, but if you’re going to break something computer-related, reaching for the mouse is a real bargain.

Sometimes I wish I didn’t have a life to get in the way of doing borderline batshit crazy things like sending my broken mouse in a Zip-Loc bag to the good folks at Intuit along with a hastily-scrawled note demanding compensation. As it is, taking back my microscopic sliver of market share will just have to do.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Patagonia Headed for Austin

Upscale outdoor retailer Patagonia is opening its first Texas store this fall in the old W.B. Smith Building at 316 Congress.

In the 60s, that building housed the Vulcan Gas Company, where local psychedelic rangers like Bubble Puppy, Golden Dawn and the Conqueroo once plied their trade.

Back then, noted some curmudgeonly old Austin bastard who enjoyed downtown more when it was wasteland-with-potential as opposed to rarified boutique, you didn’t need to spend a mint on knapsacks to take a trip.

It’s a somewhat bold move for a niche retailer like Patagonia to move into the heart of downtown, but I imagine this store will serve a dual function as a showcase to drive catalog and online sales. Foot traffic from nearby condo-dwellers and conventioneers disgorged from the future Marriott Mothership won’t hurt, either.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Free Coffee at Starbucks Tomorrow

The good news: Starbucks is giving away free 8-ounce cups of its new Pike Place Roast coffee tomorrow as part of a nationwide taste test.

The bad news: They won't start giving away free coffee until 11 a.m. local time. I'd already be on the ground with shakes and a runny nose by then.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Bureau of Maternal Health

A month ago, my mom found out her breast cancer has returned.

She’s been diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer, which is a rare, more aggressive form of cancer that is not easily detectable by routine mammograms. The type of cancer she has is protein-based rather than hormone-based, which is rarer still.

She began chemotherapy at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston in mid-March. After several rounds of chemo, she’s planning to have a double mastectomy followed by more chemo. Treatment is expected to last about a year.

I didn’t want to write about this here until my mom gave me her permission and she’d had a chance to tell close friends and family. She gave me the okay when Kate and I went to Houston over Easter. Even so, I've struggled to write about this because the words I choose don’t seem capable of embodying what I feel.

The immediate instinct when you hear someone you love has cancer is to offer whatever help you can, even when you don’t know exactly what to offer. I know my folks have derived a great deal of strength from friends and family. So have I. I’m not a religious person, but the only way I know how to characterize this is as a blessing.

One of the first things my mom told me when she broke the news was not to worry. Having commiserated over our shared inclinations toward anxiety for years, this struck me as supreme irony. Nevertheless, I’m doing my best to take my mom’s advice to heart. Her resolve to get through this is inspirational and I’m very proud she’s my mom.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Friday Night Lights Renewed for '09

Fans of Austin-filmed Friday Night Lights got some good news from NBC's meeting with advertisers earlier today. After several months of uncertainty, Variety reports that FNL has been renewed for a third season.

However, the show won't air again until winter 2009, which is a long time to wait and see if Lyla Garrity falls back in with Tim Riggins.